Why do you never feel good enough? How narcissistic parents drain self-esteem
What is it about that persistent feeling of failure, in spite of evidence to the contrary? That presentation didn’t quite cut it. That meal you went all out to make special, was just ok, nothing more. That gift you picked out, it missed the mark. That outfit you chose, well it just wasn’t you.
Pretty harsh comments, don’t you think? So who is this person giving you hell? Well, it might well be the voice of a parent, partner or friend but if the answer is also most definitely you, then say hello to your inner critic: That voice that draws you up short, tells you, you’re wrong wrong wrong, keeps you eaten up with self-doubt, self-recrimination and at its worst, self-loathing.
We all have an inner-critic…
Everyone (well nearly, but I’ll come on to that) has an inner critic whose job in life, it seems, is to tell you what your failings are, how you need to shape up, shut up, or ship out. Who needs enemies, when you’ve got this going on?
So why on earth do we develop this voice that slaps us down?
It might not come as a surprise that the critic starts to make an appearance during childhood. Of course, there is no such thing as perfect parenting. Some families are extreme and harmful in their neglect: You can feel unseen, unheard, bullied, marginalised or abused.
But even in more loving and nurturing of environments, every hurt, small or large which isn’t repaired, every moment where a parent fails to really see their child as an individual, every moment of manipulation or disregard for the child’s feelings, gets credited in the account of "I’m not ok being who I am".
When the account of shame gets full
If that account gets really full, it starts to translate into "I need to be this type of person" to be seen, valued, loved. In some families ‘this’ might equate to being well-behaved or compliant; in another it might be being a high achiever; in yet another it might be being helpful; in others it might be being invisible.
And there are many other variations on ‘this’ which might relate to your experience. The common theme is that shame gets attached to when you fall out of line or dare to be different to these expectations of you, and that often keeps you from transgressing the parental rules. The by-products are often perfectionism, self-doubt, pleasing others, not really recognising your own needs.
The critic develops as a protective mechanism, to stop you being or doing the thing that gets you disapproval or breaks the bond with mum or dad or care-giver. It sounds quite odd, but really it makes a lot of sense. A child craves love and attention, even if that love and attention isn’t really abundant or healthy. The critic helps you stay safe and get some of what you need, even if it’s a distorted and poor expression of love. Because that’s better than getting nothing.
When the critic doesn’t go away
The trouble is, that as you grow older, independent and develop your own life as an adult, the critic doesn’t move on or move out. He or she tends to stick around saying the same old stuff. That can immensely inhibiting, morale and energy sapping and when it’s really dialed up, lead to severe anxiety and sometimes depression.
Narcissists and the inner-critic: The double whammy
So I mentioned earlier that some people don’t have an inner critic. Really? Well, I can’t say for sure, but it seems from what we know of people with narcissistic personalities, that they have developed ways of largely suppressing that voice of doubt and censorship to the point that they become immune to it.
Their narcissistic armour, which prevents them from feeling their shame and lack of self-worth, means they turn their negative feelings onto others. They dish it out, but can't stand receiving it. The critic gets turned outwards and amplified.
If you’re a child of a narcissistic parent, the chances are that your inner critic will be very loud and present in your life, in contrast to your narcissistic parent’s. And that’s the double whammy. Not only do you internalise that shaming voice which tells you not to step out of line, but you also keep on getting that message through your interactions with that parent, right into adulthood.
The inner critic will probably sound like a parent too. You’re likely to have had plenty of it from them, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, manipulative or covert. The constant second-guessing, having to fall into line or be shunned or shouted at, the lack of being seen for an individual with needs and feelings, all contributes to low self-esteem and often a virulent self-critic.
The final cruel twist in this for children of narcissists, is that often, whatever strides towards independence you’ve made, whatever your adult accomplishments and achievements, the young part of you remains pretty hooked into the control and shaming dynamic of their narcissistic parent.
You might feel mystified how in many areas of your life, things seem fine, but the slightest comment, action or judgement from a narcissistic parent brings your crumbling down.
How do you tone the critic down?
It’s not an easy job, unpicking years of beliefs and habits that tell you, you’re wrong, particularly if you have a parent still voicing that to you on a regular basis.
The first step is becoming aware of the critic’s voice and separating that inner self-attack from anything that’s happening with a parent. The two are not the same, even if they have become merged over time.
With that, you may start to recognise other parts of you that have been neglected or forgotten – the resilient part, the loyal part, the performer, the great friend, the sister / brother / mother / father parts, the creative part, the sexy part... the list goes on.
Alongside that growing awareness, a few things start to happen. You begin to be able to regain control, and to feel freer in the choices, particularly in how you respond to a narcissistic parent. The critic might not go away, but they might get quieter, or you might feel able to hear and ignore it.
At the same time, with the help of a counsellor, you might start to learn and believe, that you are loveable for who you truly are, not just who you think others (especially a parent) want you to be.
And then, as the hurt unravels and the shame starts to dissolve, it’s as if you can start breathing again, on your terms. You can, at last, begin to live the life you want, for you and no-one else.
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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.