Growing Up With A Narcissistic Parent

Narcissism is certainly a word that is on the tips of everyone’s tongue these days.  It’s no secret that many people in power fall onto this personality spectrum, but identifying a narcissist in your own home can be a lot harder than one would think. 

WHO AM I?

When you grow up with a narcissistic parent, your sense of self can slip away like the frog in a boiling pot.  You may not notice it at first because for you, this is just how life is.  Mom (or dad) is really demanding, focused on how the family looks, and is not showing a whole lot of interest in how you feel.  After a while though, the pot starts to boil and you notice yourself feeling more anxious, depressed, and self-doubting. 

Why does this happen? Why does growing up with a narcissist damage our sense of self and wellbeing? As children, we have no choice in who are parents are and since we are vulnerable and actually need them to survive, we adapt to who they are and what they want very quickly.  When a parent is mean, neglectful, or critical towards us, we often will internalize that and assume it’s because we’re “flawed”.  “Why else would mom say that to me if it wasn’t true?”. For children, it’s much safer to assume that they are the bad ones than to accept that a parent is acting in a cruel way.  

Additionally, children learn to censor themselves based on how their parent responded.  For example, if a child is crying because they fell down and their parent repeatedly tells them to “Get over it” and to “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”, that child will learn to ignore their sadness and suppress their tears because mom or dad will reject them if they show this particular feeling. 

 IT MAKES SENSE

If we were to think about families as representations of tribes from ancient times, then from an evolutionary perspective it would make sense for children to censor themselves so that they don’t get “kicked out” of the tribe.  Being exiled is such a fundamental fear in most human beings and it shows up even within our own families. 

 Narcissists will often use shame to domesticate and train their children to behave in a particular way. I’ve worked with client’s whose narcissistic parents would criticize their clothes, the food they ate, and the jobs they took because it didn’t “fit” with how the parent wanted their child or family to look.  These clients then grow up to be very self-critical and are blinded to what they actually want for themselves.  It causes mass confusion and because they grew up with such a critical parent, they’ve internalized that same criticism. 

 STARTING AGAIN

What can you do now that you’re an adult? Coming to terms with the fact that a parent is a narcissist can be very complicated and often requires therapy from someone with experience working with adult children of narcissists (ACONS).  The first thing ACONS may experience is something similar to those going through grief.  

Many of my ACONS experience deep resentment and anger, then move on to sadness over the loss of the support they never received from their parent.  After those two emotions have been felt through, usually a sense of clarity, acceptance, and empowerment will emerge.  

As adults, we have the power to now make sense of what happened to us when we were younger. As children, that ability is not fully developed because we have to rely solely on our parents for our survival and can’t afford to be reflective then.  The beauty of being alive today is that once a child leaves the home and becomes an adult, he or she can cultivate and create a new family to belong to.  One that is comprised of caring partners, trusted friends, co-workers, schoolmates and peers from various social groups. 

If you decide to pursue therapy, again make sure you’re working with a therapist who understands narcissism and how to help you heal from past traumas.  This is so important because you may decide down the road to have limited to zero contact with your narcissistic parents and you’ll want to have the full support of your therapist to help you get through that period of time. 

A great resource where you can find therapists who treat ACONS is the website willieverbegoodenough.com.  There, you can find a clinician in your area who has the training and desire to support you through this journey of self-healing.