If you were subjected to parental narcissism then you already know that the narcissistic parents are cold, calculating, cruel, conniving, controlling, competitive, manipulative, have a vicious temper that occurs suddenly for no apparent reason, alternates compliments with criticism, they know everything but are to blame for nothing, are self centered, selfish and are the center of the universe, they have no empathy or consideration whatsoever for others, they don't seem to hear or understand what others say or think, they want to hear good things about themselves but are very critical of others, they can be incredibly mean, jealous, negative and bitter, they are practiced liars and they frequently say one thing and do another and they can drive you nuts trying to figure out why they do certain things.
You can read more about narcissistic personality disorder here and there are lots of links to other aspects of the disorder available, too. In this article I particularly want to examine the dynamics of the relationship with a narcissist in order to explain how they manage to establish and maintain such tight control over their children and what can be done about it.
The typical narcissistic parent can seem at first to be really involved in their child's life, knowing everything about what is going on, bringing them to lots of extra-curricular activities and even seemingly giving up some of their own desires for the sake of the children. But a closer look at a case of parental narcissism reveals that the narcissist is actually controlling all aspects of the child's like, including, and in particular, their thinking, their behaviors, their emotions and even the information available to the child.
In terms of destructive mind control, if you can control 2 of these things, you can pretty much run a person's life. In cults and in situations of parental narcissism, all 4 of these things are very heavily controlled. This gives the narcissist great leverage in terms of dominating the children and the narcissist parent influences everything very significantly, including even the development of the personality.
As children grow and learn their personality develops. The temperament they are born with, the environment they grow up in and the experiences they have along the way as well as the thinking, emotional and emotional patterns the child learns from those experiences all form and shape a child's personality. I think we can agree that parents play a significant role in the formation of the personalities of their children (irrespective of whether you think nature or nurture is the most important factor).
There are many theories about the stages of development that children go through and without getting caught up in the pro's and con's of each, it's safe to say that children learn how to trust themselves and others, they learn about personal control and independence (toilet training, what to eat, what they like and dislike), they learn how to assert their power and control over the world by making decisions, making plans and facing challenges. They also learn how to interact with others, how to work in teams and how to take pride in their accomplishments. And, of course, they develop an idea of who they actually are, a self-concept, an identity that is separate and different from others as well as a sense of confidence in themselves and their abilities.
With parental narcissism, the above phases are rarely satisfactorily completed. It's not necessarily that the narcissistic parent is deliberately setting out to make sure the learning doesn't happen (narcissistic parents typically don't care enough about the kids to know what phase they should be at!) but rather because of the nature of the narcissist and what they impose on the child, the normal development simply can't happen.
For example, the narcissist is often unpredictable, one day you say something and nothing happens, the next day you say the same thing and they explode. Sometimes they will attend to a crying infant straight away, other times they can't be bothered and they allow the child to cry until they stop themselves. For young children there may be no pattern to the punishments they receive. This unpredictability is very unsettling for adults and much more so for a young child who is trying to figure out how the world works. It makes it very difficult for a child to trust the world or his inconsistent parents and they often grow up mistrusting, wary and hyper-vigilant because they don’t know when they will get into trouble next.
Parental narcissism also diminishes a child's ability to establish personal control and independence because everything is so regulated by the parent. The child who is not allowed to make some decisions about say, food or toys, may end up feeling inadequate and doubt themselves as well as remaining dependent on the narcissistic parent. This is compounded when the child is punished for things that are beyond his or her control, for example, having an accident during toilet training.
Decision making is a big issue for narcissists. They believe that there decisions are the right ones (often because their decisions are not tainted by emotions!) and any independent decision making is not allowed. People around them are allowed to agree with their decisions or keep quiet. In this way they impose their thinking, desires and behaviors on others. For a child who is never allowed to express their real desires, wants or needs, this is catastrophic for the development of their own personalities. It's no wonder that many adults of narcissistic parents say that they don't know what they like or what they want for themselves. They have been so trained to put the wants and needs of the manipulator first that they don't actually know what their own likes, dislikes, wants or desires are.
