When You Inherit a Narcissistic Parent’s Behavior

There’s something I have to say right here at the start of this post. Why Man who inherited passive-aggressive behavor from his narcissistic parent denies reality of what partner says I’m saying it will become apparent as you read on.

Let me address something. I know I’m not a narcissist. Believe me when I say this because I have checked and rechecked with therapists and my psychiatrist. I’ve asked my wife a hundred times if I’m like my mother and my father.

And I’ve read the DSM V (the manual used by mental health professionals to make a diagnosis of a mental health problem in an individual) description for narcissistic personality disorder so many time that I nearly have it memorized. Every source I consult confirms my lack of narcissistic personality disorder.

I’m sure that you have questioned whether you’re a narcissist. You’ve probably asked your spouse or a therapist about the possibility that you have narcissism. They’ve probably confirmed that you do not.

It’s very important given the next thing I’m going to say that you feel certain you are not a narcissist like your parent. If you harbor any illusion that you are a narcissist, please don’t read on.
OK. Here’s what I have to say, and you may not like it.
Even though you are not a narcissist, you have adopted certain narcissistic traits from your parent. You behave sometimes, in small ways, like your narcissistic parent.

My Concern with Appearances

Yesterday was Saturday. My wife and I went to watch one of my son’s games. As we were driving to the field, a man came walking out of a convenience store carrying a 12 pack of bottled beer. Walking behind him, and getting into the same car as the man was a boy. I took the boy to be the man’s son.

My youngest son, in the back seat, asked my wife a question. Before she could answer, I interrupted.

“Isn’t it sad to see that kid having to watch his dad buy beer that he’ll probably have to watch him drink,” I said.

My wife replied, “Yes honey, that’s sad,” real quickly. Then answered my son’s question.

In a low voice I said, in a condescending tone, “Yes honey, that’s too bad. That poor boy has to live with an alcoholic father. Not only that, but the father didn’t even get the boy a soda in the store.”

My wife said, “What did you say?”

“Oh,” I said, sweetly, “I was just talking to myself.”

“No,” my wife said. “You weren’t talking to yourself. You’re angry that I didn’t have a conversation about the man and the beer.”

Our kids hate it when we fight. So I didn’t want my son to think we were fighting. Or more accurately, I didn’t want him to think I was the cause of the fight. I wanted to appear the rational parent while my wife played the part of the crazy person.

Little did I realize yet that I was reenacting behavior I had seen my mother engage in again and again.

The Effects of a Narcissistic Upbringing Continue

My wife told me I was being passive-aggressive. I told her I wasn’t and reminded her I didn’t want to fight.

She got mad and said I always make passive-aggressive comments and then deny that I made them.

“Sorry dear,” I said without meaning it.

My wife and I hardly spoke the entire game other than for her to say she was going to go sit in the shade. After the game, everyone was hungry so we stopped for carry out. On the way home, I was reading a story on my phone and didn’t realize my wife was slowing down and pulling over. I asked why we were stopping on a busy road.

“A cop is pulling me over,” she said.

“Why?” I said less than helpfully.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Probably driving too fast,” I said under my breath.

She shot me a homicidal look.

The charge was indeed speeding. “Forty-seven mph in a 30 mph zone,” said the police officer before going back to his car to run my wife’s license and check whether she was a wanted meth trafficker. He reappeared with a ticket. My wife asked if he could knock it down to 40 mph (bless her hutzpah). The cop gave her the name of a ticket reduction program run by the county District Attorney.

She asked me to remember the program’s name. I rolled my eyes and sighed, a passive-aggressive signal that it was her ticket and she should remember.

Back at home she confronted me on the eye roll and sigh. I denied doing it. Then I lied and said that I didn’t care that she received a ticket and that I was glad to remember the reduction program name.

Tracing the Roots of My Behavior to Mom’s Narcissism

She called me on my lies. Then she traced the pattern for me.
“You get mad,” she said. “Next you make some mean passive-aggressive comment. I tell you that your comment wasn’t nice. You deny making it and walk away. I follow you and beg you to work it out. And you get mad that we have to talk about it. You’re angry at your mom but you take it out on me.”

