Why did the narcissistic parent cross the road? They thought it was your boundaries!
Last week’s episode on toxic family members resonated with lots of listeners. Garrett from Oklahoma wrote in and asked to hear more about the effects of being raised by a narcissist.
So what happens when one or both of your parents are dangerously self-absorbed? What are you taught about yourself, the world, and your place in it? What are the glitches in your worldview you don’t even see because to you, they’re normal?
For the most part, kids in healthy families grow up to believe themselves to be worthy, capable, and loveable. But a narcissistic parent can mess with all of these things. This week, we’ll cover six beliefs that are planted when you’re raised by a narcissist. The good news? You can uproot all these lessons and cultivate new beliefs about your worth and purpose.
6 Signs You Were Raised by a Narcissist
- You believe it’s normal to have two faces.
- You believe your role is to make your parent look good.
- You believe your role is to take care of your parent.
- You believe you can’t have needs because that would be narcissistic.
- You believe, “Hey, they were right—I am superior.”
- You believe love is conditional, you are loved when you do what people want.
Let’s dive deeper into each one of these beliefs.
Belief #1: “It’s normal to have two faces.”
Kids of narcissists learn it’s normal to show one face to the world but wear another behind closed doors. Narcissists thrive on constant admiration, so they learn to charm and seduce, at least in public. But in private, they are needy, critical, and demanding.
Many narcissists are pillars of the community or ardent philanthropists simply because it helps their image. If this was your parent, you may have gotten used to people approaching and saying things like, “Your dad is the greatest,” or “I just love your mom—how lucky you are.” But you knew that after the microphone was turned off or the fundraising gala confetti was swept up, mom or dad’s commitment to the cause ended.
To you and other kids of narcissists, this behavior was normal. When you were young, you might have thought every parent was magnetic in public and mean in private, and you might have drawn the conclusion that it had to do with you: you must have done something to deserve having the best side of your parent—the side they show to everyone else—denied. Today you know it’s not your fault (hopefully), but sometimes it’s hard to remember that not everyone is devious or two-faced.
Belief #2: “My role is to make my parent look good.”
Narcissists choose their relationships based on what their friends and partners can do for them and their image. So if you’re the child of a narcissist, your parent likely groomed you to magnify them, too. You learned your value was in making your parent look good.
This role, by definition, is a position that serves. You are support staff to the CEO, the stagehand to the star, the roadie to the headliner. And to make things worse, there’s no room for advancement; you can play a supporting role, but you can never have a spotlight of your own. Why? To a narcissistic parent, a child is just another appendage—an extension of themselves to further their own goals.
A childhood of filling a parent’s needs, however, keeps a kid from developing a sense of themselves. The result can be feeling unsure of what you really like or what you really want to do. Some adult kids of narcissists will look around and wonder how they ended up with this particular career or life.
In a healthy childhood, a parent values a kid’s goals, experiences, and emotions. It’s a parent’s job to notice what their kid is interested in and then fan the flames. It’s okay to strongly encourage your child to give your passion—say, baseball—a solid try, but it’s also right to support their musical theater passion simultaneously and to listen if, after giving it a season, baseball just isn’t in the cards.
Belief #3: “My role is to take care of my parent.”
Related to making a parent look good is taking care of them when they’re down. Some parents don’t necessarily demand that their children perform. Instead, they demand that their children serve them. They need attention, consolation, and encouragement. Kids learn to put out fires, manage their parents’ moods and emotions, and support them in a way that a partner should do, not a child. Even though the path is different, you still end up at the same destination: feeling like you’re not allowed to have needs and wants of your own.
Belief #4: “I can’t have needs because that would be narcissistic.”
If you were raised by a narcissist, you may be so allergic to entitled narcissism by now that you swing the pendulum to the other extreme. You may sublimate your needs to others to confirm that you are as different from your narcissistic parent as humanly possible. But in trying to be the antithesis of a steamroller, you end up getting steamrolled in relationships and at work.
To further complicate things, you’re so used to being under someone’s thumb that you may gravitate to relationships where you find yourself under a partner’s thumb. You know deep down it’s not quite right, but it feels comfortable and familiar, and you’re not quite sure how to change that.
Belief #5: “Hey, they were right—I am superior.”
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes kids decide if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. A narcissistic parent might have taught you that your family is superior—better, smarter, richer, more attractive—and after a lifetime of hearing it, you start to believe it.
Other kids may choose to collude with the grandiosity because it’s better than getting clobbered by a parent’s superiority complex. It’s an understandable survival tactic, but it comes at a cost. Because a narcissist’s supposed superiority is based on status, wealth, or material trappings, you may cultivate an image of wealth, but feel somehow that your life is impoverished.
It’s easy to see narcissistic parents as monsters, but it might help to consider how they got that way.
Belief #6: “Love is conditional. I am loved when I do what people want.”
Did your parent get mad when you skinned your knee because it was an inconvenience? Did they withdraw love when you brought home a less-than-stellar achievement? Did you carefully choose your words and actions out of guilt? Or to maintain their approval?
Narcissistic parents demonstrate to their kids that love is conditional. But what happens when you grow up thinking love is a reward for successfully jumping through hoops? A 2017 study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences examined over 300 teenage kids. Those whose parents doled out love on a conditional basis were much more likely to be self-critical perfectionists; that is, they held excessively high personal standards and criticized themselves mercilessly when those standards weren’t met (or exhausted themselves in the process).
Perfectionism may drive you to achieve, but it leaves you unable to feel satisfied with success and funnels too much energy into avoiding criticism, which you can’t control anyway. All in all, conditional love drives self-critical perfectionism, which in turn can lead to depression and anxiety.
A final note
It’s easy to see narcissistic parents as monsters, but it might help to consider how they got that way. One study found that parental invalidation predicted narcissism, even more so than other bad parenting behaviors like rejection, coldness, or overprotection. Out of more than 400 participants, those who were the least narcissistic were also those who reported the lowest levels of invalidation.
The point isn’t to shift the blame to your grandparents, but to feel some compassion for your parents. Compassion isn’t a free pass, but it may help to loosen your own anger or resentment a bit.
In the meantime, if you recognized yourself or your family in this episode, give yourself the gifts of time, space, and a good therapist. Going to college, moving out, or otherwise buying yourself some distance can give you the perspective and space you need to discover and grow into yourself. And a qualified therapist you like and respect can help you unravel the beliefs sewn by your narcissistic parent and create new, healthier ways of seeing yourself and your place in it.