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Recovering Honesty After Narcissistic Abuse

recovering honesty after narcissistic abuse

Do you assume that you must keep secret what you think about others? 

Do you feel at fault when someone who matters to you lets you down? 

Do you worry about offending others if you tell them how you ‘really’ see them? 

The fundamental rule for the child of a narcissistic parent is to not think or speak critically of them. The narcissistic parent is beyond reproach. The problem for the child is that their parent acts in ways that offer plenty of reasons for reproach. The child must not be honest to themselves or others about their misgivings. This is the only way to stay in their parent’s reality.

A parent who is not narcissistic is OK with their child seeing their fallibility. Being imperfect does not mean being worthless like it does for a narcissistic parent. Children who grow up in these families are allowed to think and speak critically of their parent. Doing so does not threaten their ability to participate in the family’s reality.

In today’s blog, I explain why the child must not criticize their narcissistic parent. Next, I describe the lengths the child takes to avoid knowing what they do not like about their parent. Most of these involve confusing themselves about who is to blame. They are to blame even when others behave badly. This requires the child to distort how they see themselves and their parent. Life lived on the premise of distortion can feel volatile, confusing, and despairing. The good news is if the survivor can be in new relationships where being critical is welcomed then they can live a life free of distortion. I will explain how.

The Danger of Honesty with a Narcissistic Parent 

A narcissistic parent is constantly on guard against feedback that challenges their superiority. They may suffer from a core sense of worthlessness that can only be denied. Their unconscious solution is to insist on the opposite – that they are worth more than others. This can work but is a fragile arrangement. Any signs that the parent is not superior can trigger their inner worthlessness. Honest criticism of any kind can challenge the parent’s sense of superiority. Since being superior is equivalent to being acceptable this is a huge threat. A narcissistic parent may create a reality where they are not to be questioned. Their child learns not to think or speak critically about their parent – or else!

There are two components to the ‘or else’ which serve as a powerful deterrent for the child. First, being someone whom their narcissistic parent will relate to means seeing the parent as flawless. If the child breaks this rule they risk being someone the parent does not “know”. Going unknown to a parent can feel like being nobody to no one and must be avoided.

Second, the parent may react to challenges with extreme hostility and contempt. Their fragile self-worth depends on seeing themselves and being seen as superior. They can believe they are entitled to such treatment. A child who notices the parent’s flaws is refusing to give what the parent believes they deserve. The parent may grow enraged and contemptuous at the child for this “offense”. Such intense hostile reactions are scary and even traumatizing for the child. They, too, must be avoided.

How a Child Avoids This Danger: Distortion 

The narcissistic parent is not only fallible but often lets the child down. The child experiences disappointment and frustration with the parent yet cannot say this. To do so would threaten the parent’s rebuke for not finding them to be perfect.

The child can avoid saying what they know by distorting their psychological vision. They can insist to themselves that their parent is how they demand to be seen: perfect. Next, the child has to deny that the parent is the source of any frustration. Most often the child will distortedly see themselves as the problem. The parent’s deprivation of the care they need goes unrecognized. Instead, the child is consumed with their own – supposed – flaws. Now the only person deserving criticism is the child. 

Living with such distortion creates an antagonistic and uncomfortable relationship with reality. The child knows that they cannot be honest with their parent nor themselves. So everything they experience must get filtered through the lens that says they are always wrong and their parent is always right. This lens must be used in the face of massive amounts of evidence that the parent is often wrong. Not knowing what is plain to see can create inner discomfort. Survivors of narcissistic abuse may feel a vague yet constant sense that something is not right. Like having to wear a wool undershirt at all times – it itches but there’s no way to get relief.

Frank looked up to his father as a young child. He was in the military and always seemed strong, put together, smart, and capable. He also did not seem at all interested in what made Frank tick. Frank would look at his father with admiration and a stinging recognition of how far away he felt from him.

Frank’s father would get easily bored with him. His father liked to run and play basketball. Frank tried to adopt these interests in hopes his father would want to spend more time with him. It did not work. Frank had to plead with his father to bring him along to the basketball court or go on a run together. His father would begrudgingly agree.

All of this led Frank to conclude that he was not good enough for his father to want to be around. Even the begrudging agreement to spend time together left Frank feeling like a worthless burden.

Another aspect of his father was that he did not take kindly to criticism. If Frank questioned his father’s decisions in any way he would get a gruff, “Shut up! You’re not old enough to know what you’re talking about”. His father was unbothered by Frank’s complaints about not getting enough attention from his father, however. In these instances, his father would mockingly call him “Mr. Whiner”. 

Over time, Frank learned to ignore how stingy his father was with his interest and support. He had to determine that there was nothing wrong with his father’s reaction to him. Frank just was not worth enough for his father to want to be around. This conclusion pained Frank but prevented him from seeing any reason to criticize his father. He was left only with admiration and a free-floating feeling of worthlessness.

The Costs of Distortion for the Child

Here are two costs to the child of having to distort what they see about their parent.

Retreat from Awareness

A basic requirement to live authentically is relative honesty. The child of a narcissistic parent has to sacrifice their honesty to see what they are supposed to see. Having to live with the impossibility of knowing your own truth can feel bleak and despairing.

The child and later adult may try to find alternate meaning in life. They can pour themselves into pursuits with the hope that success will bring them the inner peace they so want. If or when this proves unfruitful they may rely on reducing their self-awareness.

A child may reduce their self-awareness via: sleeping more than usual, thinking ahead at all times and/or having a sense of unreality about themselves and others. These strategies are often enacted without conscious choice. They relieve the child from the agony of having a dishonest relationship with their parent.

