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Being Raised by 'Narcissistic' Parents Reminds Me of a Caged Bird

I always think being parented by “narcissists” is a little like the frog in boiling water metaphor.

You don’t know how bad it is until you get out of there. Hopefully you get out before the water is hot enough to kill you.

Of course the metaphor doesn’t entirely square with the experience, because a lot of the damage has already been done, even by the time you escape.

Maybe it’s more like a bird raised in a cage. The cage is all you’ve known so you don’t understand or long for the skies of freedom, even though you can see them. You get water and three meals a day. A mirror to peck at and someone to clean out your cage. Although it’s a truncated existence, you have nothing to compare it with. Until you get out and start to explore.

I remember reading Penelope Farmer’s novel “The Summer Birds” as a young girl. In this haunting work, a group of children are befriended by a mysterious boy who teaches them to fly. As the summer progresses, the three children practice flying and become adept at swooping over the village, the cliffs and the sea. By the end of summer they are offered a choice: they can stay with the boy, flying and leading a life without adult responsibilities or they can return to their ordinary lives in the village. If they choose to stay with the boy, they will never be able to return to their human lives or those who love them.

As a child, this was a no-brainer — why would anyone in their right mind choose to return to their families when they could spend their days flying all over the world, never having to go anywhere near the domestic cage again?

I thought if only I wished hard enough I too could escape the cage and fly free. Something in me knew I had a right to be free, but I thought the answer lay in escaping my past, when in the end I needed to come to terms with it.

The problem for us humans is that we carry the legacy of imperfect parenting with us forever. It’s not something that can be erased, even with therapy. We can learn to live alongside our trauma, becoming self-aware and compassionate for our wounds and our caged spirit.
The best life we can have won’t be the life we might have lived without trauma.

A child raised in a narcissistic environment has no one to validate their experience or to help them learn who they are. They become what their parents want them to be. As the child of self-absorbed parents we eventually forget ourselves in order to adapt to our parent’s needs. We might become the helpful little homemaker, doing the chores and looking after our younger siblings. Or maybe we become the highflying careerist, achieving the dreams that our parents never got to fulfill.

Underneath the ostensible coping and success is a frightened and neglected child, who never got to understand themselves.

All children need love and attention. They need to be heard, understood and accepted as they are. Of course, they also need discipline and boundaries. Someone to tell them no, but to also validate their hurt feelings when they realize they can’t always have what they want. No parent is perfect, but good enough parents are sensitive to their child’s needs and emotions.

“Narcissistic” parents don’t have the emotional space to understand or empathize. They can’t keep their child’s mind “in mind.” The child of narcissists never learns to understand themselves or to maintain boundaries. Because they have never been validated or explained to themselves, children of narcissistic parents will have problems with emotion regulation, identity and relationships. The trauma they experienced in early childhood can also lead to symptoms like hyper-vigilance, anxiety and emotional flashbacks.

But clinical elaborations can’t really explain the true legacy of narcissistic parents. Our experience of ourselves – our identity – is limited and broken by the trauma and impingement we have suffered in childhood. The therapeutic journey can allows us to re-engage and repair our broken selves.

To fly free and enjoy life again.

There is a lot of information on the internet about narcissism. I can recommend Dr. Ramani Dursuvala, an entertaining and informative speaker on narcissism  — without the vitriol.

A version of this story originally appeared amandarobinspsychotherapy.com.

Photo credit: castenoid/Getty Images