You’ve figured out that one or more of your parents are narcissists. They may be hardcore, with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), they may have narcissistic traits, or they may be a complex collection of parents, stepparents, and/or caregivers who fall in various places along the narcissism continuum. Whatever the reality is in your family of origin and however old you are, you need to move forward with your own life. It’s never too late or too early to set boundaries, process your feelings, and work on healing. Even if you are a minor still living at home, there are many ways you can help yourself. If you were raised by a narcissist, here are steps you can take right now on your healing path.
1. Educate Yourself About Narcissism
If you’re new to the realization that one or more of your parents is a narcissist, you need to keep learning about what you’re dealing with. Scour the Internet for good resources. Read, join chat forums, watch movies and shows with narcissistic characters, find a therapist who understands narcissism. The more you educate yourself and find support, the more you will understand what you’ve been through and what you need to do to move beyond the toxic influence of your family.
2. Accept That Your Narcissist Parent Won’t Change
One of the most difficult challenges you face is accepting that your narcissist parent in all likelihood will never change. If the narcissist in your life finds a way to make personal progress toward a healthier state of being, great, but you should assume he won’t. Narcissists rarely change, and if they are acting nicer it is most likely a manipulative maneuver. Holding out hope that your parent will finally give you the unconditional love you have craved your whole life is natural, but it is a false dream that makes you vulnerable to further abuse and keeps you from moving on.
3. Recognize Your Enabling Parent
If you have a narcissist parent, chances are you also have an enabling one. What does that really mean? By going along with and/or excusing the narcissist’s abusive behavior, enablers essentially “normalize” and sustain it. Sometimes enablers also act as “flying monkeys” by assisting the narcissist in her dirty work, condoning and perpetuating her abuse. By not naming the abuse and not protecting their kids from it, enablers become complicit, even if they are also victimized by it.
Sometimes forgiving the enabling parent can be as hard or harder than forgiving the narcissist parent. People with NPD have a personality disorder formed in early childhood by a devastating deprivation. Although the narcissist may behave monstrously, you may find yourself feeling worse about the more functional enabling parent. You may wonder why that parent excused the narcissist and didn’t protect you from abuse, and you may feel terribly betrayed by his/her complicity.
4. Recognize the Roles in Your Family
Were you a scapegoat or the golden child? Have you acted at times as a flying monkey? Roles are often fluid in the narcissistic family, depending on the narcissist’s agenda. Perhaps you have been the golden child and also scapegoated. Because the narcissist maintains control by creating divisions (divide and conquer) among family members, you may feel alienated from your other parent and siblings. Perhaps you feel betrayed by them. It is important to remember that all of you have been part of a warped system orchestrated by the dominant narcissist in the family singularly to serve his needs at the expense of others. On some level you have all been fighting to survive with the roles you have been cast in.
The most powerful defense against the narcissist is a unified front against her. If you can find mutual understanding and unity with your other family members, that can be an empowering way to shut down the narcissist’s abuse, as well as a profound source of validation for what you have been through. However, if your other parent or siblings are not trustworthy or open to talking about the narcissism in your family, you need above all to protect yourself and limit contact with them.
5. Assert Boundaries
Narcissists constantly violate boundaries. They see others, particularly their children, as extensions of themselves to control and manipulate. As the golden child your job is to reflect what the narcissist wishes to see in himself and wishes to project to the world. As the scapegoat, your job is to take the blame for the family’s problems, endure the narcissist’s worst abuse, and handle unreasonable responsibilities. Either way, as the narcissist’s child you are objectified, not respected as a person with your own identity. The narcissist tells you what you think and feel and insists on your compliance with his version of “reality” no matter how absurd, false, or harmful.
One of the most difficult and important things you must do for yourself as a survivor is to establish healthy boundaries. Understanding what that means and getting comfortable doing it can take considerable time and practice for the child of a narcissist. The first place to start is with the narcissist parent and possibly other family members.
6. Attune with Your Feelings
As the child of a narcissist parent, you have been systematically trained to ignore your feelings, even to fear and hate them. Your feelings are a direct threat to the narcissist parent because they are likely to conflict with what she needs, believes, and demands. In the narcissistic family, only the narcissist’s feelings matter, and everyone else’s must be sublimated or outright crushed through ridicule, shame, rage, and other forms of attack.
