Why is my relationship with mum or dad so difficult?
Does this ring a bell? You love your mum or dad, but it’s also tough being their child. Somehow, what you do never seems good enough. If you disagree or stand up to them, there’s an almighty row so you end up keeping quiet or just avoiding them for a peaceful life.
Or maybe, they seem overly focused on your achievements or your appearance. When you’re doing well or looking good, you get a lot of attention but if something slides, you get the cold shoulder.
The impact a difficult parent has on your well-being
Over time, their behaviour can have a serious impact on your mental health. You might find it difficult to trust your own judgement. You end up people-pleasing or trying really hard at things, but being fearful of not getting it right. Your self-esteem or confidence might be low and it might be hard to trust that people really like you for who you are.
Is your parent a narcissist?
If some of these things sound familiar, it’s possible that one of your parents has a narcissistic personality. It’s a particular term which describes a broad spectrum of behaviours, but some of the characteristics of a narcissistic personality are:
- An inflated sense of self importance and vanity– this person expects and feels entitled to the best and rages when it is denied them.
- Wanting to look good in front of others – often children’s accomplishments become valued when they reflect well on the parent.
- A big temper which can lead to humiliating, shaming or belittling others.
- A sense of innate superiority which can manifest in being quite charming to outsiders to the family.
- Emotional distance – it can be really hard to know what is going on for this person and to get close to them.
- Focused on personal interests to the point of selfishness. They may take children along to the thing they are interested in, whether appropriate or not or they may stay away a lot, doing their own thing.
- A willingness to take advantage of others and expectation to be served, particularly by family members.
- A lack of real empathy – in extreme they may even laugh at or mock others’ misfortune.
- A very developed imagination which can lead them to tell stories or even lies to make themselves look good or bring them to be the centre of attention.
- A tendency to make more of their achievements than the facts would indicate.
- A very thin skin – any form of criticism is very badly taken and can cause great outbursts and attacks back.
How a narcissist rules the family
If you can recognise some of these traits in a parent, it might mean they have that narcissistic side to their personality. In the worst cases, while that personality has a completely toxic impact on a family, the set up and dynamics are so complicated that the family support and collude with maintaining the narcissist in that position. For example, siblings can end up competing or undermining each other, vying for the parent’s attention.
Often, the spouse or partner supports the behaviour by turning a blind eye, covertly or overtly siding with the narcissistic parent. In the family system, anyone who challenges the parent risks rejection, or even ejection from the family.
What can you do?
So how can therapy help? Well, it can’t change your parent, even though many people who come to therapy for help with a difficult parent wishes it could.
Instead, the process of therapy helps you first understand and, over time, accept that how things are, is not your fault. It allows you to come to terms with how you have been parented and from that, you can begin to separate and develop a stronger sense of your self, your individuality, your own needs and wants for your life.
There is inevitably grief and anger along the way as you come to terms with your life experiences and how you were parented.
And, there may be some difficult choices: To maintain a relationship, with this new awareness, and therefore choosing to accept or ignore a parent’s behaviour; to reduce and limit contact; or maybe even to sever contact temporarily or permanently.
Each person has to find their own way through, but a therapist can help you understand what your options are and support you with compassion and empathy through whatever choices you make.
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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.