Although the children in parental narcissism families are not allowed to make plans, they do face challenges every day. How do I not get into trouble today? What can I say or do, and what should I not say or do, in order not to bring their anger down on top of me? How do I know what mood they are in? These are ongoing problems that children have around narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths on an ongoing basis.
Learning to interact with others is another major challenge for children is situations of parental narcissism. Not only are the narcissists unpredictably unpredictable, but there is alternating criticism and compliments, the narcissists are never satisfied and they frequently put the children in double binds. And the narcissists are the relationship role model for children! Let's look at these things in a bit more detail.
The alternation of criticism and compliments is very controlling in any context. In cults, for example, this combination creates dependency in the victims. What happens is that the members believe that the leader has their best interests at heart and they are keen to please him. They want his praise and approval because this makes them feel good and they have a sense that they are doing well. When the leader criticizes the members it is very upsetting for them and it often spurs them on to try harder to please the leader. This gives rise to a situation where the members become dependent on the leader, where they only know they are ok if the leader says so.
Children are very dependent on the parents for several years and this alternation of criticism and compliments makes them even more dependent. To make matters worse, the criticisms of the narcissistic parent are often leveled at the person's personality or identity, rather than at their behavior, for example, "YOU are stupid" as opposed to "That was a stupid thing to do." This further disrupts any normal, healthy development of the personality and, indeed, actually breaks down the child's real personality. Keeping the child's personality disrupted allows the narcissistic parent to force changes in the child so that the child is more and more the way the parent wants it to be. More on this idea later.
With parental narcissism the dependency can also be increased by keeping the child isolated from the outside world. This can occur by literally stopping the child from going out to play with others or it can by done by installing fears and phobias. More than one narcissistic parent has warned their child of all the dangers that lie outside the front door, along with stories of how there are so many evil people in the world and that only mother or father is wise enough to protect them from all these things.
For the narcissist there is never enough. Never enough praise for them, never enough being done for them, never enough consideration of them by others, never enough effort on the part of others. It's practically impossible to please them. The more you try to please them, the more they expect. The more they get, the more they want. This has important ramifications for the child. They often spend their lives trying to do the impossible, for little or no reward at all. Desperately wanting their parents approval, like any normal child, they spend years hoping that maybe this time they will be recognized for their efforts, but to no avail. Their hopes are dashed again and again because no matter how hard they try, it's never enough for the insatiable narcissist.
Double binds are "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations. The child is given an instruction but if he or she follows the instruction, they are disobeying another rule which exists in a broader context.
An example is where the mother tells the child one day to do x and then the next day that the mother reprimands the child saying that the child should have done y. The unspoken rule (broader context) is that the mother's authority should never be questioned. The child is then caught because they get reprimanded for not doing y, and if they answer back, they are punished for questioning her authority.
Another is where the narcissistic mother says to the child, in front of the father after the divorce, 'Why don't you go and spend the weekend with your father?' The child knows that after the previous 2 or 3 occasions when he did that there was hell to pay when he got back to his mother's house. So he loses either way, if he goes, his mother will punish him for it and if he does not go he damages his relationship with his father because it seems to his father that the mother is encouraging him but the son himself is deciding not to go.
Double binds often depend on the context and previous communications and may not be obvious to outsiders.
Other examples are the instruction that you have to do something but you should want to do it of your own accord and the command to 'be spontaneous'. Following the latter instruction means you are not being spontaneous. This is a double bind when one cannot ignore the instruction or leave the situation. These very conditions apply to children a lot more often than to adults.
Another classic with the narcissists is where they say to you, 'You never tell me what you are thinking or doing.' They make the victim feel bad for not revealing stuff about themselves. The broader context is that the victim knows that whatever the information they give out will probably be used against them later.
The narcissistic mother who says to the child "I love you" while beating the child is putting the child in a double bind. There are very conflicting messages and the child does not know which message to respond to. Again, the child has to respond in some way and cannot leave the situation and may have little ability to articulate the conflict.
