by: E.B. Johnson
Growing up the child of a narcissistic parent (or parents) is a hard cross to bear. Hundreds of thousands of us around the globe were the unwilling victims of caretakers who couldn’t see us past themselves, and it has wreaked havoc on not only our mental wellbeing, but our self-esteem as well. When you’re raised by a narcissist, it’s impossible to be good enough — and that’s hard to overcome without some radical self-acceptance and some equally radical understanding.
Signs your parent was a narcissist.
It can be hard to spot a narcissistic parent, especially while living in a society that paints caretakers in certain rose-tinted light. Accepting that your parent was a narcissist is necessary in order to find your way back to healing. Whether the damage was done in childhood, or the damage continues today — knowing how to spot a manipulative and narcissistic parent is key in order to heal.
Using a superficial image
Narcissists, by definition, are grandiose and that can often mean the projection of a superior and superficial image of themselves to the world. They might parade themselves in public, patting themselves on the back for their “superior” beliefs or dispositions, or they might flaunt their appearance and material possessions. These caretakers go out of their way to get ego-boosting attention, even if that comes at the cost of their children and their egos.
Although all parents want their children to succeed, some parents want their children to succeed strictly for their own selfish needs and desires. Rather than raising a child to value their own thoughts and beliefs, they become nothing more than an extension of what the parent believes themselves to be — destroying their child’s individuality.
Often, the narcissistic parent can come off as controlling or overbearing, but some narcissistic parents choose a different route; going the way of being so self-absorbed that they neglect their parental responsibilities altogether. This can manifest in the form of career obsession, personal indulgence, or social flamboyance. However it occurs, the child is left to the side, and the parent is on their own — the way they prefer it.
Parents who are obsessed with their own image or desires will engage in any tactics they can to ensure their own wishes are met. Often, this takes the form of manipulation which can be inflicted in a number of creative ways. Most often, the narcissistic parent will manipulate their offspring through guilt tripping, blaming, negative comparison, punishment, coercion, shaming and unreasonable pressure. If those things don’t work, they have no problem removing the child from their life entirely, because only one thing matters to the narcissist and that is getting what they want.
Most narcissistic parents become threatened by the potential of their children, so they engage in a concentrated effort to undermine that potential by marginalizing their child in a desperate play to stay superior. They might nitpick, judge, criticize, compare and invalidate their successes or emotions. The common theme is always, “you’re not good enough and you never will be”.
Zero parental empathy
Our parents are supposed to have compassion for us, and enough love to shelter us in times of heartache or need. Narcissistic caretakers are different, however, and struggle to share that natural sense of compassion with their children. They are unable to be mindful of their children’s thoughts and feelings and find it impossible to look past their own beliefs and desires, which directs every decision they make.
Some narcissistic parents keep themselves on the superior edge by expecting their children to cater to them and care for them for the rest of their lives. These parents can also foster dependence both physically and emotionally, and might do it through financial or material means. Though it’s a noble thing to care for your parents, the narcissist caretaker achieves this end through manipulation rather than willing sacrifice, dismissing entirely their child’s own individual needs.
A certain inflexibility
There are some caretakers who take a different narcissistic road, opting to micromanage and regulate their children through minor details and a pervading inflexibility and rigidness. They are easily triggered and blow their tops over everything from lack of attention to minor disobedience. Perceived faults and shortcomings become unforgivable sins with the narcissistic parent.
A need to be superior
Most narcissistic parents have an over-inflated sense of self, and this allows them to exist in a delusional realm of superiority. Rather than treating those around them as people, they treat them as subjects and tools — mere stepping stones on their path to continued greatness. “We’re better than they are” is a belief that pervades every inch of what they are and what they do. They do this, of course, at the expense of their children who they dehumanize in the process.
Controlling parents who are obsessed with their own self-image often struggle with extreme jealousy and possessiveness when it comes to their children. They might hope that their child will forever dwell under their control, so they act out or get manipulative when they feel like they’re losing their grip. On the flip side, they might just fear competition themselves, so they push out anyone who might compete for a spot in their child’s affections.
