If you are were raised as the child of a narcissistic parent, it is likely you were under continual pressure.
Narcissists continually project outward. They look to others—including their children—to have their needs met. These needs include controlling the environment around them, receiving emotional attention, and drawing the child into their (sometimes very complex) network of familial relations.
David, a client of mine in his 50s, described the continual emotional pressure he felt under while he was growing up.
“Dad spent most of his time trying to turn us against mum," he said. "I think he was jealous of mum. He’d put her down all the time and if he ever saw us trying to be close to her, or take her side, he’d be nasty to us. There was a real sense of anxiety even being around the two of them."
Like David, children of narcissistic parents can be used in this way in the relationship between their parents. A narcissistic parent often finds it hard to accept his or her partner as an equal and may be jealous of their other half. When children become the pawn in this game, it’s exhausting, confusing, and makes for a highly pressured environment to be in.
From a very early age, Raika’s mother turned Raika into her confidante by sharing inappropriate levels of information with her.
“She would tell me things about her health—terrifying things—and I felt like I had to take care of her," said Raika. "Now that I have kids, I can see how awful that was. The stuff wasn’t even true—it was just health fears—but it was one of the ways she made me feel responsible for her."
Because of this sense of responsibility, Raika found it very hard to make the decision to move out, get married, and have kids.
This type of emotional pressure, which starts in childhood, can make it very hard for adult children of narcissistic parents to grow up. Taking normal steps in life—such as meeting a partner, moving away for career or university, setting up home, or having children—can all feel like acts of betrayal. The parent remains the point of reference for the decisions of adult children of narcissistic abuse—no matter what age those children are.
Sharon had been with her partner for over 10 years and had a child with him. She and her partner had decided to get married.
“I was so utterly terrified about telling mum!” she told me. “I actually had a couple of glasses of wine beforehand to pluck up the courage. I felt this awful sense of this being the ultimate betrayal and I was terrified what kind of reaction she’d have."
Sharon recognised that, as a woman in her forties, she was more than entitled to marry who she wanted, but had spent her entire life in fear of what her mother’s reaction would be to any potential step away from her.
Narcissistic parents often see their children as an extension of themselves and find it hard to accept any degree of autonomy in their children. Living your life with the feeling that you have a high degree of responsibility for your parent’s emotional well-being puts constant pressure on you. There’s a need to meet their needs, often at the expense of your own, and a pervading sense of guilt when you make decisions they don’t approve of or create more independence in your own life.
What’s more, if this is the world you’ve grown up in, you may recreate these relationships with other people in your life—for instance, by choosing a narcissistic partner. Even with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, you may feel like you’re under pressure to meet the needs of others. You may feel guilty much of the time if you “fail” to keep everyone happy, no matter how damaging and exhausting it is to you to fulfill this constant sense of responsibility.
If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, and constantly feel under pressure—not just from your parent, but from other people—you can start by asking yourself: Who exactly is creating that pressure? Chances are, it’s you.
You can’t control other people’s reactions, desires, needs, and wants but you can control how you react to them. If you constantly offer to help, even at your own cost, and if you constantly put yourself in a position where you feel that it’s your job to make everyone else feel ok, you’re creating a huge network of ties which are going to pull you in all kinds of directions.
If you want to change the situation, that change has to start with you. It’s important to enter this with a sense of self-acceptance—it’s completely understandable why you have recreated these patterns of guilt and pressure—before deciding to change your behaviours which perpetuate this situation.
In order to begin to reduce the emotional pressure in your life you can:
1. Start by saying no.
You may have grown up thinking you’re there to help, but you’re not. You can say no whenever you want to.
2. Identify what you need in life and make that happen.
Take some time to get to know yourself. What do you need to make you happy?
3. Recognise what you own and what others own.
When your boundaries have been violated from an early age, you may think you have responsibility for the emotional well-being of others. You don’t. That is theirs to own—just as your emotional well-being is yours to own.
4. Exercise self-care.
There are few things more exhausting than being under continual emotional pressure. It can take some time to recover from a lifetime of feeling responsible and guilty. Take the time, now, to start caring for yourself and beginning the process of recovery.