So you’ve done a ton of work to take stock of how you had to adapt to a narcissistic parent’s abusiveness. Now that you live with a hard-earned awareness of the truth about your parent, you are talking to your longtime friend from high school who asks you how that parent is doing and tells you how much they always liked that parent. What do you do?
On the one hand, making the choice to inform this person about how this parent behaved behind closed doors with you feels like the most honest. On the other hand, this would be privileging this person with personal information about you and you’re not sure if you can trust their discretion and respect for your contrary experience to theirs. On the third hand, if you smile and nod are you colluding with that parent’s efforts at disguising who they really are to the outside world? On the fourth hand, what if this friend doesn’t believe you? Or worse, what if they think there’s something wrong with you for having such anger towards your own parent? Will you have to end a ton of longtime friendships over this issue? Will you have any friends left?
Today’s post was inspired by a comment from the Youtube viewer named ‘Basilrose’. This person put it this way:
“please do a video on how to get through to friends who only knew the charming persona of a narcissistic abusive parent, and can’t fathom the need that survivors have as adults to be believed about what was happening behind closed doors when they were growing up. We don’t want to walk away from these long-time friends but it creates a rift when they don’t believe our stories that contradict their own experience of the person they think they ‘know’. It makes it even trickier when the abusive parent has passed away, a friend’s reluctance to ‘talk badly’ of the dead…”
I really appreciate basilrose’s comment and have found this concern to arise all the time in therapy and in the facebook group that accompanies my online course on recovering from narcissistic abuse. Basically, how to stay true to oneself when people who have otherwise been your allies are reluctant or refusing to believe your experience with your narcissistically abusive parent.
In today’s blog post, I’m going to describe this conflict in more detail so that you can know that this is a common challenge for many survivors of narcissistic abuse. Next, I’m going to reframe this challenge to a question of self-care and boundaries for yourself. Last, I’m going to offer a way to counter fears of retaliation for establishing boundaries around what sort of response you want from those close to you when you share your experience with them. You will learn how to talk to others about a narcissistic parent.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California specializing in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & accompanying private Facebook group. Together, we undertake the process of recovery using a map to get to their new home within themselves and in new or re-engineered relationships. This map contains the 3 Pillars of Recovery that let the survivor know how they got here, where they want to go and how to get there. That translates to:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. It is essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. That’s where the accompanying facebook group comes in. People in this course are not alone as they traverse the path back to themselves. Today’s post falls under the Pillar #3 living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. You can learn more about my online course by clicking here.
The map of recovery that I cover in my online course to recover from narcissistic abuse is important because survivors get to build a new and much more compassionate frame of reference for themselves. In broad strokes this can amount to moving from a frame of reference where you feel like a burden to others, that your needs are outlandish and not to be taken seriously to a frame of reference where you know your own worth and can see that expressing what you need to select people is a privilege you are offering them to participate in a close relationship with you. This has a lot to do with the question posed in today’s blog topic.
Once you have established this new – and I would argue much more accurate – frame of reference for who you are and what you deserve from yourself and others, how do you deal with a longtime friend who refuses to believe you? As trying as these moments can be, I think they can also afford an important opportunity.
When your narcissistic parent presents a different picture to the public
In order to survive narcissistic abuse from a parent who cultivates a very different persona to people outside the home, one often has to compartmentalize one’s own experience along the same lines. I’m referring to survivors who experienced their narcissistically abusive parent to be capable of ruthless attack on them when they were alone with him or her but then offering the world a charming smile at the drop of the hat. In order to stay bonded to the parent in a way that was needed for survival, the child in this position may have to create a similar partition within themselves. On one side of this partition is the ‘good’ narcissistic parent who’s charming and charismatic when being observed by outside parties. On the other side of the partition is the ‘bad’ narcissistic parent who mercilessly berates, belittles and devalues you when they knew they could get away with it. It may be adaptive to keep the ‘bad’ parent behind the partition in your own mind so that you aren’t constantly dogged with the torment of knowing what sort of person you are dependent upon as a child. In essence, you may create a sort of ‘behind closed doors’ experience of this parent in yourself as a way to protect yourself from knowing just how dangerous they are when you have no option – at the time – to escape them.
How to bring the ‘bad’ parent out from behind the closed doors in your own mind
The opportunity I speak of is to bring the ‘bad’ parent out from behind the closed doors in your own mind and in the minds of others. This situation can only be experienced as an opportunity when you have accrued enough of a sense of safety in your recovery process. That is, that you have forged enough psychological and emotional distance from the narcissistic abuser, made sense of their treatment of you to know that it was not your fault and are practicing living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules for you. And, maybe most importantly, you have established relationships with safe people who readily believe and support you in your experience. Traction is needed in these three pillars of recovery along with a sense of connection to others who ‘have your back’. With this traction in hand, however, you might now regard this situation as an opportunity to break down the secrecy that the narcissistically abusive parent cultivated around their mistreatment of you.
What might this look like? You could experiment with saying something like:
“I had a very different experience of ________. They showed a very different side to me than they showed to people outside the home.”
Next, I think it is important to remember that choosing to respond in this manner to a friend with such a different impression of your narcissistic parent allows you to gauge that friend’s response and assess whether it fits with your definition of ‘safe’ others. If someone is immediately incredulous, disbelieving, or dismissive of your comment how do you want to make sense of that information? If they surprise you and show compassion and remorse that you had to endure this kind of treatment from the parent, how do you want to make sense of that information? If they kind of glibly change the subject and don’t address your comment, then what? All of this is information you get to use to assess their capacity to be the kind of friend you want to have in your life.
I think it is very important to shift the frame of this situation from whether you – the survivor – will be believed by the friend to whether this friend will respond in a way that you find helpful. That is, you are not auditioning for someone else’s acceptance of your reality but rather seeing whether this person belongs amongst those you want to keep close to you. This is why it is so important to come at this challenge after having gained traction in your recovery so that you know that you have the existential heft to consider your own judgments of others rather than solely their judgments of you.
If your friend comes up short in their response to you, then you might consider limiting how close you get to them. Although this person may not have ill-intent towards you, their inability to provide an experience in the friendship that you need to feel safe with them indicates that they might not meet your personal criteria for being a safe person to you. This understanding may seem overly punitive or result in questions as to whether you are being too picky or intolerant of others. You might also anticipate a wave of dread over a feared retaliation along these lines. Something like ‘How dare you write me off for having a different opinion than you…’. I think these thoughts and fears are very understandable and may reflect one’s system’s attempt to stay safe in the old way. When valuing what you needed for yourself constituted a threat to your survival, it was necessary to disavow your needs. By acting in this way with your needs in the center of your life you are charting new territory in your life and your system may take some time to adjust to know it is now safe to do this.
I hope today’s post was helpful in reframing the situation when a friend does not believe you about your experienced with a narcissistic parent. It may afford an opportunity to know who you want to keep close to you vs who may not be safe to keep as close.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.