By: Craig Malkin/YourTango.com
Narcissistic parents are abusive.
“Character is the trace of relationship,” wrote Christopher Bollas, the brilliant post-Freudian psychoanalyst, in his ominously titled but infinitely hopeful book, The Shadow of the Object.
This, he concluded, is how any personality is born. What happens to the development of our personality when we live in the shadow of narcissistic parents? Here are 8 of the most common effects that can impact a person’s entire life.
1. You continually blame yourself.
Narcissistic parents may or may not be openly abusive, but they’re almost certainly emotionally tone deaf, too preoccupied with their own concerns to hear our pain. Because emotionally sensitive children who long for love can’t simply walk out the door and find a new family, they often nurture hope by sacrificing their self-esteem.
“I’m the problem,” they tell themselves. “If I were quieter, calmer, or happier, my mother wouldn’t yell at me, ignore me, or criticize me all the time. If I fix myself, I’ll finally be loved.” Sadly, we often blame ourselves for what’s missing from our lives to preserve a shred of hope.
2. You tolerate narcissism in your other relationships.
If you’re particularly sensitive or empathic by nature, you’re more likely to respond to narcissistic parenting with a stance I call echoism, named after the nymph Echo, who was cursed to repeat back the last few words she heard. Just as Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, Echo fell in love with Narcissus.
3. You become insecure in your own relationships.
Roughly speaking, insecure attachment can take two forms: avoidant attachment, in which we manage our fears by shutting people out (I’ll never risk depending on anyone ever again!) and anxious attachment, where we chase after love, pursuing — sometimes angrily — the connection we long for with our loved ones (Why won’t you pay attention to me?).
4. You become needy.
A related problem is something I call need-panic. Narcissistic parents can make their children terrified of their needs, who bury them by becoming compulsive caretakers or simply falling silent. They may hum along for a while, seeming to need nothing from their partners or friends.
Then, a crisis hits, and suddenly — in ways they find deeply unsettling — they call their friends incessantly or seek constant reassurance. The quickest way to eliminate a need, after all, is to get it met immediately; paradoxically, the people most afraid of their needs are apt to seem the most “needy.”
5. You learn to be independent.
Outgoing, adventurous children may respond to narcissistic parenting by abandoning emotional intimacy altogether, believing that no one can be trusted or relied on. This is impossible to sustain, naturally, and can easily engender intermittent need panic.
Alternatively, children with more sensitive temperaments may become compulsively selfless caretakers, as if the only way they can enjoy nurturance is vicariously by providing others with the warmth and caring they never enjoyed.
6. You become a people-pleaser.
Temperamentally sensitive children (who are often gifted empaths) can develop a laser-like focus on their parents’ needs. They organize their lives around the happiness of others, convinced they have to bolster their parents’ esteem (Of course you’re pretty!) or prevent their next explosion (I’ll get your snack… you’re stressed!) by closely minding their every desire or whim.
7. You become just as, or even more, narcissistic as your parents.
The more aggressive a child is by nature, the more likely they are to respond to narcissistic parenting by playing a game of if you can’t beat them, join them: “I’ll just make sure I’m the loudest, prettiest, smartest person in the room. That way no one can make me feel unimportant again.”
If you’re born with a stubborn, bombastic temperament and exposed to the kind of neglectful or abusive parenting narcissists often provide, you’re more likely to end up narcissistic yourself.
8. You jeopardize your own health by constantly stressing yourself out.
Abuse throws us into a state of constant alertness, vigilantly prepared to dodge the next danger. This typically leads to chronic anxiety, sudden memories of abuse, emotional numbing, and even a foreshortened sense of future, in which people become so fixed on simply surviving that they lose the ability to imagine life beyond the present.