Do you know who you are? I don’t mean in a name, rank, and serial number way of knowing. Do you have a solid, healthy identity? Are you blessed with a strong sense of self with solid boundaries between you and others? Or are you filled with self-doubt about who you truly are?
Think about how you see yourself. Is the first thought that you are the son or daughter of your narcissistic parent? Or do you think “I’m a loser” or some other derogatory description?
I was driven to ask myself these questions when my son appeared in the kitchen in the middle of a school day. A high school junior, he left during the middle of the lunch period because he didn’t feel right. He asked me about family history. He said he was trying to figure out who he is.
I told my son that family history can tell you where you came from. But it doesn’t define who you are. I think that this is an important lesson for adult children of narcissistic parents.
Narcissistic Parenting and Identity Formation
My son is going through one of the most important parts of adolescence—finding his identity. As narcissism’s child, you lived with your narcissistic parent during your adolescent years.
Your identity formation was seriously mucked up by your parent to the point that today, years later, you may not have a strong identity. You may question who you are.
For most people, an identity defines who they truly think they are. Identity is linked to self-esteem. If we value who we think we are we will have a high sense of self-worth. So forming a positive identity during adolescence is key to a healthy adulthood.
Children of narcissistic parents don’t get a fair shot at forming their identity. Forming your identity would have translated into you moving away from how your parents viewed you.
You would become your own person. Independent. Autonomous. An individual free from the shackles of your parent’s narcissism.
For a narcissistic parent, any move their child makes toward independence or separation is met with punishing rage. Maybe you can remember such moments when you were a kid. Perhaps you came down stairs dressed differently than usual and your father freaked. Maybe you tried to join a school club and your parent demeaned and belittled you untill you decided to quit.
The boundaries between a narcissistic parent and her child are weak. Because of these weak boundaries, the narcissistic child, even in adolescence, may look to his parent to tell him who he is. This has disastrous consequences for the adolescent. Looking to his parent to tell him who he is fuels his dependency on the parent.
Narcissistic parents mold their children to benefit their needs. If the child is not ignored and neglected, she is forged into a source of narcissistic supply.
This is especially true of the enmeshed or golden child. Whether neglected or enmeshed, the child of a narcissist grows up to have low self-worth. She is filled with self-doubt and has a sense that she’s invisible.
These are not the ingredients for molding a healthy sense of self.
How We Establish Who We Are
We form our identities to separate ourselves from other people and have a sense of continuity of ourselves. But one of the main purposes of forming an identity is to establish a positive sense of self.
A healthy sense of self allows us to function well in society. Individuals with a healthy sense of self form and maintain positive relationships. They have a sense of autonomy and confidence. They take initiative and trust that things will work out well.
These are all things that adult children of narcissists struggle with.
So how are identities formed? Identities are built in part through exploration and experiences. Adolescents explore different roles and measure the reactions of others to their experiences, appearance, or different ways of acting or talking.
An adolescent may try out for sports, discover he has athletic talent, and develop an identity as an athlete. Another may excel at scholastic activities and develop an identity as a brainiac.
Adults play a role in the identity formation of adolescents. Coaches, teachers, aunts and uncles can all contribute to an adolescent’s identity. But perhaps the adults who play the most significant role are the adolescent’s parents.
How Parents Affect Who You Are
Adolescent identities are influenced considerably by their relationships with their parents. When there is a healthy relationship between an adolescent and his parent, he will feel free to explore different aspects of himself. He will experiment and get feedback from his parents about his beliefs and behaviors. Meanwhile, healthy parents provide adolescents with:
- A sense of autonomy
- The ability to set and achieve goals
- Confidence to pursue opportunities
- Confidence that people respect him
- A sense of initiative
- The ability to approach people who can benefit them
Unfortunately, as narcissism’s child, you unlikely had parents that supported you finding your own separate identity. Any move you made to establish a sense of self separate from your parents was likely met by rage from your narcissistic parent.
There are consequences for the adolescent who feels his parents will reject him for identity exploration. He is likely to feel less confident in trying on new roles. He may be so afraid of his parent’s reaction that he does not explore at all.
Where healthy parents provide their children with the attributes listed above, narcissistic parents leave their children unprepared to meet the world.
