Today I would like to focus on the psychology of a narcissistic mother or father and why it is so likely to end in abuse for their children. Life can feel confusing for a child born into a family headed by a narcissistic mother or father. Particularly if that child was the family scapegoat, it can seem like everything they do is wrong and everything the narcissistic parent does is right. In recovering from a childhood of narcissistic abuse, it can be very important to understand the psychology of the narcissistic mother or father. Doing so, can allow survivors to finally know the truth of who they actually are in relation to their abusive parent.
The Narcissist’s Core Sense of Worthlessness
Narcissistic mothers and fathers suffer an unbearable sense of low and fragile self-esteem. They believe they are worthless. Worse, they are so convinced of their wretchedness that they cannot acknowledge it. Doing so feels like it would end in their – psychological – destruction.
Antidotes to the worthlessness
Grandiosity: Artificially inflated view of themselves
A narcissist tries to solve their feelings of worthlessness by keeping them out of awareness. The first tact in this solution is to adopt a conscious belief of their own superiority and specialness. In psychology, we call this ‘grandiosity’. Put simply, the narcissist believes their feelings, capabilities, thoughts and needs are more important than others’. Most importantly, all of these positive views of themselves are antidotal to their sense of worthlessness. Their grandiosity is achieved through denial and force of thought. They have to constantly renew this antidotal self-conceit or risk the breakthrough pain of their inner wretchedness. So, the equilibrium they achieve is always fragile and vulnerable to disruption.
Entitlement: Expectation that others will comply with their inflated view of themselves
The next step involves their expectation that others will comply with their grandiosity. They unconsciously expect and demand that others reflect back to them how special and full of worth they are. In other words, they feel entitled to others’ constant admiration and prioritization. Children and passive relationship partners are common targets of this function.
Disruptions of antidotes lead to ‘breakthrough’ worthlessness
These two antidotes are temporarily effective in alleviating the narcissist’s immediate sense of worthlessness. As in all band-aid approaches, however, they must be in constant operation to achieve the protective effect. The narcissist must avoid disruptions of his grandiosity and entitlement otherwise his sense of worthlessness could ‘breakthrough’ to his awareness. Such disruptions often come in the form of other people’s needs, differences of opinion, or just failure to notice how ‘special’ the narcissist is.
Disruptions of the narcissist’s grandiosity
When someone else expresses a need the narcissist does not see it as an opportunity to attune to that person and strengthen the bond between them. Instead she sees the other’s need to mean that hers are not as important. As such, the narcissist may avoid people with enough self-worth to feel deserving of having their needs met. If the narcissist cannot avoid someone else with a need – such as their own child – then she will employ other devices to coerce that person to stifle himself. Common tactics used to punish another with needs include: shaming him for being ‘needy’ or ‘selfish’, outright neglect, dismissing his needs as illegitimate, and/or accusing him of seeking attention. The goal for the narcissist is to make the person feel worse after expressing a need to her than if he kept it to himself. Once he refrains from expressing his needs, he no longer challenges the narcissist’s belief that her – grandiose – needs are all that should matter in this world.
Disruptions of the narcissist’s entitlement
The other component to the narcissist’s antidotal self-conceit is their expectation that others comply with her grandiosity. She requires that others be willing to abandon their own interests, pursuit of happiness, even their sense of themselves to prioritize hers. Any indication that someone else is not willing to do this can be met with indignation, retaliation, and rage.
In this clip, from ‘This Boy’s Life’ Robert DeNiro plays a narcissistic father named ‘Dwight’. This scene illustrates what a narcissist will often do when his sense of entitlement is interrupted:
Dwight is enjoying the record and experiences the voices of other family members as disruptive. I suspect that he believes his desire to listen to the music should be everyone else’s priority too. Their obvious involvement in and enjoyment of activities unrelated to him, do not comply with his entitled belief. Dwight meets this noncompliance with indignant rage meant to punish them.
Hiding the narcissist’s selfishness
Grandiosity and entitlement require ongoing self-absorption and self-inflation. Two attributes that are unflatteringly selfish. Nobody is going to announce that they deem themselves better than everyone else and expect consensus on that point. Doing so, would risk rebuke from others. Such a reaction would compromise how the narcissist has to see herself and be seen by others.
The narcissist is in a dilemma. His only way to remedy feeling worthless risks him feeling even more worthless if his remedy becomes widely known. He now must hide his grandiosity and entitlement from himself and others.
The process of hiding their antidotal strategy involves ‘finding’ the self-absorption and self-inflation in another person instead of herself. This all happens unconsciously. Since the narcissist cannot bear to acknowledge how worthless she feels nor how self-absorbed she is, she must convince herself that these attributes are in others – not her.
Victims of narcissistic abuse are no strangers to being called ‘selfish’. This is because a narcissist is quick to identify and distort others’ healthy senses of entitlement as ‘selfish’ or evidence that they think they deserve special treatment. In essence, a narcissist accuses others of being exactly who he is.
