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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Dimitrion, LCSW, CST

Peeling Back the Layers of Narcissism Part 9: Lasting Effects of Parental Narcissism on Adult Children





Parental narcissism casts a long shadow that can stretch well into adulthood, leaving profound impacts on the children who grew up under its influence. Below we will explore some of the internal and interpersonal effects of parental narcissistic abuse on the adult survivor.


Lasting Effects on Self-esteem:


As explored in earlier articles, narcissistic parents view their children as miniature extensions of themselves. They rely on their children to maintain their own ego and meet their own needs, while simultaneously projecting anything they cannot tolerate about themselves onto their child. As a child, survivors often had their intrinsic needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings dismissed, invalidated, shamed, ignored, or minimized. Accomplishments and milestones may have been overshadowed or outright belittled by their narcissistic parent's jealousy, insecurity, or desire to be center of attention.


As adults, survivors may struggle with low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. In our best attempts to mitigate these feelings we can at times find ourselves hyper-focusing on aspects of ourselves that have either 1) been extrinsically rewarded in the past or 2) enabled us to refocus our attention outwardly while avoiding/compartmentalizing our inner struggles. Examples of this include...

  • Focusing on career growth, academic success, financial wealth.

  • Focusing on physical appearance.

  • Extreme empathy towards others and an emphasis on the needs of others over one's own needs.

  • Relational co-dependency.

  • Focus on finding and maintaining a relationship or creating and maintaining a family.


Lasting Effects on Relationships:


It can be quite difficult for adult survivors to form and maintain healthy, secure relationships with others. This is in part because growing up we did not have the best models for what safety, security, compassion, and reciprocal connection looked like. Instead, we grew up in an environment where our needs and feelings were consistently sidelined or exploited.


As adults, common relationship struggles in platonic, romantic, and professional connections can include...

  • Trust issues.

  • Fear of vulnerability or intimacy.

  • Relational avoidance and/or anxiety.

  • People-pleasing.

  • Inability to assert healthy boundaries.


It's also not uncommon for many of us to find ourselves unconsciously drawn to people with similar personality traits to that of members of our dysfunctional family (i.e. the narcissistic or enabling parent, glorified and entitled sibling, the meek and shy sibling, etc.). The familiar is comfortable. We've well-honed the skills to navigate these personality styles and the relationship dynamics that come along with them. Unfortunately if we do not catch on to the fact that we are falling into an all to familiar dynamic we can end up reenacting our childhood with a different cast of characters. This is particularly problematic when the new cast of characters are narcissistic, antagonistic, self-involved, entitled, or grandiose.


Lasting Effects on Identity:


Growing up as the child of a narcissist there was often little-to-no room to flex our own autonomy and to have our authentic selves acknowledge, affirmed, and reinforced by the adults around us. This is not to say that we did not try our very best to establish an authentic sense of self that felt right, true, and genuine! I am a firm believer that even when we were in the thick of narcissistic entanglement, there were glimmers of our authentic selves that we tried our best to water, even if these glimmers were cared for in isolation from our dysfunctional family.


As adult survivors of parental narcissism, we're often left with a shaky sense of self that we're still trying to fortify. Many of us are coping with feelings of confusion and a pervasive sense of emptiness as we grapple with the question of who we truly are beneath the layers of narcissistic conditioning. For those of us who have begun coming to terms with our past, we are simultaneously having to process the trauma from our experience, mourn the childhood that was lost, reclaim our truth on an emotional and cognitive level, and reinforce those glimmers of authenticity that can now exist more safely within our adult selves. As we attempt to define ourselves independently of the expectations imposed on us by our family, internalized shame can place doubt on our decision making, especially when it does not align with the narcissist's expectations. This too is another battle we're having to overcome as we learn to trust in ourselves and our innate right to ownership of our authenticity.


Lasting Effects on Mental Health:


The effects of parental narcissism can extend to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, personality disorders, and even complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Constantly being subjected to the unpredictable and often volatile behavior of a narcissistic parent can take a toll on a child's emotional well-being, laying the groundwork for psychological struggles later in life. Untangling the knots of trauma and healing from the wounds inflicted by parental narcissism often requires support of an narcissism-informed trauma therapist and dedicated commitment to self-compassion and inner healing.


Conclusion:


The impact of parental narcissism on children as they become adults is profound and far-reaching. From self-esteem issues to relationship struggles, identity crises, and mental health challenges, the legacy of growing up with a narcissistic parent can shape every aspect of a person's life. However, with awareness, support, and a willingness to confront the past, it is possible for adult children of narcissists to break free from the chains of their upbringing and forge their own path towards healing and self-discovery.

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