Dear Drama Observers,
A couple of years ago, I asked a friend if she’d be willing to share what it was like growing up in a family headed by narcissistic parents. I had heard her say many times, “I was raised by wolves.” Somehow, that phrase caught my attention and when I asked her to explain more, it was clear that her parents fit, at least loosely, into the narcissism category.
She painted such a vivid picture of that experience that I thought I’d share it again with you today. Here it is:
What was it like to grow up as the child of a narcissist?
I recently read an article entitled 5 Damaging Lies We Learn From Narcissistic Parents on Huffington Post. It was like reading a description of my own childhood. It would be impossible to describe everything in a personal essay of this length, so I will mention a few areas that fit with the drama theme that Dr. Godwin has been describing in his weekly letter.
As a child, I learned very early that my needs were secondary to my parents’ needs. Love was always conditioned on my performance as their child.
Image was very important. How we appeared to those outside of the family was an ever-present concern. Good behavior reflected well on the family, bad behavior was an unforgivable offense! “Bad behavior” was determined by the parents and might not have ever been specified before. But, it was always my job, as the child, to just inherently know what was appropriate. Looking back, I can see many ways I was simply behaving as a normal child, only to be punished because I had somehow reflected badly on my parents.
The rules were rarely spelled out and they were always changing. What had been acceptable one time could become unacceptable without warning, depending on their whims or the circumstances. It was my job to keep up, to anticipate what was expected, and accept the punishment when I failed without complaint. With no other frame of reference, this was accepted by me as “normal.” I assumed my parents knew what was best for me and that they had my best interests in mind. I felt bad for being a problem for them.
I learned that my emotions were not valid or valued. In fact, the only valid emotions in the household were those of my parents. If I was laughing, I would be scolded, “Stop being silly!” Anger was definitely not allowed. And we all know “big girls don’t cry!”
Guilt was a big motivator. I was made to feel guilty for how lucky I was to have all the advantages I had; advantages my parents did not have but had been made available for me. They grew up during the Depression and there was always a story about something they’d had to do without that I had, something I had to eat that I didn’t like, or some job they’d had to do that I did not.
In some ways, it seemed that my parents wanted to control all of my responses. If they wanted me to be happy, I needed to display happiness. If I felt unsure in a social situation or uncomfortable with someone, they dismissed my feelings and compelled me to respond in the way they had determined was reasonable. If I didn’t seem grateful enough for something, I was verbally shamed for being so ungrateful and selfish. If I had accomplished something, they were pleased, particularly if it made them look like good parents. But, I was always strongly cautioned about “getting a big head.” Nothing was worse than thinking too highly of oneself!
Empathy is a big factor in feeling loved. Narcissists do not have the ability to be empathic. Things that upset me or excited me were downplayed or ignored. I became accustomed to this in many ways. I just learned to not expect my parents to care very deeply about things that involved me. But, I learned to be interested and excited about the things they thought were important.
I read once that growing up in this type of environment of neglect can actually rewire a person’s brain; I tend to believe that. As an adult, I can look back and see how I internally redefined terms to fit with my experience. I accepted that what I was offered was love, so my understanding of love was skewed. This applied to many emotions and emotional responses. I suppose a child has to make sense of the world they are in. They need parents who love them and care for their needs. Therefore, I made my understanding of how the world worked fit my experience.
A case in point to demonstrate my mom’s lack of interest in things that did not involve her: She came to visit me while I was single, just out of college. I was dating the man who would become my husband. He was anxious to meet her and make a good impression. We spent a day together, just the three of us. She never asked him a single question or showed any interest in getting to know him. She actually seemed to view him as a rival for my attention, something she had done before with other friends over the years. When he pointed this out to me, I had not been aware that she had ignored him.
I had learned to play my part in her drama very well!
A month later when I called her to tell her we were engaged, her response was, “That’s nice, Dear. Did you know that the price of tomatoes has gone up again? I can hardly believe it!” She then continued talking about things that interested her. When I had to direct her back to my big news, she was indignant. What did I want from her? She’d said that’s nice. Once again, I was ill-mannered or selfish, wanting the attention.
Not only does a narcissistic parent want to control the emotions of the child, they want to orchestrate the child’s life. Boundaries are non-existent. All areas and all subjects are a matter of family discussion and direction. This was true for me as a child and continued into adulthood. My identity had been dictated to me for so many years, and all areas of my life were open for approval or disapproval by my parents.
Apart from them, I had no idea who I was or how to relate in a “normal” relationship. I was quite compliant and I had learned to do whatever it took to keep the peace, so I got along well with others. I was excellent at understanding what was expected of me and delivering that, so people generally liked me.
I was a walking reflection of whatever someone might need me to be. As you can imagine, this does not build self-esteem or confidence.
In a family like mine, the children are made responsible for the happiness of the adults and are blamed when things go wrong.
