Surviving Narcissistic Abuse in Childhood: Leaving One’s Self

A very wise client – Mario* – identified his goal in therapy in our first session to “not care so much what other people think”. He survived a childhood with a narcissistic father who sadistically enjoyed making Mario suffer. Mario lamented how he found himself feeling preoccupied with what other people might think negatively about him. He would find himself racked with anxiety to the point of paralysis when trying to write an email to a professional colleague. Mario’s heightened anxiety initially felt like a character flaw to him. “Why am I so dependent on others’ approval?” he would exclaim.

In this blog, I want to describe how child victims of narcissistic abuse along with lack of protection from the enabler parent can shift all of their attention outside of themselves as a survival tactic. In these scenarios children face a danger that never goes away in their childhood home. Mom or Dad is abusive while neglecting the child’s needs. The enabler parent makes themselves unavailable to the child via withdrawal or participating in the abuse of the child.

The kid is profoundly – and seemingly permanently – alone in a living nightmare.

The curse of going unprotected by the bystanders of the narcissistic parent’s abuse can be feeling disconnected. Victims of abuse and underprotection understandably conclude that they are all alone in the world and singularly deserving of their family’s abuse. They have been forced to seek protection and felt security from people inclined to make them suffer. In order to remain willing to seek out such scary parents, they must sequester the parts of themselves that want to run away and hide or fight back. Part of this Faustian bargain is to lose a sense of kindredness to the human condition. Such children often feel like they are unique and ‘just plain different’ from everyone else. That is certainly how their families treat them and this gets transferred onto how they assume the rest of the world understands them.
So, the child is in a heightened state of fear at the when – not if – quality of his narcissistic parent’s abuse. He experiences helplessness at being able to protect himself because the ‘other’ parent does not have his back. When overwhelming stress is guaranteed but surviving it is not – all organisms face an existential crisis. Is it worth continuing to live when life feels so torturous? Some children have the inner resiliency to fight on in spite of such no-immediate-win circumstances.

One way to fight on in the face of chronic abuse and underprotection is to leave oneself.

This means shifting all of one’s attention to the people and things around oneself – and prohibiting attention to oneself. Such children are often attacked based on ‘who they are’ to the narcissistic parent – not ‘what they did or did not do’. It is often the children who have innate good qualities that draw the envy-based hatred of the narcissistic parent. A child in this case can conclude that being connected to who he is only puts him closer to the annihilating agony of being hated by the person who’s supposed to love and protect him the most. Words cannot convey how toxic and – for a child – unsurvivable such parental hatred can feel. The child must go on without feeling it or perish.

The case of Kevin: How a scapegoated child learned to leave himself

Kevin* was a client who faced the the circumstances described in this post. His mother was narcissistic with a bent towards sadism and his father lacked empathy for his children while seeking only to please his wife. His younger sister was indoctrinated into the system of targeting him as the ‘problem child’. For as long as he could remember being awake meant being in danger. In Kevin’s case, there was a moralistic quality to the incessant criticism and abuse. He would be screamed at to get his elbows off the table when eating a meal, to stop picking his nose as a 4 year-old, to not eat so fast, to pick up his toys, etc. All of these “excuses” for showing scorn and contempt at him seemed justified. As if all the yelling and derision would stop if he simply did all the things he was being told to do. This led him to conclude that he made his family unhappy and that he deserve their hatred.

Early in Kevin’s life, this experience brought panic and a fear of not being able to go on psychologically and emotionally. At the same time he continued to live with his tormentor and her minions where he had to act like things were normal. He remember bracing himself in 1st grade as his mother came in to tuck him into bed. He had to act like she was a good mother and that he appreciated her. After she would leave his room, Kevin would be left with terrifying knowledge of how alone and trapped he felt. To escape these feelings and be able to keep going, he would stare intently at a stack of board games in his closet that was left open. There was a way that one of the rectangular boxes seemed to magically turn into the adjacent game. It was a kind of optical illusion that allowed him to wonder about it instead of himself. He would focus entirely on these board games and feel a numbness come over him. That numbness was so welcome because it gave him his first taste of relief from the constant state of feeling threatened.

From that moment onward, Kevin would focus on others and his environment as much as possible. This tactic served two purposes: 1) it afforded him relief from knowing how much danger he was in, and 2) it kept him focused on his mother’s mood fluctuations so that he might anticipate and reduce the damage of her eventual rage when she spewed it at him. There’s a tragedy in this kind of solution for a child because he loses the one character who could offer him a real escape – himself. By focusing solely on the danger of his mother and family members, he lost knowledge of who he actually was, how undeserving he was of their contempt, and what he could do to defend himself. Instead his goal when her rage kicked in was to return her to a state of neutrality towards him.

