Clinical experience and research show that adult children of narcissists have a difficult time putting their finger on what is wrong, because denial is rampant in the narcissistic family system:
“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
It is common for adult children of narcissists to enter treatment with emotional symptoms or relationship issues, but simultaneously display a lack of awareness of the deeper etiology or cause.
The narcissistic family hides profound pain.
Such families tend to operate according to an unspoken set of rules. Children learn to live with those rules, but never stop being confused and pained by them, for these rules block their emotional access to their parents. They basically become invisible—neither heard, seen, or nurtured. Conversely, and tragically, this set of rules allows the parents to have no boundaries with the children and to use (or abuse) them as they see fit.
The following are some common dynamics of this profoundly dysfunctional intergenerational system. (Keep in mind there are always degrees of dysfunction on a spectrum depending on the level of narcissism in the parents.)
Secrets. The family secret is that the parents are not meeting the children’s emotional needs, or that they are abusive in some way. This is the norm in the narcissistic family. The message to the children: “Don’t tell the outside world—pretend everything is fine.”
Image. The narcissistic family is all about image. The message is: “We are bigger, better, have no problems, and must put on the face of perfection.”
Children get the messages: “What would the neighbors think?” “What would the relatives think?” What would our friends think?”These are common fears in the family: “Always put a smile on that pretty little face.”
Negative Messages. Children are given spoken and unspoken messages that get internalized, typically: “You’re not good enough”; “You don’t measure up”; “You are valued for what you do rather than for who you are.”
Lack of Emotional Tune-In. Narcissistic parents lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental.
Lack of Effective Communication.
The most common means of communication in narcissistic families is triangulation. Information is not direct. It is told through one party about another in hopes it will get back to the other party. Family members talk about each other to other members of the family, but don’t confront each other directly. This creates passive aggressive behavior, tension, and mistrust. When communication is direct, it is often in the form of anger or rage.
There are few boundaries in the narcissistic family. Children’s feelings are not considered important. Private diaries are read, physical boundaries are not kept, and emotional boundaries are not respected. The right to privacy is not typically a part of the family history.
One Parent Narcissistic, the Other Orbiting.
If one parent is narcissistic, it is common for the other parent to have to revolve around the narcissist to keep the marriage intact. Often, this other parent has redeeming qualities to offer the children, but is tied up meeting the needs of the narcissistic spouse, leaving the children’s needs unmet. Who is there for them?
Siblings Not Encouraged to Be Close.
In healthy families, we encourage our children to be loving and close to each other. In narcissistic families, children are pitted against each other and taught competition. There is a constant comparison of who is doing better and who is not. Some are favored or seen as “the golden child,” and others become the scapegoat for a parent’s projected negative feelings. Siblings in narcissistic families rarely grow up feeling emotionally connected to each other.
Feelings are denied and not discussed. Children are not taught to embrace their emotions and process them in realistic ways. They are taught to stuff and repress them, and are told their feelings don’t matter. Narcissistic parents are typically not in touch with their own feelings and therefore project them onto others. This causes a lack of accountability and honesty, not to mention other psychological disorders. If we don’t process feelings, they do leak out in other unhealthy ways.
Not Good Enough” Messages.
These messages come across loud and clear in the narcissistic family. Some parents actually speak this message in various ways; others just model it to the children. Even if they display arrogant and boastful behavior, under the veneer of a narcissist is a self-loathing psyche—that gets passed to the child.
Dysfunction—Obvious or Covert.
In narcissist families, the dynamics can be seen or disguised. The dysfunction displayed in violent and abusive homes is usually obvious, but emotional and psychological abuse, as well as neglectful parents, are often hidden. While the drama is not displayed as openly to the outside world, it is just as, if not, more damaging to the children.
Reviewing these dynamics, one can see how this kind of family can look pretty but be decaying at the same time. If you recognize your family in this description, know that there is hope and recovery. We can’t change the past, but we can take control of the now. We do not have to be defined by the wounds in our family systems. As Mark Twain defines the optimist, I see the recovering adult child: “A person who travels on nothing from nowhere to happiness.”
We can create new life that will flow through us to the future and stop the legacy of distorted love learned in the narcissistic family. If we choose recovery, we can defy intergenerational statistics.
People with narcissistic qualities tend to view life in black-and-white: a world of only losers and winners, victims and victimizers. They loathe feeling like losers or victims. In the case of parents with narcissism they often shunt those roles onto their children.
Why? Because people with narcissism need to be fed. A person with extreme narcissistic tendencies is like a balloon with a hole, endlessly leaking esteem, always needing a refill. Such a person’s air supply: attention. And who better to provide attention than the captive audience of one’s children?
If you had a parent with narcissism, you may have been trained to focus not on your own feelings and needs, but rather on those of your parent. Parents with narcissism may wheedle, confuse, or bully you into attending to them, ignoring their lies, and tiptoeing around their vulnerabilities. They generally need your life to be about them. Some people with narcissism, feeling empty at their core and lacking a healthy sense of self may steal from your very relationship with yourself.
