6 Things You Need to Know as the Adult Child of a ‘Narcissistic’ Parent
Dear adult children of “narcissistic” parents,
If you’re reading this, perhaps you’ve been muddling through, trying to figure out how to live and function as an adult without your parent’s voice always in your head, without being fueled by the need to prove them wrong, without losing your entire adulthood in the way you lost your childhood, searching for the approval they don’t know how to give.
Maybe you are now a parent and are trying to find the right and healthy balance of raising your own child, when you have no example of someone loving you “the right way” to look to for guidance. All you know is everything to not do as a father or mother and you wish you had someone to call who could lovingly give you advice, in the way parents should.
It is a difficult thing to grow up having your thoughts and feelings not count to the person they should matter most to. It is an exercise in frustration, at times, to try to heal from hurts they refuse to acknowledge because they are too busy always trying to “one-up” you and prove their pain is more significant than yours. Perhaps most difficult of all is trying to move on with your life, never receiving an apology or any closure, because they cannot ever be the one who is the guilty party.
There are so many hurts that were never acknowledged, apologies never made, wrongs never made right and a childhood shattered. There are so many things I know now or I am currently learning that I wish I could go back and tell my younger self. That poor girl who was always beating herself up and asking, “What is so wrong with me? Why am I the target of all this anger and animosity? What makes me so unlovable?”
This is the advice I would give to anyone who is struggling with a narcissistic parent, whether they have long since been removed from your life but are still the recording playing in your head, or if they are still a presence in your life, yet you have to still grieve a loss of the parent you deserve but they cannot be. This is for us.
1. You deserved better.
There is absolutely nothing you could have ever done, particularly as a young child, to warrant your parent not loving you. If anyone ever told you that you shouldn’t have been born, weren’t worth the trouble or weren’t worthy of loving, I am sorry. You deserved to be wanted, loved and adored. This feeling of being unwanted can create a foundational self-belief that you do not deserve to be here or you somehow deserve less than other people do in their relationships and can create a pattern of settling for less than you deserve. I am still trying to break this belief in my mid-30s and it feels like a daily battle.
2. You are worth fighting for.
Narcissists will throw you away like yesterday’s trash as soon as you threaten their version of reality. Their life has to revolve around their version of the story. Telling the actual truth disrupts their carefully constructed alternate reality too much for their comfort.
It can be one of the most damaging things to recover from — when one of the people who helped bring you into this world cares so little about you that they don’t want to work things out, and your relationship with them isn’t worth fighting for. This usually results in an adolescent or adult with very low self-esteem because they walk around carrying this burden that they aren’t worth love and the effort of working through conflicts, and it’s simply not true.
3. You are not the person they are at war with.
Narcissists frequently resort to deflection. They shift all the blame to you or others, anything to avoid taking any personal responsibility. They will run through a list of your flaws, except they aren’t traits you possess but rather are the exact characteristics they themselves are guilty of. They will tell you everything is your fault and how you have hurt them. I’ll never forget my Dad telling me he doesn’t know if I could ever make up for all the damage I had caused in his life. I knew in that moment that he would never see past the delusions he created for himself — of this world where he hadn’t done anything to damage me as a child. If they tell you that you’re a liar, that you’re cruel, that you’re disrespectful, that you’re “crazy,” you can just presume they are telling you what they don’t have the strength to say to the mirror.
4. There is only room for one victim.
Not always, but I have found a narcissist is sometimes a product of a broken childhood themselves. They have built up a narrative about how much they have overcome and what a success story they are, given the difficulties they have conquered to get to where they are in life today. They will reject any scenario you confront them with that requires them to acknowledge their shortcomings in any way, shape or form. They will reject all of your pain because it puts them in a position to have to admit they caused it. They cannot be both the hero and the villain in the re-enactment of their life’s story, so they become the villain in yours to retain their starring role. They are the ultimate victim and the only hero in their plotline. They will never allow you to be the victim. That does not take away from what you went through and does not change the truth. You were there. You know what happened. You suffer the aftermath of their poor choices. Don’t let anything they tell you or others invalidate your experiences. You must treat them as valid, to work through them and heal.
5. They will paint a terrible picture of you to save face.
They will pick out little pieces of the story, to present you as “crazy” and them as the calm, rational one. They will conveniently leave out every harmful thing they did or abusive act on their behalf, so all people see is your reaction and never the reason behind it. They will threaten, harass and try to intimidate you into silence by continually belittling your side of the story, painting you as “mentally unstable.”
If I hadn’t watched my own father do this my whole life, I wouldn’t have believed parent was capable of tossing their child under the bus in this way, just to keep up appearances. Don’t let the words in. Don’t let the stories phase you. Don’t waste time trying to prove them wrong. The people who believe their side will likely never believe the truth. Stay grounded in reality and surround yourself with healthy, balanced people who validate your truth.
6. You should be proud of yourself.
It hurts to not have a “normal” parent who can applaud your successes, compliment your choices and brag about how well you’re raising your kids or doing in your career. Even if not having them in your life as they are isn’t a loss, not having a supportive parent period certainly is a loss felt throughout life’s highs and lows. I wish I could go back and tell myself every day of my childhood how proud I deserved to be for who I was and what I survived. I couldn’t find a way to be proud because I could only see myself through my parent’s eyes and I was never enough.
I want to tell you what I am going to tell my kids for their whole lives — I am proud of you. You made it. You rose above your environment and you are an amazing person. You matter in this life and you mean so much more than you know and believe. If you plan on having or already have kids, they are going to be so lucky because you’re going to break the cycle. For them, you’re going to be everything you needed when you were younger. They won’t grow up broken. Your strength is in your story. Your power comes from moving on and thriving, not to spite the people who hurt you but because you deserve happiness and goodness in your life.
Photo by Marko Novakovic on Unsplash