Narcissistic Parents: Contact or Not?
Making decisions about toxic parents.
Posted May 15, 2011
The most frequently asked question by adult children of narcissistic parents is whether or not to remain in contact with that parent and/or the rest of the dysfunctional family nest. It goes deep and it's difficult to know what's best. Your family roots, your very beginnings, and your subsequent history, are all significant parts of you. We are who we are based on where we've been. Juggling decisions for sound mental health can be packed with arduous cognitive and emotional machinations that create distress. Sometimes these imminent decisions become paramount to everyday life. Our hearts can be wrapped with it. The question and the struggle are not to be underestimated.
In loving recovery with self, decisions can be made that feel right to the heart. Without recovery work, however, those decisions may steer you in wrong directions. If you simply detach and remove yourself from your narcissistic parent without doing your own work, you will not diminish your pain and your true self cannot emerge to the peacefulness that you desire. As Murray Bowen reminds us in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, "Less-differentiated people are moved about like pawns by emotional tensions. Better-differentiated people are less vulnerable to tension." If you take yourself out of the situation without completing your internal growth, you have accomplished less and can remain troubled.
It is important for adult children of narcissistic parents to know that there are truly some parents who are too toxic and are what I call "untreatables." If someone is abusive and cruel and continues to be without remorse or empathy, it cannot be healthy for anyone to be around that person. That's OK and important to know. Full-blown narcissists do not change, do not realize the need to change, and are not accountable or receptive to input from their children.
Because narcissism is a spectrum disorder on a continuum, there are many people who have narcissistic traits but are not full-blown narcissists. Many of these people can move in therapeutic directions if they choose. Your decision regarding contact with the toxic untreatable or the highly-traited narcissist can best be made by working your own recovery and taking adequate time to allow the healing to happen. When developing my five-step recovery model, I found that the decisions about contact should not be made until step four. That means you are working acceptance, grief, separation, and building a stronger sense of self before deciding what kind of contact you will continue to have with your narcissistic parent. (The full model can be found in Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.)
In short, however, I usually recommend taking a temporary separation to work your own recovery first. This means you simply explain a need for some space from the parent so you can sort out the issues and keep the clear focus on self. When you get to step four, you will know if it is best to make a decision of Therapeutic Resolution, No Contact, or Civil Connection with that parent. Let's take a look at each possible decision.
Therapeutic Resolution. Some parents with less narcissistic traits are open to family therapy and this can be very effective with the right therapist. It can only be done, though, if the parent is accountable and wants to work through family issues and childhood pain. For those lucky enough to have parents like these, a seasoned therapist can provide meaningful healing.
No Contact. The decision to go "No Contact" is a big one but is made when a parent is too toxic and never accountable and continues to be abusive to the adult child. It's a sad but necessary solution in many cases. This decision can only be made in sound mind when the adult child has really worked the internal recovery model. Without this internal healing, guilt may be over-burdensome to the adult child and pain undiminished. Sometimes, with recovery, the decision becomes a desire for a civil connection instead.
Civil Connection. The decision to have a civil connection is the most common. This is an educated place in which the adult child knows and accepts that the connection with the narcissistic parent will not be an emotional bond or relationship. It will be civil, polite, light, and not emotionally close. Because of the internal work done by the adult child, this place of understanding allows the superficial relationship to be OK without expectations. Because the adult child has completed separation, acceptance, and grief, and has developed sound boundaries, it is possible to be "a part of and apart from" at the same time. It is possible to keep your solid sense of self and not get sucked into family dysfunction that has not changed.
If you are struggling with contact decisions regarding a narcissistic parent or family, know that recovery does work and makes it so much easier. We are accountable for our own growth and it takes time and effort to accomplish it. As the late child psychiatrist Margaret Mahler points out, "Insofar as the infant's development of the sense of self takes place in the context of the dependency on the mother, the sense of self that results will bear the imprint of her caregiving." That imprint of maternal or paternal narcissism can be re-drawn when the authentic self is brought to the surface and given proper nourishment for re-parenting and growth. What could be more important? This newfound self is what we joyfully give back in the form of true love. The legacy of distorted love is then uprooted and authentic unconditional compassion takes its place. I remain a "hopeaholic" for the sisterhood and brotherhood out there. Love restored that begins within is worth the journey.