In the interests of transparency (and avoiding a slap in the face), I do not have a narcissistic parent.
But I’ve experienced narcissistic people from time-to-time, and a close friend of mine identifies with having a narcissistic mother. Now in her early twenties, my friend is going through the painful process of unraveling the effects of her narcissistic parent on her life.
The information below is based on the insights from brilliant book and necessary reading for any child of a narcissistic parent, Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.
First, let’s identify whether this could have been an issue for you.
What is narcissism?
Naming narcissism can be a relief of itself, because it is an acknowledgement that what occurred in your parenting wasn’t normal.
In everyday terms, a narcissist is someone who is arrogantly self-absorbed. Its opposite is self-love and self-esteem; having a healthy appreciation for yourself that does not stop you from loving others.
9 traits of a narcissist
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes narcissism as a personality disorder classified by the below nine traits. In reality, we all have some of these traits. But the presence of loads of them is a key giveaway of a narcissistic person.
The nine traits:
- A grandiose sense of self importance. A narcissist may exaggerate talents and achievements, and is expectant of undue recognition.
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
- Belief in being special and unique, and only capable of being understood by other special people.
- Requiring excessive admiration.
- Having a sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment or automatic compliance with expectations.
- Takes advantage of others.
- Lacking empathy.
- Being envious of others or believing others are envious.
- Showing arrogance and haughtiness.
In her book, McBride gives a questionnaire that can help you to identify whether your mother has narcissistic traits.
5 things you might need to teach yourself as a child of a narcissistic parent
Even the most well intentioned parents can wind up bringing up self-entitled, insecure kids due to failed parenting strategies. However, there are struggles specific to children of narcissists.
Here are five things you’ll likely need to work on if you’re the child of a narcissistic parent.
1. How to grieve
For children of narcissistic parents, part of healing from that includes grieving for the loss of the parent they wanted, as well as the child that went without.
There are five commonly recognised stages of grief: acceptance, denial, bargaining, anger and depression. And it’s the first, acceptance, that is the most critical.
What acceptance means in this context is embracing the knowledge that you had a narcissistic parent and all of the ways that has hindered (or helped) you in life. Also, being present to all of your emotions about it.
How do we learn to accept difficult realities?
In my experience, it is a decision we need to make every day – and sometimes moment-to-moment. It is staying present to the reasonable urge to blame, hate and self pity, noticing how that makes us feel, and reaching for better feeling thoughts.
You can think of your own better feeling thoughts. For me, they would probably look something like:
- ‘This has been a part of my past, but doesn’t need to be a part of my future.’
- ‘Dealing with her/him has helped be to become the person I am now, and I love who I am now.’
- ‘What happened to me wasn’t fair, and I don’t owe forgiveness to anyone, except myself.’
- ‘This suffering is helping me to learn to open my heart and live wholeheartedly. That’s something that other people never learn.’
For a more in-depth guide to practicing acceptance, read this.
As well as grieving for the mothers or fathers they never had, children of narcissistic parents must grieve for the child they weren’t allowed to be. This ‘retrospective parenting’ would be a part of the approach that many therapists would take to supporting a recovering child of a narcissistic parent.
2. How to develop and accept your own identity
Narcissistic parents seek to subsume your identity into theirs. It’s all about them. Consequently, children of narcissistic parents miss out on the healthy development of a child, where their curiosities and talents are nurtured.
How do we learn who we are?
In his book The Search for the Real Self, James Masterson describes the key capacities of the real self as follows:
- Capacity to experience a wide range of feelings deeply with liveliness, joy, vigor, excitement and spontaneity.
- Ability to accept appropriate entitlements.
- Capacity for self activation and assertion.
- Acknowledgment of self-esteem.
- Ability to soothe painful feelings.
- Aapacity to make and stick to commitments.
- Ability to be creative.
- Capacity to be intimate.
- Ability to be alone.
- Continuity of self (authenticity across a range of experiences).
Children of narcissists might find themselves with a lot of work to do on realizing these traits in themselves. Actually, we all do. Among the key things to do are being with emotions, practicing self-love, building self-esteem, and learning to be alone.
Part of developing our identities happens in learning to value ourselves. This is a well known struggle of the child of a narcisstic parent.
You might appear to the world like a complete hero, but never give yourself due credit, or you may continuously struggle with feeling inadequate. In her book, McBride calls this type of child of a narcissistic parent a ‘Mary Marvel’. With such individuals, there can be a discrepancy between how the rest of the world sees them and how they see themselves.
This is just something to bring your awareness to as a child of a narcissistic parent. Self acknowledgement and congratulation is fundamental to becoming internally self-validating.
3. How to ask for what you need, and say no to what you don’t
Children of narcissistic parents are likely to have issues with knowing and asserting their boundaries. That is because the proper dividing line between adult and child was never established.
As adults, they may infuse their poor sense of boundaries into all of their relationships. The result is anxiety, uncertainty, hurt and frustration as they struggle to know what’s within their responsibility.
Paradoxically, taking responsibility for our own emotions, rather than projecting our hurts onto others, is what helps here. That is how we begin to know what’s within our remit and what isn’t. For an in-depth guide to practicing responsibility, read this.
4. How to avoid overcompensating
Understandably wanting to avoid having the traits of the narcissistic parent, some children of narcissists overcompensate by becoming the opposite. But any extremes bring us out of balance.
Having some entitlement, and even being a little demanding are attributes of a secure individual. It is okay to be a little dependent at times.
So how to not fall into the trip of overcompensating?
If you find yourself behaving in a passive, meek, quiet and non assertive manner, question whether that is serving your highest interests. Work to notice when you could be being more self expressed. And use assertive friends to model that for you if needed.
Otherwise, traits expressed by your narcissistic parent can wind up in your Shadow, blocking creative energy expression and power. Work to bring those aspects of you into the light.
5. How to select secure romantic partners
Romantic relationships is an area for which the legacy of the narcissistic parent can be the most apparent.
Typically, children of narcissists will unconsciously choose partners who they know cannot meet their emotional needs. We’re all attracted to what’s familiar. For children of narcisstic parents, that is people that will hurt them and ignore their needs.
In particular, such individuals risk creating codependent relationships that aren’t based on choice and love, but rather upon acting out roles. They are likely to form either an anxious or an avoidant attachment style.
We learn to select more secure romantic partners by doing the work to know ourselves (above). You can stop yourself from entering into a codependent situation and come to recognise, and be attracted to, only secure mates.
As my friend has often reflected privately, acceptance is the key: truly accepting that you had a narcissistic parent and all of the various effects on your life.
Although my friend’s awareness of it isn’t always apparent, it is obvious to me the positive traits that she has developed in response to dealing with the pain of her narcissistic mother. For a person her age, she has uncommon levels of courage, self awareness and unflinching self honesty.
I’ve also observed how the experience is already enabling her to make a difference to other people on healing journeys. And although that is not something she wants to focus on right now, in future, who knows? This might be a big chunk of her very own access to changing the world.
But we have to put our own happiness first. And many children of narcissists may have their work cut out.
But with self awareness and dedication, that is completely possible.