My younger sister was the child who acted out, rebelled, threw tantrums, etc. I was the compliant rule follower who felt responsible for keeping everyone happy. My mom once told me that it was my fault that my sister was out of control and hard to manage because I had never wanted her to be punished. My mom reasoned that she would have disciplined my sister and raised her well but for my interference. She cited some memory of me (at age 4-5) crying and begging her not to spank my younger sibling. I’m sure that’s possible, and took that responsibility upon myself. Why had I not understood that she needed to be disciplined? Apparently, I had thwarted my mom’s good intentions… What a crock! But, I believed for years that my sister’s disposition and problems were somehow my fault.
The same thing was true with my father’s drinking. Somehow my inability to behave drove him to drink. I have childhood memories of reorganizing the kitchen cabinets (after my dad had complained about not being able to find anything) in order to please my parents and possibly be praised for being so responsible. An odd memory, but it fits with trying to keep my parents appeased.
When I went for counseling in my early thirties, one of the remarks the counselor made was that the reason I was exhausted from being a mom to my precious little ones was that I had never NOT been a mom. I was always “the adult in the room.” I had been responsible for my parents and my siblings since my parents had abdicated that role and assigned it to me as a little girl. That made a lot of sense to me. I’ve been known as level-headed and dependable most of my adult life. I’m glad for that, but it came at a high price.
Because so much of my development as a child was skipped over or foiled by the neglect and abuse of my family, I had developed ways of compensating that mimicked maturity but was not actual maturity. True emotional maturity has taken years of relearning and looking honestly at my upbringing.
My mom orchestrated many dramas in our family. One of her favorites was pitting my younger sister and me against each other. The level of competition for her affection now nauseates me, but it was the daily truth of our childhood. It poisoned our relationship. To this day, my sister will not speak to me.
The years of competition and jealousy egged on by our mom more than took its toll. She carried that drama into our adult years as well. Talking to us daily on the phone, reporting tidbits of news and gossip in just the right tone to keep things stirred up. She particularly liked to compare our body weights and general appearance in order to manipulate us. “Your sister’s put on weight, looks terrible. So glad you look as good as you do.” “You may need to start coloring your hair. That gray will drive your husband to a younger woman, like your sister.” Insidious!
My parents, my mom in particular, were well-thought of in the tiny little town where we lived. They were both attractive and very charming. Most anyone who knew my family would probably tell you what great folks they were. To this day, I have cousins who talk about how wonderful they were. That’s part of what’s hard. They had so many good qualities and if I had not been raised by them, I would possibly think the same things.
Their best behavior was always reserved for those outside of our house. People in town would often tell me how proud of me my folks were. I know they bragged about me to others, but this information was never delivered to me by them.
It’s hard to square what you experience with what you are told when the two don’t match. I think that’s probably true with any type of emotional abuse. The abuser never looks the part. In fact, he or she looks like the ideal parent or ideal spouse in many cases. Only those in intimate relationships can know the truth, but it is definitely crazy-making!
At that same counselor’s office I mentioned above, he asked me to describe my mom. My own description was that she was always the center of attention and, when she was in a room, she took up all the space, all the air was hers. “Narcissist” was not a common psychological term at that time, so there weren’t tons of books or articles around describing this. This was just my own observation. And it was not meant to be derogatory. At this point, I still believed that my mom was my greatest supporter and cheerleader.
Things were sort of rocky in my marriage at the time, and I was deeply depressed. I had no idea that my relationship with my mom was out of kilter. Yes, she drove me crazy sometimes, but that’s what moms do, right?
My mom had planned to come and live with us soon as I felt it was my duty as her eldest daughter to take care of her. I hadn’t really questioned that, but I believe the reality of her living in my house, influencing my kids, and disrespecting my husband was weighing on me subconsciously.
She’d shown no real interest in either of my children. She’d come to “help” when they were born, but each time she sat and waited for me to wait on her… She was there, but she was not helpful. So I dutifully fixed meals, entertained, and tried to recover from birthing and caring for a newborn!
I now have a heightened awareness of narcissism. I can practically smell it! Growing up in my parents’ home was damaging. It has taken me years of therapy and reading and studying on my own to recover. It has also taken the love and patience of my husband and the grace of God to look back and make sense of it all.
It must be a bit like escaping from a cult. I’ve had to redefine terms and recognize that what I lived through was not in my best interest. I’ve had to figure out how to forgive, how to move forward, and how to live a life of my own choosing. I’ve had to learn how to identify my feelings, how to express them appropriately, and how to give them credence without being controlled by them. As a lifetime avoider of conflict, I’ve had to learn how to disagree with others agreeably and not shrink from a disagreement.
I’ll close with a few facts about narcissist families:
- They lack empathy and are unable to connect with their kids in an emotionally meaningful way.
- Verbal communication is lacking. Parents tend to expect adherence to unspoken rules.
- Physical and emotional boundaries are breached continuously.
- Siblings are often pitted against one another. Closeness does not tend to develop.
- Feelings are denied and not discussed.
- Children are made responsible for the adults.
- Public image is all important.
Thanks, Friend! Till next week.