As narcissism’s child, you weathered a constant storm of criticism. At times it seemed you could do nothing right. Your grades were criticized. How you performed your chores was not good enough. You may even have been criticized for the way you smelled, chewed your food, or chose to dress.
What made the criticism even worse is If you had a sibling who was your parent’s “golden child”—the child they favored and placed on display. You faced constant criticism in relation to her. You faced putdowns like these on a daily basis:
• “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
• “Your sister gets A’s on her report card. Why can’t you?
• Your sister keeps her room clean, why can’t you?
Even, on the rare occasion when your parent gave you praise, it was couched in criticism.
• “Yes you won the race, but the other team’s star was injured.”
• “You did arrange the cupboards nicely, but I like the way your sister does it.”
• “Yes you got an A on your paper, but Ellen’s daughter got an A+.”
When you were in public, your parent still criticized you, even in front of others. But she would camouflage her criticisms as concern. “I worry about Billy, he never seems to finish anything.” Here we see the parent obtaining her narcissistic supply from the people she’s talking to by looking like a concerned parent. Meanwhile she’s feeling superior to you by putting you down.
Forms of Criticism
Your narcissistic parent criticized you constantly so she could feel superior. The narcissist wants his child to perform well to reflect positively back on him. But he doesn’t want his child to feel equal or superior to him.
If the child receives praise from someone outside the family, the narcissistic parent becomes envious. He then tries to get the praise for himself by taking credit for the child’s accomplishment. If he cannot, he will find a way to demean the child.
“That’s a nice thing you said about Billy cleaning up your lawn Mrs. MacFadden. But the truth is he tries to quit the job constantly. If I didn’t keep sending him out it would of never got done.”
Here we see the parent simultaneously demeaning his child and taking credit for the job the child does. The parent is able to reinforce his false image of being superior.
This is typical narcissistic behavior.
The Two Faces of the Narcissist
Narcissistic parent see their children as mere annoyances and as sources of narcissistic supply and power. Children of narcissists are the only ones who see the narcissistic parent in the privacy of the home. The narcissist acts very different at home than she does in public.
In public she is a fun, charming person. People want to be around her. She’s often the life of the party and people may even say to you, “You’re lucky to have such a fun mom.”
But once the front door closes, Mom’s public mask comes off. Then you better do as she says and get what she wants before she explodes with rage. Where the parent may have shown concern for your well-being and maybe even affection in public, now she responds to the you with disinterest, criticism, and demeaning comments.
This is because the child serves whatever need the narcissistic parent has for her in the moment. Should she need someone to feel superior to, she’ll belittle and degrade her child. If the parent is out in public and needs narcissistic supply, she’ll praise the child to hear from others that she is a wonderful mother. The child learns to meet the needs of the parent.
A trait carried into adulthood.
The Child as an Extension of the Narcissist
At home the child is largely ignored unless he’s made a target of the parent’s rage and criticism. The reason the narcissist acts this way is that to the narcissist, his child is merely and object. He doesn’t see the child as a person with emotional needs.
And the narcissist views the child not only as an object, but also as an extension of himself. As an extension of the narcissist, the child is expected to know what the parent needs without being told. When the parent has to ask, he views the child’s ignorance toward his needs as an insufficiency in his own self.
Therefore he responds with rage and criticism directed at the child. The poor child has no clue as to what she did. The narcissist prefers dishing out criticism rather than admitting he has feelings and needs.
The child better not attempt to tell the parent that his criticism hurts her feelings. If she does, the parent will accuse the child of being oversensitive, a wuss, or some other term that makes puts the blame for the pain on the child and makes her feel bad about herself. The narcissist never takes responsibility.
The Effects of Narcissistic Criticism
All that criticism you’ve endured your whole life was meant to make you feel guilty.
This guilt has followed you into adulthood.
The guilt produces negative consequences in your life. It has probably left you with a deep sense of sadness. You may have trouble making close friendships or being intimate with your partner.
You’ve spent so much of your life dodging putdowns, criticism, and other emotional abuses. Chances are that rather than be yourself around people you wear a persona—a mask that hides your true self. In wearing that mask you act the way other people expect you to act. Not how the real you would act of you could only accept it and dare to show it to other people.
And you spend a lot of time keeping the peace. You avoid disagreements, even when you’re sure your view is correct. When you feel your right you second guess yourself. The reason for questioning yourself is that as a child you could never seem to do anything right.
You’ve also learned that there are negative consequences for proving someone wrong. You did that once or twice with your narcissistic parent and never again.
Another thing you learned growing up is not to stand up for your beliefs. Doing so only brings ridicule, criticism, and rage fueled consequences for not admitting your beliefs are wrong. You learned it was best to learn what your narcissistic parent believes.