But you aren’t a child anymore. You have power and options you never had as a child. Here are six ways you can take back your life after a narcissistic upbringing:
SEE BEYOND THE NARCISSISTIC FACADE
People with narcissism tend to be pretenders. Dwelling in a cyclone of shame, they live in mortal terror of anybody saying the emperor has no clothes. They fear being seen as flawed or ignorant and hate feeling powerless or embarrassed. These fears tend to drive their behavior. To avoid feeling flawed, they have to be the best and insist on perfection from others. To avoid feeling ignorant, they act like know-it-alls and rarely admit they are wrong. To avoid feeling powerless, they act larger than life. And when they feel embarrassed, their volcanic rage may erupt, burying anyone in their path.
When you know this, you can see what drives their outlandish behaviors. You don’t have to take it personally, wondering what you did wrong.
IDENTIFY DISTORTIONS AND DOUBLE STANDARDS
When people with narcissism make a mistake, they tend to blame others. When you make a mistake, they blame you. When they succeed, they cite their superior character. When you succeed—thus temporarily stealing the spotlight they so crave—they may take credit for your success, call it a fluke, or diminish it by pointing out other times you have failed.
People with narcissism tend to distract and disguise. Like kids caught with their hands in the candy jar, they may try to confuse, belittle, bully, or otherwise avoid responsibility for their actions.
Don’t be taken in. Pay attention to what they do, not what they say. Their words are often attempts to throw you off and make you feel small or doubtful while making themselves feel big. Their arguments are generally not to be taken seriously or even responded to, because if you refute one argument, they may simply come up with another and another.
When they are abusive, manipulative or withholding, see it for what it is. They are using you to avoid their own issues and satisfy their urges. They may feel entitled to do so. This is not healthy. Nobody is entitled to abuse or use another.
IF YOU ARE DRAWN TO PEOPLE WITH NARCISSISTIC QUALITIES, BE CLEAR ABOUT WHY
If you have been drawn to people with narcissism, it may be because it is simply a familiar dynamic. But it can also reflect an unconscious hope that if you can find a person with narcissistic tendencies who happens to treat you well, it will make up for what you didn’t get years ago from a parent with narcissism. It is an understandable wish. Yet relationships with people with narcissism are often disappointing and superficial because people with narcissism generally don’t care about treating others well.
You don’t have to deny your desire for justice, validation, or reparation. But you can never get back lost years, nor are you likely to get an apology.
If you feel unfulfilled in a relationship or wonder if a friend or partner has narcissism, ask yourself why you are with them. Do you hope to change or reform them? Do you hope someday they will see how good you are and mend their ways? Pursuing relationships with people with narcissism may simply postpone facing the painful recognition that your parent couldn’t be there for you. Accepting and mourning that unfortunate truth can allow you to focus on what is best for you and pick healthier relationships.
You don’t have to deny your desire for justice, validation, or reparation. But you can never get back lost years, nor are you likely to get an apology. You will almost certainly never be rescued if you wait for it. The only person who can make it right is you, by your choices and by how you treat and view yourself.
USE YOUR VOICE
Let’s say, for example, you give a person with narcissism a holiday gift, and they give you nothing. The person with narcissism then says something like, “You’re just trying to make me feel guilty because I didn’t get you anything.” This is classic narcissistic behavior, shifting the attention to you and putting you on the defensive. Simply knowing they are doing this may be enough to help you gain perspective, and you might choose to say nothing. But if you feel that you are shrinking in stature, you may feel better about yourself by speaking up. For example, in a situation like this you could:
Confront it by saying, “No, that is not why I gave it to you. But now that you mention it, do you feel guilty for not giving me anything?”
Use humor by taking their accusation about you trying to make them feel guilty and saying something like, “Well, is it working?”
Be honest and direct by saying, “No, I gave you a card because I wanted to. And now that you mention it, I do feel hurt that you didn’t give me anything.”
Remember, hard as they may try, people with narcissism can never take away your truth, experience, or feelings. They can dispute it, threaten you, and deny it, but they cannot make you give it up. They are projecting on you what they can’t feel in themselves. Don’t take it on.
Being raised by a person with narcissism can throw your life out of balance. One way to regain healthy balance is to do the opposite of what your parents did. For example:
If you received much criticism and scant praise, you may need to sidestep criticism (including self-criticism) and increase self-acknowledgment.
If you have been compulsively driving yourself in reaction to people with narcissism who called you lazy, you may want to slow down and focus on quality of life. Conversely, if you have been under performing in reaction to pressure from people with narcissism, you may want to push yourself beyond your present comfort level.
If you have felt deprived, allow yourself to desire and receive more.
If you were not allowed to say no or point out what was wrong, you may need to spend time saying no and focusing on what should change in your relationship, family, workplace, or society.
If you have been giving people with narcissistic qualities the benefit of the doubt to your own detriment, you may want to start questioning their actions and believe in yourself, perhaps seeking the guidance of a therapist or friend as you do so.
Your parents may have shamed you when you experimented, asked questions, or expressed your views. This may have led you as a child to become more dependent on them or alienated from yourself. Even in adulthood, you may second-guess yourself, struggle to make decisions, and shy away from taking risks that could enhance your life.
When you have to make a decision or when a challenge arises, ask yourself, “If I knew I was absolutely trustworthy, what would I do?” Then assess how you can make that happen. By assuming you are trustworthy, that your feelings are valuable, and that your intuition is reliable, you can see that you have within yourself all you need to handle challenges—despite what your parents may have tried to make you believe.
If you were raised by a parent with narcissism, you are not alone. Millions of adults have had a parent with narcissistic tendencies. No matter how you were treated as a child, you deserve to be seen, heard, and do what is healthiest for you.