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.”
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.