An ongoing survival guide.
Know your enemy.
Taken from the Greek myth of the boy (Narcissus) who fell in love with his own image in a pond and died of starvation rather than get up and go live his life. All narcissists have a false sense of themselves. In a word that false sense is considered grandiose. The take away from the myth is that Narcissus was fooling himself: he wasn’t all that.
For Narcissus, he lost the capacity to engage with anything other than what was staring back at him. So he lost his life—not to mention all the important relationships he had or would ever have—because he abandoned everything for that gratifying, if illusory, image of himself.
Outside of Greek myths, today you will know narcissists by those who also believe in a grandiose sense of themselves, an identity only they see, an identity that ultimately has no time to spend on anything or anyone outside of their own needs, or a means to those ends. The modern day equivalent of Narcissus’s pond might be someone who believes they deserve their own reality television show and not be speaking with any sense of irony about the subject.
Narcissists rarely can find fault with themselves or their actions. As a result, you rarely find them going to therapy. Everything with them is fine; it’s other people who are causing all the problems in their life. Narcissists are kings and queens at the defensive strategy known as projecting.
In normal conversation however, narcissism is often confused with anyone who has a large sense of entitlement. There is a difference. We all have streaks of narcissistic traits. Some larger than others. Politicians, rock stars, real estate moguls, artists of all stripes, can all act like entitled jackasses if they want to, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify them for a genuine mental disorder. A little bit of narcissism is actually healthy, but in healthy doses it could be better described as a positive sense of one’s own life, ambition and agency. At one end of this spectrum you have what the DSM IV calls Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Now, the diagnoses in the DSM get voted in ands out, and the rumor for the DSM V is that NPD is no longer going to be a valid diagnosis. Consider that bold, if completely political, move when I tell you that there has been the argument (for quite some time) that as a culture we are all becoming more and more narcissistic. Now we are so narcissistic, a mental illness diagnosis doesn’t sound “appropriate” to the gatekeepers.
Excuse me while I vomit.
Unchecked, narcissism causes tremendous pain and anguish not just to the one’s who suffer a relationship to the narcissist, but ultimately to the narcissist themselves.
Which brings us to the idea of parents who are narcissists.
Other than the traits already listed above, here is a list of what you can expect from a parent who is closer to the NPD diagnosis than, say, Heathcliff Huxtable was:
- Narcissistic parents can often deny the emotional reality of their children’s lives (for the sake of their false persona).
- Narcissistic parents can often see their children as mere extensions of themselves and their own ego.
- Narcissistic parents can often hold their children captive with their own emotional needs. Otherwise known as the role reversal: the child becomes the emotional caretaker for the parent.
- Narcissistic parents often can deny their children genuine affection, physical emotional or otherwise.
- Narcissistic parents can display atrocious lack of insight when it comes to appropriate boundaries with their children.
- Narcissistic parents do not have to be colorful, larger than life characters to be considered narcissists. Otherwise known as the well-camouflaged narcissist.
- Narcissistic parents do not accept criticism for their behavior by their adult children. It is never their fault, nor is it their concern how you feel about them or your childhood grievances.
- Narcissistic parents however will take credit for all of your successes in life.
- A narcissistic parent is often matched with an enabler of a spouse: someone, anyone who either thinks the narcissist indeed walks on water, or is so emotionally checked out, they can’t even notice the damage being done to the family unit.
- Narcissistic parents may also come from a narcissistic parent or family of origin of their own.
- Narcissistic parents may honestly believe that their behavior is in the best interest of their child.
- Narcissistic parents may also have coexisting conditions including, but not limited to, substance abuse, mood disorders, and other related difficulties.
Alice Miller, a psychologist who pioneered work in this area, has written a number of very good books on the plight of adult (and younger aged) children of narcissistic parents. To begin, take a look at Drama of the Gifted Child, or Thou Shall Not Be Aware.
For Chapter 2 in this survival guide, expect an inventory and assessment of strengths and weakness that an adult child of a narcissistic parent needs to consider before confronting the narcissist in their life.