I gave him everything I had.
I became his personal counselor as a young child, his unwavering caretaker when he was unable to walk, and spent three solid days cleaning his house while he was in the hospital. It wasn’t enough, and I came to find out it would never be enough.
But he was my father, and I would have done anything for him. As a child, I was there to rescue him from his emotions, and as an adult, I grew to understand this task was not humanly possible. No matter how much love I had for him or how desperately I sought his approval, I was left feeling empty and depleted, despite my valiant attempts.
I am the oldest child, and the only girl. Growing up with three brothers, I craved being daddy’s girl and did my best to force myself into this fantasy role running though my head. Sure there were times where the shoe fit, but they were always fleeting. Still, I would hang onto them, strive to recreate them, and tirelessly attempt to be who I thought he needed me to be within each moment.
In hindsight, these sacred moments where I felt worthy only added to the confusion and desire to be his savior. Anticipating which of his needs needed to be met became my norm. I learned to watch his movements, pick apart his breathing, and decipher words from his texts that hinted at impending rage. Sometimes, I could calm him down and help him, other times I found myself hiding behind the couch—heart racing, jaw clenched, ears covered.
And then, just like that, it would be over. It was as if nothing had happened. There were no apologies. Ownership was never taken. A cabinet broken from its hinges or a smashed cordless phone was the only tangible evidence to validate the ache in my heart.
With heightened senses, I would go about my day, knowing next time I would try harder to stop it.
These “good” times were a delicate balancing act for a child who learned at an early age that the pendulum could at any time swing drastically in the other direction.
Because narcissists are often charismatic, charming, and masters of captivating an audience, we can easily become confused as to how our best and worst moments of life were with this parent.
It’s as if we’re living with two different people, and we never know if we are in their good graces, or if we are their next target to attack. We are caught in the grips of a person who may feel superior one moment, and miserable the next. This ever-changing and unpredictable dynamic determines our roll in their self-serving agenda. They can build us up or break us down. We never know.
Anyone who has been enmeshed with a parent, or is the child of a narcissist, can most likely relate to this story. While anticipating the needs of this parent, ours often go unmet.
Once we recognize this, and realize the toxicity associated with this person, the process of breaking away can be initiated. While it’s different for everyone, here are three mindful markers from my own path that can hopefully help you on yours:
In terms of the breakaway process, guilt is our trusted ally, and no doubt something we’re all familiar with. Because narcissists use guilt as a form of control, as the child of a narcissist we often grow to become an adult riddled with guilt. We grew up feeling inferior in our attempts to save this parent. We feel incomplete if we cannot save the world, so to speak.
We may feel guilt for not texting this parent back, shame for not being there when they need us, and plagued with anxiety for attempting to assert our independence. Because our identity was so closely tied to this parent’s needs, it’s important to remember that these feelings are not only normal, but the first step to breaking their illusion of control over us.
Once we’re aware that nothing we can do or say can fix their internal world, we are on the path to self-discovery, healing, and freedom.
Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder cannot change. It would be like asking them to permanently change their eye color. Thus, the change that needs to take place lies within us.
If we grew up in a healthy home, with two nurturing parents (I was blessed to have one), we are taught to assert our independence, make decisions that honor our core values, and be able to clearly define our boundaries to maintain healthy relationships.
If we grew up with a parent who is a narcissist, the opposite is true. We often feel fused to them, lack basic understanding around healthy boundaries, and are punished for our desire to gain independence and an identity outside of our relationship with them. We learn to tolerate being bullied, and may even consider condescending statements and aggression a normal part of relationships.
Most of us enter the adult world lacking healthy boundaries and an established sense of self. We may become overachievers, perfectionists, and feel like we are leading a double life in the process. Because behind closed doors we feel like a hot mess. We may fear failure, distrust the motives of others, and struggle to find our way in the world if it doesn’t please the narcissistic parent. We also make some of the best co-dependents on the planet, and often find ourselves in friendships or relationships that mirror our relationship with our narcissistic parent.
One of the defining characteristic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a having no respect for personal boundaries. Attempting to set boundaries with a narcissist is like trying to explain to a hungry, exhausted toddler why they can’t have a cookie. It feels like a death to them because loss of control is detrimental to their inflated self-worth. Many narcissists have poor boundaries themselves and do not respect the boundaries of the law, so needless to say, setting boundaries with them is nearly impossible, and futile at best.
If you’re asking yourself what the point of setting boundaries that won’t be honored is, hear this:
I have found that it’s a vital step in the breakaway process because for children of narcissists, we need to know and feel we did everything possible to have a relationship with this parent. Chances are we have set these boundaries already, over and over, and they are never acknowledged.
I honor your desire to attempt this and offer this advice:
When setting boundaries it’s imperative to not respond to them while in an emotional state. They thrive on this and it feeds their ego and need to live in chaos. Although challenging, remaining mindful and grounded is the best way to draw the line in the sand depicting what we will and will not settle for in terms of how we’re treated.
It’s step one.
I attempted this feat for many years before I had my “aha” moment. I would cut them out for months at a time, only to be manipulated back in through seemingly heartfelt words, envy-worthy trips, and you guessed it—guilt. Because these parents are always the victim, and we undoubtably experienced great times with them, it’s easy to fall back into the trap and pick up right where we left off.
We begin to see that this parent is incapable of change because they do not see anything wrong with their behavior. The finger will always be pointed away from them. We begin to take responsibility for our own healing, and internalize that we cannot be held responsible for anyone else’s feelings, thoughts, or self-destructive ways—especially our parents’.
As we set healthy boundaries and begin finding our way in the world independent of this parent, we become less and less willing to engage in their destructive behavior. Something clicks, and we make a choice, once and for all, to protect our own mental health.
It’s been said that a person goes back to their abuser eight times before breaking away completely. This is different for everyone. It took me six times, four years of therapy, a bout with anti-depressants, one decade-long eating disorder, and a few nervous breakdowns.
But I did it.
It’s now been almost seven months, and I am stronger and more grounded than I have ever been. Once the breakaway was finalized, a sacred healing began to fill the empty space. I can assure you it was the most difficult and rewarding thing I’ve done to this day.
Is it sad? Yes. Do my eyes still well up with tears when I see a picture of my dad holding me moments after I entered the world? Absolutely.
Because it hurts. And it should hurt. Nothing hurts more than giving unconditional love to someone who is incapable of giving it in return, and being left empty-handed with few tools to navigate the healing process.
Thankfully, the hurt dulls each day, and now that I know who I am, I have unwavering trust I will always be okay.
No matter where we’re at in this process, my hope is we can all give ourselves grace, knowing this is one of the most difficult things we will ever do. The path to freedom is about progress, not perfection.
And as Pema Chödrön so perfectly states: “ Nothing goes away until it teaches us what we need to learn.”
Author: Rachel Dehler
Image: Mommie Dearest/YouTube
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Travis May
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