“If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother!”
I guess this quote came from Freud, the father of psychology? Well, that could bring a whole bag of analysis and interpretation, but what’s really significant for adult children of narcissistic parents is to embrace self-recovery.
Parental narcissism needed a label. We’ve given more understanding to this issue in both the general public and the mental health field. It’s starting to be better understood and certainly talked about more in both circles. But, crucial internal recovery work needs more discussion. It’s one thing to understand the dynamics. Knowing that your parent has a mental illness is a validation that helps you know it’s not your fault. But, the next step is your own internal work.
Therapy has three parts:
- Understand the background, history, and diagnosis.
- Deal with the feelings related to the history.
- Begin to re-frame and view life through a different lens.
The Wild West philosophy of “get over it already” does not work with this recovery program, nor do simple affirmations or initial cognitive behavioral work. This specialized recovery involves cleaning up trauma first and accepting that your parent is not going to change. The change will be within you.
From my clinical experience, I’ve seen that Step One in recovery is the most difficult. Step One involves acceptance and grief. Acceptance means that you are accepting that the narcissistic parent has limited capacity for empathy and unconditional love. Grief involves grieving the parent you didn’t have and the little child you didn’t get to be.
It’s common to think of grief in the traditional stages set out by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and detailed in her beautiful work: On Death and Dying. In this important work, she discusses the five stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
For your recovery, we will be using these stages too, but we have to rearrange the order and put acceptance first. Adult children of narcissists have already been engaged in denial and bargaining with the narcissistic parent for a long time. Without acceptance, we cannot move on to deal with our true feelings. Without acceptance, we stay in denial.
After acceptance, it is possible to process the anger and depression of the loss so that you can free yourself from the pain felt over a lifetime. To better understand this different order to the grief process, I will outline it below in hopes that if you are reading this, you have a place to begin in your recovery.
The Revised Stages of Grief for Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents
Acceptance: We have to accept first that the parent has limited love and empathy to give, or we cannot allow ourselves out of the denial and learn how to feel our feelings. Acceptance is the first step in recovery after you realize the problem.
Denial: As children, we had to deny that our parents were incapable of love and empathy so we could survive. A child yearns for love above all else, and we needed the denial to keep growing and surviving.
Bargaining: We have been bargaining our whole life with the narcissistic parent, both internally and with them. We have been wishing and hoping that they will change, that they will be different the next time we need them. We have tried many things over the years to win their love and approval.
Anger: We feel intense anger and sometimes rage when we realize that our emotional needs were not met and that this neglect has affected our lives in severe, adverse ways. We feel angry with the parent and ourselves for allowing patterns to develop and for being stuck.
Depression: We feel intense sadness that we have to let go of the hope for and the vision of the kind of parent we wanted. We realize that they will never be as loving as we want them to be. We feel like orphans or un-parented children. We let go of all expectations. We grieve the loss of the vision of these expectations.
During the grief process, you will bounce around through all the stages, back and forth. Don’t move on in recovery until you solidly accept that your narcissistic parent has these limitations — for only then can you properly grieve. If you find yourself not accepting, go back and work on it again. It is the prerequisite for the work to come.
Expect that guilt will rear its ugly head. You are working through a big cultural taboo to embrace this work. Journal your feelings, talk to close loved ones, and take care of yourself as you process through the grief and acceptance work. March bravely in your recovery and find others who want to join your band.
Many tell me they have already done this work because they have felt sad for so long. It is different to really embrace the acceptance by allowing the feelings to surface. If processed long enough, you will be cleaning up trauma. This is not to say that no scars will be left or you totally get over childhood trauma. But as you work recovery, it feels better and your coping skills improve. The scars are proof that you are working wholeness. The grief and acceptance work make it possible for you to move on to the remaining steps of recovery that are outlined in Will I Ever Be Good Enough? As you absorb the losses you will feel like you are thawing out, but ultimately you are being carved into a gentler and wiser human being.
Remember that recovery is about you. It is not about what you are doing with your narcissistic parents. That comes later when you have done your own work. This is simple, but important. Each single day you become a little larger. You must have hope that you can do it.
“We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.” — Martin Buber.
Additional Resource for Recovery:
Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers Virtual Workshop: Work recovery in the privacy of your own home, complete with video presentations and homework assignments.