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When Your Parents Are Narcissists

How does it affect you and what can you do about it?

Key points

  • Narcissist parents cannot mirror their children because they lack the capacity to reflect anyone.
  • The child of a narcissist must put on a role, a mask and costume, and a false identity.
  • One of the hardest things for children with narcissistic parents is to understand they are loveable.

What is it like to grow up in a home with a parent or parents who are narcissists? How is it to not be seen or heard? What needs do narcissists neglect?

The child growing up in a home with narcissistic parents is not mirrored. Being mirrored means that the child can look at his parents and see himself being seen and heard. It means that the child can clearly see himself in his parents’ eyes. It means that the child can, thereby, stand inside himself and have a real encounter with a meaningful and fulfilling life. It means that the child, who has seen himself in his parents’ eyes, can now live life as an authentic self because he has been allowed to believe that he really exists.

But the child narcissists raise is not mirrored, for the narcissist has no capacity to mirror anyone. Mirroring requires a kind of emotional maturity that capacitates one with the ability to stand comfortably inside oneself and make room for someone else to live separately and even different from one’s ego identity. Mirroring means I see you for you, for who you are. Narcissists simply cannot do that.

What happens when a child is not mirrored? He is uncertain that he exists, really exists. And that is such a profoundly uncomfortable position to find oneself in that he must quickly put on some kind of identity, some mask, and costume that is most likely to please the narcissistic parent. He does this to feel some sense of existence and belonging. One has to exist before one can belong. So, if I am an unmirrored child, I can put on a mask and costume that proves to me that I exist, and then I can use that mask and costume to make sure that you like me or can relate to me at least some of the time.

Andrea Mathews
Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Andrea Mathews

That mask and costume may take many forms. I might immolate my narcissistic parent by taking on entitlements of all kind. I might require constant external approval. I might even bully people.

On the other hand, I might take on the caregiver role, constantly seeking ways to take care of my parent and/or others. Or, I could become a kind of superwoman or man, so that I seem very tough and unperturbable so that nothing can ever really get to me. I might even take on a victim identity—so that I constantly need others to take care of me. Whatever role I take on it usually fits in neatly with the demands or needs of my narcissistic parent.

One of the hardest things for the child of the narcissist is to understand that she is lovable just as she is. Instead, she often feels like she has to earn love. That she can only be loved if she performs her role excellently. And trust is hard to come by, for she has not ever really been loved unconditionally.

So, what is the adult child of the narcissistic parent to do? Therapy is a good start to facilitate the knowledge that one actually had a narcissistic parent and ascertain the impact of that reality. It will include looking at the belief systems that developed about life and about one’s role in the world and in relationships due to not being mirrored.

And the adult child of the narcissistic parent will need to begin to look for and find the authentic self—so that when he looks in the mirror, he sees the self as opposed to seeing the assigned role. There is great peace there—in the living of the authentic self. It can be seen as the ultimate salvation—to be able see and hear one’s self—and thereby to seek out and find relationships with others who affirm the self by also seeing and hearing it.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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