How to Break away from a Narcissistic Parent.

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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:

Acknowledging guilt.

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.

Setting boundaries.

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.

Breaking away.

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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Rachel Dehler

Born and raised in Billings, Montana, Rachel Dehler is a dance instructor, yoga teacher, writer, and mother of two feisty daughters. An AADP Board Certified Holistic Nutrition Coach with a double major in Elementary Education and Special Education, she’s a seeker of all things that expand her creative and spiritual side. Always learning, sometimes teaching, she writes with the muse of inspiring vulnerability, awareness and wholeness in others. You can find and connect with her on Facebook.

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Meridith McKay Jul 20, 2018 2:30pm

Thank you for sharing. I so needed this!

Joanne Machovsky Rimlinger Jul 19, 2018 9:19pm

I can't tell you how strong of an impact your article had on me, to know I'm not alone , that there are others who share the same pain and struggle having a narcissistic parent can cause, others I can truly relate to. I am grateful you've shared this personal struggle to help other victims of narcissisc abuse understand and recover. I am 28 year old woman just recently became aware I'm a victim of a narcissistic parent, and now that it's opened my eyes I'm realizing how severe the damage hes done and still creates in every aspect of my life. How much control he really has over my life and family and I've unknownly allowed it to get this severe. Difficult part of this situation is, he lives with us, making it that much harder for me to finally try to break free from him. But reading personal stories like yours I realize that it is possible, there is hope, anyone can eventually break free from it. I just know it's going to hurt, because I love him despite the pain hes caused me, the thought of completely eliminating him breaks my heart but you helped me realize that as hard and painful as this path is going to be, it does get better over time.

Cybele Kane Jul 16, 2018 4:06am

I have not been in contact with my narcissistic parent for 3yr. My life has blossomed in ways I would not have believed without that constant energy drain, criticism and guilt tripping. My confidence has multipled, I am happy with myself, my work and my relationships. Before I viewed the whole world as toxic as my parent and avoided it and felt crummy about myself. I recently thought about my guilt about not being in contact. If I had been in an abusive relationship, no one would be encourgaing me to remain in contact with my abuser. I happen to be a social worker and I help many elderly parents. For my parent, another social worker can take care of them.

April Martucci Apr 12, 2018 10:53pm

This is fantastic. I’m in the stage of truly letting go with limited contact with my Narc mom and enabling dad. I’m so happy you said that you had bouts of getting sucked back in. I have that problem because when things are good I feel like we are normal. But we are not and inevitably it erupts again with some backhanded compliment my mom always has to make and I’m right back to childhood again. I wonder how me cancelling mother’s Day will go. I just emailed her I can’t meet now because I can’t deal with more depression. She can’t help herself and I don’t want to be around it. Omg it’s so hard to detach but my other siblings have and this is their fate. I won’t go NC but I’m trying to figure out these new terms. Thanks for sharing.

Rachel Dehler Feb 27, 2018 9:18pm

Jane, I am so glad this was helpful for you. And thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Means a lot. <3

Rachel Dehler Feb 27, 2018 9:17pm

Travis! I wish I could drop a meme here to show you my undying appreciation. You've been such a wonderful support and I appreciate you.

Rachel Dehler Feb 27, 2018 9:16pm

Lita Brooker, this is true! It's interesting (but not really) these people are often in positions of power. Thanks for your comment and the read. <3

Jane Bell- Beaumont Feb 18, 2018 5:09pm

Thank you so much for sharing...This has really helped me

Travis May Feb 16, 2018 11:20pm

This article is so good and so well written. When I was peer checking for the editor, I didn't even realize it was written by you until I got to the end. I can't believe you're a great writer in addition to your many other talents!

Rachel Dehler Feb 15, 2018 9:29pm

Galina, what a lovely thing to say. Thank you. Just knowing this is helping others, makes all the vulnerability worth it.

Rachel Dehler Feb 15, 2018 9:28pm

Thank you, Penny. I'm so glad it could be of benefit. <3

Galina Singer Feb 13, 2018 6:23pm

Another amazing article! I am printing them out and savouring them morsel by morsel. So much to learn from you!

Penny Marie Hebebrand Feb 13, 2018 4:37pm

Another good one! This too hit home on so many levels. Thanks for sharing.

Rachel Dehler Feb 13, 2018 4:02pm

Thank you! I appreciate these comments immensely. You all keep me working towards peeling back the layers. <3

Andréa Good Feb 13, 2018 4:24am

Another great article, Rachel. Thank you!! Keep them coming!

Lita Brooker Feb 12, 2018 9:18pm

Rachel Dehler It can be applied to other relationships within and outside the family, too! I once worked for a boss who had NPD. She was a psychotherapist. A dangerous vocation for one with such a personality.

Rachel Dehler Feb 12, 2018 9:10pm

Thank you, Simona. I'm grateful it resonated with you.

Rachel Dehler Feb 12, 2018 9:09pm

Thank you, Lita. I appreciate the read and comment.

Simona Zamuel Cassius Feb 12, 2018 7:42pm

Incredible article!

Lita Brooker Feb 12, 2018 6:52pm

Excellent advice. Thank you.

Rachel Dehler Feb 12, 2018 3:40pm

Thank you, Christie. I appreciate the read and comment. We are not alone! XO

Christie Mac Feb 10, 2018 9:59pm

Rachel this article is 'spot on'. So many people need to read and apply this advice x