"Her Highest Praises Were Mocking Insults"—What It's Like Growing Up With a Narcissist for a Parent
Now that they're adults, these real women are finally able to speak out.
These days, the word “narcissist” is thrown around to describe any arrogant jerk or vain, self-involved person. But there's a clinical definition of the word from a mental health standpoint: someone who has no empathy, who can't tune in to the emotional world and understand others' feelings. A narcissist can also be hugely ambitious and competitive, a person who views herself as special. She can turn on the charm . . . and tends to hold grudges.
“Narcissists are not accountable for their own behavior. They blame those around them and project their own self-loathing feelings onto others,” explains Karyl McBride, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. “They’re people with a very fragile ego [which] they cover up with grandiose behavior.”
These six women know what it's like to live with someone who fits the clinical definition of a narcissist. Sadly, that person was a parent, and having a narcissistic parent altered the way each woman grew up and viewed themselves and the world. Let these adult children of narcissistic parents explain exactly what it was like.
“My mother looked at me and thought of herself”
“I became the ‘parent’ at a very young age. I was my mother's business partner, employee, spouse, friend, and caretaker. When she had a sinus infection, I stayed home from school to care for her. Looking back, I’d be surprised if my mother even knew what grade I was in. It was common for me to see other adults bewildered by her behavior….This made me more protective of my mother, who convinced me everyone else was ‘out to get her.’
When I was ready to leave for college, my mother sobbed and said she couldn't [make it] without me. I let someone else stay in my dorm room and commuted home every day to be with her. The most cathartic moment for me was when a therapist told me that my mother had never looked into my eyes and actually seen me. Instead, she looked at me and thought of herself, and how I affected her, and what I could do for her." —Cara
“She was in competition with everyone”
“As a child, my life became about pleasing my mother. She would discuss adult matters like her finance problems, which I would take seriously at age eight and caused me stress. She was in competition with everyone, even ill people, about who's more ill. She would tell me my grandma was crude and horrible and I’m just like her. She read my diaries. She’d buy herself clothes but ‘could never afford’ them for me. Until I was 12, she used to lock me out of the house as punishment. The most detrimental thing about this behavior is that to the child, it's normal. It's love. It's parenting. Healthy people seem weird [to me].” —Kathy
“My dad did whatever he wanted”
“My dad did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted—and we either went along or got out of his way. One time, he spent our family vacation money on a new car. We were devastated. We’d been saving for over a year. I was my father’s ‘first love.’ I don't mean that in a sexually abusive way. For whatever reason, he felt super-bonded to me and I became his favorite. When he got injured and had to be transported by ambulance, he wanted me with him, rather than my mother. In graduate school, I started therapy to try to work through my relationship with my dad. I cut my parents off for a few years, but eventually we reconciled. My dad quit drinking, which helped, but I also became less emotionally vulnerable, had better boundaries, and didn't accept his constant belittling as truth." —Melanie
“Her highest praises were mocking insults”
"My childhood was spent wishing someone would come visit so my mom would behave herself. Her highest praises were mocking insults. When in the course of childhood, we inconvenienced her by bonking our heads or having bad dreams—or even if we achieved something spectacular—it would be met with the same disinterest. And if it was too special, we’d get a verbal backhand to pull us back down to earth. A narcissistic parent grooms you into feeling so unworthy and uncomfortable around good treatment that you stay the course. We keep repeating patterns, not understanding why we don’t seem to be able to break them.” —Bridget
“I feel like I went through war”
“Growing up, my mother developed a friendship with me and my sister...but [she was] the worst kind of friend. The environment was twisted and unpredictable. My mom frequently drank and drove with us. She was drama-filled and meddled in our relationships. There were frequent fist fights with family members. I feel like I went through war. Now that I’m an adult, I have a huge lack of trust in people. I’m always avoiding conflict. [When you grow up with a narcissistic parent], there's always this feeling that nobody understands. You feel like you're the only one going through this because there's such a stigma placed on blaming your parent for their actions.” —Lindsey
“Some parents don't have the DNA to love their children”
“My narcissistic mother made me feel so ignorant that until I was in my 20s, I believed I might be mentally retarded and everyone knew but me. As an adult, I found myself in abusive relationships. My friendships were no better: I did all the work while they humiliated or used me. My advice to others with a narcissistic parent? Get some distance, be it physical or just taking a break from the relationship. Read books by experts, reevaluate every relationship in your life to see if it’s 50-50 and there's real love involved. I literally got out the dictionary to look up love! It's so simple but I realized my parents did not love me.…Some parents don't have the DNA to love their children.” —Amanda