“We all need a healthy amount of narcissism,” says licensed psychotherapist Jay Reid. To avoid being felled by any of life’s inevitable assaults on our self-esteem, there needs to be a sense that your individual worth is independent from external realities and beliefs, the therapist explains. But, when the feeling of I-am-important veers into the territory of pathological narcissism, the ground becomes fertile for narcissistic abuse.
According to Reid, this “extreme” form of narcissism conceals a fragile sense of self-worth, leaving the person affected on a quest for validation. In pursuit of this, the narcissist typically “feels entitled” to demand that others “reflect back their [perceived] self-importance”. Combined with the defining absence of genuine empathy, Reid cautions that unaddressed parental narcissism “bodes poorly” for the children who grow up under its auspices.
Although narcissistic abuse is associated with narcissistic personality disorder, the condition is not present in all cases. At the same time, not all parents with the disorder abuse their children, explains therapist Imi Lo in an article for Psychology Today.
While the phenomenon is clearly a complex and idiosyncratic one, these are three things that Reid says commonly affect child-victims.
You experienced parentification
Those who grow up experiencing narcissistic abuse are taught to feel responsible for the perpetrator’s emotions. One consequence of this is a shift in focus away from the survivor’s own needs and development – both of which become subordinate to the parent’s.
The warped balance of responsibility is known as emotional parentification, defined by WebMD as “the process that occurs when parents impose their emotional needs on their children and seek emotional and mental support from them.” Later down the line, this can lead to embedded limiting beliefs among survivors, which might manifest as feeling responsible for the emotional well-being of other people in your life.
Your self-worth is tied to productivity
Rather than being unusual, the adoption of limiting beliefs is a survival mechanism. “A child is too physically and psychologically dependent on the parent to leave the relationship,” Reid explains to The Independent. As a result, “they have to adopt beliefs that keep the parent willing to care for them.”
Because of the extensive emotional (and sometimes practical) responsibility placed on children experiencing narcissistic abuse, another common belief among survivors is that their productivity dictates their value. As Reid explains, this can manifest in thoughts such as, ‘if I’m not being productive then I’m worthless’. For fellow therapist Lo, this often occurs with narcissistic parents who are intolerant of imperfection. Any emotional or other abuse that ensues when inevitable mistakes are made, can lead victims to feel their worth is based “solely” on their accomplishments.
You have beliefs about being undeserving
More fundamentally, narcissistic abuse can lead survivors to believe that they are undeserving or defective. This frequently comes from the sense of unimportance ascribed to their own needs, but it can also come from the emphasis on performance. “If you suffer a setback, lose a competition, or do not do as well as expected, they may withdraw their love and approval. This can leave you feeling confused and alone,” Lo explains.
Among patients Reid has treated, additional beliefs include the idea that the needs of others are more important than the victim’s own, which can be a learnt response to the experience of parentification. Survivors might also believe that if they feel or display pride, they will make others feel diminished. Beyond relational experiences of inferiority, those who have experienced abuse may also believe there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are.
What if it’s affected you?
If you think your parent or carer may have perpetrated this kind of abuse, whether you initiate a respective conversation with them is always up to you, says Reid. As a caveat, he warns that parents who are affected by pathological narcissism but who have not done any work on themselves “may have an unsatisfying response”.
For the psychotherapist, who has published a book on recovery, “the crux of healing from narcissistic abuse is to orient yourself back to your own life instead of orbiting the narcissistic parent.” This, he says, is the key to informing any next steps. “When this happens, the question of whether to talk with the perpetrator often takes a backseat to what is most important to the survivor in their own [life].”
To facilitate this holistic approach to healing, Reid promotes a three-pronged approach, which includes helping survivors to “fully” make sense of their experience (to affirm that the abuse was not their fault). This is complemented by an emphasis on gaining distance from the abuser, and finally, living in defiance of their rules.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247, or visit their website here.
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