The adult child of a narcissist rarely feels autonomous. Having faced a lifetime of criticism, he is often terrified by the idea of making a decision. No one taught him how to set a goal and how to work towards it.
The adult child of a narcissist constantly interprets comments and feedback from others as criticism. She has no confidence that people respect her in any area of her life. She puts off decisions and opportunities until her chances for something positive fade away.
Adult children of narcissists often lack the skills to enter healthy relationships. They may find themselves living with abusive or narcissistic partners, one again forsaking their chances at forming a strong sense of self.
This can lead to depression and anger about their lives. Still, they lack the ability and knowledge to improve their lives. They wait for their lives to get magically better. But just like the man who puts his fate in the hands of a leprechaun trap, their wish for a better life does not manifest.
Back To Identity Formation and You
Given our horrid childhoods, we likely never developed identities as calm, confident people who can overcome any challenge life throws at us. Having lacked our parents’ support, we had few chances to develop adolescent identities as athletes, scholars, or computer geeks.
That’s because our family life made us stand apart from other kids. We were often thought to be a bit…odd.
We may have been interested in a sport. However, our parents may not have cared for the image an athletic child would provide them. They either refused to spend money on equipment because they didn’t care we wanted to participate or their own personal needs for the money overshadowed our need for the equipment.
With the healthy identities closed off to us, unless your parents wanted the image of having a scholar or athlete for a child, many of us formed darker identities. Identities hidden from our parents.
Maybe you were a partier, getting high and drunk to numb your pain. Perhaps you were overly promiscuous, sleeping with as many people as you could.
Or maybe you just thought of yourself as a loser.
Chances are, the identities you did form as narcissism’s child were unhealthy. And if you kept them as you moved into adulthood, your sense of self has not served you well.
Developing Healthy Identities and a Strong Sense of Self as an Adult
Identities are not fixed. They change over time.
You, child of a narcissistic parent, have hope. You don’t have to keep the identities that you took on by default to appease your narcissistic parent. You can build a healthy sense of self now. You can choose your identities.
All of us have identities. They revolve around the roles we play and the things we do. Some would include:
- Young/Middle Aged/Older Person
Another identity is spiritual: are you a Christian, Muslim, or Atheist?
We may identify ourselves through our work. A person might say they’re a teacher, a case worker, a waitress, or a computer programmer.
But there is a problem with all these identities. They are generalized groupings of roles that are really external to us. They do not really tell us who we are. And some of these identities are not fixed. You may go from being a teacher to being a principal. One day you may be a Christian and the next a pagan.
Your personal identity is more than the roles that we play and the things that we do as these things can change over time. The question is, how do you find your true self?
Getting rid of the Remnants of Narcissistic Abuse
Writer Anne Lamont writes that to find our real selves, we must stop being who we aren’t.
“So the real issue is how do we gently stop being who we aren’t? How do we relieve ourselves of the false fronts of people-pleasing and affectation, the obsessive need for power and security, the backpack of old pain, and the psychic Spanx that keeps us smaller and contained?”
For adult children of narcissists, this means we have to stop operating under the labels our parents gave us. We aren’t stupid, lazy, good for nothing, leeches, ugly, or any other way they described us. We must stop thinking and identifying with these labels.
Freeing You From Your Narcissistic Parent’s Labels
Here’s an exercise. Think of all the negative labels and roles that your parents have saddled you with. Make sure to include all those identities that you hate and want to be rid of. Now write each one down on a separate piece of paper.
Now get some matches or a lighter. We’ll wait if you have to run to the store. Back? Good.
We’re going to burn each of those pieces of paper. You need to go to someplace where you can place a burning paper, a grill, fireplace, fire pit. If you don’t have a fireproof place to use at home, use one of those grills at the park.
Once you’ve found your spot take the paper in hand. Say out loud,
“I am not (the label or identity).”
“I reject this (the label or identity) because it is not true”
“I do not need it, I do not want it, and I am not it.”
Light the paper on fire.
“I release myself from this label and in burning it will identify myself no more in this way.”
Repeat for each label or identity.
Now, every time you start to think of yourself in one of those identities, say “Cancel that thought.” Mentally picture it burning, it’s negativity consumed by a purifying fire.
