Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-up’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents
By Nina W. Brown
…As adults, even the most casual interaction with the parents can cause hurt, anger, and feelings of helplessness and impotence. No matter how these “adult children” try to fortify themselves, even anticipating interactions with the parent produces distress.
Do You Have a Similar Parent?
- dread interactions with a parent
- find ways to avoid them
- become easily frustrated and angry almost every time you talk with them
- leave their presence angry and churned up most every time you see them
- wish that they would disappear or that you never had to see or interact with them ever again?
Does a parent:
- constantly criticize you
- blame you for their discomfort
- make you responsible for their physical and/or emotional well-being
- expect you to admire them and give them constant attention
- insist that everything be done their way
- feel that you should anticipate their needs and desires and fulfill them
- become easily offended- ignore, minimize, or discount your feelings
- make demeaning comments about you
- devalue your work or ideas
- micromanage or try to overcontrol you
- blame you or others for their errors?
If you answered “yes” to most of the behaviors and attitudes in the two lists, you may be the adult child of a parent with a destructive narcissistic pattern (DNP). You may also want to compare your behaviors and attitudes against the lists to see if you have incorporated any and are acting on them.
How can you tell if one or both of your parents had a destructive narcissistic pattern? After all, even the most well-meaning parents were not perfect and made mistakes. Also, what you recall as an adult is influenced by the stage of childhood you were in when the event you’re recalling took place. You could be “stuck” at that level of development when remembering the particular event, causing you to react more strongly than otherwise. And, you may be dealing with incomplete information and understanding. All of these conditions combine to suggest that you cannot totally rely on what you remember and your interpretation of those events to decide if one or both of your parents had a destructive narcissistic pattern.
Two Means to Identification of the DNP
We will use two means to identify parental destructive narcissism: your behaviors, attitudes, and feelings as an adult and a pattern of consistent behaviors and attitudes of your parents.
The first focus is on you as an adult, because your sense of “self,” acceptance of self and others, ability to develop and maintain satisfying relationships, self-efficacy, self-confidence, and expectations of self and of others are all influenced by your perceptions of your childhood, parents, and family life. There are other influences that are important, like culture, personality, and genetics, but those listed may be basic and, because they are deep seated, may continue to impact your physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being.
Another reason for focusing on you is that much of this book presents suggestions and techniques to help you cope with your parents as they are now. You, as an adult, may still be responding to your parents as you did when you were a child, and you want to begin to respond to them as an adult. Actually, what you probably really want is to stop feeling the way you do when they trigger unwanted and unpleasant feelings, or to make them stop behaving and having the attitudes that hurt you. This book can help you change the way you feel, but almost nothing can help you to change someone else. The book also presents some ways to identify developmental areas where you may have been stuck in childhood and strategies to grow and develop in these areas.
A way you can closely examine the consistent behaviors and attitudes displayed by your parent(s) is by completing the scales in the following two chapters. The list of questions earlier in this chapter can also be a guide. What you’re looking for is not only the way your parent(s) act toward you, but the behaviors and attitudes that seem to be an integral part of them and can be observed and felt in their other relationships. What you’re trying to discover is if there is a pattern of behavior that indicates destructive narcissism.
Narcissism—Who Needs It?
Narcissism is commonly defined many ways. It’s most often considered to be excessive self-love, when a person is self-absorbed in almost everything he or she does and says. This definition is certainly the basis for the diagnosis of pathological narcissism or for the narcissistic personality disorder. However, current thinking about narcissism has extended the definition to also describe self-love that is healthy, such as self-esteem. Narcissism is also considered by some to be a normal part of psychological growth and development, which expands our understanding of what is called “age-appropriate narcissism.” “Age appropriate” simply means that the person has healthy narcissism for his/her age. An example would be the way a child understands everything in terms of self and is expected to be self-absorbed. The same behavior and attitude in an adult would not be age-appropriate, healthy narcissism.
Adults who do not have age-appropriate, healthy narcissism can exhibit other categories for narcissism such as:
- stable narcissism
- underdeveloped narcissism
- a destructive narcissistic pattern
- pathological narcissism.
Think of adult narcissism as existing on a continuum ranging from pathological (not healthy) to healthy. The other categories will fall along the continuum, with stable narcissism closest to healthy narcissism and the destructively narcissistic pattern closest to pathological narcissism. Adults need healthy narcissism to have strong self-esteem and in order to form and maintain meaningful relationships. Healthy narcissism is an ideal but achievable state. This book focuses on some strategies that can assist in building healthy narcissism or, at the very least, developing some aspect of any underdeveloped narcissism that may be lingering. In other words, I’ll be helping you move toward the healthy side of the narcissist continuum and away from those patches of underdeveloped narcissism that may be keeping you stuck in old, childhood ways of reacting.
Healthy Adult Narcissism
It may be best to begin with a description of healthy adult narcissism. This description is based on Kohut’s (1977) description of healthy adult narcissism in his book, The Restoration of the Self, and proposed stages of narcissism development related to age. Viewing narcissism in this way takes away a stigma of it being a “bad” thing to have.
Kohut described adults with healthy narcissism as:
- having empathy
- having a sense of humor
- being creative.
In my book on destructive narcissism (1998), it seemed appropriate to add:
- an ability to delay gratification
- assumption of responsibility to self and to others
- a capacity to develop and maintain meaningful and satisfying relationships
- a deep and broad range of emotional expressiveness
- firm and clear boundaries.