I’m not sure that I really understood the long-term effects of narcissistic parenting until recently. I’m sure I still don’t in its entirety. It’s yet another one of those things that, if you experience it, you have no awareness that it’s not normal until you’re out of it, which might possibly be never unless you’re particularly lucky or stubborn. (I happen to be a little of both.) You have no perspective; your parents make sure of it. Little things crop up in my daily life that I’ve suddenly started realizing are directly related to the environment I was raised in.
The thing about narcissism is, it’s so sneakily underhanded. Nothing is overt or directly stated. Often a lot of “right” words are said…but the parent doesn’t really mean them. Or they mean them, but in twisted ways. There were always hidden meanings and contradictory messages which left me in a state of constant confusion. Proper interpretation was impossible; if I tried to call them to task on their manipulation, they’d switch tactics and tell me I’d misunderstood their (supposedly) sincere message and motives. Guilt is one of the primary weapons of choice for narcissists, as when I even attempted to pin them down (and failed), they would invariably insist that I didn’t truly love them if I could possibly dare believe they would manipulate me in such ways.
As the child of one very narcissistic mother and one at least slightly narcissistic father, my life was supposed to revolve around them. Essentially I existed to make them feel needed, which became quite the developmental dilemma for me as I continued to grow up and naturally seek the very healthy goal of independence. Independence was at odds with my parents’ emotional needs, which was to have a child who never grew past seeing them as the center of the universe, whose successes and victories were a direct reflection back on them. Any accolade I achieved was to their credit. In the same way, any criticism I received was taken very personally by them as a direct assault on their parenting skills. If they were seen as anything less than perfect, as implied by every move I made outside the walls of our house, they were enraged at me for tainting their image.
I learned very early on that it was the appearance of a person or thing that mattered to them, and possibly to all people (since I had no one else to compare to), not its substance.
Cue eating disorder.
Cue massive amounts of guilt, shame, and fear (which I also tend to think of as performance anxiety, which I still have to this day and which is occasionally responsible for some notable amounts of writers’ block).
But even more problematic than my failures were my actual successes. There is no winning as a child of a narcissist. Your failures are criticized, condemned, and punished, but your successes are only validated if the parent directly gains something from it that will bolster their self-esteem as a person. On an emotional level this isn’t necessarily a problem if the parents’ interests naturally overlap with the child’s. As an example, if I had wanted to be a world-class seamstress and my mother also happened to value sewing as a skill and wanted to teach me (so she could claim credit for it), the situation would have been peachy keen. The problem for me as an individual was that as a person, none of my strengths were things that my parents valued nor particularly understood in any capacity, nor did they want to. My emotional and intellectual depth, my desire for authenticity, my creative perspective, my compassion that overrode social and politically correct rules, my outside-the-box artsy pursuits (art, writing, music), my introversion, my bookworm-computer-nerd tendencies… none of these things were especially valuable to my mom or dad. They weren’t things my parents could claim credit for, nor were they things they could hawk any glory from.
So any move toward success in these areas on my part was either criticized, undermined, subtly sabotaged, or indirectly punished. They didn’t want me to be able to Make It without them. Every move on their part had the end goal of crippling me so I’d always need them and depend on them.
To this day, though my parents are no longer in my life, I become more anxious about success than I do about failure. I rather expect to fail; I’m used to it. My parents made sure of it. My parents instilled in me the utter fruitlessness of trying to successfully have a happy life apart from them. So even now I’m afraid the parent figures in my life will be angry at me for doing something well that doesn’t directly stroke their ego. I’ve managed to push past some of it, thanks to new experiences with healthier people. It’s been a new thing for me to have others who will openly be happy for me when I succeed, even if my success is of no personal benefit to them.
My hope is that one day I will be able to accomplish whatever I feel empowered to accomplish without worrying about inciting the wrath of anyone that matters to me. My AF (attachment figure) has helped a lot with that, but I know I have a long way to go in this area.
This is a couple of combined excerpts from Trapped in the Mirror, by Elan Golomb, about children who are raised by narcissists:
“We are raised under our parents’ ignoring and scrutinizing gimlet-eyed gaze, hard, divisive, and isolating. The eye ignores what is important to us if that does not coincide with our parents’ values. Their eyes are like laser beams, seeking out points of interest in us. They apply concepts of ‘flaw’ and ‘fame’ to what they evaluate. Growing up under such a regime, one feels like a bug beneath a microscope and at the same time a child forgotten in a dusty alley. The glance that ferrets out and focuses on their interest, that applies the label ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pushes us into an emotionally alienated state. We internalize the quest for our flaws and watch ourselves in an evaluative and rejecting way. Hateful scrutiny stops us in our tracks and turns our spontaneity into paralysis. Exploration ceases along with performance of things we love to do or only do for the hell of it. We constrict ourselves to get away from parental criticism. Scrutiny, criticism, and constriction give existence a lifeless quality. All children need the beneficial glance of what I call the rounded eye, one that does not focus on and evaluate parts of our being. The rounded eye looks on all unconditionally. It gives us acceptance and heals the damage of our upbringing. Points of light are those situations, animals, people who responded directly and positively to the child. The child may not call it a healing event but something about it sticks. It remains in his memory and is turned to when he feels abject despair or in need of hope. From what happened, his life becomes more livable. His self-worth was seen and reinforced.”
This definitely does not cover every aspect of narcissism, and is really just a starting point. More to come. Cheers. ~J8