The Invisible Wounds of Growing Up with the Narcissistic Parent

Children of narcissists are often late bloomers because some of the basic building blocks for navigating the complex world of relationships and life simply aren’t there. This can also create self-esteem issues because the child of the narcissist feels something is inherently wrong with them. There is, of course, nothing wrong with them. They are carrying the invisible wounds of growing up with the narcissistic parent. It’s like trying to walk through life but with invisible crutches while everyone else is walking through life with real legs. It’s not until later in life when the child is an adult that the effects become more evident. Things like lack of life direction, inability to find a career that satisfies, multiple failed and dysfunctional relationships, and of course poor self-esteem are some of the fallouts of this invisible wounding.

What exactly is narcissism?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s define narcissism. There are many definitions but I chose this one for its succinctness:

“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
–Mayo Clinic

The most famous narcissist right now is, of course, is Donald Trump, who exhibits textbook narcissistic personality disorder. (Sorry to any Republican readers!) Some of his narcissistic traits include: grandiosity; the expectation that others will recognize his superiority; a lack of empathy; and being quick to demean others, often on something as trivial as how they look (e.g., Trump’s comments about women). Behind all the bravado you can see his intense sensitivity to criticism. But I digress! Let’s get out of sticky politics and back to the subject of the effects for children of growing up with a narcissistic parent.

I know my parent was self-absorbed. Big deal! Minimizing the Effects of Narcissism.
I see a lot of minimization of the effects the narcissistic parent has had on their child, usually by the children themselves. Then again, this child has been trained to disregard their own feelings and reality in favor of pleasing the parent. They are really good at this; after all, their survival depended on it! The problem is that when a child doesn’t have their feelings or reality mirrored back to them by the parent, they end up missing a major building block in the development of a healthy sense of self and self-esteem. Why is this and how exactly does this work?

Developmental Building Blocks Are Lacking for the Child of the Narcissist.
A major part of a child’s sense of self is formed in the reciprocal back and forth between parent and child. When a parent is able to see and empathize with their child’s feelings, they are mirroring back their child’s reality, and this helps build that child’s self-esteem. This is because in the mirroring process the parent gives their child the message: “Your feelings are important, I see you and how you feel matters to me.” When the child’s internal reality is validated in this way, the child gets the message that their internal reality is something of value and something worthy of their parent’s energy and attention. This creates a basic building block for navigating through the world. The child learns to pay attention and listen to their feelings and internal reality. In a sense, it gives them a rudder by which to navigate their “boat” through the sea of life.

For the child of the narcissist, the only thing of value is pleasing and performing for the parent in the endless quest to win their approval. The development of self falls to the wayside in the desperate attempt to win the crumbs of affection, attention and approval from the parent. A child needs these things from their parent like a flower needs sun. The child of the narcissist grows but they grow like a flower trapped in the shade; their growth is slower and they never get quite enough sun to truly blossom, at least not as a child. The good news is that with recognition of the wound, these deficits can be corrected and a person can truly flourish.

Client Story: How the Child of a Narcissist Was Able to Heal his Wounds and Thrive
Sam* (*name changed for confidentiality reasons) was a 50-year-old male whose second marriage had just ended in divorce. He was a friendly and very likable guy who was eager to please. His now ex-wife’s main complaint was his lack of direction in life. Sam had gone through multiple jobs as a sales and marketing expert. He was good at it but was bored and lacked passion for it. Furthermore, his current job was on the line; many of his colleagues had been laid off and it looked like further cutbacks were going to be made in the company. When asked what he wanted to do instead, Sam had some vague and somewhat unrealistic ideas, considering his lack of funding: sail around the world, become a pilot, open a resort. However unrealistic, these ideas all had something in common: Sam would be able to be his own boss. When we explored his relationship to his bosses and started to make connections to similar dynamics with his father, Sam started to connect the dots. With his bosses he had patterns of bending over backwards to please them but still somehow got the message that it just wasn’t good enough. This was exactly the message he had received from his dad.