Adults get very distressed when they are caught in double binds because often within the situation it's very difficult to see exactly what is going on. For children, who have less life experience, less vocabulary and less reasoning ability, the effects can be devastating. Growing up in an environment such as parental narcissism where there are frequent double binds often leads to distortions in a person's thinking and communication. Many victims cannot actually recognize double binds because they are actually so used to them that they think they are 'normal' and they are not recognized as abusive. The double binds can also act as a closed loop allowing more and more abuse to occur.
In normal situations, children learn to take pride in their achievements. Not so with the narcissists, who credit themselves with everything positive that happens within 50 yards of them. Any success the child has is quickly attributed to the narcissist by the narcissist themselves. The child is reminded how grateful they should be for having such a wonderful parent.
Add to that the fact that the narcissists also blame those around them for anything 'bad' that happens and you get a recipe for very low self esteem in those in a relationship with a narcissist or sociopath. "Your successes are not really yours and we have problems because of who you are" is the message to the child on a regular basis.
So what does all this leave the child with?
Some children raised with parental narcissism may be narcissistic but the majority are not. They are in many ways very different from the narcissistic parent. They are often kind and gentle, not wanting to get into arguments. They are helpful and caring, frequently doing things for others. In fact, they often spend more time looking after others than they do looking after themselves. They may seem to be easygoing, 'going with the flow' and doing what others want to do.
But on closer inspection it becomes obvious that these people can't or don't want to make decisions. They can't say no to people and often end up doing lots of things they don't want to because of it. They may get upset at themselves for agreeing to things but because they are unable to initially refuse or later back out of any commitments, they go ahead and do things and hide their frustration and/or anger.
They often don’t make decisions because they don't actually know what they want. They may know what they don't want but when it comes time to saying what they like or want, they really don't know what would be pleasing for them. Instead they set about making sure others get what they want and this gives them a sense of pleasure or fulfillment and they can then relax themselves.
Children of narcissists are often nervous people although they may hide it very well. There are lots of things they do not do so as not to upset others and they are typically very aware of others moods, having the ability to watch others and gauge what's going on and they then modify their own behavior accordingly. They don't like to make mistakes at all (having gotten into so much trouble for it in the past), and they may be very demanding of themselves, often aiming for perfection in everything they do.
Their self-esteem is often quite low and they consider that their opinions, ideas, wants and needs are not as important as others. This often means that they may seem naive to others, simply latching on to the ideas or beliefs that are current rather than having any strong beliefs of their own. This accepting of information without questioning it also makes them very vulnerable to being manipulated by the next narcissist or psychopath that they meet. There may be a history of different abusive relationships.
Children of narcissistic parents often seem to be quite dependent people and may even be labeled as co-dependent. They may take criticism very personally, even from strangers, while not believing any compliments or nice things that people say about them, even their closest family and friends. This means that they typically don't have much self confidence and are very much at the influence of their environment.
They may consider themselves immature without realizing why. The fact is that they often have not had many of the experiences that normal kids have had because of the environment in which they were raised.
They don't trust themselves and often have difficulty trusting others which leads to a difficulty in establishing and maintaining friendships. When someone treats them well they are very appreciative (because they are so used to bad treatment that anything nice is a welcome relief!) and will often go a bit overboard with the gratitude because they really want the other person to know just how grateful they are.
By no means is this a criticism of such people. After all, this personality was imposed upon them by the manipulators without their knowledge and without their consent. It is the kind of personality that the egocentric, controlling narcissist wants around them and the narcissists set about deliberately molding people to be this way.
This personality is a false personality, a pseudopersonality, and it has been forced upon the child. It actually suppresses and dominates their real personality and because it is so strong, (and the real personality has not been allowed to develop) the individual believes that the pseudopersonality is who they are.
This idea of the pseudopersonality was first described by Edgar Schein in the 1960's after studying the American prisoners of war after the Korean war and it is the current model used by experts in the field to describe what happens in cults and abusive relationships.