Perhaps the most important thing to do for yourself toward healing is to reconnect with your feelings. They are there, and they always have been. Let them in, listen to them, carry them with respect. In your feelings you will locate yourself and your way through and out of the narcissist’s “alternative facts” world. Since you have been violated in innumerable ways by your parent(s), you will have to navigate through intense hurt and anger. Most narcissists constantly project their own bankrupt motives and emotions onto others and blame others for or even accuse them of their own abusive behavior, so at first you may not know what you really feel versus what you have been brainwashed to believe. As you learn to attune to your feelings, be patient. Try not to judge yourself. Feelings are feelings are feelings. They deserve, and in the scheme of things insist upon, recognition and respect.
7. Don’t Blame Yourself
Especially if you’ve been scapegoated in your family, you are likely to automatically blame yourself and feel guilt for things beyond your control or responsibility. Narcissists are experts at deflecting and projecting blame onto others. If they raged at you and you stood up for yourself, you attacked them. If they punched you, you drove them to it. One of the best ways to break your unhealthy family dynamics is to stop blaming yourself for what was never your responsibility or fault to begin with.
8. Stop Hurting Yourself
Along with not blaming yourself, chances are you need to stop patterns of self-abuse. As someone raised in a narcissistic family, you are prone to risky, self-punishing, and self-soothing but destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse and addictions, self-harm, and thrill-seeking. Your self-destructive behavior is an internalization of the narcissistic abuse you grew up with, which is the opposite of the narcissist’s externalization of her pain. By engaging in such behavior you continue to give the narcissist power over you. You also exacerbate the emotional and physiological trauma you have already endured. Patterns of addiction and self-harm can be extremely hard to break, so seek help and support from people who understand the dynamics of narcissism.
9. Be Aware of Your Attractions with Narcissists
To add further injury to injury, many adult children of narcissists are vulnerable to being drawn into relationships with narcissists beyond their family of origin, including partners, friends, and bosses. It sucks, but there is no shame in this: Repeating the past until we learn from it is the mind-body’s way of healing. So pay attention. Learn. Keep educating yourself about narcissism. Develop a fine-tuned narcissist radar, or “nardar.” If you get tripped up in unhealthy relationships, forgive yourself and move on. Only about 6 percent of people have NPD. There are a lot of nonnarcissists out there, so go find them!
10. Honor Your Feelings About Your Narcissist Parent
Most of us love our parents, no matter what, and we cling to our need for love and validation from them. Your narcissistic parent cannot love you unconditionally the way we all deserve to be loved within our families, and for that matter is capable of no more than fleeting empathy. Yet you may still love that parent. Mixed with grief and anger, you may also sympathize with your parent’s NPD. It is also possible that you are numb to your parent or too used up to feel love anymore.
Whatever you feel, try not to judge yourself for it. Honor your feelings and let them be your guide in how you choose to interact with your family. Go no contact if that feels like the safest choice. Or operate with firm boundaries and lowered expectations. Narcissist parents, unless they are true sadists, are usually capable of affection for their children, at least sometimes. Some may be able to give in ways that you find nurturing or helpful. With a healthy dose of skepticism, take the good when it comes, as limited as it may be.
11. Treat Yourself for Narcissistic “Fleas”
Children raised by a narcissist are likely to pick up at least some narcissistic traits or tics, also known as “narcissist fleas.” Some become full-blown narcissists themselves, but many merely perpetuate a few behaviors that can be overcome with mindfulness and practice. Take a look at yourself. What triggers you? What do you do that reminds you of your narcissist mother or father? Are you quick to anger? Do you seek attention or control through guilt or manipulation? Could you be more sensitive to other’s feelings and perspectives?
The best revenge is a life well-lived. Work on mindfulness and peace in your own life. You can’t help how you were raised, but you can work to control how you act now and how you raise your own children.
Julie L. Hall’s articles on narcissism regularly appear in her blog The Narcissist Family Files, as well as The Huffington Post and PsychCentral. She is the author of a forthcoming memoir about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family (read excerpts).