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Are You Plagued With Self-Doubt?

Self-doubt is not always low self-esteem.

Adult children raised by narcissistic parents internalize negative messages about themselves that can be unwound and released with good recovery work. As you went through each childhood stage of growth and development with your reality tested by negative messages from your parent, you learned at an early age to question yourself. When you are raised to conscript to a certain mold and your place is to serve the parent rather than the parent augmenting your sense of self... interesting things happen. One of those things is that you grow up with a continual and nagging self-doubt. Does this mean you have low self-esteem? Not always. But, self-doubt and low self-esteem seem to get smushed together as the same thing.

It makes sense that if your parent continually told you that your thoughts and feelings were wrong, that you were too sensitive, that you should not question that parent, that you are not good enough no matter how hard you try... you might still be somewhat haunted by self-doubt. This does not mean you are necessarily a person with low self-esteem. Self-esteem is a continuum that ranges from very low to very high and many levels in between. While everyone may suffer from intermittent self-doubt, children raised by narcissists are pre-programmed to question themselves.

Having worked with many adult children raised by narcissistic parents, I see men and women who took the message of "I'm not good enough," from childhood and said "Let me show you I am worthy." A significant portion of women in my study became what I call the Mary Marvels and they are strong, independent, high achieving women who have accomplished amazing things. They have good self-esteem, but can still be plagued by self-doubt.

Self-esteem can be defined as someone who has a decent opinion of self without grandiosity. One who sees self as a good person, hard-working, reliable, honest, friendly, and able to like and love him or herself for who they are. This does not mean that self-doubt will never crop up. The Mary Marvels of my study seem to have learned that, "A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her." (David Brinkley)

The problems I do see that warrant serious recovery work are: (1) the inability to give oneself credit, and (2) sometimes feeling like an imposter. I think these issues are caused from the self-doubt and negative childhood messages. But they can be addressed. Let's take a closer look.

Inability to Give Oneself Credit

If raised by a narcissistic parent, an adult child will invariably be fearful that they will grow up to be narcissistic themselves. This makes it difficult to give self credit for fear of being arrogant or behaving like a narcissist. They may have been told in childhood, "Don't get a big head." What does that mean anyway? But, know that a narcissist is arrogant in disingenuous ways and most times has nothing to back up the bragging spree. They make themselves look bigger than they really are to cover up the internal feelings of inadequacy. The true narcissist has, "a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements." (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition.)

This means that if you have accomplishments and have worked hard in life, it is real and you can give yourself credit for this. You don't need to brag, but you can give yourself that credit where credit is due. It is an internal kind of caring for self. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said it nicely when she wrote, "People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within."

Many adult children of narcissistic parents have learned to plant their own gardens in their internal souls with light, hope, and fresh blooming tulips. They've learned that when they are told, "You can't do it," that it might mean you have to do it, to truly take care of yourself and chase the enemy from your self-doubting head. And then when you do, you can give yourself credit for believing in yourself. In the end, it's your dream and it belongs to no one but you.

The Imposter Syndrome

The imposter syndrome is the inability to accept and claim accomplishments no matter what level of success, even with hard-won achievements because there is an irrational fear that you don't deserve the success or maybe you are just a fraud. Outward signs of accomplishment are seen as just good luck or good timing. An "imposter" feels as if she or he has been deceptive and has made others think he or she is more intelligent or skilled than they really are. While this is true for narcissists who don't necessarily have the resume to back up the grandiosity, it is not true for hard-won success.

Molly, age 38, recalls how she felt right after receiving her Ph.D.: "I actually wrote that damn dissertation, but believe me, I won't ever let anyone read it. I don't want anyone to see how dumb it sounds. It is amazing I got that degree. Maybe my field is a particularly easy one or the professors felt they had to pass me after all this time."

Molly was asked to not only submit a part of her dissertation to an international book, but was asked to speak at an international conference about her research. Deep down, she knew she could do it. But that nagging self-doubt kept her from giving herself credit. Many incredibly competent women and men have shared similar stories.

I love Marianne Williamson's popular and inspirational quote: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Deep down your self-esteem is there. Fight the demons of self-doubt and embrace your recovery work. Believing in yourself when it seems no one else believes in you is a challenge you can overcome. Don't wait for someone else to praise you and bring you red roses. Give it to yourself when you earn it. It is possible to pat yourself on the back. God did not design us to kick ourselves in the butt. Try it ... it's physically impossible to do.

Additional Resources

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