By definition, narcissistic parents prioritize their own needs above the needs of their children and undermine them with unrealistic expectations, cognitive distortions, boundary violations, hypercriticism, and ongoing shaming treatment.
Scapegoated children typically bear the brunt of the narcissistic parents' rage and rejection, but even children treated with favoritism internalize the insecure, conditional nature of their parents' acceptance. Everyone in the family becomes hypervigilant to the outsize emotional demands and reactivity of the dominant narcissist, orbiting around that person to win favor or avoid attack.
Devastating Internalized Messages
It is no surprise that kids raised in this traumatizing environment often develop social and performance anxiety that can include hyperarousal, chronic self-doubt, distrust in relationships, and extreme fear of judgment. Such children internalize the following messages:
- Vulnerability is unsafe.
- Free self-expression must be repressed.
- Harsh judgment is ever-present.
- Performance is tied to fundamental self-worth.
- Attention may lead to humiliation.
- It's dangerous to compete with Dad/Mom.
- It's dangerous to compete with the favored golden child.
- Blame is inevitable.
Children carrying these beliefs may suffer from panic attacks and become socially avoidant or even phobic. They may fear speaking in class, withdraw from groups, and avoid performance-based activities, resulting in social isolation and underachievement.
In adulthood, their insecurities and avoidant coping style may make them risk-averse and self-sabotaging. They may pass up educational options, social events, jobs, career advancement, leadership roles, and networking opportunities to steer away from the judgment or humiliation they've been conditioned to expect and fear they deserve.
Like a foreshortened-future view of life (see my Psychology Today article "A Foreshortened-Future View in Adult Children of Narcissists"), social anxiety and performance anxiety are little discussed yet highly debilitating components of CPTSD in children and adult children raised by narcissistic or otherwise personality-disordered parents.
I see these symptoms routinely in my work with this population and have suffered them myself as a survivor. My clients usually have little insight into the reasons for their fears, which further destabilizes their self-esteem and compounds their anxiety and shame. Even if they identify the dysfunctional dynamics they grew up with, as adults they typically struggle to recognize their anxiety response as a form of trauma and instead blame themselves for the problem. Many turn to compulsive and addictive behaviors as a way to self-soothe and dissociate from painful emotions.
Ways to Overcome Social and Performance Anxiety
As with any negative conditioning, undoing the damage must involve positive reconditioning. Learning anxiety-management skills is also an important part of overcoming self-defeating patterns. Here are some strategies that can help:
1. Practice in Low-Risk Situations.
Seek out opportunities to practice social and/or performance experiences in relatively nonthreatening, low-risk circumstances such as with friends or very small groups. This will help you override negative conditioning with positive experiences. It will also help you build important undeveloped skills that will increase your confidence.
2. Deactivate Your Trauma Response.
Learn ways to deactivate your deeply ingrained hyperaroused trauma-response, which tends to reinforce incapacitating feelings of fear and inadequacy. Belly breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and physical activity can be effective ways to manage hypervigilance and panic.
3. Connect with Your Emotions.
Growing up with narcissistic parents leads to emotional dysregulation and alienation. Reconnecting with your emotions and building emotional literacy through self-awareness practices is a vital part of reducing anxiety and other symptoms of complex trauma. Self-awareness helps destigmatize emotions themselves, allowing us to work in alliance with our feelings rather than against them.
4. Cultivate Attunement.
On the most fundamental level, children with narcissistic parents are deprived of attuned mirroring and empathetic validation of the self. Insecure attachment and ongoing disruptions to social bonds are at the root of narcissistic developmental trauma and are the primary causes of social anxiety.
Finding empathetic attunement elsewhere, such as with friends, other safe adults or relatives, animals and nature, and artistic pursuits like music or dance offer powerful opportunities to build connections, trust, self-confidence, and emotional regulation that alleviate anxiety and other debilitating dimensions of complex trauma.