Push me, pull you – the impossible dilemma for children of narcissistic parents
Part of you knows this relationship hurts. The little (or not so little) put downs, the never quite meeting expectations, the feeling guilty for the ‘shoulds’ that you didn’t do. And yet, the bonds feel unbreakable. The emotional cost of cutting free feels too high: Rejection, isolation, shame. Perhaps a part of you feels powerless to do anything about it. At the same time, the cost of staying feels too high: Anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-doubt, the continual bruising…
The intractable dilemma
If you’re the child of a narcissistic parent, this dilemma seems intractable. You live with the continual pain of inner-conflict, torn between the need and desire to live to your own needs and the longing to be loved for who you are.
The adult’s need for self-preservation is usually what brings you to counselling. Time after time, I hear phrases like, "I can’t take the criticism, manipulation, confusing messages, the continual drama". Or "I feel like I’m going mad – I see one reality but keep getting told it’s not true or wrong". Or "if ever I speak my mind or truth, the reaction is so extreme (everything from "I’ll disown you" to "I’ll kill myself") that I’ve given up / feel continually rageful".
The struggle with siblings
Add to this, often, when you have siblings, the extremes in different treatment that are a trigger too. For one sibling, whatever their achievements or contributions in life, they never seem to be worth as much as another’s. They feel slighted, devalued or ignored by the narcissistic parent. The other can seemingly do no wrong. But that glorification comes at a cost. They have to play absolutely by mum or dad’s rules, or risk rage and shame for 'letting the side down'. Both can be places of feeling extremely trapped.
So with all this going on - the glorification, the negative feedback, the treading on eggshells, the feeling inadequate - what stops the fight back, the rebellion or even the simple boundary of "no, that’s not acceptable"? What stops you from moving on with life with a strong sense of self?
How can you trust yourself?
For many adult children of a narcissistic parent, it’s extraordinarily difficult to really trust yourself, to connect with inner wisdom or belief. The reason for this usually goes back to a core belief developed early in your life. You aren’t really lovable for who you are. Having a narcissistic parent, you find yourself continually adapting to fit in with their needs, often at the expense of your own. You might try to fly under the radar to remain invisible. You might find yourself continually struggling with self-esteem. You might try to please and shine (in looks, achievements, personality). But if you truly express who you are, you risk rejection, rage and shame.
That hiding of your truer self to ensure you stay ‘on programme’ for the parent starts to get hard-wired so over time, your sense of self gets deeply buried, half-forgotten and certainly difficult to trust. It’s like your inner world becomes a warzone, with all the forces massing against the possibility of change.
The inner critic wages war against you
Almost always, it gets accompanied by a virulent inner-critic who helps ensure you don’t transgress mum’s or dad’s rules. However, as I’ve written about elsewhere, the critic sticks around into adulthood and keeps you in line way beyond its sell-by date (http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/why-do-you-never-feel-good-enough-how-narcissistic-parents-drain-self-esteem).
The critic goes hand in hand with a very vulnerable child self, who longs to be seen for who she or he really is. But the longing goes with a long-learned terror, that being who you truly are risks rejection, guilt-tripping and shaming.
When, as an adult, you begin to question whether these ways of living or relationships serve you anymore, that inner child and critic mobilise to create a double whammy: Deep fear and chronic self-attack.
Is there a way through?
Often when I meet with adult children of narcissistic parents, they’re already well aware of the pain and distress that the relationship causes them and frequently they’re aware of why, even if they don’t always use the term narcissist, when describing a parent’s behaviour towards them. (You can read here for more about the traits, if you’re unsure: http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/why-is-my-relationship-with-mum-or-dad-so-difficult).
So, what can be done to get out of this seemingly impossible dilemma? Some books on the subject advocate complete rupture with the parent as the only way to stay safe and move on in your life. While that is always an important option, relatively few of those I meet want to opt for that extreme. The fear of isolation, rejection, more loss adding to an already stressful life, can feel too much.
In my experience, the core of the healing process, is to come gradually to a place of self-value, self-trust and self-love. To do that, you might have to unpick a lot of beliefs created through your life and equally importantly, feel both the rage and loss that goes with this. Then, moving into a place of greater self-acceptance opens up the possibility of taking back power and opening up choice about how you are with parents.
The complexity of choice and how counselling can help
For many, the choice of staying in touch or cutting ties, isn’t simple or black and white. For example, you may feel these parents have been and continue to be extraordinarily difficult to have contact with, but they may also be ageing and becoming vulnerable. That can tear at you, pulling the part of you that craves self-preservation, while tugging at your values of caring and support others in need.
The journey into counselling isn’t necessarily an easy one or a quick one, but it can help you reclaim your sense of self, and open you up to making the choices you need, from a place of freedom rather than fear and shame.
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About Matt Fox
Matt Fox is a psychosynthesis counsellor in private practice. He works with adult men and women, with a particular interest in working with adult children of narcissistic parents and those who've experienced childhood emotional neglect.