When The Narcissist is Your Parent

Content Note: Mentions parental abuse; trauma; dissociation

“Children are…programmed to be fundamentally loyal to their caregivers, even if they are abused by them. Terror increases the need for attachment, even if the source of comfort is also the source of terror.”

– Bessel Van der Kolk

I am sorry you have suffered in this way.

This is the deepest wound.  As a therapist, I feel this hurt requires a sensitivity like no other.  NA by a parent creates confusion and self-doubt.  It results in an exceptional brokenness of the person – of you. You may never feel good enough.

There is cognitive dissonance.  Leon Festinger* identified this state as one where your set of beliefs contradict how you feel. So, you know your parents love you (they tell you) and that they look after you (you have a home/food) but you feel anxious/scared/unsafe, around them.  

They may call you stupid or get angry that you have not scored highly in a test or got onto a team.  They are often cruel and sadistic. They gain their self-worth by what you achieve. You are instrumental to them. They live through you and therefore you cannot be a separate person.  Your separate self will be challenged/criticised because they do not like what you say or do – it is not how they think or feel. This can lead to dreadful mental, emotional, spiritual and psychological pain.  It may result in chronic maladaptive behaviours.  

You seek love in sex, substances, processes or work.  You are forever chasing the unconditional love you deserved from your narcissistic parent(s).  Unlike a partner you can leave, this abuser will always be your parent(s) and the wound is indescribably deep.   This confusion can make you sick in body, soul and mind. The spirit, long gone.

You live in perpetual mourning, yearning the acceptance and validation you strove to achieve. You will never have those times when you needed your parent to provide encouragment and a hug. Instead they identified the mistakes in your essay.  It is the time you hurt yourself on the pitch and they raged about what a disappointment you were.  It is likely that you found yourself constantly anxious and may have, at times, entered a dissociative state to cope with the trauma.  

Now you are an adult and whilst you always knew something was wrong you were not quite sure what you were experiencing.  But now you know. What you might also recognise is the part left in you by the narcissist.   This is a tough one to process. As with all narcissistic abuse – and this is what makes it unique – the narcissistic parent leaves something of themselves in the child.  With understanding and awareness you can emerge and be free of that legacy.  

Often children of narcissists continue the patterns of behaviours and end up being narcissistically abused in adult relationships or become the abuser.  You will know where you are.  If you are critical towards your partner, short tempered and invalidating, you may want to work through these behaviours in therapy.  You can break the cycle.

In therapy or through reading (Shahida Arabi and Sam Vaknin are brilliant in this work) you may find ways in which to set boundaries with your narcissistic parent and work through some of the hurt you experienced.  Please bear in mind that they may not want to work with you.

What is important is that you find yourself – who you were born to be – not who you felt you needed to be to be loved by your parent(s).  This is The Grace Project and the focus is on how you emerge from the abuse not on the machinations of the perpetrator. 

You may one day make peace with the person your parent is.  That does not mean you minimize, forgive or forget how you often felt with them.  Become your own best parent.  The internal nurturer who tells you how much love you deserve, how valued you are and how your being is more important that what you do or what you have.  Become the best partner and parent you can be.  Be the person you want to be. You are stronger than you think.

*Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


Margaret Ward-Martin
Margaret Ward-Martin

BA (Hons), MA, PGCE, Post Graduate Cert. in Coaching Psychology, MBACP, Int. Aff. APA

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