Being in a relationship with a narcissist, whether it’s a significant other, friend, or co-worker, can have an effect that lasts for years, if not a lifetime. The same is true for being raised by a narcissist, although in this case, since the relationship is during a person’s formative years, the effects can be particularly hard to recover from.
“Because narcissists are so focused on themselves, they lack empathy to view others as separate,” said Dan Neuharth, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the Psychology Today blog Narcissism Demystified. “They inevitably train their kids not to focus on themselves, on what they need.” Instead, children are taught to turn their time and energy toward their narcissist parent, ignoring their own desires and wants in the process.
Having a narcissist parent affects every part of a person’s life
Being raised by a narcissist can affect every facet of a person’s life, from who they select as a partner, whether they develop a sense of self, and how they set and enforce boundaries. Children of narcissists can also display narcissistic behaviours themselves, repeating some of what they observed growing up, while it’s also common for them to struggle with issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
“An adult raised by a narcissist can also grow up to have incredibly low self-worth,” said Karina Baltazar-Duran, a licensed family and marriage therapist with Thriveworks. “If you were only able to please your parent when you did something right, then you don’t learn how to embrace your weaknesses and limitations.”
Honour what you did to survive
The legacy of being raised by a narcissist can be complicated. This includes people who grow up mimicking certain behaviours they observe, as well as those who push back against their parents, even at an early age.
“Children are not completely powerless, empty vessels,” Neuharth said. “The role you chose in response to a narcissist to get love, to get your needs met, will also determine what your legacy is.”
For some children, they recognise early on that the family dynamic is dysfunctional and cope by rebelling or flying under the radar. Other children cope by trying to live up to their narcissistic parent’s expectations, while others will play the role of peacemaker within the family.
None of these choices are great, but they tend to represent a child’s best attempt to get what they need in an environment where that is an almost impossible task. “It’s a matter of emotional survival,” Neuharth said. “Even though every role has its advantages and disadvantages, I think it’s very important to honour what you did to emotionally survive.”
Recognise what wasn’t normal about your upbringing
Recovering from the effects of being raised by a narcissist takes a long time. In addition to developing an understanding of what your survival mechanism was, it’s also critical to unlearn certain behaviours that were considered normal while growing up. One of the first steps is recognising the situation for what it was.
“Growing up with a narcissistic parent can be very traumatic, and to admit this can often be scary,” Baltazar-Duran said. “When I ask new clients if they’ve ever experienced anything traumatic in their lives, they will often say no, [but] as time goes on, I [will] learn about traumatic times in their life. People don’t often admit to trauma ahead of time because they don’t define it as trauma.”
Learn to recognise a healthy relationship
One critical step for recovery is developing an understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like, which is certainly easier said than done. For some people this happens organically as they form relationships with people outside their immediate family. For others, this learning happens during therapy as they unpack their experiences.
For many people, this is a process that takes a long time and includes making a lot of mistakes along the way. “Sometimes, if you don’t realise that what you grew up with wasn’t normal and wasn’t healthy, you go out and are unconsciously drawn to the same sort of people,” Neuharth said.
As hard as this process is, it’s critical for breaking the pattern of behaviour. “It’s never too late to seek help,” Baltazar-Duran said.
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