— Florence & the Machine
What a week. I know we’ve been quiet as of late, friends, and once the events of the past month or so have finally settled down, I hope to sit down and write about the clusterfuck that we’ve been dealing with, though I genuinely doubt any of you would believe me. It’s that absurd. I was chatting with a childhood friend the other day and we agreed that once this is all over, I should write a book.
Keep an eye out for my autobiography, coming to the fiction section at a bookstore near you. /jokes
So, as much as I’d love to give you guys all of the juicy details, there are some things that still need to be dealt with before I feel comfortable doing that — so instead, I want to share some thoughts and research that I’ve done intermittently for a couple of years now, and try to piece together some of the things I’ve discovered.
Quick back story. Without going into too much detail, I decided to “divorce” one of my parents a couple of weeks ago. Anyone who has had to form serious boundaries to the point of cutting someone out of your life can empathize with the level of discomfort it can cause, even more so when the toxic relationship you have to re-evaluate is with someone close to you. The reasons behind my decision were due to behaviour that has happened recently, but the processing I had to do, to get to the point of finally saying enough is enough, forced me to look at things, my history, in greater detail.
In doing this, I discovered that the behaviours I was deeming unacceptable, were actually habits and behaviours that had been present throughout my entire life with this specific parent. They have come to the surface now, become more obvious — or maybe I just have a better idea of what I’m seeing, now, I’m not sure. Either way, in reading numerous articles and chatting with Jo, I also discovered that these behaviours have a name, or a means of categorizing them; meaning I wasn’t the only one, the way this person acted was not okay, and there were lots of other people in the world that were dealing with the same things: the ramifications of being raised by a controlling, and/or narcissistic parent.
(Side note: There is great article on the difference between, specifically a mother, who is narcissistic versus controlling. There are many similarities between the two, but the behaviours are rooted in different motivations. My parent falls into the controlling category, but for the sake of writing this, I’m just going to use narcissistic.)
Psychology Today defines a narcissistic parent as “…someone who lives through, is possessive of, and/or engages in marginalizing competition with the offspring. Typically, the narcissistic parent perceives the independence of a child (including adult children) as a threat, and coerces the offspring to exist in the parent’s shadow, with unreasonable expectations. In a narcissistic parenting relationship, the child is rarely loved just for being herself or himself.”
Now, I’m not saying I had a terrible upbringing. I’ve spoken a lot about my experiences with self-harm, addiction, mental illness, and everything in between, while acknowledging that I had some serious problems of my own, but we were never without. My parents worked hard, both juggling multiple jobs, resulting in my step-brother and I being gifted with family vacations, cruises and the like. This, of course, was a huge part of what baffled the myriad of doctors and psychiatrists I spoke with throughout my childhood, considering there was no obvious reason for me to be depressed and/or suicidal. We were not wealthy, but we never had to wonder whether or not we had food, clothes, et cetera. From the outside, I had relatively normal relationships with all of my parental figures (all four of them), and the fact that I was even being brought in for therapy (my mother’s idea) meant that I had at least one person who cared enough about me to make sure that I got the help that I needed.
To anyone on the outside looking in, everything looked normal. Except me.
The way that these methods of parenting affect the child involved, not only in their childhood but, as I’m discovering, well into their adult life as well, is exponential. The things that are suddenly tying together in my mind and memory baffle me on a regular basis. I feel like I’ve been watching a movie, a mystery, or thriller, and I’ve just figured out who the killer really is — when everybody else did 45 minutes ago.
Loner Wolf gives a few examples of how to confirm you were raised by one, or two, narcissistic parents. Looking back on my childhood years, I, admittedly, have the habit of beating myself up for not recognizing some of the signs earlier, even if it had been nothing more than questioning why it seemed impossible to be happy, regardless of what was going on around me. Anxiety and depression are the biggest side effects of being raised by narcissistic people, along with chronic guilt, poor personal boundaries and codependency in other relationships. It also forces the offspring into a position of constant guessing, struggling to please the parent and striving endlessly to “earn” the parent’s affection.
When your entire existence is measured by whether or not your parent approves of your actions, behaviours, decisions, et cetera, you give all of the power to that person, to determine whether or not you are worthy of their love (or whatever means of control they use). Narcissistic parents measure their own worth and efficacy by the actions of their children — this can manifest in different ways; I’ve read examples where mothers took pleasure in dolling up their daughters, in order to parade them around and show them off (consider the amount of money TLC makes on their pageant shows, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo being my main reference point). Any compliment the child receives is automatically absorbed by the parent:
“Oh my goodness, don’t you just look beautiful!”
