On Being A Child of Narcissistic Parents
I credit my therapist with helping me discover a number of insights about my life, but the most important was discovered right away. My opening line to her on our first therapy session was “I came from a perfect household, and I don’t understand why I am sad/depressed/angry all the time.” My therapist spent the next year helping me unpack how “perfect” this life really was, and opened me up to self-compassion and perspective on my life.
The truth is that my parents did the best they could, and I hold (almost) no resentment toward them for doing so. My dad was an over-achieving perfectionist who probably came from a very scary, if not abusive family. His temper was legendary and he could become physically violent if pushed. These times were rare but simmered below the surface anytime he would get angry. My dad is a classic narcissist, my achievements or lack thereof were a reflection on him. His way was the only way. Those who chose differently were to be considered less-than. My dad would exercise relentlessly and brag about his health after a physical exam. He would see an overweight person on the street and sarcastically say what a “fine figure of a man” they were. Both my sister and I have suffered from eating disorders in our lives. He would humble brag about his salary when it was in the newspaper, pretending to be embarrassed. Interestingly, my mom never knew what he made (it was a lot), she would find out with the rest of us. He loved the surprise at his achievements. I remember him sitting there, a glint of pride in his eyes as he pretended to shrug off the astonishment, while quietly willing it to go on.
Most damaging, he would subtly put my mother down. “Your mom will know the answer to that,” was a common phrase. My mom of course would not know the answer, as he well knew, and she would be driven down another peg in the family standing. He used to tell us stories of finding my mom in a ditch wearing no shoes. A “joke” that ensured we understood my mom’s humble beginnings, lack of education, and ultimately her fortune for having found my father. Their’s was not a torrid love story. By all accounts, my parents split shortly before being married and my dad seemed ready to let her go forever. It was only after a month of not speaking that my mother called my father and reconciled, forever solidifying the balance of power in their relationship. They married sometime later, and the dynamics never changed, he was the star, she was lucky to be in his orbit.
My mom did come from humble beginnings, which she doesn’t talk about much. Her father was an alcoholic. She struggles with alcohol in her own life. She has a deep seated sense of inferiority, in large part instilled by my father’s attempts to subtly undermine her, which contributes to a deep anger. This anger is particularly pronounced when alcohol is involved. My sister has borne the brunt of these outbursts, but we’ve all had our share. My mom did not graduate from university, and was probably not a great student in her time. When we were nearing the end of high school, she shared a dream she had that the family were all in a race, and she couldn’t keep up. You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to understand the meaning and implication for her own psychological state.
Both of my parents have the narcissistic view that their kids are an extension of themselves. They compete with my wife’s parents for the attention of the grandchildren. They expect us, young parents of three active boys, to accommodate their needs and adjust schedules to meet theirs. My mom insists that she is just as busy as we are. Though she is a retiree, and we work full time with three kids under 8 years of age. She won’t accept that I am an adult with adult demands on my life. To do so would change the parental power structure that has given her purpose in life. As long as she is the busy mom, she has value. Without that, she has nothing.
What do I need from my parents? I don’t even know. I would like unconditional love and acceptance, but that ship has probably sailed. I would like to know that no matter what choices I make in my life, I have their support and love. I don’t want to feel like at any point there love could be cut off because I disappoint them or don’t meet their expectations. I want them to want to spend time with their grandchildren, but do it in a way that helps my wife and me, rather than making us scramble to prepare dinner and clean the house lest we be judged for not having our act together. I want them to take the grandchildren to the park, take them overnight, come in and provide us with the help we desperately need. Instead, we have to cater to their needs. In their minds, this is what they deserve because of all they gave us in life. Because they were and are perfect parents, without fault or flaws.
While this sounds like a rant, this is what therapy has helped me to discover, and I am grateful for it. This is the reality of my family. It is not close to the worst family in the world, but it might be equally far from perfect. This understanding of the reality of my situation allows me to have compassion for my parents and myself, rather than just being an angry kid trapped in an adult’s body. Most importantly, it has helped me realize my own tendencies to do this exact same thing to my own children, and hopefully lessen some of the burden they feel in their lives. Though I can readily admit that I have already made mistakes they will have to bear.
Ultimately, I have learned that my parents are who they are because of the circumstances they found themselves in. There is very little I can do to change them, or to make them see the error of their ways. I can only change myself, stop telling myself that everything is perfect and that I am broken. That realization is the first step toward healing and re-parenting myself, so I can be the parent my own kids need, flaws and all.