Q. I’m not sure if my parent was narcissistic and I don’t feel comfortable giving them that label, but I have many of the characteristics listed for an adult child of a narcissist. What does this mean?
Narcissism is a heavy label to give someone, especially if it’s your parent. People can have narcissistic traits but not be diagnosable with narcissistic personality disorder. This can get confusing when looking at your own experience in childhood. Maybe you think that you had a ‘normal’ family but still get the feeling something might have been off. Many clients come to me not knowing if their parent is a narcissist. Some may be, but not all. If they aren’t narcissistic they may qualify for other disorders such as borderline, alcoholic, or maybe they were simply selfish. Whether your parent is diagnosable with a disorder or just didn’t know how to be present and put your first, the children end up with similar struggles as adults.
The Narcissistic Family System
Understanding the Narcissistic Family System helps a broader array of adults identify and understand why they inhabit the same characteristics listed as adult children of narcissists. A narcissistic family system does not mean the parents were narcissistic.
Healthy vs Unhealthy Parenting
In a healthy family dynamic, the role of the parents is to meet the needs of the child. This doesn’t mean the child gets every need met or everything they want. What it does mean is overall the parents are making decisions and acting in a way that is meeting the developmental and emotional needs of their children. This is necessary to the development of a solid sense of self and to prepare a child to navigate life as an adult. In a narcissistic family system the roles are reversed. The needs of the parents come first and the children are expected to meet those needs. The children are seen as extensions of their parents rather than separate individuals with differing physical and emotional needs.
This is not about blaming parents but understanding that in your childhood experience, your parents may have been doing the best they could and they were unable to meet your developmental and emotional needs. Multiple reasons exists of why this might be, such as parents who had mental illness, poverty, intergenerational trauma, borderline, substance abuse, or actual diagnosable narcissism. For some parents, this was how they were raised and they simply did not know any different. But the impact on the children is the same.
Is This You?
Here is a list of common traits of adults who were raised in narcissistic family systems:
- Never feel good enough
- People pleaser
- Anxiety and depression
- Low self-esteem
- Not sure who you are
- Struggle to identify and experience feelings
- Poor boundary setting
- Struggle with relationships
- Need constant validation
- Struggle with being assertive
You Can Live A Better Life
Looking for a head start or want to do this on your own? I recommend the book, “Running on Empty” by Jonice Webb, as a great place to start. One reason I love this book is that it encompasses a variety a reasons parents may have been unable to meet their children’s needs and practical ways to begin healing.
No matter how long you have been feeling this way, you can heal and learn to live life differently. The journey of healing is hard work but can lead to a transformative life! With the help of a therapist or through work on your own, you can learn to better understand your past, the impact on who you are, and discover ways to feel more content and happy.
Q-I’ve realized my parent (or partner) may be narcissistic and my world feels shattered. Now what?
Coming to the realization that you have been in or are in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic can dismantle your sense of the world. Whether it’s your parent or partner, you probably feel unsettled after this discovery; maybe even feel like you are an emotional wreck.
Many clients in this situation say things like, “I don’t know who I am now,” “I’m having a identity crisis,” or “I can’t seem to pull myself together.” Clients will refer to “The Realization” as a significant moment in their life by which they calculate time (i.e. before or after “The Realization.”) So how do you process this new information? One way to understand the process is by looking at the stages of grief. Because after all, you are experiencing grief and loss. Loss of what you thought reality was, of a future you thought you had, of a past that is no longer what you thought it was, and quite possibly the loss of a relationship.
Stages of Realizing a Narcissistic Relationship
Much like the stages of grief, this discovery is the beginning of a long journey. Elisabeth Kubler Ross defined grief in five stages; Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Similar to grieving, these stages are not experienced in a linear fashion. You will bounce back and forth between stages and much of the time it will feel unpredictable. Just when you think you are done with one stage, something happens to bring you back to that place again. Below is a description of what the stages can look like when discovering you have been in a narcissistic relationship.
Maybe you were reading something and came across a definition of narcissistic abuse or narcissism and it sounded just a little too familiar. Or maybe a family member or friend mentioned that this might apply to your relationship. However the discovery happened, most people will ignore this new information, regardless how true it may feel. It can take several years for this information to sink in. I have had clients come to therapy and say that they knew in the back of their mind their parent or partner was narcissistic but could just not face the truth. It took several years before they were able to acknowledge and process what they had experienced. For some the denial may be shorter. Either way, recognizing that you have been in a narcissistic relationship is painful and opens up old wounds that you may not be ready to deal with.
