Growing up in a Narcissistic Family
The mornings were the worst. My sisters would be fighting, screaming, throwing the odd hairbrush or lipstick, pulling hair or ripping fabric. Blaming one another for missing makeup or the state of the bathroom.
There was no mediation in these epic before-work duels.
Growing up in a narcissistic family wasn’t peaceful.
Our parents were far more interested in themselves and their own problems than in their children’s ability to get along with one another or their emotional needs.
Their intense self-absorption left little room for empathy and validation or, well, parenting.
Our mother was highly anxious, obsessed with her children’s ability to reflect well on her. Any mistakes or imperfections attracted her immeadiate attention. Like a heat seeking missile, she would then become intrusive and controlling, her anxiety around appearances and social acceptance motivating intense criticism and judgement towards us.
The sibling rivalry that is a normal part of family life was exacerbated and exploited by my mother to prop up her fragile sense of self. She pitted us against one another in competition for her approval and affection, so that she could somehow feel better about herself. There was always a battle between us for the crumbs of affection she distributed sparingly.
Because of this, we never got the opportunity to repair our relationships.
We grew up in a household where there was no room for vulnerability, empathy or collaboration. Our early template for relationships was based on competition rather than caring. Even today as adults with our own lives, we are wary and distant, not able to grieve what was lost to us in childhood, or to make amends.
For myself and others who have been raised in narcissistic families, it’s an arduous pathway towards healing.
In their book on narcissistic families, Stephanie and Donald Pressman argue that children of narcissists might manage workplace relationships and setting boundaries at work, but at home it’s a different story.
According to the authors, those who have grown up in narcissistic families are often “people pleasers” trained to ignore their own boundaries so well that they don’t actually know where they are.
“Comfort in setting boundaries develops in children who have their feelings respected by their parents.”
Narcissistic parents do not respect other’s feelings, and children growing up in an atmosphere of repression, shaming and tangential communication never learn to ask for their needs to be met. In families like these, withdrawal of affection and approval will be used to control children. Parents will threaten children with rejection and anger when they don’t behave in ways that meet the parent’s needs. For young children, this is terribly destructive and teaches them to ignore their own needs.
As adults, children of narcissists are usually out of touch with their own needs.
Decision-making for those who have had their feelings invalidated as children is fraught.
Friendships and intimacy require us to make decisions about what we want to do, when and how, and this requires us to understand our feelings. Without this ability, relationships are either all-consuming (and exhausting) or cold and distant.
The Pressmans argue that children of narcissists often have an “all or nothing” approach to relationships. If survivors of narcissistic families cannot have a perfect relationship, they would rather end the relationship than negotiate or compromise. “They genuinely cannot fathom the possibility of sitting down with a spouse, friend or colleague and having a reasonable discussion to set boundaries so that those feelings and needs can be accommodated.” Having been consistently invalidated as children, they hold little hope for getting their needs met in relationships.
They often seem to expect that others will be able to read their minds. When they discover that their friend or spouse can’t do this, they are likely to become angry, disappointed or sullen, sometimes ending the relationship in disgust. And leaving their partner or friend puzzled and hurt.
The healthy give and take of normal relationships is not something that comes naturally to survivors of the narcissistic cauldron.
Attracting the right people into our lives and having healthy relationships is a challenge for those who have grown up with abusive parents.
As children of narcissists, we have been trained not to value or even acknowledge our own boundaries, because boundaries were not convenient for our narcissistic parents. We have also been trained to view relationships as mutually exploitative rather than opportunities for intimacy and connection.
Our friendships and intimate partnerships are often difficult and unfulfilling, fraught with danger and frustration.
Healing for the children of narcissists can take a long time. Self-awareness through therapy and reflection can help us change. Repairing our relationships and creating better ones is part of the journey towards growth and fulfillment.
Quotes are from The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie and Robert Pressman Jossey-Bass 1994
Amanda Robins, M.S.W, PhD.
I am a writer and psychotherapist based in Melbourne, Australia. After a successful career as an artist and academic, I decided to retrain in order to work therapeutically with young people and studied Social Work at the University of Melbourne.
I now specialize in working with people with a history of trauma, especially those who have grown up in narcissistic families. I love writing about mental health and relationships from my own experiences and from my work with clients. I currently have a blog where I write about mental health and well-being, attachment, parenting, relationships and creativity.
My articles have been published on The Mighty, Therapy Route, PsychCentral and This Woman Can.
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