04 Mar How to Handle a Narcissistic Parent (and Stop the Insanity!)
How would you feel if your own mother wore white to your wedding? If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, you’ve probably experienced something similar. Behaviors that would seem outrageous and even unbelievable to other people, for you, was just par for the course.
Over the next few weeks, I’m answering the questions that I have received on Youtube, my podcast and the blog. This week, I want to share a story that came in from a woman whose mother insisted on wearing white to her wedding.
Sound out of control? Yup.
Here’s the rub: Jamie (our bride), knows that her mom’s a narcissist. She wrote to me that she’s furious with her, and she’s afraid to cut off the relationship because her mother is so vindictive and mean…but she’s also torn because there’s a part of her that still loves her too.
If it does, I want you to click below and watch this video on what can you do start to heal from the incredibly painful and isolating reality of having a narcissistic parent. Learning how to protect yourself is definitely what is needed and what’s in order.
The term narcissism has been thrown around a lot recently around the internet, so I want to be clear about what we’re talking about here.
A clinical narcissist goes far beyond self-absorbed. The most important distinction here is that a narcissist has no ability to empathize with their children or with others. They don’t have an awareness of how their own behavior impacts others.
Here are some signs your parent might be a narcissist:
There was a role-reversal of the parent/child relationship.
If you’ve been raised by a narcissistic parent, you know that there wasn’t any space for your needs, even when you were a child. The level of love that a narcissistic parent is capable of is shallow and doesn’t even come close to what a child needs. It is all about what the child can do for the parent and how the child’s talent or accomplishments makes the parent look to others. There is a sense of ownership and entitlement.
I had a client who from the time she was 6 or 7 years old, would have to stay home from school when her mother got a migraine to take care of her. So that’s a very obvious example of the kind of role reversal of parent/child that is common with narcissism.
It could be a mother or a father, but if you’re the only adult in that relationship, even when you were a child, that sets you up to not know how to value your own needs and desires (since you were taught that they don’t matter.)
Your needs as a child were unmet.
It’s very challenging for true narcissists to love their children unconditionally or to be able to meet their children’s needs because the sad reality is that people who have narcissistic personality disorder are defined by a deep self-loathing and an extremely fragile ego. There is a fundamental lack in their capacity for them to love you the way you want and need to be loved.
A narcissist has insecurities that run deep. That means they need to constantly be seeking approval, validation, and attention from the outside world…and a lot of times this extends to their own child’s successes.
They tend to take credit for any good thing you ever do.
I had another client who was a very skilled musician. His father would take credit for his talents and accomplishments at every turn, saying things like, “I taught him that” and “He’s only gotten this far because of me” and was overly involved in his career. A narcissistic parent is always making it all about themselves, and sometimes that means they swoop in when things are great for you and try to soak up accolades and praise for your accomplishments.
They get overly involved with your friends.
It can be a very lonely experience to grow up with a narcissist parent. Why? Because other people might think your narcissistic parent is awesome.
Narcissists can be very charming. They feed on attention (called narcissistic supply), and they can be very skilled at using their charm to get what they need. They know how to be funny and endearing, and oftentimes pick one person and shower them with praise as an end to their own means.
So growing up, your friends might have thought your mom or your dad was awesome…so funny, so fun, letting you stay home from school…whatever…but the reality was that you had this secret shame that they weren’t really like that.
Narcissists are emotionally untrustworthy.
They will tell other people things you’ve told them in confidence. They might try to exploit you and you’ll always regret telling them anything that really matters to you. When times get hard, and you’d want to be able to lean on them and have support, they are nowhere to be found. When something amazing happens to you or the attention is all on you, they might try to sabotage you to get the narcissistic supply of drama they need. You have to remember that even when they’re being really nice, there are cycles of behavior with true narcissists, and eventually that won’t last. It’s just the nature of the beast, sad but true.
If any of these experiences resonate with you, there ARE things you can do to make it better and to heal.
One of the first steps is to understand and start to accept that you’re most likely always going to be in conflict or feel unsatisfied with your relationship with your narcissistic parent.
Narcissism is a personality disorder, and often times we see that a narcissist had a narcissistic parent, grandparent or caregiver. There’s usually learned behavior at play here, and so much of it has to do with early childhood experiences where there was either too much neglect or too much attention paid to the child.