The cost to retreating from awareness is that life becomes something to get through – not savor. The joy of the moment is nullified because they cannot address what feels off. Goals become important to structure one’s experience. However, the child is cannot experience any real pride when met. Life can feel like a treadmill.

Not Mattering to Yourself

Denying what the child sees requires them to downgrade their own importance. They have to believe their parents’ needs matter more than their own. This can only happen if the child perceives themselves to have less inherent worth than the parent.

A child may learn to erase themselves from their own thinking. It becomes much easier for them to see and care for others rather than themselves. They have not been shown genuine and unconditional interest in what they think and feel. If their feelings do not matter to the parent, then it is easy to conclude that they themselves do not matter.

With enough practice, the child’s world may consist of everyone but themselves. They cannot accurately perceive the parent who is ignoring them. They have to believe the lie that they are not worth anyone’s attention. Thus, being unaware of their own presence becomes adaptive to the situation.

Frank’s experience with his father made him extremely anxious whenever he found fault with others. If he admired someone and they let him down, he did not feel safe telling them so. He would confuse himself about whether they did anything wrong and emerge with a sense that he was really at fault.

In eighth grade, Frank made a friend named Rick, who seemed cool and really interested in what Frank had to say. They shared a sense of humor and would laugh all the time. One day, they were walking home from school with another friend named Matt. Matt, who could be mean, decided he wanted to pick on Frank that day. Rick, to Frank’s dismay, joined in with Matt. He laughed at Matt’s barbs towards Frank.

When he got home, Frank felt ashamed. However, he did not blame Rick for not having his back. He chalked it all up to his own defectiveness. Matt was just seeing him for how he really was, and Rick was finally catching on.

The next time Frank and Rick hung out, Frank felt the impulse to ask Rick why he ganged up on him. But he suppressed this and told himself that he did not deserve to question Rick. He felt lucky to be able to spend time with him.

The Path to Safe Honesty

After surviving narcissistic abuse, new relationships are needed to heal. You need evidence that you no longer have to avoid criticizing those who mistreat you. Such evidence is generated in relationships with people who treat you well.

In a relationship with someone who does not need to be seen as perfect to feel acceptable, you have more freedom. In the event where they do or do not do something that is frustrating or slightly hurtful, you get to tell them so. Their reaction may surprise those accustomed to being left or attacked for speaking up.

When a safe enough person is told how they have negatively impacted someone they care about, their priority will be that person’s feelings. They want to be in relationships where the other person’s feelings matter to them and vice versa. Thus, when the other tells them that their feelings have been hurt, they will have two goals: 1) show that they understand and get the other’s experience, and 2) see what they can do to repair what happened.

In short, telling a safe person what is bothering you can strengthen your relationship. With more and more of these experiences, you no longer have to hide what you see from yourself. There is no danger anymore in criticizing someone like this. When it is safe to criticize like this, you no longer have to restrict your awareness of your experience. You can also see that you and your feelings do get to matter to others and to yourself.

Frank found himself in therapy in his thirties because he felt an ongoing sense of dis-ease within that he hoped could be healed. It was hard for him to articulate this at first to his therapist. As they worked together and Frank felt safer in the therapy, he was able to explore his experience more openly.

His therapist provided a type of monthly bill that Frank needed to submit to insurance for out-of-network reimbursement. Frank preferred to get these submitted in a timely fashion so that his budget stayed on track. His therapist provided the bill promptly each month for the first six months. Then he changed his billing process, and this resulted in Frank not getting the bill for 3 to 4 weeks after the end of the month.

The first two times this happened, Frank silently noted to himself that the bill was rather late getting to him. He felt a twinge of frustration then a ton of anxiety and vulnerability. It was enough to make him want to stay away from these feelings.

He felt a familiar process kick in where he questioned whether his therapist was even inconveniencing him at all.

“What is my deal that I’m so insistent on getting the bill right on time?” “Maybe I’m a perfectionist and expect him to meet my demands. Maybe I’m narcissistic, and that’s the problem.” 

Oddly enough, these thoughts reduced his anxiety. He was in the known place of blaming himself instead of holding someone else, who mattered to him, accountable. 

This blame worked so well that he doubted his perception of who was creating the problem. It was no longer his therapist for being late with the bill. Now it was Frank’s supposed impatience and entitlement for feeling frustrated with the bill’s lateness.

Frank and his therapist continued to work for the next few months, and the bill continued to be late. At the same time, though, Frank was accruing more and more evidence that perhaps his therapist would respond differently to his complaint than what he knew from his father.

When the bill came late a third time, he resolved to address it. At the next session, his heart was pounding, his palms were sweaty, and he felt like he had a fireball in his stomach. Nonetheless, he pressed forward and said, “Hey, I see that the monthly bills have been coming later than before. Is it possible to get them to me closer to the start of the month like before?” 

Frank could not detect any signs of offense or indignation from his therapist. Instead, he was told, “You are absolutely right. I switched to a new billing system and it has created this lateness. But that’s not your problem. You should be able to take for granted that you will get these bills in a timely fashion. I apologize for that and thank you for focusing me on this topic.” 

Frank was dumbstruck. All the danger he thought he was walking into was nowhere to be found. Instead, his therapist acted like Frank’s complaint was a legitimate thing to express in their relationship. Over time, sequences like this helped Frank know he no longer had to hide his dissatisfactions with safe others from himself nor from them.

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. I offer an introduction online course on the nature and impacts of narcissistic abuse. I also offer an advanced online course offering 8 powerful strategies for scapegoat survivors to reclaim the quality of life they deserve.

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