There’s a tape in my head that plays painful words on repeat if I allow its volume to be too loud. The verbiage goes like this: “You will never be enough. Shame on you. You are hard to love. No one will ever love you. If your mother can’t love you, no one can.” This tape is my head is likely caused from being raised by narcissists.
Most victims of narcissistic abuse have an internal dialogue playing, often put there by a narcissistic parent. Sadly, it’s not just one or two comments that damage the child well into adulthood. It is year after year of a parent’s slow ridicule of a child, often associated with the parent setting unachievable expectations. In the end, there is a broken, inner child that doesn’t grow along with the physical body.
In a family where children are raised by narcissists, family members revolve their lives around the narcissist.
The adage, “If mom or dad isn’t happy, then nobody’s happy,” often applies in home life when you are being raised by narcissists.
In a healthy family, the parents meet the needs of the children physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially and intellectually. Parents lead by effort and example, allowing each child to develop his or her own thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
When you are in a family that is being raised by narcissists, however, the roles are reversed. The parent expects the child to meet his or her needs. Think of a five-year-old trying to understand why he didn’t get a hug after a soccer game. The child thinks, “I didn’t score a goal, and now I don’t get a hug. I must be worthless and unlovable until I can score.” The parent tells the child what is acceptable, tolerated or detestable.
Another example might be with the intellectually gifted child. The son or daughter brings home an A- instead of an A. The parent, however, doesn’t say, “Great job!” The parent asks the student where the other five points went. The point is that children receive the same message from a narcissistic parent: You aren’t good enough. The unhealthy parent is teaching the child that actions or success equal attention and admiration. No success? No love from mom or dad. The child learns to do as the narcissistic parent says or be dismissed.
Here are the ways that being raised by narcissists controls the narrative of the family. Usually, the manipulative parent assigns one child the task of doing the unappreciated, unfulfilling work.
If you were raised by narcissists, you likely have experienced the following:
1. You feel shame.
Narcissistic parents are skilled at using shame as a tool to control family members. Shame is the insinuation that something is inherently wrong with a person on the inside. For example, a narcissist may say, “Shame on you.” The unhealthy parent is telling the child to feel ashamed about the person you are, not the action or mistake you have made. The parent is saying, “You are bad and not worthy of my love.”
On the other hand, a healthy parent might tell the child, “I love you, but I disapprove of your choice. Now you must face the consequences.”
For example, my son, Carson, is a great teenager who makes mostly good choices. However, the day Christmas break started in 2019, my son walked home from middle school with four other 8th grade boys. On the way home, they decided to use spray paint from a school art project and destroy the brick wall of a business near our home. Not only did they paint a few graphic words, but they also drew pictures of male genitalia.
I was home when the doorbell rang. I opened the door, and a police officer was standing on the steps. “Is your son home?” Officer Peter asked. “Yes, please come in,” I answered after checking his credentials. He was indeed a police officer from our town.
I summoned the boys from the back yard into the kitchen, where officer Peter found out yes, it was this group of boys who destroyed property. The police officer expected the teenagers to clean up the paint immediately or face juvenile court. The boys were terrified.
After scrubbing the fence until the wee hours of the morning, I brought my son inside and took his phone and xbox away. But the best lesson I told him was this. “Carson, you are a good kid, and I love you,” I said. “But I don’t approve of your actions. Therefore, I am grounding you for a month.”
I did my best not to shame him, and I didn’t teach him that this mess up defined him. Most importantly, I didn’t withhold my love for him. Using shame as a disciplinary tool would hand him a heavy burden to carry from childhood until his adult years.
2. You feel like you will never be enough.
The narcissist sets unachievable expectations for a child. Whether the children’s goals are about school, musical talent or athletics, the targets set by the narcissist are almost always unreasonably high. When you are being raised by narcissists, you can never meet them. The child may try and try for an entire childhood, still falling short of the mark.
Yet, when they are not met, the narcissist looks at the situation like the child injured him or her deliberately. Narcissists like to dole out shame or the silent treatment after unreached expectations as if the child chose to fail him or her. The narcissistic parent may also withhold love and attention, immersing themselves in their own sick and injured mindset. The child feels invisible, discounted and insecure.
