That’s the insidious thing about suspecting your parent is a narcissist—you tend to think you are the crazy one. That’s because every now and then your parent does something that seems kind and seemingly selfless for you. That single act is enough to make you question yourself and think that maybe your parent is only a bit self-absorbed, and not a narcissist at all.
I know how you feel. My wife suggested to me that my mother is a narcissist. Something clicked when she described the characteristics of someone who has narcissistic personality disorder. But, until recently, I still questioned labeling my mom a narcissist. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Narcissists are deeply self-absorbed, have grandiose fantasies about their deserved place in the world, and are obsessed with power, fame, and how they appear to others. They always have to be the center of attention. They continually talk about their accomplishments, and they change the topic of conversation to themselves without fail.
If you grew up with your narcissistic parent—some send their kids to live with others or ship them off to boarding school—you don’t remember being cuddled, hugged goodnight, or even having your hair tousled affectionately.
You may have faced a constant barrage of criticism. Your parent may have screamed again and again about how much they sacrificed for you and your lack of gratitude for those sacrifices. At other times she raged at you, told you she wished you were never born, and expected you to take care of her feelings.
If you still think your parent might be a narcissist, but the paragraphs above are not enough to convince you, think back to that first memory of your parents where something seems…off. I’m betting it’s one of your first memories.
Here’s my memory. It involves both of my parents—each of who is a narcissist—and my narcissistic great grandfather.
The Lesson That Still Lives With Me
I am four at the time of my memory. I’m playing at the coffee table in the living room with my great grandfather sitting nearby.
He sits stiffly, sure of his place in the family hierarchy. Ancient, he stares at me with a lined face from beneath a full head of yellowed hair. He scowls as he observes me. I am something to be tolerated, like that smelly lapdog your spouse loves. He is the family patriarch—a man who demands respect, admiration, and fear.
I stop playing for a moment and ask my mother a question. My great grandfather takes the thick cigar from his mouth.
“What?” he barks.
“I’m not talking to you,” I say innocently.
The room explodes. Hot, red anger floods my great grandfather’s weathered features. My mother starts shouting, “Shut your mouth Chase! Who do you think you’re talking to?” I’m stunned into silence as she yanks my arm and drags me across the carpet.
“You never talk like that to anybody. Especially your grandfather!” she shouts in my ear.
My dad rushes into the room and snatches me off the floor. I’m scared and wailing now. Dad carries me under one arm against his hip, stomping like an ogre down towards my room. The door slams behind us. I’m still screaming, confused about what I did wrong.
My father jerks my pants and underwear down around my ankles. He takes his belt off. I can see the rage on his face through my tears before he turns my back towards him and bends me over. The leather slaps my bare ass. My father shouts over my screams to never tell anyone again that I’m not talking to them.
And you know what? It has been over four decades and I have never said “I’m not talking to you” to anyone. Not even once. Not even out of rebellion. The lesson was beaten into me so hard that I’m unsure if I’m physically capable of saying that to someone.
The Legacy of Narcissism
My great grandfather died soon after that night. But narcissism’s poison ran through the blood of both my parents. And as my sister grew, she became a narcissist too.
Narcissists leave legacies. We—you and me—we’re the lucky ones that fate blessed and allowed to escape living such a horrible existence. But maybe you need more evidence to decide if you are narcissism’s child, too.
Other Signs that You May Have Grown Up With a Narcissistic Parent
Here’s another sign. Narcissists pretend their families are perfect. So if you remember your parents bragging to others about how flawless your family was while rage and chaos ruled your home, you probably grew up in a narcissist’s house.
Do you have memories where your mother or father is being overly critical, raging, or demeaning of you? Did you really deserve your parents’ derision or did they frequently go ballistic on you?
If you only have a single memory like this, your parent probably just had a bad day. But if there’s a pattern of such behavior combined with other signs, you may have grown up in a narcissistic household.
Were you responsible for meeting your parent’s emotional needs? Do you ever find that you “catch” other people’s emotions and can’t break free of them? These are experiences similar to others who were raised by a narcissist.
One final sign: Narcissists often produce narcissistic children. Do you have a sibling who matches the information in this post? Was that sibling treated like a golden child while you were scapegoated for everything wrong in the family and couldn’t seem to do anything right? If so, the legacy of narcissism might have continued into your generation.
If you’re unsure whether you too are narcissism’s child, or even if you’re quite certain, review the diagnostic criteria from the DSM IV. (The DSM is the book, currently in version V, used by mental health professionals to diagnose someone with a mental health disorder.)
Version V of the book is out now. And those professionals defining personality disorders removed (mistakenly in my opinion) narcissistic personality disorder as a distinct personality disorder. But the facts is, the criteria from version four fit every narcissist I’ve met—or lived with—so those criteria are presented below.
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Does any of this describe your parent? If so, check back soon. We’ll delve deeper into narcissism’s effects on adult children of narcissistic parents and what you can do to heal. I’ll also reveal experiences that may resemble yours and share how I cope with my parents today. In a few days I’ll add a subscription form to the site so you can get posts delivered to your email.
And one more thing you should do if you’re just discovering that you too are narcissism’s child. Make an appointment with a mental health professional, either a psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker. You don’t have to take the first one you contact. Ask about their experience treating adult children of narcissists. You deserve a competent individual to guide you down the long road of healing.
This is important. If you’re just discovering that you are the adult child of a narcissist, you may have the urge to confront your parents. Please wait until you learn more about narcissism. Your parent won’t see your point, won’t apologize and won’t try to make even the smallest thing better. In a future post I’ll go into why that is.
I wish you peace and the knowledge that there’s nothing wrong with you, but there’s something wrong with what has been done to you.
What’s your first memory of your parent’s narcissism? Tell us in the comments below.