This is a question I am often asked by clients who are dealing with a narcissist in their lives. The answer is: it depends.
As a psychologist, I cannot tell a client what to do, they have to come to a decision about what to do about problems in their lives on their own and be comfortable with those decisions. But what I can do is point out the pros and cons of telling a person suffering from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and what effects that revelation can have on the client.
Narcissistic personality disorder is an unusual condition on that it operates via its own set of rules. You can tell a person suffering from alcoholism that they have a problem with alcohol and they have one of two choices. Either to deny their alcoholism or face it and change.
It is similar with many other forms of mental illness. While denial can be an integral part of many illnesses, the person suffering from one of the anxiety disorders is aware that they are ill. Similarly, depression and bipolar disorder can be ignored up to a point, but once the symptoms become clinically disabling there can be no self-denial, even if outwardly the person is denying the truth.
This is not the case with NPD. The whole crux of the condition is built on the premise that, for the narcissist, other people do not really exist except to serve the narcissist and prop up their false image of themselves. Not having individuated as people, narcissists believe the world revolves around them and is intensely interested in them. In believing this they are especially harmful people, and cause untold damage to their children in particular.
Once an adult child has discovered that the eccentric and toxic behaviors of their parent is due to NPD, there can be an overwhelming urge to confront the parent who has caused them so much pain with the fact that there is something psychologically wrong with them.
When my clients arrive at this stage in their recovery, we discuss how viable this option is. It really depends on the reason why you as an adult child of a narcissistic parent want to tell your parent. If it is in the hope that, upon reading about the condition, they will recognize themselves in the description and be filled with remorse for the pain they have caused, then beware.
The narcissist’s sense of self, which has not progressed past that of a very young child, they cannot deal with the reality of a mirror being held up before them. Unlike the alcoholic who may in due course “see the light”, a narcissist simply does not have the emotional skills to step outside of themselves and glimpse the truth in the mirror. The essence of NPD is that the sufferer lives in a bubble that can only accommodate themselves. Self-reflection is definitely not in the narcissist’s bag of skills and expecting them to be capable of doing so can court disaster.
Be prepared for rage and aggression to be aimed at you. Be prepared to not be heard.. Be prepared to have everything that you claim about them, to be reassigned to you. When and if you are strong enough to cope with this treatment, then you may decide to go ahead. If you are hoping for recognition and a change for the better, more pain is in store.