Feeling unreal after narcissistic abuse
One of the grave impacts of being scapegoated by a narcissistic parent is the sense that at your core you are not real. Survivors often feel this way from early in life and have found a way to live with it. This can be a terrifying feeling that is often not discussed with friends, partners, therapists, or even oneself. It may be secretly ‘beared with’ as life unfolds under its auspices.
In this blog post, I want to discuss how kids typically develop a sense of being uniquely real in the world, the roles of accurate mirroring from and idealization of ‘good enough’ parents, how this process goes awry in scapegoated forms of narcissistic abuse, and how therapy can help the survivor recover a sense of being real.
Recognition contributes to feeling real
The problem of feeling real – in my opinion – traces back to how accurately recognized – or not – we felt during our upbringing. Each of us has a unique set of attributes or ways of being that correspond to who we are in the world. When one of those attributes or ways gets noticed by someone else we feel more real in the world. Particularly if that someone else matters to us.
How it’s supposed to work
Think about why it feels good to hear “OK, I see you!”. Let’s say Sharone is an 8th grader in her social studies class. In her social studies class, Sharone’s favorite teacher, Mr. Turner, is having a discussion on the civil rights’ movements during the 1950’s and 60’s in the U.S. Sharone raises her hand and says, “It seems like today’s BLM protests are using similar tactics to Gandhi and MLK’s nonviolent protests. Both are and were trying to turn the hearts of the onlookers to see the injustice.” Mr. Turner pauses and says, “OK, Sharone, I see you. That is a great point. Class what are some of the overlapping features of today’s protests and the philosophy of nonviolent protest developed by Gandhi then MLK?”. Sharone feels very ‘real’ in this moment. She made a contribution to the class that was all her own. Someone whom she admires recognized and valued that contribution. Sharone had the sense that she is more at home in her own skin, proud to be who she is, and like her voice matters. In short, she felt real.
When we are recognized for who we uniquely are, the moment from being passive to active in the world transitions seamlessly. Sharone took a risk by actively sharing something of herself. She could not predict with 100% certainty that Mr. Turner would respond the way he did. She knew him well enough to expect him to do so, and that predictability made it feel way less risky to raise her hand. This ‘good enough’ predictability of how she will be responded to affords a sense of continuity of oneself and others. Sharone walked around with the general belief that others appreciate and respect her opinion. She grew to expect to feel pride when she spoke up in the world.
How it’s not supposed to work
Luis was born to a narcissistic mother. His mother worked as a social worker and curated an image of a selfless caregiver to their community. In relationship to Luis, however, she incessantly criticized him for almost anything he did or said. One typical episode occurred when Luis was 5 years old. He was on the playground and his mother saw another mother that she was friends with. She started talking to this woman and Luis remembers feeling like she was talking about him to this woman. She then called for Luis to come to her and asked him to say hello to this woman. Luis remembers feeling nervous because he did not understand what his mother was up to. When he got nervous he would pick his nose – and he quickly picked his nose after saying hello to this woman and ran back to the swingset. On the car ride home, Luis was in the backseat and remembered the black eyes of his mother peering at him in the rearview mirror. She was staring at him intermittently and finally said, “Luis, you really embarassed me by picking your nose like that in front of that woman. I did not know what to say to her. After you left I could tell that she was completely disgusted by you. You better stop doing that!”. Luis recalled feeling a hot flush of shame and wanting to fall through the car seat, through the paved road and somewhere he could never be found.
Luis’s template for what to expect when he is met in the world was very different than Sharone’s. He learned to expect derision, humiliation and rebuke for being ‘seen’ in the world. Luis, was a smart, dignified, and kindhearted person. So, the reception he got from his mother was not only cruel but also inaccurate to who he really was. Thus, when she would respond in such critical ways towards him, he would feel profoundly unreal. She was blaming him for being ways that were simply not true about him. At such a young age, he could not discern this fact. He trusted his mother’s authority and assumed that she saw something in him that he did not. The truth was that his mother was engaged in a gross act of projecting her own sense of worthlessness onto him. It was not until therapy in adulthood that he grew wise to this.
The role of mirroring and idealization in the healthy family
A sense of realness in the world really speaks to the question of how intact one’s Self feels. Children require certain patterns of responses from certain figures to consolidate their sense of Self. In fact, eventual narcissists are thought to experience deficits in this kind of needed responsiveness.
One psychoanalytic theorist who has a lot of useful points to make on the process of becoming real to oneself is Heinz Kohut. He posits that kids have two critical ongoing needs for being recognized by their parents. First, the child’s original expressions of himself must be acknowledged and credited to who that child uniquely is. Kohut referred to this as ’empathic mirroring’. Imagine a 3 year-old named Zion who tests very high in the sensorimotor and muscle coordination tests for his age. While he is in the living room on a lazy Saturday afternoon, he crawls across the carpet to get a ball he wants to play with. As he’s crawling, his Dad bellows, “Fast Zion!” and Zion feels the charge of getting noticed for who he really is. He may not have language yet but he knows deeply that when he acts from the center of himself he usually is recognized and affirmed.