In this clip, we see how Dwight relocates his own sense of grandiosity and entitlement in his stepson ‘Toby’ (played by Leo Dicaprio):
Dwight distorts Toby’s healthy & reasonable sense of entitlement to eat a few candies into being a ‘selfish hog’. Dwight’s goal is to get Toby to think of himself as worthless so that Dwight doesn’t have to think of himself that way. Toby catches onto this and confonts Dwight that he despises him for existing. Dwight artlessly doubles down that it’s only because Toby’s a ‘hog’. Dwight demonstrates the rigidity, lack of empathy, and remorselessness of the narcissist.
2 deficits needed to be a narcissist: Lack of empathy and remorse
Narcissist’s are unwilling to care how their coercive actions impact others. Research has shown that they consistently lack in empathy for the feelings of others. They may be able to read and use others’ feelings for their own purposes. However, they will not unconditionally care about the emotional well-being of someone else – particularly if it interferes with securing their own emotional needs.
Second and relatedly a narcissist is remorseless in whatever they do to prop up their antidotal self-conceit. Many of my clients with narcissistic parents have had the experience of getting blamed all over again when they’ve tried to confront that parent about their abusive treatment. The narcissist would rather claim that their child deserved the abuse than take accountability for how they hurt him or her. We saw this in the clip above when Toby confronts Dwight about just hating him for existing. Dwight then insists he’s only acting that way because Toby is such a ‘selfish hog’. This scene reflects how a narcissist will commonly meet the protests of people who see what he is really all about.
What happens when a narcissist becomes a parent?
The child of a narcissist is almost doomed to interrupt their narcissistic parent’s antidotal self-conceit. A young baby is a bundle of needs – by design. They are entirely dependent on their caregiver and can only offer their continued existence as thanks. For most caregivers this is more than enough. It is, in fact, why they had a child: to experience the gratification of meeting the needs of someone they love.
For a narcissistic parent, the child may be welcome so long as he reflects back the parent’s self-importance. The kid has to orbit the parent. This is unnatural, since children have appropriate developmental needs to experience themselves as the center of the universe and their parents as their satellites. If a child shows that he expects the narcissistic parent to orbit him, the narcissist will take this as a blow to her inflated self-esteem. This kind of parent expects her child to keep her at the forefront of his mind, so when he attends to himself he is violating her pathological sense of entitlement that her self-importance should always be mirrored back to her. As discussed above, such violations can evoke the sense of worthlessness the narcissist is always working to deny. These violations are inevitable so long as the kid tries to hold onto his own perspective and needs. The attributes of the narcissistic parent described above will coerce the kid to relinquish his connection to himself and find a way to orbit the narcissistic parent. And here is how that process often unfolds*:
1) The child interrupts the narcissistic parent’s sense of superiority and entitlement that others reflect it. This may happen by the child being proud of himself, focusing on himself, failing to show ‘enough appreciation’ to the parent, etc.
2) The parent must restore their antidotal self-conceit but must do so while hiding the selfishness of this motive.
3) The narcissistic parent unconsciously re-locates her own selfishness in the child. She may distort a benign act on the part of the child to ‘prove’ how inordinately selfish that child is. Just like Dwight distorted Toby’s act of eating a few of his sister’s candies into proving he was the selfish one.
4) The narcissistic parent then works to control the child so that he accepts her claim of being the selfish one. In a parent-child relationship the parent holds all the real power. If the parent reacts to the child as though he is selfish, the child can fairly easily buy into this. The child’s need for her to be willing to care for him dooms him.
Once the narcissistic parent has successfully relocated her inherent selfishness in the child, she can then work to put her own worthlessness in him too. If the child is branded as selfish, it is not a far leap to treat him as though he is worthless too. The narcissistic parent can convince herself and the other family members that the child deserves such maltreatment given how selfish he is. Just like Dwight argues to Toby that it’s not that he hates the fact that Toby exists, it’s just that Toby is a ‘hog’ and must be taught to be better. Such claims of selfishness almost always undergird the narcissistic parent’s attempts to make the child feel worthless. In the ultimate act of ‘better than you than me’ the narcissistic parent finds some relief from their own worthlessness if she sees her child as the worthless one. If this attitude persists, the child may adopt it as his own and find various ways to comply with the narcissist’s insistence that he is worthless.
Therapy to recover from the narcissistic parent’s re-located selfishness and worthlessness
A child who survives these kinds of systematic abusive tactics and finds themselves functioning in the world has already beat the odds. They have managed to defy – in their continued existence – their narcissistic parent’s re-located claim that they are selfish and good for nothing. I’ve mentioned this before, but therapy involves helping clients dislocate all of the falsehoods their narcissistic parent worked to convince them of and putting them at the parent’s doorstep where they have always belonged. I will write more specifically about the process of therapy in coming months.
*This process is also known as ‘projective identification’.
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.