3. You feel like true love must be earned.
Occasionally the child will reach an expectation set by the narcissistic parent. That parent then hands out attention and loving words, giving the child hope that mom or dad loves them now.
Unfortunately, the affirmations don’t last long, because the child will face another unattainable goal shortly after that. Then, the parent withdraws symbols of love and attention, leaving the child working even harder for approval.
This cycle looks like this:
Work – Reach or Miss Expectation – Disapproval – Work Harder
When this child enters adulthood, the child feels like true love is love that is earned, never freely given. I can recall dating many different men who fell for me, yet I wasn’t interested in any of them whose love I simply received. I felt like it was true love only if I had to work for it.
1. You feel difficult to love.
When you are raised by narcissists, you are seldom allowed to develop your own thoughts, feelings or ideas about life and all it brings. The message the narcissist gives a child is, “Believe as I believe, or I withhold love and attention. If you don’t believe what I believe, you make it very difficult to love you.”
The children of narcissists either do as the controlling parent says, or they push back. Many times, this is where the child of a narcissist is told that, “You are too sensitive” or “You are emotionally high maintenance.” The child begins to believe that you bury your feelings and conform to the manipulative parent or don’t deserve love.
Again, this carries over into adulthood. I remember when this happened during a toast at my brother’s wedding almost two decades ago. My gentle father brought up my proclivity to being sensitive. Dad said, “Laura was our sensitive, high-maintenance child.” Those words still haunt me today. Was this otherwise kind family member saying that maliciously? No, it is what the narcissist had taught him and believed to be accurate. Is it true? You bet. But guess what? Being a very kind, empathetic, caring, highly-sensitive person has made me the best friend, mother, daughter and co-worker anyone could ever ask for.
2. You must always be the adult.
When you are raised by narcissists you might think you must always take the high road when it comes to confrontations. This belief is fostered in childhood, too. The narcissist must be right when it comes to any opinion, situation, rule or comment. Children of toxic parents learn it is okay to be wrong if mom or dad is happy.
When the child enters adulthood, this can cause children who were raised by narcissists to retreat when confronted or fail to stand up for themselves at work or home. The adult has learned it’s better to be wrong than stand up for what you believe is right.
3. You never do what you want to do.
When you are raised by narcissists you are taught to turn the other cheek consistently. Put the narcissistic parent’s needs first. You may have been taught that caring for yourself is “selfish.” In adulthood, this can translate into caring for everyone else until it’s detrimental to your physical and emotional health.
My therapist once referred to this as being a doormat. When you constantly put others’ needs first, you are telling them and yourself that you are not worthy of love or care. Boundaries disappear, and the situation only grows worse. Many victims of narcissistic abuse find themselves repeatedly in relationships where they do all the work. And yet the other person, usually a narcissist, receives the benefits without ever giving back.
Recovering from abuse by a narcissistic parent takes time and work, but it is possible.
Here some of the fundamental beliefs and actions that you must take to heal and live free:
Being sensitive is a gift.
Likely, you are more sensitive and caring than other people around you. That’s what makes you a great parent, friend, son or daughter. It is what draws people to you. Others feel emotionally safe around you, and you bring them peace. Practice telling yourself that being sensitive is a gift because it is a treasure to others.
Practicing self-care and self-preservation is not being selfish.
If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of others. Commit to making sure you are rested, well and at peace before stretching yourself thin to help someone else.
Putting boundaries in place is necessary.
Dr. Henry Cloud says establishing boundaries teach others how to love us. When you set boundaries in place, you can determine who gets your gifts and who doesn’t. You deserve to give your most magnificent self when and where you decide it is needed. Boundaries help protect you now and in the future.
Learning that you are good enough can change your life.
You must talk back to that tape in your head that says you don’t measure up and that you are unlovable and don’t matter. One way to do this is to rediscover yourself. What makes you happy? What do you believe in? What do you stand for? Most likely, it’s not what the toxic parent taught you. By rediscovering yourself, you develop more confidence and more peace.
Understanding that the narcissist won’t like your changes is a crucial step. If the narcissist is still a part of your life, that person will notice your emotional growth and confidence. Most likely, the narcissist won’t like it. Why? The narcissist can’t control you when you’re developing your own beliefs, boundaries, values and morals. You are evolving into your true self. You are no longer a puppet on a string. You are free at last.
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