Most people shy away from even asking this question: it feels shameful not to praise the people who, in name, helped you get to adulthood.
But in reality, our parents are human, and it’s ok to acknowledge their flaws — as, in the case of narcissistic parents, they have no issue acknowledging ours.
An alarming number of adults struggle to escape an unhealthy childhood’s effects. Reddit’s r/RaisedByNarcissists is growing by over 10,000 users per month, with an already gigantic user base of 403,000 members. And the subreddit for people in later stages of recovery, r/LifeAfterNarcissism, ranks at almost 17,000 members, as of May 2019. So, if you think you might’ve been raised by narcissists, you really might be right.
Even if it wasn’t both parents, even if they never physically hurt you, even if they charmed your friends and impressed outsiders: good acts don’t outweigh the bad, and a lack of overtly bad behavior doesn’t mean there’s no negativity or covert narcissism at play.
Common behaviors of narcissistic parents, that impact children into adulthood, can include:
Most of these traits relate to a narcissistic parent’s inability to empathize, and need to maintain their own emotional needs over others’. Above all, they prioritize feeling good about themselves, which they most easily achieve by putting others down. And oh, how easy it is, to find fault in a child, who doesn’t yet know how the world works.
In childhood, parents are our main sources of knowledge about the world. So what happens when they teach us wrong?
Nparents, like all parents, teach their children explicitly, but even more by example. They show us how to give and receive love, how to feel about ourselves. By extension, Nparents’ high demands, low tolerance for mistakes, and numerous unspoken needs teach children to prioritize others and expect disapproval, from birth.
People who grow up with narcissistic caregivers often pick up two types of behaviors, in differing ratios:
We pick up undesirable behaviors not only by exposure, but also by developing defense mechanisms in early life.
When we learn to expect negative reactions to ourselves, we easily absorb and develop defensive habits. Some examples are:
Prioritizing control: over your space, your food, your schedule, or even other people. The degrees of this prioritization can range from mildly rigid to demanding and self-centered.
Withholding personal information: fear that people will take honest expressions of your self badly. Fear that people will use personal information to belittle or punish you.
People pleasing, or going with the flow – all the time: you might tell yourself this helps those around you. However, by holding back your real opinions, you’re hiding your authentic self from those you care about. This habit also reinforces the subconscious notion that people won’t like who you are.
When raised by a narcissist, you don’t get to complete normal experiences of independence, autonomy, and acceptance. This comes out in adulthood — when you finally do have control over your own life, you cling to it.
When you’re raised by narcissists, you often don’t get to be a child. At the very least, you don’t get to move unimpeded through that crucial phase in life.
Because your brain wasn’t allowed to develop normally through experience, you might find yourself seeking or drawn to crucial childhood experiences you missed. This can create adult habits that make you feel ‘different’ or make it hard to connect with peers:
People from healthy families got to do these things or have these obsessions in the safe space of childhood; they got to satisfy these needs before becoming adults.
However, when raised by narcissists, it’s like you never got to satisfy these fundamental drives of childhood. So, your brain freezes in playing out and replaying satisfying habits.
To an extent, prioritizing these drives as an adult gives you a chance to re-do childhood without feeling ashamed for owning your needs. You’re just catching up, and you should allow yourself these habits as part of the ‘re-parenting’ process.
“If you sleep with dogs, you’ll get fleas.”
Fleas: Automatic behaviors and coping mechanisms we pick up from our Nparents. These automatic coping mechanisms, perpetuated into adulthood, usually help us rationalize mistakes and avoid pain. Examples:
These aren’t overtly narcissistic behaviors; they’re usually low-stakes, and nobody is getting irreversibly hurt. But they do reflect some tendencies you probably absorbed by being around Nparents. You may have picked up some behaviors from your narcissistic parents, but you are different – you acknowledge others’ feelings, and rationalize your missteps instead of dismissing them completely.
Don’t panic! You grew up in an unhealthy environment, where a deeply flawed individual (or two) was your main role model. Instead of blaming yourself for learning to act as you were taught, focus on the fact that you’re here. That you possess empathy and some level of self-reflection your parents didn’t.
Even if you really think you’ve become a narcissist, you can change in ways your parents haven’t. Continue focusing on slow improvement, and check out some resources on consciously changing.
The problem with Nparents is that they refuse to think enough about their behavior to improve themselves through life. You are not doomed to mirror their behaviors, nor to repeat their mistakes.
Everyone has issues, weird relationship patterns ingrained in them, etc. But maintain a healthy (not self-critical), lifelong drive toward self-improvement, and you have a way out of the narcissistic abuse cycle.
Many children of narcissists consider going ‘NC,’ or “no contact” the first step to healing. Your Nparents may represent and perpetuate all the unhealthy patterns you’ve learned, and being around them can reinforce bad habits and negative self-talk.
That said, many children of narcissists have reasons to maintain contact with toxic family members — and NC isn’t the only way to heal from narcissism’s lasting effects.
Wherever you decide to draw the line with communication, make sure it’s YOUR line, and your boundaries remain in place, whether you inform your narcissistic parent of your boundaries or not.
For example, if you decide your sanity drops after an hour on the phone, draw your line there. You don’t necessarily have to tell Nmom about your ‘limit,’ but do honor the decision you made for yourself, and remember you’re not obliged to serve an Nparent’s emotional needs.
Anger often arises from your body as a warning of unfair treatment. When you’re raised by narcissists, it’s often easier to ignore injustices and mistreatment than to assert your needs. So you might’ve gotten in a habit of stuffing strong emotions down and ignoring internal signs that something’s up.
“When you’re raised by narcissists, it’s often easier to ignore injustices and mistreatment than to assert your needs.”
To embrace your anger, you have to first start noticing it. When you start to feel hot, sweaty, dizzy, or even just like you REALLY don’t want to be in your current situation, take stock of what’s going on. Is this anger? Is there a reason you’re feeling this way?
If you sense someone has disrespected you or violated your personal boundaries, it’s OK to be angry! Feeling the anger helps deal with it. You just have to deal with it productively.
When you call out your narcissistic parent, or try to set a new boundary, expect resistance and even retaliation. A narcissist often responds poorly to the boundary-setter, retaliating or throwing even more insults, in an attempt to squash disobedience. They maintain the moral high ground at any cost, which often leads to name-calling and expressions of utter disappointment: “You’ve changed,” or, “I didn’t raise you to be like this.”
If you receive a poor reaction to asserting your emotional human rights, you know two things:
The habit of ignoring mistreatment makes it harder to break undesirable habits related to your narcissistic upbringing. By extension, if you can learn to insist on respectful treatment (even if it means expressing anger sometimes), you’ll feel more comfortable; and this removes the need for defense mechanisms, so you’ll more easily shed your ‘fleas.’
If you were raised by a narcissist, you’ll probably recognize lasting, adverse traits and habits in yourself. It feels disheartening to notice unproductive habits from childhood, to realize how much of a journey lies ahead.
But not everyone notices their own shortcomings, and even fewer actively try to better themselves.
If you’re here, you’re both reflecting on yourself and looking for ways to improve. If you feel bad for the tendencies you may have picked up, you’re exercising empathy your parents didn’t. You’re already ahead of the narcissism curve.
To get confirmation you’re not a narcissist, in a safe space with others who understand, try utilizing an anonymous support group tailored to your struggle.