One of the problems with being the child of a narcissist is that you feel invisible. You’re invisible, your needs are invisible, but often the problem itself is invisible.
It’s not easy to be open about it, because, in our society, there’s an expectation and a social pressure that whether you’re a man or a woman, you respect your parents no matter what. “Honor thy father and mother”…right? In American culture and many others, there’s a mother idolization thing going on as well. How many times have you heard, “You only have one mother…”?
So being open about how horrendous your mom or dad was isn’t socially acceptable…you risk being judged and misunderstood, or if you are honest then you’re in a position where you have to explain things to people and well…that’s just so difficult.
As an adult child of a narcissistic parent, it’s possible that you’ve read a lot about it, maybe even been to talk to a therapist (good for you!), and you’ve likely gotten some advice to “just cut them off”, which is easier said than done especially if that’s not what you want.
If your parent is so toxic that you’re literally losing your mental and/or physical health, then ok, I’m all for cutting them out of your life. But that extreme isn’t a solution for everyone.
What I do recommend is learning how to create a healthy distance between you and your narcissistic parent.
The child you were, this little, vulnerable kid, is still within you, and that’s the person who allows the parent to get close enough to continue to do emotional damage. Why? Because that child within each of us wants to be ever hopeful that the parent can change.
You’re a grown up now, and you DO have the power to step back, look at the evidence you have and realize that you don’t have to jump when they say jump anymore. You don’t have any obligation to give them full access to your life.
So what does creating that protective, healthy distance from a narcissistic parent look like? Let’s start with getting yourself psyched to change the interaction you have with this parent.
- Look for evidence of ways you’ve managed them well in the past. Start tapping into your own strength and look for lived experiences you’ve had that really demonstrate how resilient you are. I want you to plug into your OWN reality and not theirs here. Think about times that you’ve felt good about how you’ve handled an interaction or a conflict with your parent and write them down.
- Accept that they are never going to be who you want them to be. Accept that it’s sad and painful, but that you can decide to stop taking it personally. Recognize their limitations, and try to stop asking “Why?” You can’t apply normal expectations to someone who is dysfunctional.
- Stop getting sucked into the conflicts that you know they will create. There’s a tendency for narcissists to “make a lot of noise” whenever the attention is not on them. So this can look like them pitting siblings or family against one another or behaving in ways that make you feel like whatever you do it’s never good enough. The thing is, as painful as these behaviors can be, you can cultivate the awareness that emotional reactions are what they want, and again, it’s not personal. When you raise your awareness, you can gain control over your reactions and in effect “diffuse the bomb”.
- Try the “Gray Rock Method”. To follow up on the last point, the premise of this method is to act in such a way that you avoid becoming a target for the narcissist:
“Gray Rock is primarily a way of encouraging [an] emotionally unbalanced person, to lose interest in you. It differs from No Contact in that you don’t overtly try to avoid contact with these emotional vampires. Instead, you allow contact but only give boring, monotonous responses so that the parasite must go elsewhere for his supply of drama.”
You can read more about it here:
- Limit interaction. I’m not just talking about in-person visits here, I also want to encourage you to limit the things you share with your parent. That can look like not picking up the phone or taking a break. Again, you have no obligation to give them full access to your life. It is necessary (and totally OK) for you to draw healthy boundaries with your parent to protect yourself.
- Give yourself permission to take care of yourself and the family you’ve created. It’s not disloyal or selfish to put that first. That’s you being healthy. Whether or not you have kids of your own, you still have a chosen family that is your own – friends, partners, or kids. The boundaries you set with the narcissistic parent can serve to protect not just you, but also the people you care about from that toxicity.
I hope that this episode gives you permission to get creative and figure out how you can protect yourself and start to heal from the injuries of having a narcissistic parent. If it’s extremely toxic and/or the situation includes abuse of any kind, you may choose to go No Contact. That is your right. You do not deserve to be abused by anyone. It wouldn’t be the first step, but it is a last resort because if it comes down to you or them, you have to choose you.
And I am cheering you on like a wild maniac. If you like this episode, if it helps you, please share it with others that might get value from this.
I hope that this is inspiring and liberating to you in some way. Understand that I see you, even if other people in your life don’t see this, I know exactly how painful it is to have a narcissistic parent and how that ripple effect just keeps going unless you choose something different.
Thank you for sharing, for reading, for listening, for watching.
As always, take care of you.