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.