She was right. And after a lot of arguing and denial, I told her so.
That was one of the hardest things to admit because I also realized—and admitted—that I was replaying the behavior of my mother. I realized that I had picked up and adopted some of Mom’s narcissistic behavior.

Having picked up this behavior doesn’t make me a narcissist. A narcissist would never admit to being passive-aggressive. He would blame the victim of his cutting remarks for their own emotions. No, I picked up a behavior—the way a person acts in response to some stimulus—the same way I picked up laying my finger across my lips when thinking from my father.

And if you picked up a couple of your parents narcissistic behaviors, that doesn’t make you a narcissist. You did what I did. You picked up those behaviors to survive your toxic childhood.

What Our Narcissistic Inheritance Does to Those We Love

My wife has tearfully explained that I’m so good with the cutting remarks that it feels like a knife stabbing her in the chest and carving out her heart. I don’t write this with pride. I hate that I use this ability on my wife while at the same time I treasure this ability.

I treasure the ability because it and my quick, witted humor made it dangerous to say things that hurt me while I was growing up. I was raised in a family where even the non-narcissists were toxic. All our family gatherings, on both sides of my family, were unrestrained insult fests. I was a master of the family art. I skillfully inflicted wounds on the psyches of any who dared challenge me.

I learned to do this from my narcissistic parents. Dad was one to whip out a series of cutting insults and rapid fire them at his victim. Mom relied more on sharp passive-aggressive comments and acting hurt without telling you why. I took up the weapons of both my parents and ventured out into the world.

My Challenge

Unfortunately, I brought my finely honed skills to my marriage. I’m not out there inflicting wounds on my wife each day. Rather, my skills are unleashed whenever she says anything that I interpret as criticism or that hurts me.

Thank heavens I don’t use these weapons on my kids. However, they see how I act and treat their mother. They worry we will split up. So while I don’t use my metaphorical blades on my kids, they still feel their cutting effects.

Yesterday was the first time I made the connection of my behavior with my parent’s narcissism. I’m both angered and ashamed at my unwitting imitation of their behaviors.

My challenge now lies in changing decades of use of a set of behaviors that are ingrained within me so deeply, that I respond without thought when certain stimuli occur. My wife doesn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of such meanness. And my children deserve a father who is the best he can be and models proper conflict resolution with his mate.

I have some changing to do.

It Doesn’t Stop There

There’s one more chore before me. A thorough examination of all my behaviors to see if there are any other narcissistic traits hiding beneath my skin.

I urge you to do the same. Think especially about how you respond when you’re hurt or threatened. Examine how you act when you don’t get your way. Compare that to how you narcissistic parent acted in the same situation.

If you find something, take a deep breath and go off alone for a while. Think about why you respond the way you do. Realize it doesn’t mean that you’re a narcissist.

Your challenge become like mine. You have to dig that behavior out of yourself by the roots and dispose of it. The task will not be easy. You have to be able to catch yourself acting out that behavior and stop yourself. Then you need to engage in a substitute behavior.

The reason the behavior will be hard to root out is that the behavior is engraved in your brain. When you perform a behavior for the first time, it makes a little path across your brain. Every time you perform that behavior, that path in the brain is retraced and etched a little deeper. The more times the behavior is performed, the deeper the path in your brain becomes.

This is useful of you’re trying to master a golf swing or develop an exercise habit. You benefit from the deepened paths in your brain in that your behavior becomes automatic. You swing the golf club in a near perfect manner every time you tee up. Or you get out of bed and automatically go to the gym.

Unfortunately, the deepened path is also made for unwanted behaviors. Think of the addict or the boy back in grade school who always got in a fight. They are practicing behaviors engraved in the brain just like the golf swing.

If you have any behaviors picked up from your narcissistic parent you have to resist automatically following that engraved path. We have the ability to reshape our brains. We need to create new behavioral paths.