You need to stop thinking and acting in the negative roles your narcissistic parent assigned you. You need to rid yourself of those harmful identities. We saw above that identities can change. All your identities can change to what you believe yourself to be. Even the identities of son or daughter or parts of you can be banished if you choose to cut off contact from your family.
You have the strength within you to change. I know this because you survived being raised by a narcissistic parent and did not become a narcissist yourself. This means you possess a strength undreamt of by you. Now take that strength and use it. Banish the identities your parents assigned to you.
Another Tool on Your Journey of Self Discovery
Now comes discovering the true you and deciding who you want to be. Yes, this step can be scary, but don’t worry, you can’t screw it up.
The beginning of this journey is to start a journal. It can be in a simple spiral notebook, a journal that you purchase from the store, or a computer file.
Don’t worry if you think you’re no good at writing. If you do, cancel that thought and imagine it burning. No one is going to see what you write. You can write in run-on or incomplete sentences. You can throw punctuation to the birds and use none.
If you don’t want to write, paste images to your journal, either pictures you took or ones you found on the internet or in magazines.
With pictures or words you’re going to record your deepest desires, dreams, hopes, and who you aspire to be. This will help you learn more about yourself.
You’ve probably kept these desires, dreams, hopes, and who you aspire to be hidden from yourself because you never believed they were possible. Take it from me: they are possible.
Also record in your journal what makes you unique. Be careful here not to fall back on the labels your narcissistic parent gave you. If you do, say “Cancel that thought” and imagine the label burning.
Think about how you’re different from others. What talents do you think hide undeveloped within you? If you’re a parent, think about how you treat your child differently than how you were treated.
Write about your place in the world. Where you are now and where you want to be five, ten, and twenty years down the road. Begin to sketch out how to get there.
Probably you were never taught how to achieve goals.
- Your first step is to write down what you want; maybe it’s to write a book.
- Just work backwards from where you want to be, so first write down “book get published”
- Next write “sign publishing contract”
- The step before that is “find an agent”
- Before that is “submit book to agent”
- Before that is “finish revising book”
- What you did before that is “finish second or third draft of book”
- And before that you “write the rough draft of book”
- Before you could right the rough draft you “write down the chapter names and outline the book”
- And the first step was deciding what your “book will be about”
You do this process with any goal. You start working toward the goal by recording the steps that you’ll need to take to achieve your goal. Then break each step into its smallest tasks and start tackling them.
Doing it like this makes the goal seem less intimidating. You can break it into even smaller tasks like write chapter 1, etc. If you want to really get specific say I write for an hour tonight and continue like that. Anything that makes the goal seems more attainable.
It can be scary to go after what you want. But you’ve lived with fear for a lifetime. You know it can’t hurt you.
When you have recorded all you aspire to be, and written down the steps you need to take to become whatever you want to become, you must venture out into the world and take those first steps.
Maybe you need a new wardrobe. Perhaps you need to take a class. Maybe you need to make art, or possibly join a club or pursue a healthy relationship.
The point is to pursue your true desires without the fear and negative labels placed upon you by your parent. This is how you will come to know who you are. This is how you will discover your true self.
As you dance through your journey of personal discovery, you will have insights, ideas, and impressions of life. Record these in your journal. Make it a living document. Use it to explore side paths you stumble upon and use it to ask questions about yourself and life.
And just so you know, at times you will have setbacks and failures. These are not a reflection on you. Nobody gets the life they want on the first try.
Albert Einstein once said something to the effect that those who have not failed have not tried anything new. The point is to examine each setback and failure, find what you can learn from it, then surge forward again with renewed enthusiasm.
I have a warning for you. There are going to be people in your life who may not like that you’re changing. They may convey anger or shut you out for trying to achieve your dreams and find your true self.
You need to either remove or distance these people from your life. If that’s not possible, minimize your contact with them. They’ll only bring you down. Try to only have supportive, non-narcissistic people in your life who genuinely care about you at this time and beyond.
Focus always on your goals, but take time to enjoy and reflect on the journey.
Enjoy The Journey
I wish you a wondrous journey of self-discovery and the attainment of happiness and fulfillment that exceeds your wildest dreams. You are special. You are good. You are wonderful. Believe this and explore the world and yourself.
I wish nothing but good things for you.
Tell in the comments below what you desire to be.