I have always been quite hesitant to write about narcissism due to my past experiences and my role as a counsellor. I was worried my own experiences could be seen as projections onto my clients and I wanted to make sure my boundaries were clear enough to absolutely everyone, an obvious side effect of the narcissistic treatment I endured in the past. However, I felt literally saved by my therapist years ago, who really helped me understand how narcissists train your brain to accept the unacceptable and how to break free. I am now hoping to offer the same help to other victims of narcissism.
What is destructive narcissism in psychological terms?
Narcissism is generally thought to be an excessive focus on oneself and is usually used to convey a very negative image of the person mentioned. In psychology, we use the term in a slightly different way since we understand where it comes from (in childhood) and the techniques used by the narcissistic adult.
Indeed, loving oneself is actually necessary and is the foundation for healthy self-esteem and self-confidence. Healthy levels of self-esteem indicate the child knows they are loved and worthy as a person in the family and in society. Growing up, the child develops the ability to understand someone else’s viewpoint and empathy for other people’s suffering.
However, some kids and teens may show signs of narcissism but these manifestations are not developed enough and they are usually not diagnosed before age 18 since adolescence is a rather self-centred and difficult phase for kids.
So what is destructive narcissism, either covert or overt? Have you ever met anyone whose attitudes make you feel like:
- You are devalued repetitively
- You have to tend to the person’s needs, desires, wishes, and make them a constant priority without reciprocity
- You feel you are walking on eggshells
- You start to question yourself and your reality
- You begin to wonder whether you are mentally ill
- You start to doubt your own accomplishments or even devalue them
- You constantly second-guess the person’s reactions/potential attitudes
- You are gradually vanishing
- You accept previously thought unacceptable behaviours
- You accept breadcrumbs hoping for more and better each time
- You think there is a special bond and by trying more and better, you’ll surely have it back
Unfortunately, this is not an exhaustive list of course. My aim is to provide some understanding of how you may be feeling or have felt, show that you are not alone and most importantly that this is not your fault at all. Let’s be clear, there is nothing you can do however hard you try, however caring you are, to change an adult narcissist.
I was raised by a narcissist, how is that affecting my current relationships?
If you were raised by a narcissist, your brain has been trained to think in a specific way and accept behaviours that you may have sensed were not right but you were told then they were perfectly acceptable. You were being too sensitive or too selfish in your parent’s mind. And of course, as a child, you believed your parent and wanted to ‘please’ him/her.
A distinction has to be made between covert and overt narcissism. If your parent was (is) a covert narcissist, there is a good chance you thought your parent was highly sensitive due to their ‘unique’ vulnerability. Covert narcissists handle all forms of criticism very poorly. They frequently cover up their actions – or lack of – by labelling themselves as victims. They are, apparently, abused and misunderstood quite often. Therefore, there is also a good chance that as a kid you felt guilty, selfish, not good enough most of the time since you were required to be there for your parent endlessly, prioritising your narcissistic parent over yourself.
It is quite possible that you felt the ‘precious’ bond you had with your parent was exceptional; and everyone was telling you so, hard not to believe it then – and you were also asked to be grateful for this. If you were trying to set boundaries in order to separate yourself from your parent, you were being ‘too’ self-centred and so ungrateful in your parent’s mind.
Now that I have described some feelings you may have felt when you were a kid, can you link them to the points mentioned above – devaluing pattern, accepting breadcrumbs, trying more and better, etc. Again, please be kind to yourself, this was clearly not your fault.
If your parent was (is) an overt narcissist, you most probably have felt the same. However, an overt narcissist behaves in a more open way – still indecipherable for a kid of course. Overt narcissists are openly grandiose and intrusive. They expect the whole world to revolve around them and this is expressed and shown outwardly. Your destructive parent did not validate your feelings and did not try to attune at any times, making more demands and tougher ones gradually. They compared you with others, blaming you and making you feel inferior. Now while you are an adult, your narcissistic parent does not recognize your adult status or even accept you as a separate individual with different needs, desires or journey.
You may be trying to obtain your parent’s approval and acceptance just like you did when you were a kid, but all your actions and gestures are doomed to failure. Do you pinpoint any repetitive relationship patterns here?
Am I doomed to repeat the same relationship pattern over and over again?
You may feel like you are, but believe me, as long as you are willing to work on your past, your current relationship dynamics and understand the roots of any unhealthy patterns you may have been developing, you are not doomed at all! Nothing is carved in stone and we can all learn and progress at our own pace.
It is true that infants form certain attachment styles that are carried with them into their adult relationships. The Attachment Theory, that is ingrained in my practice, was developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.
Fortunately, attachment styles can evolve and you are not doomed to keep repeating the same negative patterns you have learned in infancy. Working with a therapist who is well experienced in attachment theory and narcissism can help you identify and explore the unhealthy aspects and repetitive responses you have been experiencing. That does not mean it is easy, it does take time and may trigger hidden traumas and suffering, but this is necessary to help you develop healthy relationships that you truly deserve.
The very first step is to understand that your parent(s) is a covert/overt narcissist and recognise how you have been affected by his/her behaviours and attitudes. It is not an easy step at all, one that may be hindered by many denials and rejections on your part towards the therapist. After all, you believed you had ‘a very special and exceptional bond’ with this parent, it is quite natural. You need to address these difficult issues.
If you would like more details on my work and get a better understanding of narcissism, please do not hesitate to contact me through my website. And please bear in mind that this is not your fault. If you want to, you can now start a new journey towards your true self.
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Margareth Van Steenlandt is a certified counsellor, personal development and business coach.
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