“Thanks, she gets her good looks from me.”
Obviously mothers aren’t the only ones who show examples of narcissistic parenting. Another great example would be the father that lives his athletic dreams vicariously through his son. These are the parents that are angry when their kids lose, that shame and put them down for not being good enough, regardless of whether or not the child had any control of the situation (surprise: they often don’t). This also looks similar to the previous example, when the child is successful.
“Congratulations on winning that hockey trophy.”
“Thanks. I was always very athletic as a child, so obviously they would be, too.”
What happens when the child’s wants or needs aren’t on par with the parents’? My parents were both very athletic — I was not. I was always drawn to more creative hobbies, and anything that I enjoyed that was athletic was an individual sport. My parents encouraged me to take part in track and field, signed me up for a summer soccer camp, but I preferred taking part in things like horseback riding. Luckily (or not — I’ll let you be the judge of that), my mother had also been an avid horseback rider when she was younger, so that hobby was nurtured and enabled as much as possible; BUT…
Narcissistic parents also have the habit of competing with their offspring. This ties into taking credit for their children’s accomplishments, but in order for the parent to be entirely involved, they have to be entirely involved. The competition is one thing; they are a parent, they raised you, obviously they know better, obviously they know more. They’re older, wiser… Right? There’s a certain level of competition, or “comparison” that happens, I think, regardless of the parent and whether or not they are narcissistic. Most of the time, though, it’s not in the spirit of being better, but to prevent the child from having to learn a lesson that maybe isn’t necessary. A good parent wants to avoid their children getting hurt at all costs, and it often hurts us more, as parents, when they do.
Narcissistic parents, though, are different than the, perhaps slightly overbearing, “helicopter parent”. These parents want to immerse themselves in your life — whether it’s your hobbies, your job, your friend group. My mother quickly started taking horseback riding lessons with me, though we luckily avoided a situation of competition because I preferred jumping, whereas she did dressage. That being said, it was a hobby that I loved and was passionate about, and after realizing that, she quickly needed to be involved as well. We also had a similar group of friends, which ended up being mostly comprised of the few close friends that I had. If the people I was spending time with weren’t of any interest to her, I was free to do as I pleased — but if the person I was seeing was someone she felt positively about (or saw a use for), she needed to be involved.
Do you know anyone that seems to have a parent that hangs around all the time? We see these characters in movies quite often, the mother that loves hanging out with her daughter’s friends, getting drunk, acting foolish. This forces the child to take a certain level of responsibility, effectively being pushed into a position where they have been “parentified” by their own parent. There tends to be a back and forth between a narcissistic parent needing to feel like their child needs them, but also that their child is going to be around to take care of them, if need be. They build a relationship based on worry and fear, forming a dependency in their offspring that they can’t manage without their parent’s help — so how can the child form a boundary with the parent, when they’ve been conditioned to believe they won’t be successful/healthy/loved/et cetera without the parent around. This level of commitment and loyalty means that the offspring is also always on high alert for whenever the parent may “need” them. This causes a lot of narcissistic parents to fabricate drama where there isn’t any, in order to place themselves in a position of victimhood.
Narcissistic people need to feel as if everybody is on their side, no matter the situation. Even if there is no sign or threat of a conflict, the narcissistic parent needs to know that your loyalty and commitment is there. There’s a level of obligation that they place on their child to be available at their beckon call, and they will do whatever it takes to turn that obligation into a noose of sorts, using any number of tactics from anger and aggression, to guilt and shame, to gaslighting and lying to get what they want.
Gaslighting is defined “as a[n abuse] tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality.” Abusers and narcissists use this tactic all the time, manipulating the victim into a position of being easily controlled, confusing them until the only person they feel they can trust and count on is the gaslighter themselves. Parents can, unfortunately, be incredibly adept at this, taking into consideration that in most cases they have been an active, present figure in the child’s life and in order for gaslighting to be as effective as possible, it needs to happen slowly over a period of time. The average 18 years a child spends with their parent is more than enough time to form a type of trauma bond that enables the parent to work away at the victim’s mental state, or collect a number of different resources to use in whatever situation may arise.
