Parents can screw up in a lots of ways. But growing up with a narcissistic parent leaves a special kind of scar. You’re never good enough. You constantly question your self-worth. You have trouble speaking up for your needs. Kindness may startle you, and you may wonder when it will end. After all, kindness has always been conditional, only coming when someone wants something from you. You learn to question everything.
You learn, too, to question if you really have a narcissistic parent. They have you so woven into their web of lies that you can’t believe in their terrible toxicity. Even if you can admit they aren’t quite like other parents, and your childhood wasn’t quite like other childhoods, calling them out as a narcissist seems … impossible. They aren’t that bad. I mean, they’re bad. Not like that, though.
It took me years and a pandemic to realize it, and a long time to accept that I grew up with a narcissistic parent. But once I was able to label the behavior, I felt freed: everything made sense. My childhood slotted into place. I recalled incidents that I had previously seen as normal and said, “What the f*ck was going on there?!”
These memories pained me, and still do at times. It hurts to realize the depth of loss I suffered at a narcissistic parent’s hands. But that label has helped. It’s given me a way to make sense of my life and my interactions with that parent. Many people have said to me they feel loss from an estrangement with a parent. I do not. I mourn a parent in general. I do not mourn that person in particular.
Maybe you’ve never felt good enough. Maybe you have excessively low self-esteem. Perhaps you feel like your childhood wasn’t… right. Perhaps you realize your parent isn’t great, and that tiny voice in the back of your head is whispering.
Here’s how to identify a narcissistic parent.
You = Them
Your achievements and efforts were seen as a direct reflection of them, so you had better not screw up. Many parents require perfection from their kids. But a narcissistic parent requires it because they see their child’s performance as an extension of their own, and they crave excessive admiration and attention: a key trait of a narcissist, according to Medical News Today. When people praise their child, they praise the narcissistic parent. The child may fulfill dreams the narcissistic parent never had a chance to, or the parent may live vicariously through the child. Because of this, they demand perfection.
For example, after a sports practice, you were subjected to a long list of what you did wrong and how you should have fixed it. Your parents may have basked in praise of your achievements and perhaps even exaggerated them; if you didn’t succeed (for example, I wasn’t admitted to an Ivy League college), loud excuses were made to relatives and friends.
A Narcissistic Parent Has Two Faces
According to Surviving Narcissism, a narcissistic parent presents a charming, attractive face to the public, and in private, you may see “many traits that do not present them in a positive light.” Perhaps that kind PTA mom who’d do anything for anyone places unreasonable demands on her children. She’s always sweet, but at home she’s a yeller who tears people down.
Most of all, you see the lack of empathy towards others that they mask in their public persona. That lack of empathy is a key trait of a narcissist, says WebMD. They will “give you something to cry about.” You have long-learned that you can’t expect true emotional support from your parent, no matter how well they may fake it in public. They don’t notice (or seem to care) how their behavior affects you.
For example, when you cried, little to no comfort was offered, and if it was, it seemed awkward. If you were bullied, little sympathy was offered, and it may have even been blamed on you. Disappointment was ignored or brushed aside. However, these traits only showed in private.
You’d Better Be Grateful to a Narcissistic Parent
Surviving Narcissism also notes that a narcissist “remind[s] you of your obligations towards them.” If you remember having to express gratitude for every little thing your parent did, you may have been raised by a narcissist. You may have had to thank them every time for lessons or practices, for example. Things other parents did for other children as a matter of course required excessive thanks on your part, and woe to you if you didn’t express appropriate gratitude to your narcissistic parent.
Envy: Of Them and For Others
A narcissistic parent believes other people envy them for any number of reasons, but also envies others at the same time, says Medical News Today. For example, other people may want their position, authority, wealth, or success, but at the same time, they speak disparagingly of people with more authority, wealth, and success.
If your parent bragged about what authority they had over others, but anyone with more gained it by illicit means, abused it, or didn’t handle it properly, you may have had a narcissistic parent. I had parents who loved to show off their antiques and looked down on people who bought modern furniture as trashy, but who suffered from severe class envy: rich people were terrible humans.
Narcissistic Parents Cut People Out
What would your kid or sibling have to do for you to never speak to them again (other than abuse)? Rack your brain. A narcissistic parent, according to Surviving Narcissism, cuts people off. If you don’t agree with them, or do what they ask, or match their ideals, or behave in ways they want you to behave, you’re cut off. You may have seen them do this with friends again and again, and possibly with relatives.
Even if they don’t cut people off entirely, they may disparage them in private and see them as little as possible. Do you have relatives your parent despises, speaks badly of, and seldom sees for reasons you really don’t understand? If your parent has left a trail of cut-off friendships behind them, ask yourself why.
They Can’t Apologize
Surviving Narcissism notes that a narcissistic parent would be unable to apologize — because they can’t admit that they’re ever wrong. If you’ve never heard your parent say “I’m sorry,” your parent is likely a narcissist. It took me a very long time to understand that real people, in the real world, apologize when they’ve done something wrong.
You may have trouble with apologies yourself because of this trait. In fact, you may see an apology as weakness, and view arguments not as a chance to reach a compromise, but as an adversarial event in which one person emerges victorious and another loses. This is not how arguments are supposed to work. I learned this in my late thirties.
Moreover, you may see “arguments” where there are “discussions” and have difficulty taking criticism — because taking criticism without rage was never modeled for you. That’s another trait of a narcissistic parent, according to The Mayo Clinic. Criticism of any kind is met with anger — it’s not helpful, it’s always a personal attack.
You may have grown up with a narcissistic parent. They may have a clinical, diagnostic disorder, or they may not. Either way, their behavior has damaged you. You need to label that behavior so you can cope with it. Surviving Narcissism is a great site to help you start dealing with the pain and difficulty you’ve been through. But most of all, you need therapy and help to cope with your childhood.