This is the phrase I sometimes have in my mind when I think about my practice, and about therapy in general. It doesn’t describe everyone who comes to therapy, but both the incidence and the suffering involved are considerable. It is deeply instructive to me that so many people facing struggles in life have suffered at the hands of narcissistic parents, and many people bear the tell-tale deep, invisible bruises of what often amounts to a form of emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse.
I thought it might be helpful to outline a few of the dynamics of growing up and living with narcisisstic people:
- When we grow up, we need to be known, seen, heard, reflected and accepted. Sadly, children of narcissists are forced to know, see, reflect and hear their parents instead. They learn that their own selves are not welcome, and what is inside them is not acceptable.
- Children of narcissists must serve. They serve another’s needs and emotional states. They “parent” their parents, or are regarded as a nuisance. Either they fit into serving the narcissist’s ego, or they become “black sheep”, forever punished, demeaned and forgotten.
- Children of narcissists live confusing lives. If they are angry or upset, this is perceived as an attack on the parent. If they pursue an interest or point of view that is different from the parent, they are diminished, ridiculed, “frozen out” or punished.
- Not surprisingly, children of narcissists can grow depressed. Their every attempt at being loved and acknowledged for who they truly are is met by something that feels false, rejecting or humiliating. Becoming deflated and exhausted internally is natural, but can set itself up as a pattern long into adult life.
- Like the giving and receiving of gifts, conversation requires a two-way interaction. Children of narcissists have grown up around a skewed communication in which the desire for true exchange is frustrated. Learning to talk, gradually, from the inner self with someone capable of receiving that self is part of the work of therapy. Naming and reclaiming emotions, ideas and a greater sense of selfhood takes time, but a more reliable, solid, vital and creative person can emerge.
Therapy is not top-down expertise; it is bottom-up. We are there to help you grow, to listen acutely, to guide you in exploration and to help you come to know your self in ways you’ve never been able to. But therapy goes beyond knowledge. We are there to help you claim and re-claim your self. This can sometimes feel like hard work, but it can also feel deeply liberating, exciting and rewarding. In my experience, given time, it is eminently possible to recover what is rightfully yours.
written by: Tom Barwell