Emotionally abusive relationships: Survivors of narcissistic parents
“True love heals and affects spiritual growth. If we do not grow because of someone else’s love, it’s generally because it is a counterfeit form of love.” John Bradshaw
Emotionally abusive parents are manipulative, cunning and toxic. Brilliant impersonators these narcissistic fakes create a world of “alternative facts”. Abused children wear cloaks woven with invisible scars inflicted by the parents’ permanent smear campaigns. Myths follow into adulthood: “difficult, crazy, oversensitive, problem” child, doing “it” for “attention” or “she/he tells lies” or possesses a “big imagination”. Scapegoating is reinforced by siblings falling into the “rescuer” trap.The belief is created that the child fabricated everything and is responsible for "upsetting" the "heroic" parents. Such positing subjugates the child into submissive gratitude for even existing, feeling confused, humiliated, angry and filled with self-doubt.
Spiteful, jealous and resentful, the abusive parent mocks the child, comparing with a [fake] image they hold of themselves.The child feels unacceptable in basic ways. Belittling, condescending and hurtful: “When I was your age, I could…” “Everyone else...”. "Why are you so stupid?”. The cruel messages communicate: “I am always going to be superior, as you are inferior." Exaggerated and extreme responses for the slightest misdemeanour results in projection of the parents’ shadow side so they can avoid feeling inferior.
Adult survivors seek relief through validation. Any physical violence by the parents creates bodily trauma that results in the child becoming accident prone, extremely vulnerable leading to susceptibility to harm or illness, depression and anxiety. Such stitches bind a complex pattern of mistrust and abuse. Beaten and broken the child is spiritually bereft, emotionally confused, toxically enmeshed on a permanent secret mission, destiny marked “I must prove I’m ok”. As if it's Groundhog Day, the same script will play.
“Triangulation” leaves the child feeling hopeless and helpless, vulnerable and despairing, a lone soldier without any allies. Defending this war on home turf the battlefield takes shape in their mind. Overpowered by betrayal, rejection, isolation and loneliness, opportunities, privileges and liberties appear legitimately denied. Siblings, peers or groups are given preferential treatment: birthdays, presents, outings, special food or the chance to continue their education. Siblings may be allowed to help with fun tasks or afforded rights such as driving the family car. Feeling deeply inadequate, the abused child will place themselves at the bottom of the “needs met” pile, seeking out relationships that act as a mirror reflecting their early family environment. Conditioned and brainwashed into adapting to meet the needs of toxic parents, the child is unconsciously drawn into a relationship with partners who are similar.
Living under a smokescreen of denial, narcissistic parents use "gaslighting" to make the child look completely mad and entirely bad. Poor frustration tolerance, tantrums, jealousies and breaking boundaries, e.g., flirting with, seducing or conning the child’s partner or friends is the parents' game. Control dressed up as care justifies the parents’ violations such as interrogation or torture and making decisions about with who the child “should” hang out, date, marry, even where they must live. Rigid rules and shoulds override, censor and eclipse the child’s propensity for self-regulation.
Ill-equipped to negotiate the messy terrain of adulthood, the abused child feeling unloveable suffers low self-esteem due to imposed conditions of worth, insecure attachment patterns result in mistreatment, different, lower or second best standards in every aspect. The child may comfort eat, drink or take drugs to keep the parents idealised. Denial is the way they learn to ride the storm of life. An abusive father may tell a prospective groom or bride: “I hope you know what you’re taking on”. No words of pride.
Conditioned to receiving a fascistic torrent of blaming, naming, shaming, shouting, humiliating, embarrassing, beating and withdrawal, if there was any in the first place, of affection, food, treasured toys, clothes, activities and any sense of comfort (aka “bunny boiling”), severely impacts a child’s ability to feel safe. Fearing abandonment, feeling sad, guilty, frightened, inferior and deeply ashamed, this anxious, angry, enraged child becomes even more passive, dependent, reliant and attached to the brainwashing parents. Time spent in the company of a healthy family is how the child discovers things are far away from ok. Their craving for love cuts hidden wounds buried deep inside. Alternatively, the child may rebel leaving home during teenage years. Suffering premature maturity they face a lifelong struggle with acute anxiety.
Living under a dictatorship no personal freedom exists. All interactions including phone calls may be monitored, letters and diaries will be read. Extreme control over study and career choices is exercised. Berated, ridiculed and interfered with in terms of physical appearance, constant comparisons (“ranking”) and competition is set up with other siblings, or the children of friends invoking feelings of worthlessness. Scolded for talking too loudly, asking “stupid” questions, ridiculed for anything from they way the child sits, smells or curls up to the cat, abused children never feel good enough. Falling short of the parents’ demanding standards, failure is inevitable, the words "you're, ridiculous, stupid, mad" ignite an "idiot" button. Set up in seemingly impossible situations, devoid of praise for successes, the child feels like there is always another marathon to run, acting this scenario out at every opportunity seeking resolution from all the harm done.
