And finally let go of trying to repair our relationship.
Image: Caiaimage/Chris Ryan/Getty
My mother never beat me, locked me in a closet, or told me I was stupid. The way she treated me was far more nebulous than that, and for years I would've told you she was my best friend. I didn't realize then that friendship is a two-way street—she taught me that my job was to serve the emotional needs of others, and I did my job well.
Childhood is supposed to be a time of growth and exploration, where children are anchored by their attachment to their parents. For many children raised by narcissistic parents, like me, it is instead a lesson in caretaking. My mother joined every activity I did, and she was always there with a smile in public. In private, she was unpredictable, by turns angry and cold, and I never knew how to make her happy. The one constant in my life was her unrelenting need for me. When I went to college, she enrolled at the same school and begged me to walk her to her classes. It took years for me to realize that she even made my first day of college about her.
Everyone is excessively interested in themselves. Narcissism is a normal part of being human, but when it begins to interfere with relationships, it can veer into Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which goes well beyond healthy confidence into the realm of disastrously, angrily self-aggrandizing and self-absorbed. The impact of being raised by a narcissist hasn't been well studied, but psychologists who specialize in narcissism say it leaves lasting effects like low self-esteem. Narcissistic parents view their children as extensions of themselves, leaving little room for their children to develop their own identities. Narcissistic parents can have trouble maintaining focus on their children, abruptly switching between hyper-involved and controlling parenting and disinterest and neglect. This lack of stability leaves children emotionally adrift and uncertain.
My mother has never set foot in a psychologist's office so she'll never be formally diagnosed with anything. But during my divorce five years ago, I picked up a book about narcissistic spouses and a light bulb went on. For the first time in my life, everything began to make sense. My mother's desperate need for attention and validation, her obsession with manipulation and control, and even her complete lack of boundaries were all laid out in the pages of that book. I finally had a framework with which to understand my mother, and my childhood.
It was a dramatic and life-altering moment, but understanding my mother's challenges didn't change my unmet needs as her daughter. That gaping hole deep inside of me that was looking for a mother didn't vanish just because I finally knew why she'd never been able to really be one. If anything, at first, I hoped that my newfound understanding would pave the way for a better relationship with her. I empathized with her, and I redoubled my efforts to rebuild our relationship.
That hope isn't uncommon. Many adult children of narcissistic parents have trouble letting go of their need for their parents. It makes sense; after all, we are biologically programmed to bond with our parents, and the attachments we form as children are what wire our brains to help us form secure relationships in the future. But it didn't take long for me to realize hope was a lying bitch.
Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, is a practicing psychologist who specializes in narcissism and the author of Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. In the book, she describes different types of narcissists and how to navigate the difficult terrain of dealing with them. When the narcissist in your life is a parent, Durvasula says hope has to go. "If [your parents] didn't care when you were five, they don't care when you're 35," she says. "Turn off all sense of hope. Hope left the room a long time ago."
The first step towards recovering from a narcissistic parent is therapy, and lots of it. I found my way to therapy five years ago, and it gave me a safe space to talk about my childhood and how it affected the decisions I made as an adult. But not just any therapist will do. It's important to find a therapist who understands narcissism and won't keep pushing you to take responsibility for the state of your relationship with your parents. That can be hard to find, Durvasula tells me, but a good therapist can help you learn to set appropriate expectations and boundaries with your narcissistic parent.
All of us deserve loving parents who treat us with kindness. But if your parent has an outlandish sense of entitlement, makes unrealistic demands on you, seems blind to other people's emotions, and fits the other descriptions of NPD, it might be time to let go. Instead of clinging to hope that someday our parent will transform into what we need and deserve, Durvasula says, it's important to confront the pain of our unmet needs so we can begin the hard work of accepting our reality. Adult children of narcissists who refuse to face their pain tend to invite more narcissists into their lives, she says. Confronting your childhood head-on and learning how to set appropriate boundaries with a narcissistic parent is how adult children of narcissists can stop repeating the dysfunctional cycles they grew up with.
Durvasula recommends that children of narcissists look at how interacting with their parents makes them feel before deciding how much or little contact to have with them going forward. If it tears you apart inside, affects your performance at work, and interferes with your other relationships, you need to set new boundaries with your narcissistic parent. "Imagine if your parents were a toxic waste site," Durvasula says. "Would you put your house next to it?"
That can mean going no-contact, or seeing your parent as infrequently as holiday dinners or once a month. No matter how often you see your parent, Durvasula said the key is not to let yourself become emotionally invested in them. "In some cases, the healthiest thing you can do is walk away," Durvasula said. "If that's not possible, detach."
This is particularly difficult because narcissistic parents love to reel you in. They know your weak, soft spots and how to make you angry or upset. The less you engage with them, the harder they will try to get a rise out of you. But it's important for your own mental health and recovery not to allow yourself to be sucked into their drama. "If the drama heats up, get up quietly and leave," Durvasula says.
In the early days—even years—of my recovery, I couldn't imagine a time when my pain wouldn't rule my life. As a child, I coped by daydreaming often, leaving reality behind. As an adult I spent years plagued by flashbacks and panic when a long-buried memory was triggered. But over the last five years, I have finally come to a place where I can acknowledge my own pain without being ruled by it. And for the child of a narcissist, that's a win.