This is the crux of how parental abuse can be so damaging to a child. When getting mistreated, Kevin’s goal was to get his mother to like him again, rather than fight or flee her abuse. When this feels like the only  tactic available a child feels like he’s trapped with a tiger. The notion of a future becomes impossible because it just means more misery. Clear-eyed assessments of one’s past are also too horrifying to make. All that’s left is now – this moment – and getting through it. It is essential for the child in this predicament to narrow his attention to the present. Otherwise, he risks collapsing from the despair of knowing what has been done to him by his abusive family and what they likely have in store for him.

The Narcissist seeks to poison the child’s self-regard

When a child is thrust into the companion-less world of being the family’s target and learns to leave himself, he may work to deny his own existence to himself. Such children and later adults are often fantastically attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others. As described above, the advantage of leaving oneself puts one in the catbird seat to notice, predict, and respond to how others could act. Subjectively, this can feel like being an orbiting satellite of one’s own self. Rather than inhabiting the center of one’s gravity – like say, the earth does as a planet – the person can feel like the moon rotating around some entity that they are unfamiliar with and have had to shun to survive. That entity is themselves. The act of shunning oneself feels like the desecration of something sacred. Yet, by feeling like you are on the outside looking in on that sacred entity – your self – you are spared feeling the pain of what this survival tactic is doing to your sense of integrity with yourself.

Kevin recalled a particular moment when this connection got disrupted. At eight years old, Kevin was very strong for his age and loved sports that involved physical contact. One day after school he played in a backyard football game with some older boys in the neighborhood. He recalled making a lot of tackles and being able to run through their attempts to tackle him. Kevin was met with respect and admiration from these older boys. This experience was an accurate reflection of who Kevin actually was – yet the feelings of personal power, strength, and appropriate aggression were also threatening for him. How could these older boys think so highly of him when his family thinks he is so bad? Kevin remembered coming home, looking in the mirror and suddenly having the perception that he was fat. He recalled feeling panicked that he has been fat all this time and nobody has told him. It no longer made sense to him that the older boys were so impressed by his play in the football game. He was grotesquely fat so what did that matter?

Kevin carried this (mis) perception that he was fat through the rest of his adolescence and early adulthood. In therapy we understood it as a Trojan Horse designed to put him at odds with himself. He felt disgust when he perceived himself – effectively moving himself from his center into the orbitting satellite around himself. Kevin regarded himself the way his mother wanted him to – as putrid and disgusting.

It is important to note that he did not see himself the way his mother saw him. Rather he saw himself the way his mother wanted him to see himself. Her objective was to disrupt his connection to himself – as the good person he was. Kevin had no way to articulate – let alone know – that this profound contempt for his physical appearance did not really come from him. It was only in therapy that he grew to feel safe enough to question this perception and recover his sense of himself as physically strong and powerful.

Restoring the connection to oneself after Narcissistic Abuse

Kevin and others like him have had to nearly sever their connection to themselves. Every person with a history like Kevin’s who comes to therapy has managed to salvage themselves enough to work towards restoring their connection within. Like prisoners of war, they have gone to great lengths to seem to be what their tormentors wanted – broken spirits – yet found a way to remain unbroken. Kevin initially felt a sense of hypervigilance at his own self. Any thought that implied he was a good man aroused severe anxiety. Similar to how someone might develop a phobic level of anxiety – say around heights, snakes, or confined spaces – Kevin developed a phobia of himself.

Therapy worked to incrementally reflect Kevin’s actual traits as a physically and emotionally strong , smart, kind, funny, protective and courageous man. Over the course of several years, he not only needed these traits to be identified and acknowledged in and outside of therapy. He needed to know that possessing himself would not arouse contempt from people he trusted. His therapist worked hard to challenge his negative thoughts about himself as emanating from outside of him – rather than being things he thought about himself. This kind of therapeutic work allowed Kevin to gradually expose himself to himself so that the phobic anxiety could be felt, tolerated, and over time extinguished. Kevin eventually found it safe to claim himself and live a life where he felt deserving of love, connection, protection and respect from himself and people he let in.

*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.  

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.

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  1. This is me! Mine went so much deeper. I sabotaged every good thing in my life because I knew I didn’t deserve it. I continued to punish myself when they were not around to do it and invited people in my life that would do the same. That came too close to my murder. I refuse all relationships now except with my children. Everyone else has acquaintance status. If I turn off my love switch for them then the pain doesn’t go too deep and I can get up moving forward a little bit easier again.

