Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Develop a Sense of Self After Narcissistic Abuse

5 steps to establishing a sense of who you really are

If you were raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or who had strong narcissistic traits, it may have had a damaging effect on your sense of self. Having a poor sense of self can affect almost every aspect of someone’s life, but it may be something they’re completely unaware of. It’s a bit of a case of not knowing what you’re missing.

Your sense of self is that sense of ‘this is me’ or ‘this isn’t me’. If your boundaries have been violated by a narcissistic parent from an early age, you’ve been raised in a very controlled environment and you’re told that what you think is incorrect and holds no value, you may find it extremely difficult to define who you are and what you like.

Source: 123rf

I noticed this trait in myself when someone asked me once what I liked. I came out with a whole list of things which I did—work, looking after my kids, helping my mum… and they smiled and asked again, what did I like?

It was a tough question to answer. When you’re the victim of narcissistic abuse, you become so externally focused on, initially, your mother, and then other people in your life, that you may have a poorly defined sense of who you are as a person. You’re a daughter, a mother, a brother, a father… but who are you?

Your likes, dislikes, values, desires and wants are so referenced to the likes, dislikes, values, desires and wants of other people that it’s almost impossible to say who you are and what you need and desire. If you have experienced narcissistic abuse as a child, it’s likely that your self-esteem has been affected and that you place a low value on yourself as a person. Initially, when I began to work on myself, I would feel a sort of emptiness when I tried to define what I did and didn’t like—it always came back full circle to what I could do for other people, as opposed to some sense of there being a me inside who needed things—purely for the sake of me. I didn’t know who that me was.

How can you develop a sense of self?

The good news is, this is absolutely something you can develop. It takes effort and time, but it is achievable. For me, and in the work I do with my clients, developing a sense of self is a combination of changing the way you act, reframing thoughts and also connecting deeply with your body. Connecting with that true sense of who you are inside.

Connecting with your core self

Somewhere inside you is that knowledge of who you are. It’s likely that there have been times when you’ve felt a deep visceral reaction to being put down, criticised or ignored. You may not consciously remember these occasions, but there is a sense inside of you that, no matter how bruised you may have felt after encounters with a narcissist, there is a true sense of who you are deep inside. I use guided meditations with my clients to help them access this knowledge, and you can do a simple exercise now, closing your eyes and asking your body where that true sense of you is stored. Perhaps you can then focus on seeing it as a symbol or image. Enjoy experiencing what this is like and make time to connect with this physical feeling of who you are regularly.

Setting clear boundaries

If you’re going to develop a sense of self, you need to develop clear boundaries to help you manage and define where you start and stop in relation to other people. These boundaries can include time boundaries—setting limits on how much time you spend doing things for others and clearly demarcating time just for you. They could include emotional boundaries—clearly defining what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. I also think spatial boundaries can help here too. Is there a space in your house, no matter how small, that can be your own? Can you have a man (or woman) cave somewhere?

Experimenting with what you like

Doing things you like probably sounds really easy, but if you have a poorly defined sense of self it’s a tough thing to do. You might have very little idea of what you like. You might have thought you liked things because you were keeping other people happy. Treat this as an experiment. Start doing things without too much expectation—they could be everything from visiting an art gallery to going to a football match to knitting or going for a walk. Try it! You might surprise yourself. Keep a note of your experiences and create a list of what you liked and what you didn’t like.

Start saying no

Do you always say yes to other people? Start saying no! Developing a sense of self means recognising your needs and supporting that with the right behaviour. If you’re always running about doing everything for everyone else, you won’t put the time or energy into working on your own sense of self.

Be your own best friend

Imagine a relationship that is important to you. I suspect it takes effort (whether it’s with a romantic partner, child, parent, friend or colleague). You have had the ability to create a good relationship with that other person by putting in time, effort and love. You’ve supported their likes and interests and have done things to help them enjoy themselves and receive what they need. You’ve got all the skills right there to do the same with yourself!

More from Claire Jack Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today