Do you worry that you grew up with a narcissistic parent? Do you consistently feel minimized or devalued when you are with a parent? Do you have a deep worry that you’ll never be good enough in their eyes? This article talks about the effects of narcissism and what it means to be narcissistic. It also talks about how change can happen, and how psychotherapy can help.
The relationship between having narcissistic parents and self-image.
The primary effect of growing up with narcissistic parents is on our self-worth. Children derive a sense of self-worth through what is known in psychological terms as being mirrored and attuned to. What this basically means is that we feel like we are good people worthy of love because our caregivers reflect back to us that we are good people worthy of love. This can happen through words, i.e. your parents say they love you, and/or through actions, i.e. your parents give you a hug after you had a bad day. When your parents show and tell you they believe in you, when they support you in your dreams, and when they make you feel better when you are down, we feel positively about ourselves. This can lead, among other things, to us being more successful and having the ability to have healthy, secure relationships when we are older.
When one or both of our parents is narcissistic, however, we do not receive this same mirroring and attunement. The hallmark of narcissistic individuals is their inability to experience other people as having their own needs and desires. Rather, narcissists view others as extensions of themselves, existing in order to validate and admire the narcissist. Narcissists are not capable of attuning to the needs and emotions of another person because they do not recognize that the other person has needs and emotions. When narcissists are parents, this means they cannot recognize and respond to the needs and emotions of their children.
How people become narcissistic.
People become narcissists when they were themselves not mirrored and attuned to. Many narcissists are unaware of the impact that they have on other people simply because they were never raised to feel that they impacted people at all. Their parents did not see them and validate their experiences. Underlying the apparent egotism of narcissism is a vulnerable sense of self, deep feelings of inadequacy, and fear of rejection. Narcissists cannot tolerate attacks on their sense of self because they do not have enough of a developed sense of self to withstand criticism. When another person’s experience feels like criticism to a narcissist, the narcissist responds through minimizing or invalidating the other person.
The underpinnings of narcissism are usually unconscious. On a conscious level, the narcissism can appear confident, egotistical, grandiose, and arrogant. It can be difficult, when you are around a narcissist, to see the fragility underneath the haughtiness. Narcissism, however, is fundamentally isolating. A lot of my own personal work has centered around trying to see narcissists as in need of compassion. I have never worked with a narcissist who has not experienced a lot of suffering.
The self-image children of narcissists develop.
Developing a nuanced understanding of narcissism is challenging even when we are adults. When we are children, all we know is how we feel, and if one or both of our parents is narcissistic, we feel pretty bad. Children of narcissistic parents are often left with the impression that they are intrinsically unlovable. Having never received love and affection for just being themselves, they often conclude that they are not worthy of love and affection. This often results in low self-esteem and feeling not good enough. Children of narcissistic parents often experience difficulties in relationships and career as a result.
In addition, children with narcissistic parents often had to learn to adapt to the parent’s needs. A narcissist cannot tolerate criticism or “otherness,” and so the child learns to anticipate what actions are least likely to upset the narcissistic parent. In his article “Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parent,” Alan Rappoport (www.alanrappoport.com) uses the term “co-narcissism” to explain a set of behaviors that he has observed in children with narcissistic parents. He finds that children of narcissistic parents tend to be unaware of their own feelings and needs, instead working to accommodate the needs of other people. They tend to be more insecure and not have a clear sense of who they are. In addition, they are more likely to fear that they are inherently defective or unworthy of love and affection.
Essentially what happens is that a child has needs that it seeks to have met by the parent, but the parent is incapable of meeting those needs. The child does not understand why their parent is not meeting their needs and so, on an unconscious level, concludes that they must not deserve to have their needs met. Carrying this unconscious feeling into adulthood can result in depression and/or anxiety, a feeling that you must always anticipate the needs of others, and a worry that you are never doing so adequately. It can also make relationships, both professional and personal, challenging because you wonder, again unconsciously, if other people must also be narcissistic and may have difficulty trusting them. Children of narcissistic parents usually have not experienced feeling unconditionally loved and accepted, and it can be difficult to imagine that other people are trustworthy and capable of loving you for who you really are rather than as someone who exists to meet the other person’s needs.
Understanding and moving beyond the effects of narcissistic parents.
If you are worried that one or both of your parents is a narcissist, there is good news. These feelings are not permanent. Becoming more aware of yourself and coming to a greater appreciation of the reasons why you feel how you feel can make it possible to start shifting those feelings. This type of introspection can be easier with psychotherapy. It is often easier for people to understand their unconscious motivations when they have someone helping them through the process. Psychotherapy can also help provide the emotional support necessary to move through the challenges of understanding family dynamics. You can start to understand your narcissistic parent more and move from a place of hurt to a place of compassion.
The therapeutic relationship that develops can also be healing. People with narcissistic parents may never have experienced an intimate relationship with someone who is not narcissistic. Being able to feel close to a therapist that has your best interests in mind and is able to really see you can start to shift the belief that you are unlovable and unworthy. A therapist can also model assertiveness and positive self-regard—things that a person with narcissistic parents often has difficulty expressing themselves.
Growing up with a narcissistic parent is challenging. With understanding, introspection, and compassion, though, you can start to love yourself more and experience more positive relationships in your life.
Allison is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. She views therapy as a collaborative process that helps you understand how to be the truest version of yourself. She works with adults, couples, and families. She helps people work through anxiety, depression, relationship issues, career challenges, and trauma. Visit her website, www.allisonzamani.com to learn more or reach out via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation call.
Associate Marriage and Family Therapist #107189
Associate Professional Clinical Counselor #5316
Supervised by Trisha Rowe, LCSW #13444