If the child tries to remove themselves from the parent’s grasp, the parent will often panic and do whatever they can to regain the upper hand. Projecting their issues onto you — my mother’s was often that I was incredibly selfish and never considered her emotions or feelings about any given thing, immediately following a conversation where I expressed not feeling heard by her. These parents will also do what they can to turn as many people as possible against you, telling lies about you and isolating you from any sources of support you might have. I have been completely disowned by every other member of my family, for example, and have been approached by a number of my parent’s friends; on a good day, the conversation ends after they try to convince me that I need my mother in life, but I’ve also had not-so-pleasant interactions where I’ve been verbally attacked and accused of things, without any accurate knowledge of the situation. Keep in mind — narcissists will only surround themselves with people that don’t threaten their position of power, so it’s unlikely that the people around them, even if they don’t address you directly, will do anything to stand up for you, or whoever is being abused at the time.
They will also, occasionally, award you with positive words or reinforcements. This is a tried and true ploy that abusers have been using for eons, to confuse the victim into believing that the situation isn’t as bad as it seems, because the person obviously has the capacity for compassion. When you are constantly striving for that one tidbit of positive reinforcement, the abuser can do whatever they want to in the meantime, knowing you’re holding on, waiting for them to pat you on the nose. At the same time, though, any criticism that is aimed in their direction is immediately faced with an intense reaction — ranging from explosive anger to debilitating sadness. Fear and guilt are two of the most powerful control mechanisms, and narcissists are gifted in manufacturing situations where there is very little option for the victim to feel anything different.
There are two different styles of narcissists that we observe on a regular basis. Ignoring narcissists are people that just can’t be bothered with their children. There is a defined difference and independence between the parent and their child, so the children are expected to act as individuals, perhaps even having to take care of themselves at a young age. My parent, on the other hand, is an engulfing narcissist, meaning that I have never been seen as my own, independent person (until just recently, and even that’s debatable), separate from my parent, and that my parent needed to be involved in every aspect of my life, to an extreme extent. I was often compared to them, that I was a direct replica, not only physically (we had my kindergarten picture and my mother’s pasted right next to each other on the fridge, because “we looked like twins”), but mentally as well. I grew up being confused about why I was always so intensely sad, without realizing that not only was my parent making me feel that way, but also comparing themselves to me — if they made me feel like that, did I make people feel that horrible, too, if we were so similar?
Any level of autonomy is a major threat to a narcissist. When Jo and I moved to the apartment, my parent was livid. It was directed at me, the whole thing being my fault for not having given them enough warning about our plan to move, while refusing to acknowledge that their behaviour was literally the reason we needed to get out. The guilt they tried to impose on my “leaving them” was part of why we left, but my parent attempts to continue to shame me, even now, two years later. I have been reminded, constantly, throughout my life, that my parent gave up so much for me, that I took away so many years of their life because of my mental illness, that they sacrificed everything — and that I am exposing my own child to the same trauma and torment that I had to endure.
So, hang on a second, here, Aisha… You’re trying to tell me that when you have children, you’re signing on to do whatever you can for them, regardless of the effect it has on you?
So, what are the repercussions of having grown up with a narcissistic parent? There are a myriad of ways a parent’s abusive behaviour can come to the surface in their adult children. There seem to be three common side effects, or behaviours, that are present amongst people that grew up in these situations: difficulties managing emotions, a skewed or inaccurate self-image, and a dystopian perception of what healthy love is supposed to look like.
Managing my emotions has always been a challenge; I don’t often get angry, and when I do, it usually presents itself as crippling sadness rather than an atom bomb exploding. I always assumed that this was due to having to deal with so much mental instability when I was young, because I don’t feel like I really got many tactics on how to deal with unfamiliar or overwhelming emotions; I just learned how to internalize them so I didn’t inflict damage on myself. Scars, cuts, burns — none of that was attractive, and I learned very quickly, not how to stop harming myself, but how to do it in a way that wouldn’t “ruin our image”. Very few people were truly aware of the gravity of my illness besides my mother and my therapist, because I tried very hard to stay under the radar. This contributed to my issues with self-esteem, naturally.
