When you’re a kid and you have no choice but to bond with a narcissistic parent and that parent uses you as a receptacle for their own feelings of worthlessness that they cannot tolerate, then you can walk around having to believe some pretty terrible things about yourself. Life can feel like it’s rigged against you. As if nothing you do ever warrants a feeling of credit, accomplishment or pride. That no matter how hard you work in therapy, self-exploration and the like, feelings of self-worth and optimism are ghost-like to you. In this post I want to explain how this experience can be driven by wish to prove the narcissistic parent wrong about you. This is a powerful reflex when we’ve been mistreated by someone who is important to us. But I will explain how you get to enjoy even more power within yourself when you exit the debate on your worth with the narcissistic parent. And, since it’s not just words and theory, if you read until the end I’ll give you a daily practice you can incorporate to help yourself give up the struggle to prove the narcissist wrong and in so doing realize how right you have been all along.
A word about who I am: I’m a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA specializing in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & community. We take a 3-pronged approach to recover of 1) Making sense of what happened, 2) Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and 3) living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Today’s post falls under the category of ‘Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser.
If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. This e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems.
The Quest to Prove the Narcissist Wrong
If you’ve had to bond with a narcissistic parent then you may have had to live life as though you’re starting a race 50 yards back from the starting line. This can particularly be the case when the other parent either isn’t home or is so psychologically compromised that they do not offer you a viable relationship to trust and invest in. The kind of narcissistic parent who I’m talking about today would likely fit the mold of what is known as the covert narcissist. This type of narcissistic personality still copes with their intolerable feelings of worthlessness by believing themselves to be more important or special than others. However, they do so under the guise of being agreeable, helpful, and ‘having it all together’. For the child in a family where the narcissistic parent seems stable and the other parent volatile, hypocritical, or obviously unviable to look up to, then the kid’s choice of who to attach to will often be the narcissistic parent. Of course, the same can happen if there is no other parent in the case of single-parent households. Although the narcissistic parent may seem to be worth the kid’s admiration, he or she is still incapable of offering the kid the reciprocity, care, and sense of being important that the kid needs to develop a healthy sense of him or her self. Instead, as a kid you may find it necessary to idealize someone who seems to have no need for you, is utterly indifferent to your inner world, and only responds to you when it suits their needs to feel better about themselves. And yet all of this, for the kid, is still felt to be infinitely better than having no parent. That experience of having no one and in essence being no one to nobody is one that must be avoided at all costs at the time.
The child of a narcissistic parent in this situation can be left believing they are defective, unimportant, and not worth being listened to. One common way the kid may cope is to organize their lives in ways designed to disprove these things about themselves. This can look like an unrelenting drive to achieve. The feeling that one’s ideas are not worth listening to, is a humiliating one, especially when you suspect you have good ideas. So, the result can be an inner world where you feel generally bad about who you are but a promise is always held out that if you do a little more, achieve a little more that then you’ll feel important in a lasting way. Although this coping style is absolutely necessary to find purpose when the abuse is going on, it leaves the survivor feeling dissatisfied because the promises never come to fruition. When we have to undertake something to prove our worth to someone who’s motivated to see us as worthless it’s impossible to feel fulfilled by it. And yet, it’s a very human reaction when we’re treated poorly by someone we have no choice but to believe to want to prove them wrong.
A clinical case example*:
Jarrett was another anonymized client who came to therapy complaining of feelings of low self-worth and a sense of flatness or meaninglessness in his life. He grew up in a family with a very emotionally volatile mother who would alternately have fits of rages, acting sweet towards Jarrett or grow sullen and despairing. Jarrett said he saw his mother as someone to watch his step with but not someone on whom he could ever rely.
In contrast, Jarrett described his father as someone he always looked up to. His father had been in the military and earned some distinctions as an officer. He was always very well put together physically and in his dress and was preoccupied with making their house look ‘perfect’ on nights and weekends. When his therapist asked about his relationship to his father, Jarret looked a little puzzled. He’d never really thought about how he felt in relation to his father. At first, Jarrett said he always just felt lucky to be around his father in whatever capacity his father would allow. As therapy proceeded, Jarrett felt more connected to the therapist and that seemed to open up more awareness of how he actually felt when he was with his father. Jarrett’s boldest statement came out one session when he said: “I could be sitting right next to my father in the care, BUT I ALWAYS FELT LIKE I WASN’T THERE! I felt so insignificant to him”. Jarret recognized how his father always seemed indifferent to Jarrett’s existence and showed no curiosity about what Jarrett thought or felt. As a result Jarrett concluded that he was not worth being listened to.
There were only two ways Jarrett could remember his father being lively in his interactions with him was when he was making fun of or fixing Jarrett.
