Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Click here for part one
Among all the frustrations of growing up with a narcissistic parent, one paradox is that although a narcissist strives to feel important, loved, powerful, in control, superior and omnipotent—hand-in-hand with those feelings lie the polar opposite feelings—of feeling unsafe, worthless, inferior, fearful, anxious and unloved. In part, as a cover for the negative feelings, the narcissist criticizes and blames you, demands that you meet his/her expectations or needs, attempts to control what you do and say, expects you to drop everything in order to tend to him/her and makes you feel it’s impossible to consistently please him or her. The defense that many people learn in order to protect themselves is to withdraw emotionally and/or physically. They put up a wall, or in some other way shut themselves off. This defense—which kept you insulated from a self-absorbed and demanding parent—is destined to hurt or destroy your adult intimate relationships, because a love relationship requires you to engage, not withdraw or detach. When someone you’re intimately involved with makes a reasonable request, expresses their feelings, wants to know what you’re feeling, tries to establish a relationship or wants to deepen a connection, your response is essential to building or maintaining the relationship.
People that grow up with a narcissistic parent may be wary of allowing anyone to get too close, for fear that someone else will do the same thing to you that occurred when you were growing up, says Nina Brown in the book Children of the Self-Absorbed (New Harbinger Publications). Further, she continues, you may have under-developed empathy for other people, because the very defenses we use to escape the onslaught and demands of a narcissistic parent become barriers to opening ourselves up to someone else’s feelings and needs as an adult.
Some of the ways you may fail to demonstrate empathy when relating with other people, according to Brown, are: allowing your attention to drift to other concerns or things you have to do; abruptly changing the topic or breaking off the conversation; leaning backwards or turning your body away from the person; mentally criticizing the person who is talking; challenging the speaker’s feelings; intellectualizing; interrupting the speaker; finishing the speaker’s sentences or distracting him/her from what s/he is trying to say. If you’re doing any of these more than very occasionally, other people will feel unimportant, not cared for and unloved.
Needless to say, creating and maintaining a healthy intimate love relationship requires you to overcome childhood defenses so you can be fully open, present and emotionally available for another. There’s no magic in a relationship if one of us thwarts connection, responds with little or no empathy or won’t let the other person get very close.
The lack of a satisfying intimate relationship is only one consequence of growing up with a narcissistic parent. Other consequences may include feeling a lack of purpose or meaning in life; relationship problems with family, friends or at work; lack of self-confidence; and feeling incompetent, flawed, isolated or alienated—to name a few.
So what can you do? Brown recommends that you choose one or two goals from the following list—and challenge yourself to master the task:
- allowing yourself to be aware of what you truly feel
- expressing those feelings
- not doing something just to please someone else
- developing recreational interests and activities
- developing a network of social support
- taking good care of your physical self
- cultivating meaningful relationships
- reaching out and giving to others
- involving yourself in creative endeavors
- staying open to someone’s emotions or strong feelings without emotionally or physically checking out