Narcissistic as a descriptive personality term is often overused and abused, but what does it mean? What are the consequences of growing up with a parent with narcissistic personality problems?
The people we describe as narcissistic often tend to function very well. Socially they can come across as gifted and charming. They appear to have much better impulse control than would be found in people who display regressive personality characteristics or more severe borderline personality issues.
When I work with a narcissistic personality in my clinic, or with people who have been raised by a parent with such issues, there are a few features that tend to stand out.
- Frequently there will be a high degree of self-reference in the way they engage and interact with others.
- There is a high need for love, admiration. On the one hand there is the sense of a high need to be told that they are special, on the other there is an inflated sense of self-value.
- The narcissist is caught in an internal dispute between a sense of worthlessness which needs to be constantly repaired by the attention and flattery of others, and a grandiose sense of self-importance on the other.
This makes being with a narcissistic personality very difficult and disorienting.
- One moment you are aware that you need to bring them some kind of special care and attention.
- The next they have no need of it at all, and you may find yourself being criticised and derided for having tried to bring the attention in the first place.
It is this abrupt shift that takes place within the interaction, and the narcissists’ personality, that can create such a troubling experience for you.
So what of children who were raised by narcissistic parents?
If you were raised by a narcissistic parent these things will likely have played havoc with your own capacity:
- To develop your spontaneity,
- To develop your creativity,
- To play.
- Your imagination and spontaneous impulses will have been constrained by never being able to relax.
- You will likely have been profoundly confused by the contradictions that your parent presented you with.
- At an extreme is a traumatic experience.
- You will have grown up never knowing what was going to happen next.
An adult client told me:
‘I dreaded coming home from school. When my father was at home it was really difficult. Things would switch from predictability to the complete opposite in a heartbeat.
I remember one time when he got some cake for us for when I got home. I was really pleased and told him so. But before I had finished my first mouthful his whole mood changed. He had detected that I didn’t really like the cake, that I would have preferred something else.
He would say he had seen something in my expression that he didn’t like and he would start to interrogate me. This would descend into him accusing me of being ungrateful. It could get ugly and nasty. My heart sank because there was nothing I could do to turn it round. I still had cake in my mouth and he was starting to get angry and telling me off for being so ungrateful. I started to cry while I was still eating. My face got a bit messy and that made him angrier.
It was terrible, and actually it was a really typical homecoming too. When his mood had got to this point he would be prone to get violent. I used to walk home from school dreading what would happen if he was in.’
This kind of experience of unpredictability is traumatic, more so when it may have lead to violence.
If you have grown up in conditions like this, or with a parent who had these kinds of narcissistic issues it will have been very difficult for you to have developed, for your creativity and talents to shine.
This has long term consequences. Often what you see in people who have gone through this kind of childhood with a narcissistic parent is that when they grow up they have a tendency to pick partners who have the same kinds of personality problems.
Someone who has learned as a child that it is their role to pacify a narcissistic personality type frequently goes onto pick just such a partner themselves. So the cycle continues and you have inadvertently been drawn to repeat the damaging and constricting experience of your childhood.
I have met adults who have been through several relationships, sometimes several marriages that all worked on these kind of narcissistic lines.
There is a way out of this kind of destructive repetition in psychotherapy. There is a way of understanding more about your underlying issues and experiences, and the way they tend to draw you into these destructive repetitions.
Psychotherapy can provide a route out, but it will likely take time and commitment.