The second critical need is to have someone to look up to and admire who also sees the kid as special. Kohut referred to this ‘idealization’. In short, the kid needs someone whom he genuinely wants to be a “chip off of the old block”. The adult has to be able to offer qualities that are important to the child and for the child to take delight in being associated with that adult. It is particularly important that the adult genuinely possess these qualities. Otherwise, the kid may have to lie to himself to find someone to fit this critical role for him or her.When a ‘good enough’ parent can offer enough mirroring and warrants the child’s idealization then – over time – the child internalizes these experiences to have a sense of unique realness within.
What happens in a narcissistic family?
So that’s how a child normally develops a sense of who he really is. Now let’s look at what can happen when a child is born into a narcissistic family. In such cases, the child’s need for mirroring and idealization get subverted in ways that leave him in a chronic state of dishonesty and feeling unrecognized to himself.
A refresher on the narcissistic parent’s psychology
As I’ve described in greater depth, elsewhere, the narcissistic parent’s psychology is a pastiche of fragile defensive solutions to a deeply felt core sense of worthlessness. Readers of these blogs have pointedly questioned whether such people actually feel worthless or enjoy the superiority they exude. Those questions make tremendous sense, given how self-certain most narcissists can seem. However, the sense of superiority is too fragile, in my opinion, to be a product of genuine self-worth. Small slights can evoke huge bouts of rage and/or smear campaigns at the ‘offender’. Such reactions can only occur when the ‘slight’ poses a very grave threat. And only a person who is sensitive to feeling worthless could experience such minor slights as grave threats.
To combat this sense of worthlessness, the narcissist artificially inflates his own importance to himself. He meets his feelings of worthlessness with denial and insistence of the opposite. This is known as ‘grandiosity’. He further bulwarks himself against the worthlessness by acting in ways that coerce others to comply with his grandiosity. He surrounds himself with people to whom he can exert coercive pressure to exult him. This is known as ‘entitlement’. He feels entitled to others admiration, dependence, and/or gratitude just for being his grandiose self.
Finally, these two solutions are inherently selfish and manipulative. Two qualities that the narcissist’s grandiose sense of self could not bear to acknowledge. As a result he will relocate those qualities in other convenient targets around him and work to convince others about the target. He builds up a wall of lies where what is bad inside him is believed to exist in someone else – usually the scapegoated child.
Now, let’s see how the narcissistic parent’s grandiosity, entitlement, and strategies of relocation can pollute the child’s needs to be accurately mirrored and to idealize someone who deserves it.
The ‘black mirror’ for the child of the narcissist
I feel like what I am about to write is akin to slowing down the moments before a car crash and chronicling the moments that ensue. The goal here is not to forensically lament the psychological damage faced by a child of a narcissist. My hope is that it can lay out how profound the emotional wounds are for a developing child and how remarkable it is that the child found a way to survive and reach adulthood with the quest for a real self still intact.
I am going to write mainly from the standpoint of the scapegoated child. As discussed before, the scapegoated child becomes the receptacle for the narcissistic parent to relocate their own selfishness, unreliability, and lack of integrity. In contrast, the child is looking for a parent to accurately recognize her and affirm her unique ways of being. They are at complete odds with one another.
When the narcissistic parent’s need to relocate competes with the child’s need to be mirrored, power will always break the tie. And the narcissistic parent ultimately holds all the power and authority. The child is forced to sacrifice her needs to be mirrored and pretend the ‘false mirroring’ from the parent’s relocation of his own selfishness is who the child actually is.
Many survivors of narcissistic parents recall being told they did not ‘care about their own family’ when they wanted to spend time with their friends in adolescence. Gus, grew up with an altruistic narcissistic father who curated an image as a self-sacrificing patriarch. Gus was naturally funny, affable, and drew people to him. His father would relentlessly scapegoat Gus at home for being ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, and more interested in being popular than helping out around the house. Gus had a strong sense of integrity and felt humiliated when his father accused him of being a social climber without regard for his family. At age 14, Gus remembered being invited to play street hockey with some older friends from high school. He was excited but tried not to show this to his father because that could make his father say, “No” all the more. As usual, Gus was given a long list of cleaning chores to do and he did them. When he was about to go to the game, his father said, “Wait! I have to inspect how well you cleaned.” Gus clenched up inside. This was not good. His father lifted the toilet seat and claimed to see an area that Gus did not clean. He slammed the seat down and began screaming at Gus for “being more interested in going out to have fun than to do what his family needed him to do.” Needless to say, Gus was forbidden from going to the game.
Gus’s actual qualities of being sociable, athletic, and charismatic were absolutely not mirrored by his father. Instead his father fed Gus a completely distorted view of himself as selfish and inconsiderate. The implication was that his father “really knew” what Gus was like and if his friends knew the same information they would react in the same way. This confused Gus from figuring out what was real about him. Was he the likable guy his friends treated him as? Or was he the self-absorbed jerk his father insisted he was?
