The term narcissism gets thrown around a lot and, since it exists on a continuum, some cases are more obvious than others. You may not immediately resonate with this idea or it may be uncomfortable for you to think of your parents in this way. You may assume that certain qualities existed in every family. However, as you begin to explore your childhood through a different lens, a more nuanced picture may emerge, which can help you understand yourself better.
- Is your mother overly conscious of what others think (family, friends, neighbors, coworkers)?
- Does your father lack empathy for your feelings?
- When something happens in your life, does your mother react with how it will affect her rather than how you feel?
- Does your father blame things on your or others rather than own responsibility for his own feelings or actions?
- Does your mother swing from egotistical to depressed mood?
- Do you feel your father is critical of you?
- Is your mother hurt easily and does she carry a grudge for a long time without resolving the problem?
- Do you feel valued by your father for what you do, rather than for who you are?
Are you a doormat?
A narcissistic parent will trample all over their family to address their own desires without giving much thought to what anyone else needs. Because of this, some adult children of narcissists will actually overcorrect and bend over backwards to make sure no one could ever possibly perceive them this way. Alternately, they may have grown up all their lives being told that their needs don’t matter. Either way, the result is the same: They let people walk all over them because they’re not in touch with what they need and they don’t know how to express it. They feel selfish for expressing the most basic of needs.
Do you feel you have to take care of your parent - like they're the child and you're the adult?
Not all narcissists command the spotlight with their bold, brash personalities. Some narcissists demand the attention of the room by playing the victim or describing their problems as greater than anyone else’s problems. They may also try to control other people’s actions by threatening to harm themselves unless a certain outcome goes their way. People with this kind of narcissistic parent may feel that they spend their entire childhood running to put one fire out after another, or trying to maintain the peace so that no one is hurt. In so doing, they have to forfeit a lot of their own innate childhood needs.”
Do you put an overemphasis on your achievements?
Some children of narcissists figure out that the only way to get along in this world is to do as their parent does and derive their self-worth from production, performance and achievement. They may take on behaviors like workaholism because their performance is the only way they’ve ever been taught to define themselves. The only thing that matters is what they can produce in the world, not just their own little being.
Are you lacking a sense of yourself, your wants, your needs, your goals?
A telling trait of narcissism is grandiosity: thoughts or feelings that one is superior to others, even if one doesn’t have the achievements to justify it. Narcissistic parents may see themselves as elite, but because they never achieved a certain level of success, they may find meaning in living vicariously through their children. Many children of narcissists will say, "I’m not sure how I ended up in this career because I never really knew what I wanted,’” or “I always felt like I was poised to be more of a reflection of my mother rather than be my own person.”
Some Examples of Parental Characteristics:
NEEDY PARENTS: The needy self-absorbed parent can come across to others as very caring and concerned. This parent is usually attentive and is very anxious about getting recognition for her efforts. This parent has to receive attention, appreciation, and approval for almost every parental act, both from the child and from others. The child is expected to "pay" for the care with emotional coin. This parent makes sure others know how hard she works, sacrifices, and cares. Any suggestion that the parent's efforts are not wanted or appreciated can result in the parent's displeasure or in her taking control and managing the child.
PRICKLY PARENTS: The prickly self-absorbed parent is very demanding and expects prompt and accurate compliance with her needs, whether or not these needs are verbally conveyed. Others are expected to "do it right," without ever having an adequate explanation for what "right" means. The child endures constant criticism and negative comments if she doesn't do things the right way. This parent can also be very touchy, sensing disapproval, criticism, and blame from almost everything that is said and done, whether or not that is what was meant. Children tend to be on edge around this parent, careful of what they do and say, and may withdraw physically and/or emotionally.
PSYCHOSOMATIC PARENTS: The psychosomatic parent uses illness and aches and pains to manipulate others, to get her way, and to focus attention on herself. She cares little for those around her. The way to get attention from this kind of mother is to take care of her. This kind of mother uses illness to escape from her own feelings or from having to deal with difficulties in life. You cannot be sicker than she. She will up the ante.
CONNIVING PARENTS: The conniving self-absorbed parent is always positioning himself to win, come out on top, be superior to others, and make sure that all others understand just how they are inferior. This applies to almost all aspects of his life, including his children. He can be adept at reading others' needs and emotional susceptibility and using these to manipulate and exploit them. Some effects on these parents' children as adults are a wariness and constant questioning of others' motives or a tendency to get into relationships where they are manipulated to do things they do not want to do.
GRANDSTANDING PARENTS: The grandstanding parent can be described as "always on stage," "playing to the crowd," "larger than life." Others in his world have to assume a subordinate role, and that role must support and highlight this parent's self-perception. His children are extensions of him and exist to enhance and expand the areas where the parent can be admired, receive attention, or be better than others. The child must never fail; and when the child succeeds, that success is perceived as due to the parent's efforts or contributions. The effects on his children can produce someone who is timid, cautious, and always seeking attention and admiration, or someone who acts out to get the same outcomes.
Two books may be helpful in learning more on this topic - Will I Ever Be Good Enough? by Karyl McBride and Children of the Self-Absorbed by Nina Brown. In them, the authors discuss ways to heal, such as: grieving the parent you never had, grieving the loss of the child you didn't get to be, psychologically separating from your parent, becoming your own person by discovering your own values, passions & interests, reducing your perfectionistic standards and being more realistic, opening yourself to beauty & wonder, strengthening yourself & becoming less self-absorbed, and finding purpose & meaning. Simple! 😉