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After years of trying to fix her relationship with her narcissistic father, Milton, Nancy decided to go ‘no contact’.
‘It might sound terrible, but I felt as if the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders,’ Nancy recalls. ‘It took so long to recover from each of our visits. He said such demeaning things about me and other people. He told my 10-year-old son: “You better be good at school because you’re sure no athlete,” That was the final straw.’
Last week Nancy’s uncle emailed Nancy, informing her that Milton had COVID-19. Milton lives alone in the family home since Nancy’s mother died several years ago. Milton spends time fishing with other retired men and watching sports on TV. He eats canned soup, sandwiches, and scrambled eggs.
Nancy aches with conflicted feelings. As a caring, compassionate person, part of Nancy wants to help her father. Another part of Nancy wants to keep as far away as possible, protecting herself from COVID-19, and from painful interactions with her father.
Old wounds, new world
Like many adult children of narcissistic parents, Nancy found that the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Re-opened or intensified old wounds or traumas
- Forced decisions about interactions with parents
- Increased contact with other family members and friends regarding the parent
Five ways to cope
Have you found yourself in Nancy’s shoes? If so, here are five ideas to help clarify what’s right for you:
1. Remember that whatever you’re feeling is OK.
Anger, sadness, guilt, resentment. Sometimes our emotions don’t feel acceptable. Sometimes adults of narcissistic parents are told by others that their feelings are wrong: ‘She’s your mother!’ However, our emotions are key to our survival. According The Expanded Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training Manual, emotions help us:
- Understand ourselves in relations to other people and situations
- Motivate us to take action
- Provide the foundation for forming relationships
2. Feelings lead to thoughts, and thoughts are not facts.
Thoughts often feel like facts, especially the harsh, self-critical ones. If you were raised by a narcissistic parent, even if you have gone no contact, you might still hear your parent’s critical voice in your head: ‘You’re so selfish,’ ‘You’re too sensitive,’ ‘Everybody thinks you’re a terrible daughter’. For adults of narcissistic parents, it can feel impossible to discredit or even turn the volume on these disparaging voices.
3. Hold your thoughts lightly
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), teaches us to hold our thoughts lightly. This doesn’t make the thoughts go away; we have no control over which thoughts stream in and out our minds. However, being gentler with our thoughts, especially painful ones, allows us to see more choices. Try this Feather Cactus ACT from Dr Hank Robb, an exercise to learn to hold your thoughts gently:
Sit with your eyes closed if that’s comfortable for you, or allow your eyes to remain open and gaze downward. Imagine you’re sitting with open palms. A feather is placed in your open palm. It feels soft and pleasant as you hold it gently. Now a cactus is placed in your open palms. Since it’s a cactus, it feels prickly and uncomfortable. You also hold the cactus gently. Just like you’re holding the cactus gently, though it’s prickly and uncomfortable, you can hold uncomfortable, even painful thoughts gently, too.
4. You can hold opposite feelings and thoughts at the same time.
In dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), this concept is called a dialectic. Why is this idea important? Intense emotions often lead to extreme, black and white thinking, which in turn leads to extreme or impulsive reactions and behaviours.
Dialectical thinking encourages us to think flexibly and look for shades of grey. At first, dialectical thinking might seem like it doesn’t make much sense. But try it out. You may find that allowing yourself to hold two opposite ideas at the same time brings a sense of relief.
Struggling with her decision about her father, Nancy realised: ‘I can help my father, and maintain the distance I need. I can feel scared about being involved with him, and feel good about helping him.’
5. There is more than one way to solve a problem.
Nancy confided in a close friend about the situation with her father and COVID-19. Her friend, her cousin, and her partner offered well-meaning suggestions. Stick with no contact. Visit him. Hire a home health aide. Nancy hired a home health aide to check regularly on her father. Nancy cooked healthy meals and brought them to her father’s house. She filled prescriptions and spoke to Milton’s doctor. When Milton recovered from COVID, Nancy went back to no contact.
Nancy explains: ‘When I first heard about my father’s illness, I felt terrified, even angry. Then I felt guilty for feeling that way. I stepped back and told myself it was OK to feel that way. Then I could come up with a plan. It’s still not healthy for me to have contact with my father, but I found a way to help because it felt right.’
Image credit: Freepik
Dr Stephanie Kriesberg is a clinical psychologist in private in the Boston area. You can connect with her on Twitter @drskriesberg.