It was hard for Sam to contact his feelings about this dynamic. He had little awareness of his internal reality. However with some exploration and lots of validation he was able to contact both his rage and grief about always trying so hard and yet receiving so little recognition. These were “taboo feelings” for Sam and deeply hidden. At home, his father was the only one allowed to get angry. And he did get angry. Sam spent a lot of his childhood pleasing his dad because he didn’t want to be the target for his dad’s rages.

In the container of our therapy and later on by joining a men’s group, Sam received a lot of validation and mirroring of his internal reality. As he became less fearful of displeasing others he was able to contact and give voice to many more authentic feelings. Sam’s self-esteem grew through this process and he was able to see that he had so much more to offer than simply “people pleasing.” Some of his friendships ended as Sam began to shift relational dynamics, but he made new and better friendships with people who really saw and supported him to be his best self. He became an independent consultant and his business thrived. He even got his pilot’s license and started to fly. Later he started an “air taxi” business and also volunteered for search and rescue expeditions. He met and fell in love with another pilot (whom he eventually married) on a particularly precarious rescue mission. They joined forces and became so successful that eventually Sam was able to follow his passion for flying full time. Sam had truly come into his own power and was able to move out from under his father’s shadow to live the life of his dreams.

Breaking the Family Chains
I see the effects that narcissistic parenting has on offspring all the time and not just in my office with clients. It’s very prevalent when you know what to look for. Then again, as a psychotherapist, it’s my job to detect this kind of thing. The adult child of a narcissist often doesn’t have a clue what direction to go in. After all, the parent could not see what they were good at and never fanned the flame of their child’s passions. Instead it was all about how the child made the parent look. Thus the child makes decisions based on pleasing the parent and making them look good. In this way the child might get some crumbs of approval, validation and love from the parent. More often than not, they get the message that however hard they try it’s never quite enough. This is also how the narcissistic parent controls the child and keeps them in service to the parent. Although all this might sound very malicious on the part of the parent, very often the exact same thing happened to the parent. They are simply passing down the invisible wounding they received from their own parent, and so the family chain continues. Sam was able to break this chain and really thrive. Recognizing the invisible wounding is the first step on the journey of recovering the self.


Comment on The Invisible Wounds of Growing Up with the Narcissistic Parent

17 Responses to “ The Invisible Wounds of Growing Up with the Narcissistic Parent ”

  1. Catherine S Simard on February 19th, 2019 3:55 pm

    Hi Odina,

    As you do not do therapy via online I might be interested in coaching. Not sure what I need right now but so much isn’t working.

    Thank you.
    Catherine

  2. Ondina Hatvany on April 25th, 2019 9:40 am

    Hello Catherine
    Thank you for reaching out. I would be happy to offer you an initial free phone consultation to see if I’m a good fit for you and to answer any questions. This usually takes about 15 minutes or so. If you would like to schedule this please let me know some good times to reach you via email: ondinah@gmail.com or telephone (415) 381-1065 (faster)
    Warm Regards Ondina

  3. Gábor Szurdoki on May 7th, 2019 6:12 am

    Great article. But, I don’t like the fact that you are creating excuses to Narcissists. It doesn’t matter what happened to me as a child, if I love my children, I’m not doing this to them. At the very worst case, if I feel like I’m not being able to become a parent because of legacy of abuse, I simply won’t have children. That simple.

  4. Ondina Hatvany on May 7th, 2019 6:34 pm

    Aaaaah but that would require the Narcissist to realize they are a Narcissist! They are usually the LAST to see it unfortunately, if at all….

  5. Patrick on June 23rd, 2019 7:20 am

    Thank you. Suddenly my life makes sense…you could literally swap his name for mine. No joke.

  6. Ondina Hatvany on June 23rd, 2019 7:42 am

    So glad this article spoke to you Patrick!

  7. LaCee Bennett on November 7th, 2019 7:16 am

    I’m doing a project in school on this specific topic! Thank you for your time in writing this article. This article has helped me with some different ideas toward helping me with concluding my final thoughts.