A scapegoated child who possesses actual good qualities must then bear this burden of being received in a way that is not aligned with how he actually is inside. Like Luis in the example above, his instincts skewed towards kindness, protection, and care. And yet he lived in a world where his narcissistic mother claimed to experience him as self-absorbed, disgusting, and ill-mannered. It is not hard to see how Luis might have a hard time experiencing himself as real. He has to act like he is who he’s being told he is yet he knows at his core that this does not fit him. It is a remarkable feat that children like Luis find a way to endure such a private ongoing hell. These kinds of stories can and do have good endings. Once they are out of this environment, people can be found who accurately see them for who they are and therapy can help untangle the false mirroring messages they received. A sense of realness can be achieved – if a bit delayed.
Having to falsely idealize a narcissistic parent
Now let’s look at the predicament for the child who has to idealize a narcissistic parent. It is easy to see how gratifying this could be for such a parent. A child who looks admiringly up at the parent and is willing to do whatever he tells her. The parent’s grandiosity and entitlement are well met when the kid is idealizing him. The problem can occur when the kid moves away from the idealizing stance towards the parent. When she expresses a will of her own or pays attention to herself more than the parent. In these cases, the parent’s sense of entitlement feels grossly violated and severe punishment can ensue.
Mario survived a sadistic and malignantly narcissistic father. In the first 5 years of his life, Mario remembers being treated like his father’s ‘special little friend’. He looked up to his father and his father seemed to look fondly upon and after Mario. In therapy, we determined that something changed profoundly when Mario started to develop into his own person. His father would seek out opportunities to put Mario in scary situations. Mario disturbingly recalls his father telling him – at age 6 – that they were locked out of the house. He told Mario to squeeze into a crawl space in order to unlock the cellar door from the inside. That crawl space was spoken of to contain rats and bats. Mario was naturally terrified. As he later reflected on those incidents he realized that his father could have just opened the cellar doors through another entrance. Mario saw that his father was seeking to put him in a terrifying situation out of sheer cruelty.
The child of a narcissistic parent who breaks the idealizing stance can encounter the terror of the parent’s resulting rage. The parent will often feel entitled to the child’s idealization of him. The child moving his attention from the parent to himself is failing to provide what the parents expects. When the parent’s entitlement is not complied with, there’s a breakdown in this tactic for staving off his core sense of worthlessness. As illustrated with Mario’s father, the narcissist will take swift and cruel action to punish the non-compliant ‘offender’ and restore the other’s compliance. The narcissist must do this to keep avoiding how worthless he feels.
It is important to appreciate the danger the child is put in when he stops authentically idealizing the narcissistic parent. Rage or worse is likely to ensue. In order to survive such upbringings, a kid can wisely conclude to keep idealizing the narcissistic parent. He may learn to avoid feelings, perceptions, or ways of being that encourage him to see the parent plainly. That is, he may structure his life so that he feels convinced of the correctness in continuing to idealize the dangerous parent. The result can be a core feeling that one is being dishonest with themselves. It is indeed dishonest, but not out of weak character. Rather, being dishonest about the falsely idealized narcissistic parent is the only way the kid survives their parenting.
In essence, the child’s natural need to idealize a strong caregiver gets hijacked to minimize the damage done by the narcissistic parent. The child of the narcissistic parent is forced to use his inner and outer real estate to feed the narcissitic parent’s grandiosity and entitlement – or else. His own need to idealize can make this process feel less enslaving. He can feel as though he is getting something in return by continuing to see the parent as worthy of idealization. The hope this offers the child can be integral to having the will to keep on going. Once the danger of childhood has passed, the opportunity presents itself to undo the lies fueled by the forced idealization of the narcissistic parent.
The impact of falsely idealizing the narcissistic parent contributes to the child’s difficulty feeling real. His need to idealize a parent who is deserving and non-possessive about the kid’s need goes unmet. Instead he creates an artificial drama in his mind that imbues someone woefully short of idealizable qualities with a surplus of them. He can end up feeling like there is nothing solid within or without to look up to. He may lose the sense of hope that good qualities exist in himself and others. All of these experiences contribute to the feeling of being unreal.
Becoming real after the ordeal
This blog is an effort to explain how the forced adaptations to survive narcissistic abuse can lead to feeling unreal to oneself. I believe that gaining an understanding of the psychological dynamics at play is a critical part of recovery. It is important to be able to begin to helpfully explain what is happening within oneself to oneself. In fact, paying attention to one’s inner experience is a step in the right direction itself. Such attention to oneself is exactly what had to be directed elsewhere under the parent’s reign.
A lot has been written about the process of becoming real after an upbringing of narcissistic abuse. I would encourage anyone who believes they have endured such abuse to seek therapy by someone who is knowledgeable about this phenomenon. I believe that therapy can help survivors begin to shed the false mirroring and idealizations they had to receive and provide, respectively. It can also offer a more accurate mirroring of who you are by someone who is worthy of your genuine trust.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.
It seems more than a coincidence that, after not seeing my father for 26 years and he appearing at my door, to only deride and disparage me for two hours, that I remember felling a lack of a reason to live, to go on, especially in the other adversity which I had been subjected to.