Yes, you get angry! Once you realize the abuse for what it is, you get angry! Many people finally recognize what they have suffered through and cannot believe the abuse they have been enduring. Finally acknowledging that you have been manipulated, lied to, gaslighted, and made to feel you will never be good enough causes the anger to surface. Recognize that under the anger is trauma and a deep sense of hurt. It is okay and understandable that you are angry, it’s a necessary part of healing process.
Another label for the bargaining phase is Doubt. People bounce to this stage often. The questions of doubt surface regularly. Doubt makes you ask yourself, “Maybe it’s me,” or “Am I right, are they really narcissistic?” Bargaining makes you rationalize, “Maybe it’s not as bad as I think.” Due to the nature of narcissistic abuse, it is normal for someone to question their reality and wonder if they are the one with the problem or if they are the narcissist. This is what you have been trained to do by your abuser.
Once you have allowed yourself to truly identify with being in a narcissistic relationship, depression can surround you like a fog. The emotional abuse you experience is deep, painful and attacks the core of who you are. It messes with your sense of self. The pain and sadness can be overwhelming and many people fear never moving past this stage. They begin to feel stuck, they lack motivation to do the emotional work, they wish they could go back to not knowing, they worry about never having healthy relationships, and they fear they will never heal.
This can look different for everyone. Acceptance happens after someone has done the emotional work of really understanding their experience and healing from the trauma. At that point, some people choose to cut off all contact with the narcissistic person and some learn how to set strong boundaries and choose to stay in relationship. There is no right or wrong answer. Acceptance is understanding the abuse was not your fault, but being able to take ownership of any unhealthy patterns you may have adopted and learn to let those go. It is being able to learn to set boundaries that allow you to be in healthy relationships and to regain a strong sense of who you are. Acceptance is not about placing blame but recognizing the abuse you experienced and taking responsibility for your healing and future growth.
Healing Is Possible
Just like the stages of grief, people will bounce back and forth between these stages, even revisiting them after years of healing. It’s a journey. There is no calculated time you have to work through them, everyone’s experience is different. Let that be okay. Allowing yourself the time and space to work through these stages is part of the healing process.
If you find yourself in one of these stages, please be kind to yourself. Pay attention to your self-talk. Adopt a hopeful mantra and continue to repeat it over and over. Post it where you can see it. Something like, ‘healing is possible’ or ‘I know that I will be okay.’ Because it is true, you can find healing and go on to live a vibrant life!
Mother’s Day is right around the corner. While most families take this time to shower the mothers in their lives with love and gratitude, what do you do when you have a narcissistic mother? If you grew up with a self-centered or toxic mother, you may be feeling guilt about not wanting to celebrate her on this special day. Or maybe the people around you think you should be feeling guilty, so you feel guilt for not feeling guilty. Sheesh! You can’t seem to win.
Good Mom vs. Self-Centered Mom
Mother’s Day brings back memories of bedtime stories while snuggled up in your favorite blanket, coming home from school to fresh baked cookies, and hugs and ice cream when your heart had been broken. Well, for some people. Certainly, not for everyone.
There is this weird belief that just because you have a mom, she must have been amazing. Or at least decent. But there are many people whose memories of their mothers are more about a woman who was completely self-absorbed, spewed hateful words, and who constantly reminded everyone that things were not good enough. This description is truly not adequate for what many peopled have endured. And yet society stills says things like, “Oh come on, she’s your mother.” Like giving birth somehow means you automatically deserve a basic Mother’s Day card.
I have sat with many clients who felt ashamed of having a narcissistic mother. They worry it was their fault, that maybe they are the problem. Some express feeling isolated from their friends and say that no one really understands. They worry that if others find out they have cut contact with their mother, people will think there is something wrong with them. The dreaded question of “Tell me about your mother” is answered with deflection. Why is it so hard for other people to understand? It seems that if you grew up with a good enough mother then you assume everyone else did too.
Grew Up With A Narcissistic Mother?
It’s okay to acknowledge your mother was/is toxic. You don’t need to honor that. Her narcissism is not your fault. She may turn things around on you and make you feel broken or that you’re the crazy one. But that is wrong.
This is what is true:
- Her narcissism is about her own struggles, not yours.
- You deserved to be loved!
- You are good enough!
