Craig Malkin Ph.D.,
What happens when you live in the shadow of a narcissistic parent?
“Character is the trace of relationship,” wrote Christopher Bollas, the brilliant post-Freudian psychoanalyst, in his ominously titled but infinitely hopeful book, The Shadow of the Object. What he meant was that we all develop in context, gathering bits and pieces of the relationships around us and fixing them, unconsciously, to our temperament—that wired-in biological blueprint that partially determines who we become. This, he concluded, is how any personality is born.
What happens to the development of our personality when we live in the shadow of narcissistic parent? Here are eight of the most common effects.
- Chronic self-blame.Narcissistic parents may or may not be openly abusive, but they’re almost certainly emotionally tone deaf, too preoccupied with their own concerns to hear our pain. Because emotionally sensitive children who long for love can’t simply walk out the door and find a new family, they often nurture hope by sacrificing their self-esteem. “I’m the problem,” they tell themselves. “If I were quieter, calmer, or happier, my mother wouldn’t yell at me, ignore me, or criticize me all the time. If I fix myself, I’ll finally be loved.” Sadly, we often blame ourselves for what’s missing from our lives to preserve a shred of hope.
- Echoism. If you’re particularly sensitive or empathic by nature, you’re more likely to respond to narcissistic parenting with a stance I call echoism, named after the nymph Echo, who was cursed to repeat back the last few words she heard. Just as Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Narcissistic parents who explode without warning, or collapse in tears any time a child dares to express a need, force sensitive children to take up as little room as possible, as if having any expectations at all is an act of selfishness. Like Echo, echoists struggle to have a voice of their own—and often end up with extremely narcissistic partners.
- Insecure attachment.Think of secure attachment as our degree of comfort with becoming close to and depending on others in healthy ways. The neglect, abuse, or emotional absence of a narcissistic parent can make us question how safe we are in other people’s hands. Roughly speaking, insecure attachment can take two forms: avoidant attachment, in which we manage our fears by shutting people out (I’ll never risk depending on anyone ever again!) and anxious attachment, where we chase after love, pursuing—sometimes angrily—the connection we long for with our loved ones (Why won’t you pay attention to me!). Whether you become anxious or avoidant depends on a complex combination of temperament and consistency in care and attention, but ongoing neglect tends to create avoidance, and unpredictable attention generally yields anxiety.
- Need-panic.A related problem is something I call need-panic. Narcissistic parents can make their children terrified of their needs, who bury them by becoming compulsive caretakers or simply falling silent. They may hum along for a while, seeming to need nothing from their partners or friends. Then, a crisis hits, and suddenly—in ways they find deeply unsettling—they call their friends incessantly or seek constant reassurance. The quickest way to eliminate a need, after all, is to get it met immediately; paradoxically, the people most afraid of their needs are apt to seem the most “needy.”
- Fierce independence.Outgoing, adventurous children may respond to narcissistic parenting by abandoning emotional intimacy altogether, believing that no one can be trusted or relied on. This is impossible to sustain, naturally, and can easily engender intermittent need panic. Alternatively, children with more sensitive temperaments may become compulsively selfless caretakers, as if the only way they can enjoy nurturance is vicariously, by providing others with the warmth and caring they never enjoyed.
- The parentified child.Temperamentally sensitive children (who are often gifted empaths) can develop a laser-like focus on their parents‘—and later, their partners’—needs. They organize their lives around the happiness of others, convinced they have to bolster their parents’ esteem (of course you’re pretty!) or prevent their next explosion (I’ll get your snack, you’re stressed!) by closely minding their every desire or whim. The frightened child turned little adult often grows up to worry endlessly about their selfishness. They may even grow to hate their own needs, viewing them as a burden to others.
- Extreme narcissism.The more aggressive a child is by nature, the more likely they are to respond to narcissistic parenting by playing a game of if you can’t beat them, join them: “I’ll just make sure I’m the loudest, prettiest, smartest person in the room. That way no one can make me feel unimportant again.” If you’re born with a stubborn, bombastic temperament and exposed to the kind of neglectful or abusive parenting narcissists often provide, you’re more likely to end up narcissistic yourself.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).The more abusive narcissistic parents become, the more likely they are to traumatize their children. That can lead to a fearful approach to life and to PTSD. Abuse throws us into a state of constant alertness, vigilantly prepared to dodge the next danger. This typically leads to chronic anxiety, sudden memories of abuse, emotional numbing, and even a foreshortened sense of future, in which people become so fixed on simply surviving that they lose the ability to imagine life beyond the present. One client felt certain, for example, that he wouldn’t see his 30th birthday. When living represents a constant threat, there’s no room for a five-year plan. The future becomes nebulous, even opaque, and when that happens, mapping out the next steps in life is like trying to walk through a brick wall.