Six months later I had heart failure and nearly died. I am a very fit person and live healthily, and I feel sure that I ‘willed’ myself to self destruction, or more precisely, disconnected the natural functioning of the autonomous nervous system; red Indians can will themselves to death if they need to, and yogis can reduce their heart rate to 7 bpm.
I agree that there is a connection to heart failure, vascular failure. Liver and organ failure. Failure to thrive. I don’t think it can be a sudden effect though. But as babies it begins with the threat of death when we are abused. Then when we are abused as adults I think our bodies still read that behavior as a death threat. But our brains know that we can easily survive without tolerating the abuse. But our bodies remember the only choice as baby bodies – tolerate it or die. I know for me, when I get treated like garbage I just want to be dead. I think it’s because I absolutely don’t want to receive any more abuse. I want to have a boundary to stop it from happening to me. But my body still
Thinks that means I want to be dead. And I do feel like I want to be dead.
Hi Jay, In my case my narcissistic parent retaliated by blocking feedback from my teachers after parent-teacher conferences about my abilty to write. What little feedback I did get I reported back to the parent and they of course discouraged me and made me afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find a job with this career. I ended up trying the career this parent suggested for me – one they had always wished they could have done – and did it miserably for 8 years. After that I changed careers but still went for something practical due to their advice and the missing feedback that I still did not have. Six years into my second career I still felt unsatisfied until a family member brought up the memory of my writing and uncovered some of my old homework assignments from high school. It has been a terribly difficult life as this parent continued to harass me into my 20s and 30s. It is bittersweet to be starting all over again still trying to find the right career at almost 40 years old but nothing has ever quite fit. I haven’t been able to settle down or have kids yet but I’m hopeful. The damage this person has had on my life has been horrendous. I am keenly aware of the great miracle that I am still mostly intact and continuing to try and get things right.
Tina, as you can see I can relate. As I have concluded after many years of searching for answers, she was just awfully and destructively yealous and wicked.
At the times you need to find your self and improve your talents and skills they put them down with all force out of yealousy and spite.
It’s a missed window of opportunity you basically needed in your 10’s and 20’ties. When that opportunity has been put down and sabotaged it’s very, very hard to find your self again after.
And to really feel satisfied with yourself and kind of proud. And feeling loved about it.
She did hate you for your talents so how could anybody love you for them?
How would you love yourself for those talents if your primary caregiver rejected them this way?
Could all compliments you recieve make up for this basic rejection? I think not.
In my mind it’s still always not good enough. I still feel ashamed in a way when I play a song with my guitar and people obviously like it. I want to vanish. Compliments make me sad, unheard.
How strange. It should be uplifting.
Dear, I’m with you. Miles apart like most of us. Suffering in silence. I send you my support and kindness in your struggle.
You’re just 40. First, skipp any abuse relationships. Get out of this. Mother, family, ‘friends’ skipp them all after you made a last effort to explaine yourself and what you need from them.
You know they probably will disappoint you but anyway than you you’ll know you’ve done all you could have done.
The damage done will never quite resolve but you put an end to further damage and it will give you more air to breath after a while. After the grieve of ‘loss’ (which is no loss at all) you will see the skies again and the flowers and the birds.
Your mother was just a jealous, wicked child. A very disordered, a-moral person.
Love dear. Write your story and make a book out of it.
I found your comment to be so profound for me as I struggle to figure out how to go “no contact” with my narcissistic father. Everything you said is so spot on!! I tried once before and it resulted in a failed suicide attempt on my part. I’m again searching for the strength to finally rid my life of this cruel person I called dad!😢
In hindsight she did her upper best to sabotage every talent and skill I had and block any progress I could make when I was still a child/adolecent (and later). I loved drawing since I was 7. When 9 the teacher sent me to the higher classes to show my drawings. I remember I was quite embarrased. Some ended up in the school-paper. Not ever a word from her about it. In high-school my drawing talent took notice of a teacher in drawing and creative expression. I did not have to follow his lessons but just draw what I liked he told me. He used my drawings as examples to the other students. I was not aware at all this was special in a way.
One day I made a portret of a woman with pencil at home and brought it to him when the next class started. Back home I had no mirror. I wasn’t aware at all I had a talent in any way. She always told me I was a very bad kid, worthless. Direct or indirect.
This teacher told me he didn’t believe I draw the picture and ordered me to draw another one as a self-portrait. I remember I felt so sad he didn’t believe me drawing that portrait.
Then I drew this self-portrait at home. I pictured myself as a very neat and spotless kid in the hope of getting accepted this way by him (I was about 14). When I showed it he said; ‘It’s nice but this is not you’. Still rejecting my talent and making me feel worthless even more.
Years later when I was about 20, I met him in a club and we got to talk. He told me he was so impressed with my art-talent back then that he knew right away I was better then him. He didn’t say sorry ofcourse but he admitted it at least. My mother never did say sorry for anything she did.