Alternative Ways To Celebrate Mother’s Day
If you’ve already cut contact or decided to not spend time with your narcissistic mother, here are some other ways to celebrate the day…
Who else in your life holds that “mother energy” for you?
A friend? An aunt? A neighbor? Being a mother is so much more than giving birth. Look around, you may have someone special in your life who offered you nurturing and love when you needed it. Choose to honor them on Mother’s Day and let them know how much they mean to you.
Write yourself a letter.
If you had a self-centered mom growing up, chances are the mother archetype in you helped get you through life. You probably raised yourself. Write a letter to the mother part of you, thanking it for all that it offered. Writing is a powerful tool. Writing a letter to your own mother archetype can offer a different perspective and can help you to recognize an incredible strength you may not even recognize you have.
Create a cleansing ritual.
It is important to acknowledge the anger and hurt of growing up not receiving the love, nurturing and guidance from your mother that you deserved. Healing is not about staying in the hurt and anger nor is it about ignoring it. There is balance where you need to understand and be sad about what you missed out on but not dwell and live in that space for too long. Create a ritual or ceremony to help acknowledge then let go. Here is one idea…On pieces of paper, list the things you feel angry and hurt about. Take some time to acknowledge each one. Then burn them! Light each one on fire, allowing yourself to feel the pain then let it go.
Every child deserves to be loved by their parents. If you didn’t get that, I’m so sorry. But remember that this isn’t your fault. So let go of any guilt or obligation you feel on Mother’s Day. No need to send a card, make an appearance at a family gathering, or buy her flowers. Find other ways to celebrate the day by honoring special people in your life, including yourself! I hope you find healing and have a beautiful day!
Narcissism seems to be a bit of a buzzword these days. The name gets thrown around to label family members, bosses, and political figures. Some are deserving and some maybe not. How do you know? And what about narcissistic abuse? Can someone who is not a narcissist still be narcissistically abusive?
You may have been reading an article lately and come across the term narcissistic abuse. As you continue reading, the story or description seems very familiar. Almost like someone is writing about your life. You wonder if it is possible that you have experienced narcissistic abuse but then question if that could really be true. It feels so far fetched and dramatic to think you have experienced trauma or abuse. You wonder, is this real? Has this really been my experience?
Narcissistic abuse is not talked about enough and is more common than you think. For many people, they have a gut feeling they have experienced this type of relationship but will often excuse it away. It is painful to accept. People tend to minimize their experiences as a way to cope with what they have endured. You may have said to yourself, “it wasn’t that bad” or “some people have it worse.” Excusing away or minimizing your experience makes you vulnerable to being in this type of relationship again. Recognizing and accepting that you have experienced narcissistic abuse is the first step towards healing. So how do you know?
What is a narcissist?
Narcissism can be viewed on a spectrum. On one end is someone who may be self-centered. In the middle of the spectrum is someone who portrays many characteristics of someone who is narcissistic. On the opposite end is a diagnosable personality disorder.
From the DSM- Diagnostic Criteria: (Need to show only five from this list)
- Grandiose sense of self-importance
- Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Believes they are special and unique
- Requires excessive admiration (or attention in any form)
- Sense of entitlement
- Takes advantage of others for their own gain
- Lack empathy (sometimes they are able to mimic empathy and it seems real but it truly is not)
- Jealous of others or thinks people are jealous of them
- Arrogant behaviors
They are not always the life of the party, out-going, charismatic type that you may think of. Sometimes it is much more covert. They play the victim and you may notice in subtle ways that everything revolves around them.
What is narcissistic abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is a form of verbal and emotional abuse that takes place within a relationship with someone who is self-absorbed and self-centered. Anyone on the narcissistic spectrum can be narcissistically abusive. They do not necessarily have to be diagnosed or be able to be diagnosed as a narcissist. This type of abuse is incredibly damaging because it challenges your sense of reality and ultimately attacks your sense of who you are.
Signs of Narcissistic abuse
Have you experienced any of these in your relationship?
Your partner or parent…
- Withholds love and attention as a way to punish you or to get their way.
- Threatens you either with physical or psychological intimidation.
- Ignores you by giving you the silent treatment.
- Blames you, telling you that everything is your fault.
- Minimizes your feelings.
- Isolates you from friends and family.
- Denies your reality, telling you “that never happened,” or “I didn’t say that.” You begin to wonder if they are right and you are crazy.
- Their needs and wants always come first.
- Is often angry, belittling, controlling, insensitive, and/or critical.
