"The typical adult from a narcissistic family is filled with unacknowledged anger, feels like a hollow person, feels inadequate and defective, suffers from periodic anxiety and depression, and has no clue about how he or she got that way." ~Pressman and Pressman, The Narcissistic Family
Since narcissism is a touchy subject and parental narcissism is even worse, let me start out by lightening the mood here.
Did you know if you hit up Google images for parental narcissism that Kanye West's photo is among the first to show up?
Yes, seriously. There it is to the left. That, my friend, is the visual representation of narcissism, according to Google images.
But wait a minute, Kanye, Ima let you finish, but really, shouldn't this post be all about Beyonce?
Okay, I'll stop playing now. But one last thing: I DO find that Kanye thing rather amusing, and somewhat appropriate for this post, since it's all about parents who are also narcissists.
But seriously, living with a narcissist can be difficult for anyone, but growing up in the care of one can affect your life in very significant ways. For example, most narcissists use a horribly painful sort of manipulation called gaslighting - it's the worst kind because it messes with your mind in ways you'd never expect. This is especially true for the children of narcissists, who can't get away from it and have no concept of what "normal" actually looks like from the inside.
Many children of narcissists spend their whole lives thinking "I wasn't good enough," and wondering if their mothers/fathers/other caregivers could and would always be better than they.
The faces of parental narcissism
"Narcissists have two faces -- the one they wear in public, and the one they wear at home," according to LightHouse.org. "Only those close to the narcissist have any idea there is more than one face. And the narcissist's children know best of all, because children - those who have the least power - are the ones the narcissist allows him or herself to be the least guarded around."
So, kids of narcissistic parents are forced to pretend in public that all is well--all the while knowing that when they get home, things will be different. In some cases, they dread going home because the difference is so significant.
"Narcissistic parents lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids," writes Karyl McBride, Ph.D. "They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental."
Many kids of narcissists express the same kind of frustration: everyone thinks their narcissistic parent is a saint--the best person ever, McBride says, noting that "while at home their children suffer in silence with their parent's tantrums, disinterest and put-downs -- this is clearly NOT the most wonderful person if you truly know them -- not even close."
What are you trying to prove?
"Because of its insidious nature, gaslighting is one form of emotional abuse that is hard to recognize and even more challenging to break free from. Part of that is because the narcissist exploits one of our greatest fears - the fear of being alone." ~ From my book on overcoming gaslighting and narcissism, Take Back Your Life
When you're raised by a narcissist, you might spend your life trying to prove something--maybe that you have value. Whether you choose to become "perfect" or you go to the other extreme, your narcissist will likely actively discredit everything you do, say or feel. You might start to think you don't matter--and that you're not even all that "real."
I remember believing that nothing I felt or wanted was as real as whatever my narcissist felt or wanted. Even during a recent interaction, I expected a third party to instantly assume I was wrong because
Your thoughts, feelings and opinions are rarely, if ever, validated by a narcissistic parent--and when they are, it's only when you happen to feel the same way your narcissist does. This continues into adulthood for most children of narcissists.
Once you realize that, you might even start to tell yourself that your opinion is, in fact, always consistent with the narcissist's. It causes so much less trouble, and you're treated to the illusion of approval if you comply.
But the fact we must remember is that narcissists can't feel empathy--so they aren't really capable of changing their opinions. They believe they can't be wrong.
You get to write your own story
"...all narcissistic parents fail to treat their children as authentic individuals who have their own unique characteristics and needs," says LightHouse.org. "Narcissists treat their children as mere blank screens for projecting their own internal 'movies' onto."
You see, by always acting like my thoughts, feelings and opinions had no value (like she was "better" than me), my narcissist inadvertently made me feel worthless, not good enough, not important.
Even today, anything I say to my narcissist that is contrary to her opinion is met with an eye-roll and a wave of dismissal.
But this is nothing new, and in some ways, it's not this person's fault. Growing up, every idea I had was, according to what I saw and heard, eye-roll-worthy, and very little of what I said or did was treated as valuable. Still, today, she doesn't respect me or my opinions, but now, I understand that she doesn't need to--I don't need to have her approval to be good enough.
This is a fairly textbook kind of narcissistic manipulation, according to my research over the years.
"Adult children of narcissists typically describe their parents as mean, phony, self-absorbed, judgmental, dishonest, immature and manipulative," says LightHouse.org.
Evolution is inevitable
The healing process for an adult child of a narcissistic parent is a long and sometimes difficult one--but it's worth the effort. Whether you walk away completely or you choose to limit your relationship to only necessary interactions, you would be wise to give yourself the space you'll need to evolve and grow into the individual you're meant to be.
As the adult child of a narcissist, you're bound to have picked up a few (or more) thoughts, feelings and beliefs that aren't really your own. So, once you get your space, start there: figure out exactly what you believe, and what you don't. You might be surprised to find out which beliefs or thoughts you've been carrying around for all these years for no reason.
The next step is to begin to embrace the fact that you're an individual who has value. Your thoughts, feelings and experiences are legitimate and worth hearing about--and you are just as good as anyone else.
Therapy can help you heal
Sometimes, our wounds are too deep to heal on our own. While some of might kill ourselves trying to live up to that impossible standard our narcissistic parents set and others choose to go the opposite direction, all of us can benefit from learning to do better for ourselves.
McBride points out that effective therapy for adult children of narcissists has three primary steps.
- Understand the background, history and diagnosis
- Deal with the feelings related to the history
- Begin to re-frame and view life through a different lens.
"The Wild West philosophy of 'get over it already' does not work with this recovery program, nor do simple affirmations or initial cognitive behavioral work," McBride says. "This specialized recovery involves cleaning up trauma first and accepting that your parent is not going to change. The change will be within you."
Click to read my book on narcissism on Kindle right now: Your Love is My Drug: How to Shut Down a Narcissist, Detoxify Your Relationships & Live the Awesome Life You Really Deserve, Starting Right Now [Kindle Edition]