Have you ever felt overlooked and unseen by a narcissistic parent?
Has it seemed like your narcissistic parent already knew everything there was to know about you?
Despite feeling invisible to this parent have you felt guilty if you don’t tend to their needs?
Children of a narcissistic parent are often deprived of feeling visible. A narcissistic parent is not curious about the child’s inner world. They are too busy propping up their own and using others to aid this purpose. The child ends up feeling invisible to the parent.
Despite this invisibility, the child has to forge some way of relating to this parent. In other words, the child has to find a way to be somebody to this parent even though they feel like nobody to the parent. This involves suppressing the pain of feeling invisible and forcing oneself to fit into the parent’s world. The narcissistic parent will use the child to boost their inflated yet fragile self-esteem. This can mean serving as a caricatured ally or enemy to the parent. Either role yields no genuine feeling of being visible to this parent.
In today’s post, I describe three ways children can feel invisible to their narcissistic parents. This happens by either ignoring them or by treating them like someone they are not. Next, I discuss how children may cope by learning to exist in a narrow way. Last, I describe how one can heal by finding new relationships where it feels safe to be visible.
3 Ways Children Feel Invisible to the Narcissistic Parent
A narcissistic parent believes children exist to serve their needs. The parent is justified because they see their own needs as most important. The child is left feeling invisible to this parent. It is as if the children are put on a shelf in the narcissistic parent’s mind only to be taken down when it suits the parent. Otherwise, the child is expected to remain silent.
Here are three ways a narcissistic parent might make a child feel invisible:
1) Going Ignored
The narcissistic parent may regard their ambitions as supremely important. Whatever or whomever serves to facilitate these ambitions is worth the parent’s time. Conditions or people who do not further the parent’s ambitions are worthless to them. Children often fall into the latter category. They can feel like they do not matter unless they fit into the parent’s sphere of self-interest.
Sandya’s father was absorbed in his work. He prioritized whatever he thought would help him get ahead and saw fatherhood as a distant second. He would arrive home just before dinnertime then retire to his office immediately afterwards to keep working. He did not involve himself in his wife or children’s lives.
Sandya knew from a young age not to approach her father with any emotional need. If she felt scared and cried out for him he would act like he did not hear her. If she was joyous and wanted to share this with him he would seem preoccupied with something else.
As Sandya grew older she realized that if she asked her father about his work then he would pay some attention to her. She google’d the name of her father’s company and read up on it. She made a list of questions in her mind to ask him when he got home that night. To her surprise he seemed happy that she was interested in his work. For the first time in her life he did not seem impatient in his dealings with her. He spoke to her for a full 30 minutes as she made sure to show enthusiasm and interest in what he was telling her.
In this example, Sandya was inconsequential to her father until she reflected what was most important to him. Sandya felt invisible unless she showed up as someone applauding him.
2) Shining a Favorable Light
The narcissistic parent may anoint a child as the supposed best. This serves the narcissistic parent’s needs because this child affords them more admiration. The child’s excellence in the parent’s eyes reflects more on the parent than the child. Treating a child in this way reinforces the parent’s fragile claim on their own superiority.
This can be very confusing for the child. Nothing they can do is seemingly wrong in the parent’s eyes. Yet the parent may find everything wrong with other people in their orbit. The child knows that they are not perfect and wonders what the parent would do if they knew this. The child may feel celebrated but invisible to the narcissistic parent.
Jessica was always her mother’s favorite. She would accompany her on shopping trips where her mother would try on different clothes and ask for Jessica’s opinion. Her mother would turn to Jessica for validation after yelling at her scapegoat brother. Jessica felt very special to her mother. As she grew older, however, Jessica began to feel like she led a double life. Her friends at school started cursing and being interested in boys. She feared that her mother would disown her if she knew about this side of her. All that seemed visible to her mother was Jessica’s supposed perfection. Her fallibility went invisible and so did Jessica’s sense of being a real person to her mother.
3) Throwing You Under the Bus
A narcissistic parent may also only see negative qualities in a child. This serves the parent’s needs by getting to feel superior by virtue of being unlike this child. The parent relocates their own sense of worthlessness into this child and then gets the child to identify with it. In order for this to work the parent and child have to believe that there is nothing good about the child.
This, of course, feels terrible for the child put into this role of scapegoat. They also feel invisible because it is an artificiality. The parts of them that are good – which may be substantial – cannot exist to the parent. The scapegoat child is left confused how nothing about them seems to please their parent. They are left feeling like only their badness is visible to the parent. Their goodness feels invisible to both of them.
John was Jessica’s older brother. He got the opposite treatment from their narcissistic mother. She was always harping on John about something. He hadn’t cleaned his room like she asked. He was slouching. He was chewing too loudly. He was mumbling. At every turn she found fault in how he conducted himself. Seeing her treat his sister so well told John that his mother had the capacity to be kind but she did not see him as worthy.