These behaviors may be overt and easy to identify, but are often subtle manipulations. Sometimes they happen gradually and many people do not even notice this is what they are experiencing. What they do know is the relationship feels like a lot of work and they may be feeling anxious or depressed.
Have you ever been told these phrases?
- “I’m just joking” or “I’m just teasing” when something mean is said to you.
- “You’re being dramatic.”
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “Stop blowing things out of proportion.”
- “You’re too sensitive.”
- “Why do you have to argue about everything?”
- “That never happened.”
- “I didn’t say that.”
Being repeatedly told these phrases is a sign of emotional and verbal abuse. They are used as a way to deflect from the truth and gain power in a relationship.
Narcissistic abuse is destructive and incredibly hurtful. You should never be treated this way! It can be a hard reality to accept that you have experienced narcissistic abuse. This can be an isolating and confusing experience. But please know that you are not alone. If you think you have experienced narcissistic abuse, it is important to understand more about this type of relationship, how to get out, ways to avoid it in the future, and steps to heal. If any of this sounds familiar, please seek support. Always remember, healing is possible!
If you are considering going ‘no-contact’ with a narcissistic step-parent you are not alone. Many people just like you are wrestling with this same question. When we think of a narcissistic step-parent, Cinderella is the first story that comes to mind.
We often picture Cinderella at the end of her story. The magical pumpkin that turned into a carriage, Cinderella’s shimmering dress, and getting to live happily-ever-after with her prince. We forget the pain and suffering she endured with her self-centered step-mother.
You may not have thought of this label before, but Cinderella was raised by a narcissistic step-mother. She was subjected to emotional abuse and treated like a servant in her own home. Cinderella desperately wanted to be loved and to share a close relationship with her step-mother. She tried pleasing her step-mother by doing everything she was asked but it still wasn’t good enough. We all root for Cinderella when we know she gets to escape her tragic past and live the rest of her life in the beautiful palace with someone who loves and adores her.
But what happens next? What happens to the relationship with Cinderella’s step mother after life seems to be going well for her? Does her mother get invited to family dinners in the castle? Did Cinderella figure out a way to manage a healthier relationship? Or did she cut off contact with her narcissistic step-mother?
If you have a narcissistic or self-centered step-parent you may be wondering this same thing. Deciding how involved you want your self-centered parent to be in your life is a difficult decision. You may desire love and connection with them but are realizing that may not be possible.
Should you go ‘no-contact?’
Recognize there is no correct answer and this tends to be a very personal answer for many. Here are three questions you can ask to help decide if you should go ‘no-contact:’
- Are you experiencing harm? If this relationship consistently creating emotional distress?
- Are other members of your family being harmed or impacted in an unhealthy way? Spouse, partner, children?
- Is this relationship negatively impacting other areas of your life? Such as your health, work, relationships with friends, romantic relationships, or overall being able to enjoy life?
One more thing to consider: What are your intentions behind going ‘no-contact?’ Are you hoping cutting off communication will change their behavior or cause them to interact with you in a healthier way? If so, cutting off contact is not going to work. If you identify with this, please continue to learn more about narcissistic parents and healthy boundaries before making this decision.
While there is no cut and dry answer when it comes to how much contact you should have with a narcissistic or self-centered parent, answering these three questions can begin to guide you in finding what the right decision is for you. Whether you decide to go ‘no-contact’ or try to manage a healthier relationship, there are strategies that can be used so you can find balance in your life and a positive well-being.
Someone asked me recently why I love to work with those impacted by narcissistic abuse. The truth is, it’s a deeply personal reason. My journey through life includes having to heal from narcissistic abuse myself. I know what it is like to tell someone about the experience and have them look at you blankly. They offer support in the best way they can but you know deep down they just don’t get it. That can be an incredibly lonely and isolating experience.
I understand the deep pain of being shut out emotionally from someone you love, told you are crazy, and have been made to believe that everything is your fault. I get it when other people tell you that relationships are hard and you need to ‘just keep trying to make it work.’ But deep inside you wonder, “Am I really suppose to be feeling this hurt in a relationship?”
Once you recognize that you have been a victim of narcissistic abuse, what you have experienced all becomes clear. But then you are left wondering if anyone will ever love you. You question if you have made it up and go through moments of minimizing the experience. And as the thoughts spiral and loop around in your mind, you always come back to questioning yourself, wondering if you are loveable. After all, you have been told over and over again that you are not.