Abusive parents pathologically or compulsively lie. Not just about any overt mistreatment of the child, they make promises they have no intention of keeping. Backtracking leaves the child in a state of extreme anxiety, depression and resentment. Lies or promises can be simple: “if you pass your exams I will buy you a treat” that never manifests, or grandiose: “one day we will go to Disneyland”. Or simply, “Next week/month I will take you out to dinner”. This will numb the child’s ability to dream, feel passionate or excited and erase imagination. The child’s needs will be rendered totally invalid.
High status is sought such as “Godfather” or “Community Chair”. The parents may pay for a plaque in their name, or give to charity again and again whilst they continue to be mean and uncharitable behind closed doors. On the one hand, those they seek to impress will believe they are affluent, whilst at home, they plead poverty lying about money, purchases, or expensive holidays booked. Any sibling who buys the lie, helping to fund the parents' lifestyle or pay for their mistakes even as extreme as bankruptcy, is favoured over the one who refuses to collude with any farce. Punishment for real or potential exposure at being seen as less than perfect may result in the abused child being cut out not just of the parents' lives, but also out of their will. The smallest request by the child will be met with resentment, unwillingness and a sarcastic put-down, another push towards inevitable breakdown.
Walking on eggshells following any minor accident in the house such as breaking a cup is the child’s way of life. Needing support, if the child fails to leave home or has cause to return, the parents’ resentment will escalate their cruelty. Often, they will charge excessive rent making it harder for the child to break free from their grip. If the child manages to have their own children, a feeling of sheer desperation will set in when, oblivious to acts of manipulation, their children join in.
Sadly, the adult abused child is left with unhealed scars and open wounds. Psychological trauma is triggered by painful memories of feeling overpowered, weak, fearful, humiliated, betrayed, rejected, scapegoated, and favourited over. Upon hearing what sounds as if it's a familiar empty promise, a feeling of exclusion or fearful boundaries may be violated, the adult child will erupt in anger as if under a live grenade attack. Mirroring the symptoms displayed by an abandoned child, it's as if the child has been physically left.Addict parents will steal pocket money, use the child to hide alcohol, make the child their alibi or force the child to risk the local drug run. In such manner, their own self-corrupted, any chance of a happy childhood is stolen. Alternatively, it may be that the abuse is implicit, covert and passive-aggressive. Continuously distressed these children believe they have hurt the parents and enter adulthood adapted, increasingly guilty and ashamed, feeling evermore responsible for the parents' hurt feelings.
Relocation may create enough emotional distance for the adult child to find the freedom necessary to make life successful. Assertive movement creates possibility as they start winning the struggle to achieve their fragmented identity. However, as an adult, struggling with trauma after trauma, [dismissed as drama after drama], risky relationships, or any other form of harm to self and/or others alongside dissociative periods may become the norm. Flashbacks, unwanted images accompanied by feelings of terror, sadness and helplessness can be triggered at any moment. Authority figures strike the sharp note of fear. Sadly all it takes is the flick of a psychic switch to mentally revert back to a time when boundaries were broken, the child was set up, controlled, humiliated and severely punished. Self-loathing causes retreat or withdrawal into a fantasy world of addiction including drugs, alcohol, gambling, gaming, porn, anger, excessive masturbation, co-dependency, endless tv/film watching, internet use, spending or social media activity. On the other hand, perfectionism, eating disorders, inexplicable, extreme, overt fury and rage may turn outwards lashing out at others or inwards to self-harm. Mental health challenges arise from the internal chaos: depression and anxiety, narcissistic bipolar, borderline or paranoid personality disorders, eating disorders, OCD and/or PTSD.
If the above sounds like your journey, reconciliation with the self will seem a distant dream. Can you ever imagine feeling healed and strong enough to keep your parent(s) in the space and at the pace you choose in your life? Maybe you feel overwhelmed by painful memories? Perhaps periodically cutting your parents off has become an effective coping strategy? Relief comes through learning to recognise defences, triggers and emotional buttons that place you into an altered state. Find a therapist who can help you make friends with your feelings so you can experience emotions that were frozen in time. Inside this crisis is a hidden opportunity that only another can help you see. Develop a healthy “growth” mindset filling it with joy and wonder. You will be amazed at how adult you can be in keeping your composure.The choice of "reaction" or "response" leads to destruction and death or growth and healing. If you are struggling with addiction, a 12-step programme alongside therapy can prove ideal to aid your recovery from life’s "aberration".
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About Amanda Perl
I am a BACP accredited counsellor and existential psychotherapist, a CBT practitioner, member of the British Psychological Society and course lead on the stage four BACP accredited counselling diploma. My private practice reflects my belief that each of us is unique with the potential for growth and development and can move forward in our own way.