When I was a child, I had no concept of what narcissism meant. I had no idea that I was involved in a parent/child relationship that could only be the worst possible scenario: a narcissist parent with an empath child.
Because I didn’t know what I was involved in, I wasn’t able to gather tools for survival.
Everything that happened was a painful mystery and, truthfully, had anyone explained this mystery to me in my youth, I probably still wouldn’t have understood. I accepted early on that I was the one creating all the havoc.
And that, unfortunately, is what a narcissist parent feeds on, whether their child is an empath or not.
While I hoped and prayed for the day my parents would see me as a tender spirit who needed loving support, that day was never to appear, no matter how old I became.
Since the beginning of our relationship at age 10 (I was adopted), my role was defined as being the one who would bring joy, validation and importance to my new parents’ life. I wish there had been a memo. I just never understood my place in the scheme of things.
To say that as a child I lived in fear and confusion would be a grave understatement. Because I was not conscious of the game we were playing, I was at a disadvantage emotionally. No matter how hard I tried, I could never live up to the expectations of parents who not only did not understand themselves but who believed wholeheartedly that they were doing their best. To them, I was obviously the cog in the wheel.
A child cannot express their sensitivity to the narcissist parent whose complete focus is their own happiness. In their mind, if they are happy with the child it equates with the child’s happiness.
A narcissist parent sees any resistance on the part of the child as ungrateful.
Every day of a child’s life for this kind of parent is filtered through the parents’ need to feel safe in the world. It was clearly expressed to me, by my mother in particular, that I was hers to do with as she pleased, since I was a child and knew nothing about what my needs were. I was, in essence, her possession—like a pet dog.
Furthermore, I was expected to show my parents unwavering loyalty and devotion until their dying day. My life’s purpose was to revolve around their emotional and physical needs as the grateful recipient of their parenting.
As an adult of a narcissist mother (my father passed away by my 25th birthday), I became poignantly aware that there was absolutely nothing I could do to create a healthy relationship between us. I could have made it easier by submitting to her will, but I was too bent on my own authenticity.
And yet, I craved her approval. I hoped that one day our relationship would not pivot around her possessiveness, her calculating need for me to uphold her self-esteem and her assessment of my perceived failures.
I wished some days that I would do anything to create peace between us; that was certainly one of her suggestions. Facing manipulation on a daily basis, I became a slave to pleasing others. I had never been ‘deserving’ of the love that they had given me as a child, my mother said, and that is why they had been forced to withdraw their love for me.
I had to work very hard to see the truth of this type of abuse and be observant of how it played out in other relationships later on.
To have love held over one’s head is an especially cruel way to treat any child. Children, by instinct, thrive on loving, integrity-driven relationships. As long as there was a possibility of love, I would try. There were those days when, out of the blue, I would be face to face with a brilliant display of affection and many words of my parents’ concern for me—a narcissist specialty, keeping the carrot of normalcy dangling.
Those days held me prisoner. I longed to tap into the part of me that could bring out the best in them. Because of this and my naturally forgiving nature, I refused to see the gravity of the trauma and abuse I was accustomed to.
Because I absorbed energy like a sponge, I often confused my parents’ neurosis as mine; becoming bound inextricably by the overwhelming energy of the narcissist, I would feel physically ill.
While I tried to run away from the situation, leaving home three times at age twelve, then at 16, then at 18, I secretly hoped that conversations that always ended in tears for me would solve our ‘misunderstandings’.
But to a narcissist, misunderstandings are always the other party’s fault. They do not take responsibility, especially when their justification is that they were acting in their child’s best interest.
For many years, as the adult child of a narcissist mother, I went round and round on the merry-go-round of a gravely-flawed relationship. And now, with both parents gone and years of introspection, I am freed from the cycle and have found some clarity.
While it’s not easy, there is healing and hope for adult children of narcissistic parents.
My parents were brilliant at appearing amazingly normal and loving in social situations. When I was asked once if I loved my parents (since I was so bad), I answered honestly that, no, I was afraid of them. This resulted in being shunned by people within and outside of my familial circle. There was no one to turn to for help or understanding.
Isolation—another trick of the narcissist.
It is imperative as a child and as an adult child of a narcissist to find an ally, preferably someone who is familiar with this mental illness. Find a therapist or friend who can help you see through the fog. Your parents’ illness is not your responsibility.
I wish someone had stepped in, but how could they have? I was kept under wraps, ‘for my own safety’. If you see someone who might be victim to a narcissist parent, please seek advice on how to help.
Narcissists do not care about personal boundaries—except for their own. For this reason, it’s extremely important to create strict boundaries and to stick to them. Often children of narcissists suffer from low self-esteem and setting boundaries is therefore a difficult challenge, but it’s the only way to stay safe emotionally.
The narcissist parent will continue to push, and sometimes the only boundary that works is complete detachment from the relationship. While I understand that divorcing one’s parent(s) is a trauma no one wishes to endure, there are cases when that is the only solution.
To be perfectly honest, no one can do this for you. You must decide how far they have to push you before you must detach. The narcissist parent is skilled at convincing their child that they are out of their mind and over-reacting, so a good skill to have is knowing when to walk away from the conversation.
No amount of talking with a narcissist parent will convince them that they are overstepping unless they themselves have sought help or admitted that they are being manipulative.
Observe with Detachment
The first thing I did to help myself was to acknowledge that my parents were narcissists and that they were indeed suffering themselves. This gave me a chance to observe them as human beings in their own right and not simply as my parents.
Now I had some distance from the situation and I could fully embrace the empathy I had for them. I read all I could about narcissistic personalities and, armed with knowledge, I could be more objective in my own therapy. Even though my father passed away early in our relationship, I still had work to do surrounding my feelings for him. I cultured empathy for years after his passing.
Empathy led to forgiveness. I forgave myself for not understanding and for trying so hard all those years when really there was nothing I could have done to help them be better parents.
I forgave them in time and that brought me complete freedom from the past. I was no longer my story. I was new.
I decided that my childhood with narcissist parents was not going to define my today or my future. It was the only way to truly let go of the hurt. I was in my late thirties when I let go, and although the relationship I had with my mother until she passed away was always tinged with her personality, it was as good as it could have been. We managed to salvage some relatively good years. And that was purely from my decision to forgive and create better boundaries.
One of the best bits of advice I have ever received is this:
Do not expect to receive something from someone who doesn’t have what you want.
These brilliant words have saved me a lot of heartache.
My parents simply did not have what I needed or wanted, and asking them for it was insanity on my part.
This philosophy applies to any kind of relationship with a narcissist. It could be a sibling or a lover. Recognizing a narcissist’s limitations is the first step in releasing oneself from unrealistic expectations.
One of the reasons we stay in these types of relationships is the narcissist is so good at creating a false sense of hope that tomorrow will be different.
It’s easy to fall into the trap, but at some point we must become aware and accept what is. It’s up to you.
Break the Cycle
This is one very important skill. Breaking the cycle so that we do not perpetuate the same abuses with our own children is paramount.
While I certainly wasn’t a perfect mother, I determined as a child that I would remember how the relationship felt and that I would not do the same things with my own children.
As I gained knowledge about narcissistic behavior, I was able to bolster my determination.
This may be difficult for children who grew up displaying narcissistic habits due to their exposure to it. But with help and awareness, I do believe this can be overcome.
We are all navigators of our own ships, and with the right crew behind us, many things are possible.
I hope that if you have gone through a similar situation, you have access to the resources needed to heal and forgive. I understand completely.
The best place to start is with being kind to yourself.
Author: Monika Carless
Editor: Caroline Beaton