If you were raised by a narcissistic parent, that legacy may affect you in multiple ways.
The following list contains behaviors common among narcissistic parents. As you read through this list you may wish to identify which of these applied to your childhood:
When you were growing up did one or both of your parents:
- Criticize or second-guess your choices?
- Ruin happy times with their selfish behavior?
- Give you gifts with strings attached?
- Forbid you to disagree with them or punish you for doing so?
- Use guilt or pressure to make you put their needs first?
- Have a come-here/go-away style that was confusing and unsafe?
- Behave unpredictably?
- Over-scrutinize you?
- Create drama, scapegoating and disharmony in your family?
- Seem never satisfied with you?
- Play the martyr?
- Become unhinged by your questions or independence?
- Tell you that you could trust them, then disappoint or use you?
- Minimize or ridicule your feelings and desires?
- Need to be the center of attention or dominate conversations?
- Leave you feeling trapped, unloved, hopeless or helpless?
Each of these parental behaviors can leave lasting, negative legacies. A key step in moving on from a negative legacy is to recognize any connections between your upbringing and present-day unwanted behaviors.
The following table shows possible connections between unhealthy patterns in your adult life and narcissistic parental behaviors in your childhood.
You may want to initially read down just the left-hand side of the table and identify any of the 13 patterns you experience as an adult. Then, for each pattern you identified, you may wish to go back and read the possible connection from your childhood listed on the right-hand side of the table.
|As an adult do you sometimes . . .||Possible connection|
|1) Have difficulty making decisions?||Your parents criticized or second-guessed your choices.|
|2) Get uncomfortable when good things happen?||Your parents ruined good times with selfish behavior or gave gifts with strings attached.|
|3) Worry or ruminate over confrontations with others?||Your parents forbade you to disagree with them or punished you for doing so.|
|4) Too often please others at your own expense?||Your parents used guilt or pressure to make you put their needs first.|
|5) Feel unable to get close to others even when you want to?||Your parents had a come-here/go-away style that was confusing and unsafe.|
|6) Find it difficult to relax, laugh or be spontaneous?||Your parents behaved unpredictably or over-scrutinized you.|
|7) Feel inexplicably drawn to turmoil rather than harmony in your relationships?||Your parents created drama, scapegoating and disharmony in your family.|
|8) Expect too much of yourself?||Your parents never seemed satisfied with you.|
|9) View others as fragile or view yourself as too much for others to handle?||Your parents played the martyr or became unhinged by your questions or independence.|
|10) Trust others unwisely or, conversely, find it hard to trust even when you want to?||Your parents told you that you could trust them, then disappointed or used you.|
|11) Feel numb or have difficulty knowing what you are feeling?||Your parents minimized or ridiculed your feelings and desires.|
|12) Feel extra-sensitive around bossy, entitled or manipulative people.||Your parents needed to be the center of attention or dominate most conversations.|
|13) Self-soothe through excessive food, drink, shopping or other addictive behaviors?||Your parents’ behavior left you feeling trapped, unloved, hopeless or helpless.|
Human behavior is complex and it would be a simplification to say that if your parent did X, you will automatically do Y. But narcissistic parenting is a powerful influence on children and it is important to take stock of your past.
How you coped
As a child, acknowledging the truth about your narcissistic parent when you had little power or resources to do anything about it could have been devastating. As a result, you may have learned to ignore the dysfunction, acted as if it was normal, blamed yourself for it, or counted the days until you could leave home.
Such coping strategies may have helped you emotionally survive a difficult childhood — and it is important to honor whatever helped you survive in childhood — but those coping strategies may manifest later in life in self-defeating ways like some of the 13 patterns listed in the table above.
As an adult, making connections such as these may bring up emotions such as anger, sadness or dismay. But if you had a difficult upbringing, it does not mean you are irreparably damaged or that your life will always be difficult. None of the 13 patterns are life sentences. Everybody has challenges in life; some of the above tendencies may be your challenges.
In addition, you may have received good things from your upbringing, no matter how dysfunctional your parenting. Even the most narcissistic of parents can contribute positive qualities and gifts to their children. And the adversities of your childhood may have increased your resilience, empathy, awareness and growth.
You are not a victim, nor are you powerless. The opportunity in recognizing unhealthy legacies is to break the connections.
Each time you notice yourself falling into one of the patterns listed above, remind yourself, “This may have been my history but it doesn’t have to be my destiny.”
Then ask yourself empowering questions such as:
- What is best way to take care of me and meet my needs in this situation?”
- “Is this how I want to treat myself or others?”
- “Who do I want to be in the world right now?”
Dan Neuharth, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist and best-selling author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has more than 25 years’ experience providing individual, couples, and family therapy. Dr. Neuharth is the author of If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. He is licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California, Florida, Texas and Virginia. His website: DrDanMFTcounseling.com