So, as an 8yo, if Jarrett grew tired of the incessant list of chores he was asked to do without complaint around their home every weekend and complained then his father would get a big smile on his face and mockingly say, “Oh what is it, Mr. Whiner? I know you don’t want to do this, do you? Oh, poor Mr. Whiner.” And what Jarrett hated most about these episodes was that he was actually glad that his father came forward and was making some sort of contact with him. Jarrett found himself laughing along with his father at himself. Yes, it was at Jarrett’s expense and self-respect but it felt so much better than the general feeling of abandonment he constantly felt in relation to his father.
The other way Jarrett’s father seemed to spring into action with Jarrett was when Jarrett had a problem that his father could take pleasure in fixing. If all was going well in Jarrett’s life then his father would show no interest in him at all. One time Jarrett brought home a report card full of A’s with one A- and his father looked at it, tossed it dismissively on the counter and rhetorically asked, what’s with the ‘minus’? before walking out of the kitchen, uninterested in Jarrett’s response. But if Jarrett were struggling with math and could ask his father for help then his father would come alive to him again. Jarrett would recall thwarting his successes at school so that he could present himself as in need of tutoring from his father so that he’d have some way to eke out a feeling of connection with him.
Jarrett grew to understand that the only form of relationship available to him was with someone he looked up to but who treated him as if he was insignificant, not worth listening to, deserving of mockery and defective. As a result he learned to believe these things about himself. But, to Jarrett’s credit, he made his life about trying to find a way to disprove these painful conclusions about himself. So, he worked really hard in school to get good grades and go to a good college even though internally he could not feel satisfied or proud of himself for doing so. He also labored to prove to himself that he deserved to be and feel respected by people in his life. He did this despite always feeling like he was in an uphill battle and that others’ default way of viewing him was that he was insignificant and deserving of their mockery. I think it was his will to fight these conclusions that made therapy prove so helpful to him once he got into it. Now he could see how fallacious these beliefs about himself were to begin with and that they were a means towards the end of trying to contort himself to get a minimal amount of care from a father who was disinclined to offer any.
As Jarrett grew to compassionately see why and how he had to adopt these beliefs about himself he felt freed from the tyranny of always having to work so hard to prove otherwise about himself. His life loosened up quite a bit. Towards the end of one session he said, “you know, I realize that so much of what I did before was to get relief from this terrible feeling that I always used to feel. Like if I wasn’t being productive or doing something I thought made me important then I felt totally insignificant and worthless. Now, that feeling doesn’t rule me. I still feel it at times but I don’t have to run from it or do something immediately to make it go away. Now, I can experience and ask myself what I want to do right now…not to make the feeling go away but because it’s important to me. I guess I have the right version of ‘me’ in my mind now’.
I wanted to discuss Jarrett’s case because it illustrates how you can work to surrender the mission of proving the narcissistic parent wrong about yourself. Although things might feel hopeless at the outset, there can be a tremendous amount to gain by doing so. The hopelessness that might be felt by giving up on this mission is not the hopelessness of ever having a feeling of pride or worth. Rather, I believe, it’s the accurate hopelessness of ever feeling as close and connected to your narcissistic parent as you were born wanting to have (like all of us are). As that conclusion is accepted then other sources of connection – namely, safe people – grow to seem more valuable and capable of filling the void that was left by the emotional deprivation suffered at the hands of the narcissistic parent.
A Tool to Help You Gain by Surrendering
Here’s an exercise you can do to help yourself surrender the mission to prove the narcissist wrong about you:
This exercise is taken from Internal Family Systems which suggests that our Selves are comprised of different parts that can be more or less integrated with one another. IFS also says that we possess an Adult Wise Self that can broker fulfilling relationships with all of our parts. When we feel threatened with loss or abandonment, however, sometimes a younger part might seek to take over the self. In these cases the goal is to work back to your adult self without dismissing the threatened part and work in a different way to handle the threat.
You might think of the part of you that is bonded to the narcissist and intent on proving him or her wrong about you as a part. How old is this part? What does he look like in your mind’s eye?
If you find yourself feeling anxious, foggy, confused or blocked, this could be a sign that the younger part is blended with your adult self. Now, it’s important to ask that younger part to ‘take a step back’. And when you can feel a shift, no matter how small, you can begin a dialogue with this younger part of you. The goal in this dialogue is to let that younger part know that you – the adult self – are here for them, that you want to know what they have to say, that they are important to you, and that you see them as intact. Sound familiar? These are the exact opposite ways you were treated in relationship to the narcissistic parent!
There’s a section in my online course on Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse that offers even more in-depth understanding of why it is important to gain distance from the narcissistic abuser and offers a blueprint for how to do this. Most importantly, the accompanying private facebook group puts you in connection with other survivors of this kind of abuse and can offer a needed safe and supportive environment to counter the feelings of insignificance and defectiveness that so often strike for survivors of narcissistic abuse.
*All Case examples are fictionalized examples.
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.