The issue with being under a narcissist’s thumb during your formative years is that you, inevitably, start to believe that your parents’ behaviour and expressions of “love” are what are to be expected from any romantic partner in the future. This can lead to the victim literally seeking out partners that behave in the same way as their narcissistic parent. I had strings of boyfriends and partners that were horrible to me, and stayed with one for over six years, accepting every backhanded comment, forced sexual encounter and aggressive burst, maybe not with a smile, but with a inner feeling that what I was experiencing was just how it was “supposed” to be. It took almost three years for me to finally seek out help from an incredible organization in our area, where I sat down with an abuse therapist and read through a booklet of what abusive behaviour might look like, before I realized that my relationship was not only unhealthy, but had the potential to make a turn for the worse at any moment.
You were being abused for six years? Why didn’t you just leave?
Jo found an awesome article yesterday that talks about trauma bonding and the reasons why victims of abuse can sometimes have an incredibly difficult time divesting themselves from their abusers. The article speaks more along the lines of leaving an abusive romantic relationship, but the methods of manipulation and control don’t vary much between romantic relationships and parental ones.
I’ve read a number of different articles and academic papers written by staunch believers in the effects of media on our acceptance of behaviours in our social interactions. The problem seems to be, most often, that we don’t necessarily class emotional, sexual and verbal abuse as valid forms of maltreatment. When you think about examples of abuse in the media — and please, don’t get me wrong, I am so, so happy that we are seeing more and more examples of it in TV shows and film, and that it’s being brought to the forefront as a serious, valid issue — generally speaking, it’s a woman with a black eye. Or a broken arm. Or a child that’s dirty, underfed. These are all, obviously, great examples of what abuse can look like, but is a whitewashed version of how abuse can appear to an onlooker.
The article talks about how studies have shown that victims of abuse can actually develop a sort of biological or physical dependency to the behaviour of their abuser. Because the cycle moves from everything being okay, to an intense, perhaps angry, outburst, then once the outburst has subsided, the abuser comes back and showers their victim with love, triggering the release of dopamine as a response to the reward of affection, to the point where the victim often brushes off their abuser’s behaviour and the cycle begins again.
I was lucky. I realize this. I recognize that I was blessed with a little human being that really made me reconsider what kind of treatment I was willing to accept from others, and what example I wanted to set for him, for what kind of behaviour was acceptable. I am incredibly grateful that we have such an amazing resource for women and children in the Niagara region that are struggling to leave abusive relationships. I also realize that I was living at home at the time, so my decision and ability to leave the relationship was facilitated by my situation — but keep in mind, I was leaving one abusive relationship, and putting all of my hopes on living with, and getting support from, my parents… I’m still not sure which of the two evils was worse. I had been injected with a very convoluted view of what it looked like to have strength — which was, in reality, just control in disguise. I still deal with a terrible habit of self-criticism, which made me second, third, thirteenth-guess my decision to leave my abuser, wondering if it was the best decision, not realizing I was walking straight into the mouth of a completely different beast.
Imagine what kind of trauma bonding happens, if a romantic interest can coerce a person, with their own independent thoughts and expectations, into an arrangement that has the potential to destroy any sane person from the inside out, when the trauma is being inflicted by the person who is supposed to do whatever they can do to protect you. When you are bonding, through trauma, with a parent, over an extended period of time, it not only has adverse effects on your mental health and well being, but is now showing to manifest in physical ailments as well. When you are on a downswing in your abusive arrangement, cortisol pumps through you and your body enters a state of shock due to the recurring stress. When you get the positive reinforcement, though, the happy chemical comes into play, and you end up developing a type of addiction to the upheaval. Because of the constant up and down and the variance in hormone levels in someone that is in a constant state of not knowing what’s coming next, this stress can appear in visible ways: acne, migraines and chronic pain, to name a few.
What people don’t realize is that, regardless of the inconsistencies in the abuser’s behaviour, the cycle and order of events and behaviours become predictable, so the victim almost learns to “wait it out” until their abuser gets to the stage where they are prepared to offer affection. This makes a victim endure a great deal more than they probably would in any other situation, holding onto the hope that things will clear up eventually. This manner of coping becomes the only consistency in the victim’s world, as even the abuser’s behaviour feels like a ticking time bomb. If we revisit the theory of seeking out abusive partners after having a narcissistic parent, too, the lack of that parental guidance, and denial of the independence and autonomy to make their own decisions, a victim wouldn’t be able to make a large decision, like to leave their abusive partner, without it being validated by someone important — usually, the narcissistic parent. Of course, then, if a narcissistic parent wants to keep their child in their grasp, they would avoid doing anything that would give their child a sense of control. Try and consider the level of pride, happiness and gratitude you would feel if you were finally able to leave your abusive husband/wife. That would boost you, and probably give you the ammunition to make other changes in your life and look to improve other aspects. Your controlling parent couldn’t possibly allow that to happen, because then they would have no control either — I was in an abusive relationship for six years and not once did my parent tell me that I deserved better.