    1. It’s never too late to find healing and build healthy relationships. Please find someone professional to work with – they can support you in tackling what can otherwise feel desperate and overwhelming, especially as we have already been carrying so much. But it’s worth it, so please try and give yourself that gift. Holding people at a distance might work for a time but it’s ultimately nowhere near the fulfilling life you deserve.

    2. I completely relate to what you have said. I am at the very beginning of this journey and often it seems overwhelming and impossible but by being very cautious and self protective I hope I can one day feel safe.

  2. I truly hope you will be writing your first book soon. I just stumbled across your site this morning and reading your posts has given me insights and an understanding of what the problem was (not me!) beyond anything I ever learned in therapy (“parents are just people, they did the best they could”), twelve-step, etc. It’s too bad it takes some of us so long to see what’s really going on in a narcissistic parent/enabler situation, but the flip side is that you can enjoy the heck out of your newfound freedom and new lease on life. I wouldn’t have chosen this particular route, but I know it wasn’t my fault and I’m grateful for the resiliency it gave me and for people like you who are out there helping others. Blessings and good luck to all facing similar situations; this does not define you.

  3. I am shocked at how accurate this all is. Thank you. This is brilliant. I’ve never been able to overcome my childhood. It’s feeling like a wasted life. I see now there are people like me, and there are people who can understand this amount of evil and yes, it is evil. You were set up to fail, if someone said a nice thing about you you ran a risk of being beat for it. You learned to hate herself to survive. By the time I was in 8th grade I would pray every night to please please please let me die.

    1. It is really hard to feel like your life has been wasted. I have that feeling as well. Merely surviving doesn’t seem like anything to be proud of. But it is.

  4. Thanks for your insightful articles! They resonate deeply with me. It’s confounding for children to understand how their mother – the one person in the world who’s supposed to love him or her – can instead hate him/her with such passion . As a result, the child internalizes the belief that s/he is inherently defective – and in my case, it lasted through my early adulthood. It wasn’t until I was in my mid to late thirties that I finally entered counseling, and not until I was in my fifties that I even had a name for what my mother was – a malignant narcissist. Knowing she fits this pathological category is easier to accept than constantly wondering why I was singled out in my family as the abused scapegoat.

  5. Everything here is entirely consistent with my own experiences, especially the dissociation from the self which we undergo to try to stop the pain. However it is a form or repression, and this stuff will come out in later years if not dealt with.

    The worst part for me is the deep embedding of the self protection patterns of compliance with the externally applied abuse, the Trojans, or internal ‘software’ adaptations made in order to survive.

    These result even in a body language which later in life is instinctively ‘picked up’ on, and then other narcissists use the victim for their needs, via what in TA was described as, the “Sweatshirt Message”.
    These people then perpetrate the same behaviour patterns in the victim who thinks ‘It must all be true, I am worthless’.

    Of particular note to me is the denial of worth of the victim by the narcissist; I was told so much by my father that I was ugly, that when at about 25 I was asked if I wanted to be a model by girls in our High St, I wondered if they were taking the p***, my being so convinced of my ugliness.

    So I understand all this intellectually, but have a failure of a life; no family, very little career success, loneliness, and living a life of almost academic exercise to the end.

  6. Hi,

    What you right is so accurate. I started recovering from this over two years ago and have read many books on this subject and hardly any resonated. The nearest I got was a book on co-dependency by LR which was really helpful. Your blogs one hundred percent resonate and is exactly what I was looking for. If you do ever choose to write a book that would be really awesome. Thank you so much for this.

  7. You have helped me understand more than any of the people I have paid hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars to. In understanding now what is happened and happens to me I can help my now grown children understand , hopefully it is not too late, that way they do not have to live a life of confusion, BLINDLY living life in a vicious circle of weird evil manipulation that is not at all understood by an innocent person or child. This is LIFELONG ABUSE in a sick way because it NEVER ENDS.
    Please help all you can and thank you for helping I will read all of your newsletters.
    Thank you sincerely

  8. My abuser was a sibling not a parent. As her sphere of influence grew she polarised our entire family into two: them and me. I morphed from a very active and friendly child, to an adult who just wanted to hide away. For the past decade I have been increasingly aware that NOTHING I do can please these people. Last year, aged 45, I asked myself two very important questions, who am I? What do I want?
    For the first time in my life I attained financial independent from them. Soon after, I stopped contacting them(They had stopped years ago).
    The peace I have known this past year is immeasurable, yet I know it’s just a beginning, but at least I’m on another path now

  9. Thank you so much for this. This is definitely my story. I’m so happy I have, late in life, been able to uncover what happened to me, as a child, and that I am not alone.

  10. Thank you. My father took all the light from me to fuel his own darkness. He did not take it all though, as my light will always prevail, this I know.