How a narcissistic childhood impacts your adult life.
Growing up in the shadow of a narcissistic parent is mentally and emotionally debilitating. The damage is also complex and long-lasting, following us for decades and wrecking not only our internal sense of self, but our sense of our place in the world as well. Overcoming these effects is possible, but it takes knowing how to spot the toxic and self-destructive patterns that keep us scared, limited and living with less than we deserve.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Abuse and narcissistic parenting often go hand-in-hand, leading to traumatized children who grow up to be traumatized adults. When we’re abused, we get so caught up in trying to avoid the abuse that we start to live in a state of constant anxiety and alertness; numbing our emotions in ways that make us unable to imagine life beyond the next horrible moment.
Children long for love, but that love is hardly forthcoming when it comes to the self-obsessed parent. Unable to fulfill their inherent need for affection, these children often seek out absolution by sacrificing their own self-esteem on the altar of their parent’s narcissism. These become internalized beliefs and self-loathing thoughts like, “If I were a little quieter, she would love me more,” or “If I fix myself, maybe he’ll finally love me…”
It should come as no surprise that narcissists raise other narcissists. Our caretakers are our role models, and the earliest indicators of the type of person we should mold ourselves in the shape of. Seeing a parent that is always the loudest, smartest, prettiest person in the room will lead them to do more of the same, often leading to adults who are bombastic in temperament with a stubborn streak that makes them unpleasant at the best of times.
Shrinking of self
Unlike more aggressive children, extremely sensitive or empathetic children respond to self-obsessed caregivers by shrinking themselves and taking up as little room in the abuser’s world as possible. This is a learned behavior that follows them through life, and one that is especially damning in times when it becomes necessary to stand up for yourself and the things you need. Like the infamous nymph Echo (who was forever doomed to remain a shadow in Narcissus’ life) the children of narcissists struggle to find their own voice in a world that’s defined by the whims of someone who can’t see past their own selfish desires.
Need to people please
Being an empath can be a gift in today’s society, but it can also be a curse. Those who grow up the victims of narcissistic parents often become obsessed with maintaining the happiness of those around them, and this often comes to the detriment of their own needs. Some even grow to hate their own needs, believing themselves to be unworthy or a “burden”.
When we are neglected, abused or otherwise removed from the emotions and affections of our parents, it can make us question how safe we are with anyone else in our lives. This can lead to insecure attachment, or avoidant attachment, in which we manage our fear of being unloved by shutting people out or building up walls that make it impossible for them to get close. Likewise, we might also chase love in a complex combination of unpredictability that causes unmeasurable damage in our personal and professional lives.
The child that has learned their parent does not love them is a child who learns that they are the only person in the world they can depend on. When our parents are absorbed in their own worlds, we grow into adults that believe no one can be trusted. The problem with this, however, is that no man is an island and we do (if only occasionally) need the love, affection and support of others in order to maintain our own happiness and wellbeing.
Fear of scarcity
Because narcissists make their needs the only important thing in the environment, their children become terrified of their own needs and this leads to need-panic. Need-panic occurs when a need is identified and then compulsively buried deep, deep down — in order to be avoided. Then, inevitably, a crisis hits and the need comes rearing to the surface, causing problems untold and a need for constant reassurance.
How to move forward and start healing.
Growing up the victim of a narcissist does not mean you have to live forever in their shadow. Whether your caretaker is still in your life, or just a remnant of your past, you can break free of their shadow and create your own path to healing. Start setting boundaries using these real-world techniques and you’ll (re)discover the beautiful, original person you’ve been hiding all these years.
1. Acknowledge and honor your feelings
Often, the first step in healing from the damage inflicted by a narcissistic parent is simply acknowledging and honoring the feelings you have about that parent in the first place.