I had more talents I never became aware of back then. In fact I could learn very well and was very curious as a child but was put down by my mother relentlessly. Advice from primary-school was to go to Gymnasium. This was only for ‘doctors-children’ she told me and put me on a lower level school. Here I was bored to death mostly. Making very low grades while I was not interesseted in most of the stuff they tried to teach me. All the time feeling it was me who was lacking in some way. Then a math-teacher asked about a math-problem he put on the board to all the class. No one put up his/her hand and I saw the solution right away. Being at last row out of sight (strategically) I hesitated a long time to raise my hand waiting for all the wiss-kids in math. They didn’t so I did. Trembling I was asked up to the board. I solved the problem in a very indirect way and my teacher told me afterwards I had to stay after the class. I was so scared.
But then he told me afterwards he would not accept my failures in math anymore. But instead of rejecting me he offered me private lessons at his home to make up for all the losses I made in math over the past 3 years. How wonderfull in hindsight. This one occasion motivated me to make the best of it and procede to get my exams done the next year, with math included, to board a high-school in forest and nature preservation.
With very much effort I passed the exams next year and got accepted to this forest-nature preserve school. I had managed this without any support or help from my parents (my mother actually for she decided everything). At last I only needed a signiture from here.
She refused. I just had to go to work at 16 she told me and make money.
This went on for another 10 years or so. She did it with all my siblings. Putting them down, sabotaging their successes. Relentlessly devaluing my father year after year till he killed himself when I was 19 and he 48.
This women has been pure evil to all of us. She passed away in 2003, much too late…
At 27 I picked up a carreer in psychiatry which she totally devaluated and tried to sabotage too.
It didn’t work anymore this time. I spend 25 years in a great job overall but never felt really whole/real with anyone. No-one could really reach me. The damage is too deep.
I’m 60 now and I know by now I will be alone in this without comfort for the rest of my live.
Knowing there are many people who endured the same, we are still alone and miles apart.
Thanks for your thoughtfull articles.
Never give up hope that you will release this completely from your system. It could even happen swiftly and you could then go on to immediately attract what/who you truly want and truly deserve in the world. Every day you are still alive, still breathing, there is hope. I wish you the very best.
This is the first piece of writing which understands how the scapegoated daughter exists and feels. I am 68, have had no contact for 20 years with my mother. She has contacted me, after my husband passed. I am stronger now and find I can resist her, she still keeps trying and continues the gaslighting through my close family. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I send my thoughts and love to others who suffer this abuse. X
I am consistently amazed and appreciative of Jay Reid’s analysis and writing.
Oh yes! This blog is pure gold. I’d already be a client if I didn’t live in Europe. Never stop writing, Jay.
Both my parents were narcissistic. Atleast that’s the conclusion I have come to lately after reading a lot about narcissistic parenting.I grew up feeling totally worthless. If there was anything I felt like doing, it was somehow never right. It was either stupid or foolish or naive. Nothing I did or wanted was ever on par with what my parents felt and wanted. My life was engulfed by my father’s agressive and somewhat off beat views. But what I have only realised lately is that it was also engulfed by my mother’s manipulations and a disinterest in encouraging any of my abilities. If I liked stitching, then stitching was a very un- intellectual activity as per father, and something I would never manage due to my stupidity as per my mother. I would go begging after my mother to teach me to stitch. She did as little as she could after years of nagging on my part. Since I liked acting and dance, both were kids amusements. Somehow there was no dance class we could ever afford. Both my parents earned well.My brother went to a very expensive club to be trained in badminton. But a dance class was not affordable. I was the only daughter with three boys for siblings. Whatever I did seemed to embarrass my mother. My father believed in investing in success. He wanted his children to become very successful. But successful children could never be considered smarter or better than him .To this day (He is 85) you cannot have more points than him in being ” intellectual and sensible”. You can never question or criticise any of their decisions. We had maids who would steal left, right and centre. But since it was my mother’s decision to appoint these maids, there was always an explanation as to why these stealing disloyal maids were necessary. They were necessary as we kids were totally unworthy of doing anything at home. We were unworthy because we were openly discouraged and actively prevented from ever doing anything responsible at home, unless of course we played helper to mom in a very low esteem role. For instance my brother got lot of brownie points for carrying the bags while shopping. If we had learnt to manage our needs at home smartly and independently, we would not have needed our mother for every little thing. And that would have ended her stranglehold over the family. It was essential to keep us weak to keep her strong. And being the only girl child, it was essential to keep me very weak and incapable as me being a female meant that we would have similar ( or in her view competing) roles in the family. With my father, you had to acknowledge his intellectual superiority all the time. If you agreed with this views, he bestowed interest in you as a gift. The minute you expressed a different set of views which went against his way of thinking, you got disgust and ridicule.I tried hard to read books to please him. But reading did not come to me naturally. I had to force myself to no end to do so. But that was the only way to please my father. But as we grew, the goal post changed from reading to earning a lot of money. When I earned some good money, it changed to being street smart, stylish and shrewd. I used to be suicidal from my teens. Ridicule, marginalisation and compulsary interest in the things father liked had destroyed all sense of self. When I look back, I am amazed that I survived. To the world they were ideal parents. They hardly ever shouted at us. With me they were over protective. We were well fed, though not necessarily exciting food; but there was no scarcity. Money was always available for education. And everything we did was always education. Even family trips were organised to give us exposure and help us understand geography, but never because we all wanted to have any fun. ( That was my father’s view. To my mother, none of this mattered. As long as she got to drive the car during the journey or show off her efficiency in organising things, everything else that happened had no value.) Feeling fun in any activity other than reading or getting enlightened by journeys or sports was not looked upon favourably. I was specially interested in interacting with people. Whoever I got interested in interacting with was shown to be in poor light, especially intellectually poor. Wanting to be interested in people would make me feel guilty. Those intellectually lacking contacts were okay for me, because, ofcourse, that was my place in life. It was hard to get any positive response to my contacts unless those contacts somehow became meaningful for my parents, i.e. they were socially superior or they were very admiring of my parents. The trauma of all of it has been so huge, not only do I feel unreal, but a lot of my memory has been washed away, since there is only partial awareness when I do things. This loss of memory is making it difficult for me to reconstruct my story in detail. I remember insensitive harsh behaviour, but often the context to build the full narrative becomes hazy.