At school John was well-liked by his peers, a good athlete in sports and got good grades. These facts about him seemed meaningless to his mother. It was as if his good qualities were invisible to her. This made him question the value of these qualities. If his own mother did not think they mattered then why should he? He grew to see himself as worthless in the way she was influencing him to.
How Children Survive by Living Narrowly
Children are highly motivated to avoid the experience of being invisible. The cost of going unseen by their parent can feel like being nobody to no one. This is an agonizing experience that we must avoid at all costs. If it cannot be avoided then the effects must be numbed.
Having to Be Who You are Not
One way the child of a narcissistic parent may avoid or manage feeling invisible is to constrict themselves to be who the parent sees.
Jessica grew to see herself as perfect – or having to be perfect – in the same way her mother saw her. As a result, her human fallibility felt like an unpardonable sin. If she got anything but an A on a school assignment she would wrench herself inside, feel a torrent of self-loathing, and want to inflict pain on herself. She never shared these feelings with anyone. She was too ashamed to admit how she did not fit into her mother’s view of her.
John had a different problem. He could not see anything good about being who he was. He was only visible to his mother when he was messing up, in need of correction, or a source of irritation. His victories, attributes and decency had no place in how she knew him. He found himself always finding a problem with everything he did. A good grade was a fluke. Friendly receptions were evidence the person did not really know him. He gravitated towards friends and partners who saw him the way he was seen in his home.
Jessica and John had to constrict themselves in similar ways and with grave costs. Living this way still spared them the far worse experience of feeling unknown to their parent.
Having to Be a Ghost
The child who goes ignored may constrict their awareness of themselves entirely. To be aware of themselves is to know and feel a tormenting problem with no solution – that they are not somebody to their parent. They must be a ghost to themselves.
The child can feel invisible even when in the direct presence of the parent. They may not be spoken to or acknowledged in any way. If the child takes offense to how little they seem to matter to this parent, they will only suffer more. The narcissistic parent may humiliate the child for not being self-sufficient or lash out at them for not reflecting back their perfect parenting.
Under such conditions the only way to survive is to constrict their awareness. The child may go off in their mind to be occupied with anything but the painful reality in front of them. They may push themselves out of their minds and seek to be the ghost they are treated as.
Sandya conditioned herself to make do with her father’s inability to care about her existence. She did not make demands on him. She did whatever she could to avoid irritating him. This meant being very careful to clean up after herself even as a young child. Otherwise her father’s ignorance of her would be interrupted by his gruff angry scolding for being so messy. It was one of the few times he reacted directly to her and it hurt. Over time, she found that living hurt a lot less when she focused on anyone and anything other than herself.
Relationships Where You Are Visible
The process of healing from being invisible to a narcissistic parent may not be surprising. Survivors need to find and participate in relationships where they are readily visible. This is easier said than done.
If you survived a childhood of feeling invisible you may not know anything different. Worse, you may be conditioned to avoid visibility to others given how bad it has felt in the past. That is why the process of healing is a long one.
The survivor is working to recover a loving and respectful relationship with all of themselves. To do this, they must stay in connection with the parts of themselves that were invisible to their parent. This means incrementally tolerating the shame, self-loathing, and despair that used to go with visibility. In order for this exercise to be productive the survivor has to do it in the context of a new safe relationship. Reinforcement from another person is needed for the survivor’s attempts to be visible.
It can be hard to find such safe relationships initially. As I described earlier, the expectation for invisibility can lead one to find relationships that comply. If you are wary of your current ability to find safe relationships then a good option is psychotherapy.
Therapy is one place where you have very high odds of finding a safe relationship. This lets the survivor control for the variable of whether the other person is safe. Now if the survivor of invisibility does not feel safe or visible there is a chance to explore what is happening. Of course, the therapist may have actually done, said, or not done something that led to this. Most therapists can earnestly and non-defensively explore this possibility. Alternatively, the survivor’s feelings of danger may be holdovers from what being visible used to mean. In these cases the survivor gets to feel understood by someone else for what they used to have to endure privately. They can talk about how and what is making them feel endangered in that moment. As they are met with implicit compassion and validation the danger lessens.
Over time – sometimes significant amounts of time – the survivor may find it appealing to be visible. The post-traumatic consequences of being invisible to their narcissistic parent may have subsided. Now, they welcome the opportunity see themselves fully and be seen by certain others.
Sandya came to therapy in her mid-twenties because she felt like she was just going through the motions in her life. She fell into states of depression on the weekends when she was not working. She described feeling like a stranger to herself and unable to find meaning on her own.
She and her therapist would work together for several years. During this time, her therapist understood how inconsequential she felt to her father. Her therapist would highlight to her how she operated from this assumption currently. Her therapist would also show her that she mattered to him as a client. So, Sandya found insight into the way her father’s self-absorption impacted her. She also received current information in the therapeutic relationship that contradicted her conclusion that she did not matter to others. These two factors worked in tandem over the years to restore Sandya’s sense of her own visibility to others and herself.
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.