It is a very useful way to think of what happens to the victims in mind control situations and helps to explain a lot of the internal conflicts they have. Many people talk about being at war with themselves, where a part of them wants one thing and another part wants the opposite. For example, "a part of me wants to run away from my family but another part of me feels that I can't survive without them," or "I really don't want to help this person out but a part of me knows I will feel really bad if I don't." This internal struggle continues as long as the pseudopersonality in in place.
Unfortunately the pseudopersonality does not disappear just because the victim moves away from the manipulator. It was put in place with such strong influence techniques that the beliefs and ideas and the behavior patterns are often much stronger than in children of normal, healthy families. These things persist even after leaving the mind control environment and it takes work and effort on the part of the victim to undo these things.
Many people have diagnoses of various types because of the problems they have as a result of having a pseudopersonality. It's important to keep in mind that the diagnosis is based on the symptoms of the pseudopersonality and may not be a true representation of the person themselves.
Another major issue is that a pseudopersonality is very obvious to other manipulators, so obvious, in fact, that you may as well have it tattooed on your forehead that you were abused in the past. This means that they will tend to target you (NOT that you attract them!) because these predators are always on the lookout for easy prey. Having a pseudopersonality means there is less work for them to do because many of the patterns of submission are already in place.
The good news is that all these patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving have been learned and this makes it possible to learn others. However, it usually doesn't work to simply try and change these things directly. Remember they have been put in place over years with forceful techniques and simply deciding that you are not going to do or think something again is not going to be very effective. The patterns are too deeply ingrained.
Many people think that they can just forget the whole family thing, move away, and just carry on with their own lives. This is not a successful strategy because the individual has been manipulated and changed at a profound level, the level of identity or personality and what happens is that their thoughts continue to be filled with memories of the past and they spend a not inconsiderable amount of time going in circles in their head trying to make sense of their lives.
To be able to fully recover from the effects of parental narcissism, it's vital to learn about mind control, narcissists and psychopaths. You need to learn about the techniques of influence, which ones were used against you and why, what impact they had on your thinking, decision making, emotions and behavior.
In this way you come to understand what specifically was done to you and how the tactics affected who you are. You come to realize just how controlling the narcissistic parent was and, very importantly, how none of it is your fault. Coming to terms with the fact that someone that you loved (and may still love) could do you such harm is not an easy task. Realizing that they do not actually love you is also a big part of recovering fully.
Undoing the pseudopersonality first before trying to rebuild your own personality is a must. Trying to repair or modify the pseudopersonality is just going to cause problems in the same way that rebuilding a burnt house using the supporting materials that were burnt causes difficulties in the future. It's much better to tear the whole burnt structure down and start from scratch. Anything that remains of the pseudopersonality is simply going to taint everything else. Best to get rid of it and start afresh.
Undoing the pseudopersonality and developing your own personality is best done with the help of an expert in this area. An expert will help you to question the things that you may not think to do for yourself as well as point out the pitfalls and errors in dealing with parental narcissism. You can read more about the benefits of this here.
If someone was recruited into a cult when they were 25 years old, when they leave they have the opportunity to compare their real personality of the first 25 years of their lives with that of the cult personality, the pseudopersonality. It makes it easy to discern what was real and what was imposed. With parental narcissism, the children don't have this luxury because, in effect, they have always had a pseudopersonality. This adds a layer of complexity to their recovery because they have to work hard to develop their own personalities. However, this work pays dividends later because the individual has the opportunity to build something that is very strong and resilient.
Would you prefer to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
You have the theory but how do you actually apply it? This book spells it out...
Do you think you are being taken advantage of emotionally, physically, sexually or financially in your relationship? Do you want to leave but you can't seem to get away?
Do you think you may be in an abusive relationship? Are you realizing that your life is not how you want it to be, despite following your group's ideas faithfully?
But not getting noticed??
Learn to write so you attract visitors