At first it will be difficult. You will find yourself slipping back down the well-worn path that your narcissistic parents gifted you. But keep persevering. Each time you practice the new behavior, its path in your brain gets a little deeper and a little easier to use next time.

As you use the well-worn path less and less, it’ll gradually fade as your brain reshapes itself. Eventually you’ll be free.

But freedom requires awareness and a commitment to changing yourself. Sometimes the battle will seem impossible. Other times you’ll be walking the razor sharp edge of engaging in the behavior of your narcissistic parent or practicing your new chosen behavior. At times like this you may have a nearly overpowering urge to go with what you grew up with.

At moments like this, ask yourself if you want to be like your parent or do you want to be free?

Change is not easy, which is why so few people pursue it and why even less achieve it. You have to want it with all your heart.

And I know that you do. You can make the change you want in yourself.
You didn’t ask for your narcissistic parent’s behavior. You picked it up to survive. Now you don’t need it.

So let it go.

How do you plan on changing your unwanted behavior?
Tell us in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “When You Inherit a Narcissistic Parent’s Behavior

  1. I lose things, Im 10 minutes late to everything, I shut down when criticized…. I cry hysterically when someone expressed anger at me…. I do not sit with my family because the kids being kids and needing attention makes me feel suffocated.

    I hate this stage but I’m glad I see it because now I have the power to be conscious of these things. As a kid I HAD to look busy and productive all the time. The issue was I was always always waiting to get punished. My mother was emotional and erratic but my father was ” cool as a cucumber ” . He favored the boys and passive aggressively screwed with my moms head however my mother couldn’t leave because she had abandonment issues….

    Today I fully felt anger!!!! Up until I was 22 , I had no idea what anger actually was! Just like my mother at age 27 now… I went from no anger to moving from clinging to ragging! I have a girlfriend and step children. My little step son is becoming the flicker that I have been. More then likely he was neglected up until recently because I can be self absorbed for sure. So now he seems to have mastered that thing , that thing where you get flighty and cause chaos and say and do things that ” flick ” people’s emotions specifically anger. It’s terrible because I’m betting that just like me he doesn’t realize what’s happening and constantly feels as though people are not understanding and attacking him. We are going to a thereipist I truly hate all of this.

    Anyway one thing I know the roots of!!! My misplacing everything and the result of always taking forever to finish things or go places! See in childhood cleaning was a big set up… I had to clean things in a specific way but the rules always changed and at any moment I was accused of intentionally provoking my mother so that she would ” beat me like I deserved and then get taken from her and become homeless ” so I was terrified when I was assigned a chore! But the ones I knew I could to ” perfectly ” ensured my safety, so I would scatter my stuff all around so that if I sensed the explosive side of her coming out I would always have an escape route! Plus then I could not face the threat of being given another chore that I might not preform up to par.

    Now I’m my own worst enemy and a prime example of self sabotage! Late for work, have great ideas and plans that never come to fruit action. Feel powerless and frustrated daily! It cause problems in my relationship and at work! I constantly get consumed in ruminations about am I a narcessit or is partner? It never ends!

    • Dear Sasha,
      Don’t fret. You do not sound like a narcissist. You care about the stepchild’s well being. A narcissist may not be able to do that.

      Congratulations on being able to feel your rage. You took a major step down the road of healing. I hope the rest comes easily.

      Your losing stuff and taking forever to go places remind you of me. Ask your therapist if it’s possible if you have attention deficit disorder. We tend to think it’s a condition that affects little boys but it affects girls too and 2/3rds of those who have it in childhood have it as adults also. It’s manageable with a pill. My world changed when I went on meds of ADD. Everything from productivity to yelling at my family got better.

      Please come back and tell us how it’s going. I wish you gentle healing.

  2. Firstly, I’d like to say thank you so much for writing this article. It takes such a lot of courage to look at oneself unflinchingly and begin to do the inner work necessary to effect change. That is where I am now.