Healing is Possible
It’s incredible to watch a client heal from the deep pain of narcissistic abuse. To watch them slowly begin to reclaim their lives and believe in themselves once again. At some point they are able to set boundaries that honor who they are. They recognize their potential in life. They shed the negative beliefs that someone else has told them. As their healing journey continues, they are able to state with full belief that they are worthy of love and hold hope that someday they will be able to share their love with someone new.
I have watched many individuals heal from narcissistic abuse and go on to form healthy and meaningful relationships. The healing journey can be long and it is definitely not easy. But it is always totally worth it.
I do this work because I can use my knowledge as a therapist and my personal experience to offer clients a healing experience they cannot find in other therapy. I sit with people and watch the relief on their face as they recognize that finally someone really gets what they have experienced. I can put words to their experience and name feelings that they are too scared to do for themselves. They no longer feel crazy and they no longer feel alone! I can offer people hope when they cannot find it for themselves
Experienced Narcissistic Abuse?
For anyone who has experienced emotional, verbal or narcissistic abuse I offer you this…
It is not your fault
You are not crazy
You are not alone
You deserve to be loved!
From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry that you know what I’m talking about. Please do not lose hope, healing is possible!!
Recognizing you are in (or have been in) a narcissistic abusive relationship is a lonely and isolating experience. Most people have never even heard the term narcissistic abuse, let alone understand how damaging it is. So you may find yourself looking for healing from narcissistic abuse, but when you look around, no one seems to understand.
It’s Mother’s Day and you see the advertisements everywhere. People’s hearts melt as they think about the love they received from their mother and how they couldn’t have accomplished anything without her support. Sadly, you can’t relate to these feelings. This was not your experience. Your mother was selfish and critical, and your role growing up was to make her feel good. You express this to a friend and confide how much you hate Mother’s Day.
You comment that there is no way you are honoring your mother and your friend replies, “Oh come on, she’s your mother.” A pain of guilt hits the bottom of your stomach and you begin to wonder if your friend is right. This just adds to the confusion of your childhood experience.
Next scenario. Your anniversary with your partner is quickly approaching. Instead of feeling excited to celebrate, you can’t believe another year has gone by and you still feel trapped and desperate for freedom. Your relationship started out great but then quickly became full of confusing experiences. After arguments you leave feeling confused, blamed, and attacked.
The daily hurt you experience is so deep it’s physical. Your partner withdraws and you can’t seem to communicate with them how hurtful this experience is. You wonder if they even care. Sharing your frustrations with a friend you are told, “Relationships are hard, it takes work.” This reinforces the feeling that you aren’t doing enough and you somehow have control over fixing it. But something just doesn’t seem right.
These are examples of the two most common types of narcissistic abusive relationships: parent and partner.
Both of these experiences lead to feeling alone, discouraged, and questioning your reality. This is all part of the narcissistic abuse. But when you try to talk to people about this, they don’t understand. Their comments and good intentions actually reinforce the abusive feelings.
The Realization of Narcissistic Abuse
When someone has the realization that they have experienced narcissistic abuse, it can feel absolutely overwhelming. You may have been suspecting it for a while, but then the light bulb goes off which leads to a wave of emotions crashing over you. You begin to feel like you are drowning and you can’t seem to get a grip on reality. Now you really do wonder, “Maybe I am crazy!” More than ever, now you need someone to throw you a life preserver and tell you they understand. That you aren’t crazy and that healing from narcissistic abuse is possible. You are not alone!
Healing From Narcissistic Abuse
If you relate to any of this, I’m throwing you a life preserver. There are people who understand and who can help you heal. Here are some ideas…
- Therapy: Find a therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse. Understanding narcissism, the abuse, and how it has impacted you is an important part of the healing journey. A trained professional guiding you through this process is the best way to healing
- Online support groups: You may be surprised how many online support groups are dedicated to narcissistic abuse. Just make sure the message is of hope and healing and that people are moving forward in their journey and not staying stuck in the muck.
- Support groups: Many areas have actual groups that meet either for group therapy or a support group. Meetup.com is a great resource for finding support groups for narcissistic abuse.
- Out of the Fog: This website has a wealth of information. Check out the toolbox tab for excellent strategies for communication and setting boundaries. (I always recommend avoiding the forums, this is often overwhelming and re-traumatizing for people.)
I promise, you are not alone. There are many people out there who have experienced something similar. Every day people are walking the journey of healing from narcissistic abuse. Don’t just tread water any longer. Take the step and find some support so you no longer have to walk this alone.