I have stated on other threads that I now understand what has happened to me, and that it has taken up a great deal of analysis and self examination to come to the general conclusions which are stead, and which are confirmed by my experience.
This time should have been spent studying in a career, if I had identified what I really wanted to do early enough, rather than trying to sort myself out and being in self doubt for most of my adult life, this including being ridiculed as being mad by employers.
The problem now is dealing with a futile failure of a life, one in which I have been psychologically ‘raped’ perpetually, this having used up my time and energy, and resulted in no family, no career success, alone-ness, (45 of the last 50 Christmases alone).
I have built up a music studio over the last 30 years and had intended to write blues expressing these problems, even if I have the talent, I feel that no-one will be interested, and it certainly will not make me any money or rescue me from this wasted life.
Me too. But wasted life NOT. Music is the way i express, and have the talent…and a collaborative music partner…could be cool. It’s not too late….
email me if you would like to chat…firstname.lastname@example.org
Great article. Stories of Luis and Gus are my life and my narc mother and enabler father story.
There was something she really did not like about me.
She would walk around to neighbours flats and tell them how strange I am (was around 7 years old). Then often pointed to me that neighbours tell her that I am strange and infantile.
Same things she did when we visited family. No wonder that some member of my family look at me as strange.
Whenever she find out that people like me, she would go to visit their houses and tell them that they make mistake to be “friendly with me”. Later pointing out that people don’t like me.
There is no even one good thing I can say about this woman. Full no contact with her. I tell people that I was raised by stepmother who didn’t like me. That way I avoid BS question about “all mothers love their children or mother is only one” etc.
I am just becoming aware of being raised by a covert narcissistic mother who may also have been the enabler to my overt narcissistic step father. I am so confused and need help. I dont know where to even start. I have never reached out for help before because the story sounds too crazy and if i am truly honest i love my mom with everything and the realization that i had no idea this was even going on is blowing my mind. To say the least.
This is so helpful thank you.
Knowing that I was brought up to provide false idealisation to my own insecure parents, is very helpful to know.
It explains why I am a giver, but that it feels uneasy to give, it feels fake and makes me feel depleted as if I’ve fooled myself. Because it’s coming from a fake place.
It also explains why I can’t receive.
And 3rdly it explains why I don’t feel real, because I received no accurate mirroring. I was forced to provide and I was never seen or valued.
I feel very sad that I had no-one sincere, supportive, validating and wise to cherish me during my childhood. I never had that. It feels lonely.
But I’m glad to have this explanation, thank you. It does help lift the fog, I can see where I am a lot clearer. And I can see a little way ahead.
As hard and lonely as it is, I will validate, hug, support, see, hear, respect, teach, cherish and stand up for myself.
Thank you for your great blogs and videos. You really get to the heart of it.
Does anybody know, has Jay stopped posting videos weekly?
I keep looking for new ones even as I keep replaying the old ones and I can’t find.
The last videos chronologically are still saying that he would be posting the next Sunday morning 10 am but I haven’t found new ones in about a month.
Dr. Reid, this article has helped me tremendously over the past two years. It is truly a phenomenal gift that you wrote this all out.
For you other articles and lectures, here are some experiences/ topic additions
*How when the adult child becomes a parent the narcissitic parent may become threatened by the loss of attention of the adult child. So developing awareness of the intergenerational boundary and exercising an interior confidence that yes, childcare does superceed the attntive fawing a narcissitic parent may demand.
*I’ve struggled with allowing my children to experience developmentally appropriate frustration as they build skills. In my relationship to my mother I always had to soothe and get hwr what she wanted immediately. This was a demand of her ‘love.’ But this is not how I should approach my children and it has taken a while for me to learn this
*with the possible theme of mutual abuse, how the vitriol of a breakup or divorce can accelerate a process of parental alienation that profoundly removes a souce of (possibly appropriate) healthy idealization of the parent who is targeted for alienation. I only realized later in life that my mother’s issues with my dad in her marriage were not at all identical to my experience of him as a dad. He really was a good enough dad, quiet but kind, in my first 11 years. Her anger poisoned me and I could not separate out her feelings from my own. Truly, I mirrored her rage. I really believe the verbal knives one parent directs at another necessarily go through the child, damaging them from the inside out.
