If you follow any number of mental health accounts on social media, no doubt you’ve come across the term narcissist. You probably already know something about narcissists: They’re charming and make you feel special until they reveal themselves to be self-absorbed and manipulative. Narcissists might be easier to spot in the latest headlines or maybe in your friend’s dating life, but sometimes they can escape our gaze if they happen to be a part of our family. That’s why it’s not only important to be able to recognize a narcissist but also to understand the ramifications of being in a relationship with one — specifically if you were raised by a narcissist.
More than ever, many of us are looking at our childhood systems through different lenses and learning the significance of understanding how we were raised. We know more now than we did 30, 20, or even 10 years ago about toxic dynamics and the ways they follow us throughout our lives. If you're reexamining your past, you likely want to try to identify any of these toxic dynamics in your childhood.
With that in mind, Scary Mommy asked Dr. Amelia Kelley, Ph.D., MS, LCMHC, ATR, RYT, a trauma-informed therapist and author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship, for expert insight.
What Makes a Narcissist So Harmful
“While it is normal and healthy to focus on one’s own self-worth, a narcissist does this at the expense of others' well-being,” explains Kelley. “A narcissist displays an extreme level of self-involvement that negatively impacts relationships with others, often as a result of personal insecurities or unresolved past trauma. Clinically, narcissism is not treated with medication, nor is it considered a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety. Instead, it is deemed a personality disorder that is managed rather than cured.”
Signs You Were Raised By A Narcissist
Not surprisingly, being raised by a narcissist can have repercussions that can play out in adulthood, including affecting our intimate relationships. If you’re unsure whether you were raised by a narcissist, read on for Kelley’s five red flags.
1. Your caregiver either never or rarely apologized.
“Because narcissists struggle to admit any personal defect, this also means they rarely admit fault,” Kelley says. “As a result, a child of a narcissist may become a perpetual apologizer, saying ‘I’m sorry’ for things that are clearly not their responsibility. This can lead to people-pleasing behaviors and other forms of codependency.”
2. Your caregiver blamed you for their emotional issues or personal failings.
Did your parent blame you for their moods? Or if something didn’t go right, was it automatically your fault? According to Kelley, this form of blame shifting negatively impacts the child’s self-esteem “as they internalize the blame resulting in undue guilt. This creates a self-blame cycle that translates to unhealthy thinking patterns such as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) where the individual feels they are bound to disappoint others.”
Kelley says RSD can cause the individual to be averse to healthy risk-taking (such as applying for a job, starting new relationships, or asking for help when necessary) for fear of being rejected and feeling like a disappointment.
3. Your caregiver idolized you when you made them look good.
Part of the confusion of being raised by a narcissist, says Kelley, is not always when they are treating you poorly but also when they offer intermittent rewards of adoration and attention if you become a source of validation.
“This dynamic can cause the child to grow into a high-achieving adult who strives for perfection, often at the cost of their own well-being," says Kelley. "Failure is something that is feared as it may mean the loss of love from their narcissistic caregiver.”
4. Your caregiver had poor boundaries.
Were you privy to adult conversations that weren’t appropriate for a child, such as knowing the inner workings of your parent’s personal life? A result of a narcissistic caregiver being hyper-focused on themselves is that they see no issue in using their child as a confidant, Kelley explains. “While it is healthy to have open, meaningful conversations with children, there should be appropriate boundaries, including the conversations being age-appropriate. When a child is parentified, or burdened with the stress and emotional load of their narcissistic caregiver, that child misses out on important developmental milestones.”
For parentified children, says Kelley, it is difficult to prioritize self-care and emotional growth, such as missing out on play and or forming meaningful friendships. “As a result, the child will struggle to engage in self-care as an adult because they did not learn to prioritize self-care as a child.”
5. Your caregiver was highly reactive but considered you to be “too emotional.”
“Narcissists are resistant to feeling what others are feeling, meaning they will minimize or criticize the emotions of their children,” Kelley explains. “Developmentally, children are learning not only to identify emotions but also to feel the full scope of an emotion. For this, they need unconditional positive regard, ensuring that they do not feel there is something wrong with them for feeling an emotion.”
An adult who was raised by a narcissist that criticized their emotions will often repress their feelings, says Kelley, resulting in an array of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use, disordered eating, anger management issues, and other mental health issues.
What To Do if You Were Raised by a Narcissist
Once you discover you were raised by a narcissist, Kelley recommends finding a community of support to normalize your experience. “It is common for narcissists to use gaslighting tactics (where they strive to alter the reality of their victim in favor of their own desires), and for that reason, it can cause adult children of narcissists to question their past experiences,” she says. “Awareness of unhealthy patterns common for narcissists can place responsibility back onto the narcissist for their behaviors. Speaking to a supportive person such as a therapist, friend, or other family members who understand your past experiences can help to further remind you not to take the blame for the narcissist's negative patterns and behaviors.”
From there, Kelley says it’s important to re-parent yourself through self-care, play, connection with others, and accepting healthy challenges that can further build self-esteem.