There are many different types of dysfunctional families. One of the more common types is the narcissistic family.
In this post, I’m going to explain what a narcissistic family is and outline some of the more common difficulties individuals who grew up in this type of family system may face as adults.
But before we dive in, here are a few questions you might ask yourself:
- Did you grow up with a parent (or parents) whose emotional needs overshadowed your own?
- Did you routinely withhold your emotions from your parent(s), perhaps to avoid feeling invalidated?
- When you did express emotion, did your parent respond in a dramatic fashion?
- Did you try to earn love, attention, and approval by way of satisfying your parents’ needs?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have grown up in a narcissistic family—and that experience may still be affecting your life today.
What is a narcissistic family?
The term narcissistic family can be confusing at first.
It can also be jarring for some.
So, before going any further, let me offer a simple definition of what a narcissistic family is.
A narcissistic family is any family in which the needs of a parent (or parents) take priority over the needs of the children.
Before we look more closely at what this definition is saying, let’s look, first, at what it doesn’t say:
It doesn’t say the child who grows up in a narcissistic family must endure overt forms of abuse. Sometimes overt abuse takes place in these families, but not always. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for individuals from narcissistic families to recall having had “perfect childhoods.”
The definition also doesn’t say that one or both of your parents must be pathological narcissists. Again, this may have been the case, but probably not. Studies have shown that those who meet diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder make up an extremely small sliver of the population.
The hallmark of the narcissistic family is the child’s felt sense of responsibility for “taking care” of his or her parent’s emotional needs.
This might look like a child learning how not to cry in order to satisfy mom’s need for “calmness.” (Truth be told, in the narcissistic family, mom’s need for “calmness” likely reflects her deeper need for constant attention. After all, too much commotion runs the risk of pulling attention away from the parent.)
It might also look like a teen learning to downplay his accomplishments to avoid invalidating comments from dad. Here too, the teen is having to bury his own feelings of pride and excitement to satisfy his dad’s emotional need—not to feel insecure, for example.
For adults who grew up in a narcissistic home, learning to identify the aftereffects of that experience is an important first step in the recovery process.
Here are five challenges you might face if you grew up in a narcissistic family.
Throughout your childhood, life tended to be a whole lot easier when you put your parent’s emotional needs ahead of your own. There was less family drama, less hysteria, less crisis. Appeasing, consoling, concealing, being “seen but not heard”—these were all ways you learned to take care or your parent.
Many people who grow up feeling responsible for their parent’s emotional needs carry that same sense of responsibility into their adult relationships, as well.
This can look like always being the one to reach out and smooth things over with friends even when you haven’t done anything wrong. It may involve gravitating toward one-sided relationships with self-absorbed individuals. (These are the friends who talk about themselves for hours on end but seldom, if ever, inquire about your life.)
The familiarity in these relational patterns may offer you a sense of comfort. Problem is, these patterns also serve to reinforce feelings of unimportance, loneliness and invisibility.
As a child or teen, whenever you would “slip up” and display feelings of anger, sadness, or even joy you experienced intense feelings of guilt and shame. Each time, an internal voice would immediately speak up and tell you how “selfish” you were being.
At the time, this was adaptive; the guilt and shame protected you from constant disapproval and invalidation. Your inner critic helped you to stave off external criticism from your parent.
But that was then.
Now, in your adult years, the guilt and shame have outlived their usefulness. They limit your ability to be vulnerable with others. And they make it almost impossible to get your own emotional needs met in relationships.
Connecting with your emotions
Over time, many children of narcissistic parents go from consciously hiding their emotions around others to eventually losing touch with their emotions altogether.
Much like not communicating your emotions, burying and ignoring your own emotions was likely helpful during your childhood years. “Not having emotions” meant never being at risk of saying or doing the “wrong” thing. Not “whining,” not crying, not lashing out in anger made life at home more predictable. It allowed you to feel more in control. And most importantly, it kept you safe from further emotional pain.
But not being able to connect with your own emotions can pose significant challenges in your adult life. After all, when you can’t access your own emotions, how are your emotional needs supposed to get met? You can’t fulfill those needs, because, well…you don’t really know what you need. And that means others can’t fulfill them, either, because how do you tell others what you need when you yourself don’t even know?
Setting healthy boundaries
Because adult children from narcissistic families often feel guilty when it comes to expressing feelings and needs, self-advocacy can be a huge challenge for these individuals. And this can make setting clear personal boundaries a major area of difficulty.
If you were raised in a narcissistic home, you may have learned that setting personal boundaries just wasn’t an option.
Your family role, after all, was to take care of others’ needs, not to identify and advocate for your own.
Unfortunately, even as an adult, it can be hard to break free from that familiar role. Without some retraining, that is.
For example, even when you dread what’s being asked of you, saying ‘no’ to others still may never really feel like an option. Likewise, the thought of sitting down with a friend, colleague, or significant other and discussing what you need from them may elicit strong feelings of guilt, fear and anxiety.
Trusting others is often a major challenge for adults who were raised in narcissistic families. As a member of this dysfunctional family system, you learned not to trust. You learned that your emotional safety depended upon always having your guard up and never being vulnerable with others.
Of course, it’s not hard to imagine how these defensive strategies from childhood can lead to problems with intimacy later in life.
You might struggle with expressing affection for a partner, for example. The very prospect of vulnerability may lead you to seek distance or “shut down” emotionally. And when feelings of vulnerability do surface, you may respond with “safer” emotions, such as anger or frustration.
Over time, these and other similar patterns can begin to wreak serious havoc in your most important relationships. They can also lead to an unfulfilling—or non-existent—love life.
Change is possible
Our childhood experiences shape our adult lives in many significant ways. However, with some effort, we can change the negative effects of family dysfunction.
Counseling can help you gain insight into general life patterns that took shape within your family of origin. Additionally, counseling can provide a venue for you to build and hone new interpersonal skills, such as setting healthy boundaries, assertive communication, expressing emotions, and general self-advocacy.
Does your past hold you back from the life you desire? Contact Modern Era Counseling in Charlotte, NC today to get the help you deserve!