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08/18/2015 08:55 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2015

How To Protect Yourself From Narcissistic Family Members

It's called a "connection contract" and it's incredibly effective.

It's one thing to cross paths with a narcissist every once in a while, but when the self-centered offender is actually a loved one, it can make you dread every family function or want to avoid those gatherings altogether. There is, however, a better way to cope. 

Dr. Craig Malkin is a clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, and he spends countless hours counseling clients in dealing with the narcissists in their lives. As Malkin has observed, there's a very specific, effective way to interact with family members who are narcissistic, be it a parent or ex-spouse.

"If you're trying to protect yourself [from a narcissist], you might want to use something I call a 'connection contract," Malkin says. "It's a form of limit-setting where you lay out ahead of time all the things that are going to keep you from being present, from wanting to stick around this person."

To explain how these connection contracts work, Malkin uses one of his former clients -- a man whose narcissistic sister frequently berated him and insulted his intelligence -- as an example.

"What I coached him to do was to say to her on the phone, 'I really want to see you, you're my sister, but if I hear criticism, if I hear yelling, if I hear insults about my intelligence, that will tell me you're not in a space to be around me, and… I won't be able to be in the same house as you. So it's really up to you whether I'm able to see you on this trip,'" he says.

You want to tell them what the deal breakers are. Dr. Craig Malkin

 One of the reasons this approach is so effective, Malkin continues, is because of how it resonates with narcissists in particular.

"It predicts behavior, and none of us really like to have our behavior predicted," he explains. "So, if the person is extremely narcissistic, it puts some pressure on them not to [behave in that expected way]."

The key in making this strategy work, he adds, is to be specific in identifying the behaviors that push you away.

"You have to be very clear about the behaviors; you have to really spell it out,". Malkin says. "Basically, what you're telling the person is, 'This is what's required for me to be present.' You want to tell them what the deal breakers are."

Unsure if you're in the presence of a narcissist? Here are 5 ways to spot the hidden narcissist in your life.

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