    My narcissistic father is incredibly abusive and misogynistic. He physically and emotionally abused my mother in their marriage (which ended nearly 30 years ago) and has continued to harass and abuse her from afar since. She is a deeply self sacrificing woman and suffered abuse in childhood. Her experiences made her co-dependent. She believed that she could ‘love away his pain’ and that belief caused her to enable his behaviour. Thankfully, she left him when I was 5 (my brothers were 3 and 9).

    Both my parents had problems with alcohol abuse. My father would become full of rage while my mother turned victim and martyr. As you can imagine, our childhood was chaotic and unsafe.

    In the years that followed their separation, my father had ‘access visits’ to us (from another country) which became more regular as we got older – but were never more than 3 times per year. In some ways, my father appeared to love me but only as long as I was what he thought I should be. He was only happy with me when I was a softly spoken, intelligent and slender girl. When I became depressed, when I gained weight, he became aloof and abusive. My older brother, who was quiet and introspective (as opposed to my younger brother who more effectively conformed to societal norms of masculinity) and I were often the targets of his narcissistic rage. He would lose his temper for no good reason and his rage was terrifying. I often thought he would actually hit me (though thankfully, he never did). He is a skilled manipulator and appears to be incapable of empathy. It is as though he does not recognise that other people have feelings as acute as his.

    A few years ago he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The year after, the psychiatrist agreed that he also has NPD which of course complicates his condition. He is unable to admit what he perceives as weakness and so will not engage in treatment in any lasting way. When he is manic, his psychosis is a spectacle to behold. His already inflated sense of self becomes so grandiose that he believes himself to be a painter as skilled as Picasso (when in reality he has difficulty drawing stick men). His behaviour becomes even more dangerous and frightening than usual.

    For many years I tried to help him with his problems. In some ways, I became his co-dependent replacement for my mother. I enabled his behaviour, did not protect my own boundaries and, while living with him in my 30s, became enmeshed with him.

    Thankfully, I have had my own house for the past three years. Over the last year and a half, I have been testing boundaries and trying to find a way to engage with him without sacrificing or harming myself. Last week, he threatened suicide in an email. My older brother died from suicide (at age 22, while visiting my father) which makes the threat all the more potent. My mother called him to see if he was alright and he raged at her on the phone – clearly he was not in a depressed state. He was drunk and vengeful.

    Now, I am done trying. I told him not to contact me anymore. He sent three more emails. He harasses, pursues, manipulates, guilt trips and will not respect my boundaries. I finally told him today that I want no contact and not to force me to block him. Time will tell if he will finally respect my wishes.

    My deceased older brother and I have always feared that we may be like him. I have been in and out of therapy for years. I have had serious bouts of depression, during which I become self absorbed. I have had difficulty in personal relationships and recognise certain traits and behaviours which are extremely negative. Fortunately, I know that I am capable of real empathy. I know that I do not go into narcissistic rages like my father and these days, when I feel hurt or criticised, I am much better at addressing the feelings and talking to the other person where appropriate. I have asked friends and relatives and they confirm that I am not like him. Despite this, the terror of becoming him remains very real but I hope, with determination and insight, I can identify behaviour that is negatively narcissistic and change it.

    • Kate,

      Thank you for your kind words. I want to cheer for your decision to go no contact with your father. The abuse you have suffered over the years can only stop if you erect boundaries. What you did took great courage and you should be proud of yourself.

      I want you to rest assured that you will not turn become a beast like your father. I think that all children of narcissists fear that they’ll become narcissists. The fact that you fear shows you won’t become one. Narcissists become narcissists when they are children. The Universe allowed you to escape that fate. Adults don’t morph into narcissists. You are safe.

      I’m sorry about your brother’s suicide. I have lost several people close to me because they took their own life. The feeling of loss is so hard. May you heal from the sorrow you must feel at times.

      May you heal from all the abuse you experienced.

  3. Chase,

    Many thanks for your kind response and words of support. Likewise, I hope you will continue to heal from your experiences and continue to enjoy your life with your wife and children.

    Very best wishes to you.


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