Eventually, this rollercoaster gets so tiring for the victim that they often are unable to serve the “purpose” they had been for the abuser. In a lot of cases, this disposal (usually a break up, though in some cases, if an abuser has not been physical previously, a physically violent outbreak can be seen as the abuser dumping the victim, depending on the situation) is the only way the victim of abuse is able to remove themselves from it. Unfortunately, it also often takes victims until this point to realize that they were being abused in the first place. This process is dirty, ugly and unpleasant, as victims need to deal with the conditioned feelings of guilt, self-blame, shame, et cetera. You did everything you could, constantly, trying to please the person you were bonded to, and nothing was good enough. You weren’t enough to keep them around.
Please. If you are feeling this way — your abuser did not leave because you weren’t enough. Your abuser left because you literally gave them everything you could, and in some cases, they probably took everything you had to give.
In the event that you are able to remove yourself from a damaging parent / child relationship, Loner Wolf suggests giving yourself time to grieve the loss of the parent you thought you had. You were raised to hide the way you were feeling, or that the way you felt didn’t matter — this is the time to allow yourself to feel everything; the anger, sadness, disappointment and care for yourself like you would a small child. In a lot of cases, you probably had part or most of your childhood taken from you, so give yourself a chance to forgive the time you lost.
Karyl McBride, PhD, redesigned the stages of grief to fit the recovery of someone who has been affected by a narcissistic parent. She talks about how as children of narcissistic parents, we had to deny that our parents were incapable of love in order to survive, spent a good portion of our childhoods bargaining with those parents, in person or mentally. Anger and sadness are other obvious and valid responses, and Karyl explains that during the recovery process, it is completely normal to jump from stage to stage and that grieving the loss of a parent who might still be around doesn’t follow any particular schedule or timeframe.
You’re going to feel guilty. You will feel terrible for grieving this loss, as if your parent were dead. I have explained to both Jo and a friend of ours, both of which whom have lost parents, that though the loss feels like a death to me, I can’t allow myself to internalize it in the same way because it feels unfair. If this sounds familiar to you: stop it. Your loss is no more or less important than anyone else’s — if anything, you may be in a situation where you have to come face to face with the very person you had to distance yourself from, and you may realize that they are a ghost of who you thought they were. That’s okay. Remember that they tricked you into thinking they were somebody else, too.
I’m obviously just starting to do this work. It’s only been a couple of weeks and I can genuinely tell you that this final straw has left me feeling like a piece of my heart is missing. It breaks my heart that I am not the only one who has had to remove themselves from a relationship from the people who are supposed to put us, as their children, above all else. The destruction I feel in my insides is indescribable, knowing that each person I thought I had in my unit have decided to toss me aside in the same way. It feels like mission impossible, trying to overcome years of conditioning, years of lies and years of striving to achieve an image that was literally unattainable.
Does it feel crazy to tell a parent you never want to speak to them again? Absolutely. It will likely be one of the hardest thing you will ever have to do.
Does it take a lot of work to reprogram your thoughts after years of being made to believe you were not worthy of love unless you were complicit? Yes. I still struggle every single day. I am only just finding my voice, just getting bold, just starting to feel comfortable to disagree — but boy, is it liberating.
Will you ever be able to forgive your parent for what they did, or didn’t do? Who knows. I think we would all hope so. If anything, I’d like to be able to forgive my narcissistic parent, not for their peace of mind, but my own. Forgiveness is possible, I’m sure of it, but I haven’t gotten there yet.
Every day, we wake up and snap into our own suits of armour. Whatever you’re protecting yourself from, I’m sorry you have to. If you have had to separate yourself from an abusive partner, friend, parent — I’m sorry, and I am so proud of you for taking those steps. I hope you realize, sooner than later, how worthy you are of so much more than what your parent(s) gave you.
It’s like the brightest sunrise waiting on the other side of the darkest night. Don’t ever lose hope, hold on and believe maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.
– Danny Gokey