Susan was asked to go to her parents’ home for dinner. After trying on four outfits, she fell into a heap on the bed crying. Mark, her husband, had seen this behavior before. Wrapping his arms around her he gently said “I know your parents are going to make a comment about your appearance or weight, no matter what you wear. We don’t have to go Susan, why do you keep torturing yourself?” Why indeed?
As a grown woman she describes interactions with her parents as involving:
- Dreading encounters
- Guilt in wanting to avoid them
- Frustration, anger and shame when she speaks with them
- Feeling like a child in their presence
- Wishing they would disappear
- Hoping, despite the evidence to the contrary, that they will change
Following a one hour call of listening to their recent vacation experience they said “Enough about us. Let’s talk about you. You haven’t mentioned whether you got the pictures WE sent you of OUR trip”. It always comes back to them.
Susan is the adult child of parents with what could be described as having a destructive narcissistic personality. Some of the destructive patterns her parents displayed were:
- A demand for unlimited attention and compliments.Attention seeking behavior: bragging, tantrums, being loud, sulking, complaining, one up manship, cruel teasing.
- A demand to be seen as special and unique: what they say is more important than anyone else, impressing others with material objects or tales of their successes, immediate compliance with their demands, anger if not the centre of attention.
- Insisting you’re oversensitive, they will insist you should or should not feel a particular feeling, they will diminish your feelings, show no interest in listening to you, change the topic if you discuss something emotionally intense, criticize, devalue your comments when you express emotions, and tell you how you “brought it on yourself” if you express a negative feeling.
- Believing you are an extension of them: they have the right to control what you say and do and show anger if you do not, drop what you are doing and attend to their needs, become highly offended if your opinions or values differ from theirs, insinuate that you are stupid or inept when you don’t rely on them to tell you what to do and how to do it.
- Grandiosity: boasting, arrogance, intensely wounded when you disagree, easily offended at any hint they are wrong or mistaken, unable to laugh at themselves.
- Shallow emotions. Anger and fear are obvious. If you express a happy, joyful or distressing experience they ignore, belittle or minimize your experience and will change the topic back to themselves.
- Lies, exaggerations, distortions, misleading statements, expectation of favors, manipulation and emotional blackmail.
- Emotional Abuse – perhaps the most bruising. They are highly attuned to your sore spots, emotional triggers and how to induce shame and guilt. Examples are demeaning comments on your appearance or abilities, blaming you for their discomfort, criticizing, devaluing you and your accomplishments, belittling your efforts to please them, unfairly comparing you to others, insinuating that what you do or say is never quite right. You are kept on the defensive, always waiting for the next verbal attack. Remember, you are inferior!
Susan could have become like her parents but like many adults who have been raised by self absorbed parents, she took on the anti-model role. She lacked healthy narcissism such as self-confidence and self-respect. Self loathing and depression was a constant.
For the adult children of destructive narcissistic parents, it is time to stop being abused and interacting as though you are still a helpless child. Knowing where you come from can help you understand your unhealthy responses but it is not an excuse to keep living in pain and accepting abusive behavior. It is possible to protect yourself and set healthy boundaries without becoming vindictive or abusive yourself. You are not an extension of your parents and have the right to your own feelings and thoughts. Your heightened sensitivity and empathy can assist you in seeing that your parents are likely not aware of the anguish they cause. Education can help you understand that your parent is unlikely to accept they are flawed as this will result in accepting they are imperfect, a fear so great, that it threatens to destroy how they define themselves. Perhaps the most difficult shift is accepting the reality that they may never willingly change.
The exciting news is that you can change and in doing so, the dynamics of your relationship with your parents will also change. It may not be in the way you wanted at first, but imagine how it will feel to find your self respect, confidence, integrity and dignity unshaken in the face of interactions that had previously been devastating. It is possible to be gracious, kind and have healthy boundaries. Therapy can help you achieve these goals.