Waking Up to Narcissistic Abuse: 'Our Parents Are the Last People We Can Trust'

10/20/2017 01:42 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2017

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Those of us exposed to trauma know all too well the experience of distressing nightmares. We may thrash around in bed and struggle to speak or cry out. When we finally reach consciousness, as if surfacing for air, we may be panicked, crying, even hyperventilating. The transition from a terrifying dream state to wakefulness can leave us intensely disturbed and unable to return to sleep.

For adult children raised with narcissistic abuse, the experience of becoming aware of the reality of what we have been through is much like waking from a horrific nightmare. But it is a process far longer, more complexly murky, and lastingly traumatic.

Adam's Story: "Our Parents Are the Last People We Can Trust"

With rare exceptions, children love their parents unconditionally and seek their nurturance, protection, attention, approval, and validation of their evolving selfhood. When one or more parents suffer from the pathology of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), this healthy developmental attunement between child and adult is disrupted and often inverted, leading to devastating psycho-emotional harm. Adam's story is a classic case.

Expectations of Perfection

When Adam was growing up in the Midwest, his NPD mother insisted on perfection from him, her eldest child. By third or fourth grade, Adam was expected to get straight As, and anything less led to a host of punishments from his mother. An A- was cause for harsh cross-examination and comments such as, "What did you do wrong?!" A B grade unleashed screaming rage, violent outbursts such as breaking the car steering wheel, hysteria that he would never get into college, and required readings of 30-40 pages of the encyclopedia.

Parentified "Super Kid"

As Adam got older, Fridays after school were chore nights until about 10 p.m. His father was usually off at night school, and his mother would call from work to dictate a list of tasks. Adam learned to roast a chicken, pay the bills, clean the house, and take care of his little brother, 8 years younger than him. Soon his mother was dropping him off to do the family grocery shopping. "At 12 I thought it was really cool that I could do that," Adam said.

Like so many parentified children, for Adam being given adult responsibilities and learning to handle them well was a source of pride, a feeling of being special and helpful. Now he looks back with hurt and anger: "I have felt like the adult in this damn family since I was 8 or 9. I wish I had had the ability to make mistakes and still be loved and hugged." Yet, as is common among "super kids," he remains confused now, at 38, about whether he asked for the responsibilities or was unfairly burdened with them, despite his therapist's assurances that his circumstances were not within his control and in fact neglectful and abusive.


Typical of many children of narcissist parents, Adam became hypervigilant and empathetic: "It felt like our family was a Soviet-run state; it was all about making sure she was happy," he said. "I used to sit in the house and listen when she got home for how the car door slammed, the tone of her walk on the pavement to gauge her mood." He also learned to hide his needs, like the time as a kid when he was pretending to be a knight. "I had put a filet knife in a sheath, and when I pulled it out I sliced my hand down to the bone. Blood was everywhere." Fearing angry reprisal, he went into the bathroom alone and wrapped and wrapped his hand in thick layers. "It was better than going to the hospital for doing something so stupid," he said. "The last people we can trust are our parents."

Silent Treatment

When Adam's mother wasn't venting anger and blame, she resorted to silent treatment. "If I disagreed or did anything that was remotely like a child, she would walk out of rooms. She used the silent treatment for three days. She wouldn’t respond or make meals," he said. "It was so confusing. I would wander out wondering if she would make dinner and then go back to my room and pretend to be studying," he said. "I never felt comfortable laughing or expressing joy because it meant I wasn't working hard enough. To this day I get really flustered if people are unresponsive. I turn red and get intensely anxious. . . . I don’t know if I’m lovable."

By 13 as Adam was coming to grips with realizing he was gay, his father moved out. "He was stifled and unhappy in the marriage," Adam explained. His mother retreated to her room for about a year. "She just shut down and cried all the time." At a point when he was entering adolescence and needed support for coming out, Adam found himself doing even more care-taking of his mother and brother.

Dealing with the Enabling Parent

Things improved somewhat when Adam's father moved back home a year later, but Adam struggles now with his father's enabling role in the family. "I’m learning to be pissed at my dad. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He's kind and funny and made jokes that I find myself making now. [But] I’m learning that when you are a human who mates with another human there is 50/50 responsibility. My mother dominated, and my father didn’t push back when she was being crazy. He still tells me not to burden her if anything is going on with me."

Long-Term Fallout

Despite Adam's success in college and an Ivy League graduate program that he paid for himself; sustaining college friendships that he said taught him unconditional love; extensive travels; and years of personal work, including therapy, yoga, and retreats; as an adult he has been plagued with panic attacks, chronic digestive problems, addictions, anger, and difficulty with trust.

He said, "I haven't had an intimate relationship for five years. My last relationship was hard. I’m digging all this sh*t up, identifying the emotional abuse. In my relationships I'd get close but not close enough. I would push people away. I’m still working on waking up feeling like I’m good enough."

Setting Boundaries with Parents

Regarding his relationship with his parents now, Adam is angry, working hard to assert boundaries, but also ambivalent. "My therapist says I need to stop talking to them. Mom has a brain disease, dad is an enabler, and my brother has checked out and is dealing with serious problems. My mother is terrified of everything; it’s like watching a baby lamb bleeding on the side of the road,” he said. “My character is to not check out on my family. You’re biologically dictated to crawl back to reconcile."

Is It Abuse if It Isn't Physical?

Adam has struggled for years to acknowledge his family experience as abusive, since he did not endure physical harm. His is a common confusion for emotionally and psychologically abused people, especially parentified children who identify themselves as strong survivors, not victims. Acknowledging that narcissistic abuse is profoundly damaging, just as bad and sometimes even worse than physical abuse, is difficult, especially for kids who come to define themselves as hypercapable.

"There is something specifically insidious about the nonphysical abuse," Adam said. "We are in this unique place where we’re sort of f*cked. It's such a weird pathology, one of the hardest things to treat. . . . I don’t feel bad throwing the truth back at them. They have said things to me that I would never say to any other human on this planet, ever.”

He continued, "I’m in the midst of heavy depression, while my close friends look to me to be functional and caretaking. The truth is I want to latch on to someone to save me, but I know it doesn't work that way. All we want is to be loved."

Ending the Cycle

Like so many cases of NPD, the pathology in Adam's family stretches back cross-generationally to his mother's mother and beyond. Despite his struggles as a survivor of narcissistic abuse, Adam has always felt he's had "an inner guidepost to know right and wrong." Whether he has children, he said he's made a commitment to break the generational cycle: "I've been to war. It ends with me."

Julie L. Hall writes about narcissism on her blog The Narcissist Family Files. She is the author of two forthcoming books: a memoir (read excerpts) and a book on narcissistic family dynamics.

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Adult Children of Narcissists Face Trauma-Induced Health Risks  March 2, 2017In "The Narcissist Family Files"

The Challenge of Setting Boundaries with Narcissist ParentsMarch 6, 2017In "The Narcissist Family Files"

4 Insidious Ways That Narcissistic Abuse Isolates the VictimMarch 23, 2017In "The Narcissist Family Files"

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