Less emotionally painful that way.
Changing masks constantly, not standing up when you’re right, and being forced to hide your beliefs while saying you believe something you don’t all have a cost. You have most likely lost your true self.
You may not know who you are. All you know is that all your life you have sought the approval of others. You said and did things you didn’t want to just to please others. What you wanted got buried deep within you. So deep you may not know any more what you do want.
Besides not knowing who you are, you may think you’re undeserving of love. I want to assure you that this isn’t true. You are worthy of love and your true self is a beautiful thing that you must recover and present proudly to the world.
Healing from Narcissistic Criticism
I highly encourage you to seek help from a trained mental health professional to help you heal from the criticism and other emotional abuse you suffered and may continue to suffer if you still have contact with your parents. But in case you cannot access a mental health professional, I offer the following as a method to help.
It is important to heal from the constant criticism you received as it qualifies as emotional abuse. Many experts say emotional abuse is more harmful than physical and sexual abuse, which you may have also experienced.
You experienced trauma, which has a long lasting effect on your life. Most likely you see the world as a frightening and dangerous place. If you don’t resolve your trauma, you are more likely to experience further trauma as an adult, either through your parents or by entering into an abusive relationship. A trained mental health counselor can help you resolve your trauma.
Healing from criticism, and other emotional abuse you suffered, can be done through a process called self-referencing. Self-referencing is designed to help you understand that the deep injury within you from years of emotional abuse is not your fault.
It is designed to heal your shredded sense of self. And it’s designed to help you stop seeking love from people who won’t—or can’t—give it to you. Without this healing you will continue to play the role your abuser(s) have assigned to you.
And that would be tragic.
Self-referencing is shedding the labels that your narcissistic parent attached to you. You must no longer think of yourself as “lazy” or “fat” or “good for nothing”. Whatever label they attached to you, you must rid yourself of it. If you continue to think of yourself this way, your narcissistic parent’s abuse continues.
You must develop labels or identities to replace the ones you are giving up. You have to decide what is good about you. And once you do, you have to accept these new labels. You need to redefine yourself on your terms.
As an exercise, take a stack of paper. On each one write the negative labels your narcissistic parent gave to you. Then find a safe place where fire won’t spread— like a fire place, outdoor fire pit, or a grill at the park.
Light each paper on fire individually and say, “I no longer accept this label.” Do this until they all have been burned.
Now go back to your stack of paper and write down the good things about you. If you cannot think of anything, ask a trusted friend. If you don’t have a friend, write down how you would like to be thought of. For each new way of looking at yourself, write, “I am _______” fill in the blank with how you want to see yourself.
Some ways you might want to view yourself is:
• Worthy of a healthy relationship
• A person who has a high sense of self-worth
• Able to accomplish anything I want
• Able to control my anger
Read your list of papers to yourself each day. If you have trouble believing this, write down the things that happen each day that exemplify one of these new views.
Other steps you can take to get over the criticism of your past include:
• Getting rid of the crappy people in your life. Especially those who are abusive to you in any way.
• Avoid isolating yourself. Go out and meet new people. But make sure you go to positive places, avoid bars. Instead, take a class, go to a book reading, or join an organization.
• Volunteer for a cause you care about. Volunteering can help you regain a sense of power in your life and help you feel positive about yourself.
• Join a support group for people that have been abused. Having been emotionally abused is just as serious as physical and sexual abuse. At a support group you can learn ways other people have used to heal. Plus it’s a place where you can safely discharge your own rage.
• Allow yourself to feel whatever feelings arise about the criticism and abuse you experienced at the hand of your narcissistic parent. Recognize this is how your parent makes you feel. Acknowledge any guilt you have about feeling this way. That is just more of the emotional crap your parent piled on you. Accept these feelings, even if they make you sad or angry. It’s normal to grieve about abuse. Grieving is a necessary part of healing.
• Avoid alcohol and drugs as they can intensify your feelings of sadness and rage. Also, they can make you do things you’ll regret the next day like calling an abusive ex.
• Get plenty of sleep. Things always look worse when you’re tired. Go to bed at the same time every night. Try to get eight hours of good sleep.
• Exercise regularly. This can help you burn off the rage and anxiety that comes with thinking about your parent’s criticism of you. Plus, exercise generates endorphins–that feel good chemical in your body.
Realize that your parent’s criticisms and labels do not define you. You are a good person at your core even if you do not feel that way now. You can choose your own definition of yourself. You can be who you want to be.
I wish you good fortune and success on your journey of healing and self-definition. The journey may seem difficult from where you stand, but by simply putting one foot in front of the other, then repeating over and over again, you will arrive at your destination.
And I’m here to cheer you on the whole way.
Share what your true self is like in the comments below.