  8. Ondina Hatvany on November 7th, 2019 5:57 pm

    I’m so glad to be of service..; )

  9. Delaine on August 20th, 2020 12:48 pm

    At 73 yrs. old I now know I was raised by a narcissistic dad. It took me 72 1/2 yrs. to figure this out. Some what from my mother also. She was not quite as bad. The hardest part of this is I failed my 2 sons. I jumped from the frying pan into the fire with their dad. Totally down hill from there. I am a very angry person.

  10. Ondina Hatvany on August 20th, 2020 1:08 pm

    So sorry Delaine, I know how hard it can be to realize this. That’s why I wrote this article, otherwise this stuff just keeps getting passed down through the generations. It’s literally the family chain!

  11. Natalia on September 6th, 2020 10:27 pm

    Wow thank you so much for this article I’m 24 and this is how I feel currently. I do feel like a late bloomer. I did have dreams that were robbed from me by a narcissistic mother. I feel overwhelmed and I do have very low self esteem because I have a lack of direction. I only have God. I ask him for direction and I pray a lot and go to counseling and things have been slowly improving but it’s sad and depressing… it’s weird bc when I lived with my narcissistic mother I knew exactly what I wanted to do but when I moved out and met the real world I realized I had a lack of sense of self. I was like your client I cldnt find a job I liked. So I went back to school got a certification and I also finally got a wfh job which are what I really like anyways. It took a while but I finally got
    What I wanted. Next I know I am passionate about fashion and music and that’s what I want to do next. I’m slowly but surely making progress. I’m trusting God and I am trying with all my might to improve myself thank you for this and I wish you had online therapy. This validates everything I’m going through right now!

  12. Ondina Hatvany on September 7th, 2020 12:02 pm

    Thank you for your story Natalie and so glad you found my article validating. This means a lot to me! I absolutely do offer online therapy via Zoom. Feel free to request an initial free phone consultation (ondinah@gmail.com or 415-381-1065) and we can go from there..; )

  13. Annerie Psaltis on September 19th, 2020 11:00 pm

    What a relieve to finally realise that I am good enough just being me. And not to keep blaming myself for not being able to find direction or healthy relationships.

  14. Ann Perretta on September 20th, 2020 4:08 pm

    Dear Ondina
    Wow, what an insightful article! Thank you for shedding light on this topic. I am a 55 y/o woman who left home @ 22 years of age to marry, never to look back on my years of growing up in a home with a narcissistic mother & a physically & sexually abusive step father. I never connected the experiences of the past to who I am today & my personal struggles in my marriage, job & relationships. I can see the long reaching tentacles of the direct effect of those toxic relationships & who i am today…I have a long way to go in this journey of recovery. Thank you again for your wisdom & insight. A.P.

  15. Ondina Hatvany on October 14th, 2020 12:39 pm

    Thank you Ann for sharing your insights. Narcissism and its’ effects can be hard to spot initially but once the veil is lifted the journey towards healing can begin! Good luck on your journey..; )

  16. Mary on October 14th, 2020 12:58 am

    Such an insightful read. I believe my daughter and I are victims of a covert narcissist- many traits fit this bull but I’m not sure if he actually is one. My daughter is suffering from aniexty , depression and low self esteem – I feel like I was reading about us. We walk on egg shells. He is very hard to please and we never know what will make him grouchy. In public he’s the charming lovable guy but he treats us different at home. I have been enabling but didn’t really realize it till now. How do I know if he is what he is for sure? He’s so smart at it we are in a fog. I’m trying to save us. Desperately.

  17. Ondina Hatvany on October 14th, 2020 12:36 pm

    Sorry to hear you’re going through this Mary. I would get therapy for you and your daughter and as much support as possible. This is so you can hear other viewpoints besides your husband’s. It’s also important to get support so you can shift out of the toxic dynamics you’re describing. This can be easier said than done! LOTS of support and validation will help..; )

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