It’s taken me years to reconcile the thought that I was raised by a narcissist.
It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and saw a therapist that I could even put a finger on why I am the way I am. I remember her saying it to me for the first time and it all just clicked. That was it. That’s exactly what my childhood was like.
I think I knew at a pretty young age that my dad was an intense guy. He was boisterous, always the life of the party and commanding the spotlight. Once my parents got divorced, it wasn’t long until I was stuck between them and being used as a bargaining chip. I ended up living with my dad once I got to middle school until I went to college, my most formative years.
If you knew me back then (and probably even now), you knew little about my home life. I went to a nice school, had all the same things as the other girls, and was “normal.” What people didn’t see is the turbulence that went on behind closed doors.
Narcissistic parents maintain control over their children in a number of ways. Plenty of people exhibit some of these characteristics and that doesn’t make them necessarily narcissistic. But when these traits come together, it can be detrimental to a child’s mental well-being as they get older. There are some key factors when describing a narcissistic parent.
This is the one I am still faced with constantly as an adult. It comes about in many forms: blaming, shaming, guilt trips, coercion, comparing, punishing, rewarding, etc.
“You don’t appreciate anything I’ve done for you.”
“It’s your fault that I am not x, y, z.”
“Well that was stupid, why did you do that?”
You will never get ahead of a narcissist when it comes to emotions because they lack the empathy required to feel bad while they’re manipulating you. This is normally something they practice in most of their relationships and tend to take very little accountability for their actions. Apologies are rare and disingenuous.
Lack of Empathy
My feelings growing up were never acknowledged or validated. If I had an issue or a problem that my dad didn’t agree with, well too bad so sad because he knew better than me and I was ridiculous. Normally jokes were made at my expense but were actually mean digs cloaked as humor. Because of that mentality, I found myself tap-dancing on thin ice most of the time, hoping I didn’t say something that would be found “disrespectful.” If I dared speak my opinion, it would be shut down and likely an argument would ensue. I was pegged as difficult, hormonal, a teenager, a bitch, and all the things under the sun. In hindsight, I was just a kid that didn’t feel heard. As an adult I am an extreme empath, I truly relate to those around me. I am thankful my experience formed me into the opposite personality type and that I care about those around me and their feelings.
Marginalizing the Child
“I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, your little. I’m right, you’re wrong.” We all remember this scene in Matilda when Mr. Wormwood wouldn’t listen to his daughter when she was right.
That’s basically what life with a narcissist parent is like. Putting down their child boosts their own self-esteem and worth, shattering any confidence the child has in themselves. It doesn’t end as an adult, the critiques just change form. My family, my career, my home, there is always something that can be improved on because he knows better than me, disregarding any of my own life experiences and successes.
Grandiosity & Superiority
I remember thinking that the sun and moon shined on my dad. He made everything he did seem like the biggest and the best, and I thought that was the case until I was in my late teens. That’s when I started to see the cracks. Now twenty years later and as a parent myself, I see all the things that were presented to me as extremely grave sacrifices and luxuries are really just what we do as parents for our kids. I always grew up feeling like I was indebted for the things allotted to me. Or like I was in a competition that I could never win. I realize now I was having not only guilt placed on my shoulders but an unrealistic expectation of gratitude that I would never be able to fulfill. When someone sees themselves so far above you, no amount of love or thank-yous is enough. In his mind, I know I am still not good enough and I “owe” him for simply raising me, but that is something I have accepted and moved past. I no longer live with the guilt.
Keeping Up The Image
The narcissistic parent will always show up on the important days, not because they truly care about the child – but because it’s their time to shine. A superficial image is important to keep up and the parent wants to control the narrative. Graduation? They’re the reason you did it. Wedding? They have the spotlight & people know they’re putting it on. Baby? Grandparent of the year here! Normally underneath those milestone moments, the other things are seeping through though. None of it is really for the child, it’s for likes and boosting their own ego – especially in the days of social media. A visit with my kids nowadays turns into a photo session, despite only seeing them a handful of times a year.
One thing I was never graced with was independence or trust. I got overly punished for simple things that all kids do growing up, to the point where I was resentful. It caused me to not share anything or have open lines of communication as a teenager. I couldn’t trust to go to them with anything important for fear of getting in trouble. I had no privacy and was told that I didn’t deserve any because I lived in his house. I couldn’t express myself without being shut down and told I was wrong. I embraced my independence once I got to college, but stumbled along in my twenties. The lack of guidance because of this definitely put me in situations less than ideal as I navigated adulthood. It was like once I hit 18, they “did their job” and I was on my own even though I was never allowed to be myself prior to that. Once I was independent, putting down or looking down on what I am currently doing has taken the place of what was once lectures and punishments.
Setting the Boundaries
My biggest piece of advice to anyone who finds themselves in my situation? Set boundaries. And stick to them. Boundaries are so important. Self-care is so important. If someone in your life, even if it is a parent makes you feel less than, they don’t belong in your life. Ceasing a relationship or altering how you approach one may be hard, but many times it is pertinent for our own mental health. This is something that is still a work in progress for me, setting boundaries can be very hard when they’ve been disregarded most of your life. As children, we cannot control how people treat us. The joy of being an adult is that you have a say so and the power to not allow anyone to disrespect you or your family.
Breaking the Cycle
One of the most important things I have always focused on is breaking the cycle of my childhood. My biggest fear was growing into a narcissistic parent myself because unfortunately, that happens to a lot of people like me. I make a genuine effort to not make the same mistakes with my own children, to be a loving and safe space for them to come to. I want them to be individuals and call me out when I make a mistake. I get excited to think about what they’ll do one day, and know I will be proud no matter what. They’ll never owe me anything for all that we do because we do it out of love.
Ending generational behavior can start with you, no matter what kind of home or background that you came from. Even if you read this and thought to yourself “Oh man, I do those things.” There’s still time to change. Educate yourself, find a therapist, and lean into the people around you who lift you up and support you. It is never too late to be a better person and love yourself more.
You are enough and you always have been, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.