It’s perhaps the nit picking that gets to you the most. Your place is never tidy enough. That outfit doesn’t quite suit you. The meal you cooked was a little off. The gift you chose was ok, but not quite the one. Your job is a good one, but there’s a feeling you could have done better for yourself.
When you have a hyper-critical parent, it can feel that whatever you do, it doesn’t ever reach the mark that will get their wholehearted approval.
Sometimes you’re left wondering what you’d have to do to get a balanced, unloaded affirmation of who you are.
The trouble is, not only is that not likely to be forthcoming, but you’ve also probably developed a whole internal cottage industry to keep that barrage of criticism going. It’s not that you need mum or dad to tell you how inadequate you are. You probably do quite well at that all by yourself these days. But when you are with your parents it can be doubly painful, your own dose of self-criticism stacked alongside all they might be dishing out. Add to that the guilt when you feel irritation or anger back towards them.
I’ve written before about the impact of critical parents and the guilt that can come up when you rebel against that. For some people though, the impact of how a parent was, goes so deep that it can have a lasting detrimental effect well into adulthood.
When I see that kind of pain and suffering in the counselling room, I start to wonder about parental narcissism.
Everyone has a dose of narcissism about them, which helps them with self-esteem, self-belief and self-love, even if none of those things can feel true some of the time.
But when those traits become rigid and extreme (often because of how someone was parented themselves) it can be a symptomatic of narcissistic personality disorder.
The traits of a narcissist
Here are some of the traits of the narcissistic personality. You may recognise some or all of these in people you know, or specifically in a parent. Narcissism is runs along a spectrum, so see if any resonate. Does the person you are thinking of have*:
A deep seated vanity and self importance – it can seem like the world revolves around this person and they feel entitled to the best in life.
A tendency to take advantage of others, using or exploiting them to meet their own needs. It can seem like the world (or at least their family) is at their service.
A deep charisma – people are drawn to this person and seem to enjoy basking in their charm, which of course feeds their feeling of superiority.
A powerful imagination – the narcissist tends to over embellish and tell fantastical stories in which they play central and often heroic roles.
A tendency to over state achievements and exaggerate or sometimes fabricate successes – no-one can exceed or outdo a narcissist in their own sphere (so they think.)
An inability to take criticism – this person will react very strongly to any form of criticism and often lash out at others who criticise them. People who criticise were often cut out of their lives.
A scary temper – the narcissist’s rages are truly scary, foul language, belittling, physical temper, slamming doors, breaking things, pushing or worse.
Aloofness and distance – for all their charm, it’s really hard to connect with a narcissist. They tend to keep you at arm’s length. It’s difficult for them to feel any empathy or warmth for your suffering.
Doing their thing – as a child you may well have tagged along to mum or dad’s interests, rather than doing things that you valued. Or maybe they spent a lot of time away from the family and felt like a stranger at times.
Wanting to look good in front of others – your achievements were good for bragging or boasting to others, but not valued in themselves. In fact often they were demeaned at home.
Not giving you what you needed – you may have been physically provided for but not emotionally.
So while these are all narcissistic traits, experiencing them frequently and strongly might indicate a parent who had a narcissistic personality.
Is my parent a narcissist?
So what you can do? Well, first and foremost, this article isn’t about how you can change your parents.
One of the scariest and most difficult feelings when discovering a parent’s narcissim, is what does this mean for your future relationship? If they can’t change, what will happen to you?
The work of counselling and psychotherapy is to help you with that difficult journey. It is to support you through the disappointment and grieving for your relationship with you parents and yourself.
Then it’s about rebuilding your relationship with yourself, to allow the love, self-respect and choice that were absent in your parenting to come back into your life.
It’s also about defining appropriate boundaries and knowing when it’s ok to say no, leave, or in extreme cases cut ties.
You may need to let go of the possibility of a good, reciprocal relationship with a narcissistic parent. You also might need to know when it’s ok to fight back or give in. What feels most healthy and skilful in dealing with a difficult situation?
And finally, easier said than done, cultivate compassion for yourself, first and foremost, and if you can, perhaps for your narcisstic parent who, in all likelihood, was on the receiving end of some damaging parenting themselves.
This Week’s Lifeline
This week’s Lifeline is all about a self-compassion ritual. Find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed and safe for at least 30 minutes.
Light a candle if you can, to symbolise the light and heat of your true self, never forgotten or lost in all the pain and suffering you may have experienced in your life.
Ground yourself with your breath and really tune into your body and your sense of self, in this place, right now.
Gently bring to mind some of your life experiences with this difficult parent where they hurt you, harmed you or pushed you away.
Bringing each incident to mind, playing it back, noticing your breath and body in the remembering, say to yourself:
‘I was loveable, I was not responsible for what was done to me’
Do this for as long as you feel able to, but taking great care not to re-traumatise yourself. If at any moment you begin to feel wobbly or unsafe, open your eyes, and focus on being in the room, in the moment and in the presence of the candle.
When you feel ready to end the exercise, say to yourself three times:
‘I have my pain and I am more than my pain. I have awareness and choice.’
If you’re struggling with a difficult parent
If this article resonates and you feel ready to explore your relationship with a narcissistic parent, why not get in touch for a first appointment?
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*The narcissistic traits are adapted from an excellent article by Mark Banschick
Photo credit: http://magdeleine.co/photo-by-pasquale-vitiello-n-239/