Perhaps you could talk about reparenting yourself after parental alienation
I remember when I turned 16 I was sitting with my dad and sister in the late morning. My friends called and wanted to take me out for lunch. I hesitantly askes my dad and sister if I could go and they enthusiastically said ‘of course!’ I realized much later that the fear I felt of getting a no response was fear based on my relationship with my mom, who I perceived as always needing me there to console her and tend to her. To her (perhaps) me leaving would not have been tolerable
Thank you Dr. Reid for your trmendous kindness and generosity which are so evident in yoir articles and Youtube posts
I just bumped into this blog. And I found that your writing is so excellent, and your understanding about survivors of narcissists is gracefully apt and deep. In my experience, people seldom understand the issue with such a detailed and delicate understanding. Many people approach the issue telling you that you are a bad guy or with a dismissive attitude telling you that you are a bad guy not even able to suffer a little bit for the benefits of other people. They think you are not willing to do anything for people. And they all tell you that it is okay for people to be abused and it’s no big deal, as long as they are not the one who are abused. When you are abused, they would tell you that it is very healthy to swallow it all. They always tell you that you should be okay when you are abused. They also tell you why is that you are abused and I don’t. They think you are responsible for attracting abusive people. They think I am whining and complaining.
I agree with you, Chia! Most people will blame you for the abuse or say it’s your fault. This can make healing difficult, because when people invalidate or blame victims of abuse, it adds to the pain. I hope you can find healing and happiness.
I relate to all of this. That feeling of being “unreal” stems from having your reality distorted by narcissistic projections.
I was constantly told growing up that I was a bad kid, a problem child, and a burden to everyone around me.
I felt this overwhelming shame and guilt because of what they projected onto me. I was treated like the bane of everyone’s existence.
Looking back, there was nothing inherently “bad” about me. I wasn’t perfect, but I was not what they said I was.
There is a huge disconnect in their perceptions vs. the reality of who I am.
In reality, I was a neglected and lonely child who wanted love and acceptance. I still struggle to find my “home”…a place of feeling loved, seen for who I am, not what others think I am or want me to be.
I remember all of the sabotage and then how they would complain about my failure to succeed. I remember how they devalued me, and convinced me that I was unworthy.
Another part of the “unreal” feeling was routinely being told that my needs didn’t matter, so I learned to be invisible.
I learned that speaking up was wrong…my mother would always put her finger to her lips as if to silence me.
The whole idea (from almost everyone around me) was “you don’t matter. We don’t see you as a fellow person. You are here simply to serve others, and to make us feel better about ourselves”.
I also realize that this is the type of family I married into. While they are nice enough people, I’ve noticed elements of narcissism.
My in-laws started to interfere in my marriage, implying that I’m a bad wife and blaming me when their son gets a cold or anything happens to him.
I’ve been mistreated by people for most of my almost 40 years on this planet. So they need to back off and stop trying to belittle me under the pretense of being “concerned”.
He is not a child, and our marriage is our business.
Boundaries are important in establishing a sense of your “real” self…that’s what I’ve learned. Not allowing others to define who you are.
One more thought…I like Jay’s anecdote about “Gus” above. That describes my life perfectly. Working hard, being kind to others, yet having certain people project this idea that I am “lazy” and a bad person.
As with “Gus” in the example, I too was forced into isolation and hours of servitude at home because my stepfather (and my enabling mom) did the same exact thing to me.
I was viewed as Cinderella. Do all the things I was expected to do, and STILL told that I was doing “nothing”.
And they framed themselves as victims of me, telling people that I was lazy and entitled and that they were just good parents doing the best they could.
The story of “Gus” reminds me of when I was a teenager, with my stepfather humiliating me in front of friends and having constant chores for me to do.
While chores are necessary in healthy families, he used them as punishment and a way to remind me of my “place”.
I wanted to have a normal life and normal social interactions with others. This was impossible because of what I had to deal with.
Kids that grow up in this type of oppressive environment can sometimes have trouble with making/keeping friends because of parents that stunt their social development.
I could spend the whole weekend doing chores and hoping to hang out like a normal kid, only to be told “you are lazy and rotten and we are punishing you for (imagined) transgression”.
My crime? Sometimes as innocent as a pillow being on the sofa upstairs…according to them, that was making a “mess” despite all the other work I did, and it was worthy of harsh punishment. They made me believe that I was the worst person who ever lived.
My stepfather told people (potential friends, boyfriends and my favorite aunt) that I was lazy and would never succeed in life.
And my mom sat back silently while he made these attacks, not defending me or saying otherwise.
I have studied narcissist abuse and healing for years now, but something about this is different than anything I’ve ever read. The detail of the causes of feeling “unreal” truly resonated with me. Thank you for that. I realize how “unreal” I still feel and it’s not a good feeling. It’s like I still have never been seen for me.
I guess that’s why, I, as a teacher and counselor, always focus on people’s and make them feel seen, validated, and valued.