Our emotions are complex, and that means we can feel them on a number of different levels at a number of different times. Sometimes our grief is mixed with anger and our guilt with sympathy. It’s also possible to grow numb to your feelings over time, thanks to regular dismissal, invalidation or just all-around marginalization.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel and don’t judge yourself for it. Let the way you feel about your parent or the situation guide you in the direction of what you need most in order to heal. If that means ending interactions with family that were once a part of your every day, then that’s what it means. No one knows your situation better than you, so allow yourself to be that expert and feel what you feel when you feel it.
2. Battle for your boundaries
Narcissists gain their power by constantly attacking boundaries. Even when we start off strong against their onslaught, it’s hard to maintain that resolve when our sense of self is being endlessly tested. You’re not respected by the narcissistic parent, you’re objected — and that makes it critical to battle for your boundaries and reassert them at every available opportunity.
Take a step back and take some time to create healthy boundaries that work for you and your needs alone. Think about what you need to be happy, and think about the type of environment you need to exist in, in order to be happy. Communicate these needs to your parent or family members and let them know that — just like them — you’ll no longer be accepting less than you deserve (even if that means limited contact).
3. Stop blaming yourself
Being scapegoated by a self-obsessed parent can cause you to internalize a tremendous amount of guilt and take on the blame for something you had little to no control over. Narcissists are experts at deflection, but it’s important to remember that we’re all responsible for our own behavior. If they bit your head off or attacked, you — that’s on them, not you. But you have to remind yourself of that every single day, and you have to make the conscious decision to stop letting their behavior weigh on your conscience.
4. Accept what you cannot change
One of the most difficult aspects of overcoming a self-absorbed parent is coming to the understanding that they will never change — no matter how badly you might want them to, or how sensibly you approach them.
Narcissists rarely change, because they see themselves as superior beings who others should be attempting to emulate. Even when they appear to be making strides, it is often only a means to manipulation, and it is not long before the same old judgmental, vindictive and critical adversary returns.
By holding out eternal hope that your parent will change, or by making the constant effort to change that person — you only undermine your own life and the beautiful experiences you could be filling it with on your own journey to happiness. Accept that the only person you can change is yourself, and you will cut that journey time down by half.
5. Notice family roles
Every family has roles and dynamics into which the various members play. In some families, there is the scapegoat; while in others, there is the golden child. There are many fluid roles within the typical family unit, but they are always commanded by the narcissist (when there’s one in play) and not always to the benefit of the individuals involved.
Narcissistic parents maintain their control over their families by creating division among those families. They alienate fellow parents from the children and they alienate siblings from one another by casting them — simultaneously — in the roles of villains and victims, creating a warped system that makes it hard to know which way is up when it comes to familial roles.
Pay attention to your family roles and take notice when they’re being used to create a seat of power for one, and roles of subjection for the rest. The best way to defend yourself against this kind of onslaught is by presenting a unified front, but that’s something that takes cohesion and communication to manage. Come to a mutual understanding and unity about the part you’re playing and why, and try to empower one another rather than giving in to the divisive rhetoric that your abuser uses to keep you “in your place”.
Putting it all together…
Warding off the toxic attacks of a narcissistic parent is never easy, no matter how old you get or how far you may roam. Self-obsessed parents damage their children in a number of alarming ways, and those effects follow their children as traumas and destructive coping mechanisms that destroy their wellbeing and quality of life in adulthood.
Getting past a narcissistic upbringing is hard, but isn’t impossible. You have to foster some understanding and adopt the tactics and techniques that allow your authentic self to thrive. Stop inflicting pain on yourself and stop internalizing the pain of your self-centered caretaker. Instead, focus your energy on cultivating the knowledge you need to ward off your narcissistic parent’s nastiest attacks. Stand firm beside your boundaries and open up to and accept the complex array of emotions that surround the situation between you and your controlling or demeaning parent. Honor your feelings and remember you cannot change other people. The only person we are responsible for is ourselves, and the only live we can control is our own.