Hi there M, some of the things you said really resonated with me, paralleling my own experience. I read your comment over and over again marveling at how perfectly you described some of my own childhood and adult experiences and the feelings that resulted from those experiences. You wrote: “There is a huge disconnect in their perceptions vs. the reality of who I am.
In reality, I was a neglected and lonely child who wanted love and acceptance. I still struggle to find my “home”…a place of feeling loved, seen for who I am, not what others think I am or want me to be.
I remember all of the sabotage and then how they would complain about my failure to succeed. I remember how they devalued me,”….WOW. You really took the words right out of my mouth! I have felt a certain painful GRIEF in the last year and a half especially over the fact that I feel like I have no real or safe “HOME.”
When you wrote that in REALITY you were a NEGLECTED and LONELY child and that their perception of you was wrong…I GET IT. When you mention the “sabotage” and then how they would complain about your failure to succeed, I also understand that as well.
That really hit home hard for me. To take what you said and put it in a visual, I would like to compare it to that very old cartoon I saw as a young child. Do you ever remember seeing an old cartoon that was entirely about a daisy flower who was happy and just trying to live and grow in the sun and there is this shaggy, sinister, malignant weed plant chasing her around trying to strangle her to death? This weed literally puts his hands around her throat shaking her back and forth trying to strangle her to death. It’s very intense. You can feel the violent, murderous intent from this weed. I remember as a very young child seeing this cartoon and having an almost spiritual, inner revelation that I WAS that daisy. Its very hard to explain. Trying to find the right words and description of just how much I related to that daisy is very difficult, but I knew that I felt a connection.
To me, it relates to what you said about you being sabotaged by them and then they complain about your failure to succeed. I’ll explain: I have learned in recent years some things that I had no understanding of before. One of those things is “Trauma.” I never knew years ago that when you have been traumatized that it affects your brain chemistry. There’s a number of things that can negatively impact us when this happens , and also make it so much harder to live a successful life.
That shaggy, murderous weed definitely is a good example of this is my mind. The narcissistic parent is like that weed . It’s strangling the life out of you, shaking you, cutting off your air etc…and then they shame and degrade you for not being successful and living a vibrant life of health and success!
Tell me, how does a human being take this kind of assault on a daily basis and THRIVE? It’s all about survival! It takes most of your energy just trying to SURVIVE. At least that is what it has felt like to me. Imagine, after being strangled and shaken to near death, how do you jump up and go about your life business with energy and vigor? I remember being home as a child and experiencing verbal assaults, arrogant manipulations, blaming and insults and had to keep SILENT and just go to my room. There was a burning frustration that smoldered inside of me over time. I was not allowed to express ANY type of EMOTION. Not hurt, sadness, anger or happiness.
It was like my life was a daily regimen of being a worm on a hook being lowered into my family’s world and then the “outside ” world at school. You are picked at like what happens to chickens. The other chickens surround the one and try to peck it to death, then the parent chickens expect you to go out there and look like the picture of health! Perfectly groomed! Perfectly performing! How??? Gather your ruffled feathers, walk poised and in control and make honor roll grades while your traumatized brain is spinning??? How??? But oh boy, I sure gave it my best. Year after monotonous, yet roller coaster year.
I’m not very good at summing things up succinctly so please forgive my lengthy response. I just really wanted to share with you how your words hit me. You said it very well. Thank you!
@J…thanks for your kind words! I can relate to what you said, too. Not sure if I ever saw that cartoon but it really explains the experience of narcissistic abuse.
I, too, was that flower being destroyed. It is truly difficult to thrive in an environment that is hostile to one’s existence.
All I could do was simply try to survive and that’s what I continue to do, years later…because the trauma still remains.
Like you, I was also expected to look perfect at all times, to never make mistakes or embarrass my family, to be an ideal daughter/student, etc.
This was next to impossible because I always fell short. The goal posts were always moving and nothing ever pleased them.
So I acted out after a while because they would never accept anything about me, so why not do what I wanted?
I was bullied/abused both at school and at home. Others thought I was just an entitled brat when I tried to reach out for help, when in reality they had no idea what I was dealing with.
Society turns a blind eye to kids who are mistreated because the assumption is that the child is at fault and the parents are always right.
As children, we are expected to suck it up when harm is inflicted on us. I remember being shamed and blamed by people (even a therapist!) for trying to talk about it.
You summed things up amazingly well…no worries! I completely understand where you’re coming from.
The grief you feel…wow, I can relate. I’m almost 40 and it keeps hitting me that I’ve lost years of my life simply trying to survive this insanity.
I’m estranged from most of my family because of how they chose to treat me in my formative years, and because they honestly don’t care what happens to me.
It’s to the point where I even did a DNA test (not kidding) to find out if I’m adopted, because how they treated me made no sense at all.
It’s like I was never really a part of the family, so I needed to dig deeper. As it turns out, I’m not adopted, but it still doesn’t explain their behavior.
Anyway, I appreciate your words of wisdom…you seem so thoughtful and kind! I wish you peace and healing.
Wow yer post resonated with me hard