The narcissistic family: When parents only love themselves

Did you grow up in a family where you could never be yourself as a child? Do your parents lack empathy? Does the family look normal to the outside world? Did manipulation, lying, mental, emotional and/or physical abuse occur in the family? If the answer is yes, you may be dealing with a narcissistic parent or parents. What is a narcissistic personality disorder and how do you recognize a narcissistic mother or father? What is narcissism? We all come into contact with difficult people during our lives. Recognizing the difference between what are normal difficult qualities and what are signs of a personality disorder is not always easy. However, it is important to be able to do that. To successfully enter into new relationships and to continue existing relationships in a healthy way.

There is little material available about narcissism, especially in Dutch. Yet most of us have encountered this disorder during our lifetime. If you were raised by one or even two narcissistic parents, you were taught that the narcissist is always right and you are never. This leads you to doubt your own judgment. And you probably feel like you can never do it well enough. But also that you have never realized that these are not normal feelings to experience during your youth, but that they arise from behaviors that are symptomatic of a personality disorder. Because a narcissistic parent is not really capable of loving children, such a parent only loves what a child can do for him or her.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissism is usually seen as a selfish attitude and behavior, with little to no real empathy for others. A child suffers narcissistic damage when his primary emotional needs are not met. A narcissistic parent has an enormous need for attention and care, because he or she went through the same thing during early childhood. Neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, as well as a lack of structure or suffocation, can greatly damage a child. A narcissistic disorder arises when the ego throws up a smokescreen for these damage in order to conceal the deep pain and shame. The child who was never allowed to indicate his boundaries remains stuck in development with the belief that he is unsafe, unworthy and should not actually be there. Because the child remains stuck in a primary form of defense, it is also unable to break free from the parents later. A child with a more stubborn nature will still try to do so and learn how manipulation leads to the fulfillment of his or her needs. Aggression and intimidation are included in the survival toolkit.

A parent with narcissistic personality disorder continually strives to maintain his or her fragile self-confidence by living in a fantasy world with huge blind spots in his or her way of thinking. A fantasy world, where all needs are met. There is often a great involvement with material matters such as appearance, money, status or power. There is a great fear of feelings, deep friendship and intimacy and it seems impossible to achieve a mature love relationship. Desperately and above all, the narcissist tries to compensate for everything that was missing in early childhood. And this places unrealistic expectations on others to feel better about themselves. Negative emotional stress should be avoided at all times. It is therefore much easier to blame someone else instead of seeing oneself as part of a problem.

At the core, a narcissistic parent will always think he or she is superior to others. When a narcissistic father or mother does not get what he or she wants, he or she immediately feels degraded. All those feelings of fear, pain or even despair are just too much. People with a narcissistic disorder see things wrongly and are unable to see things from both sides. In general, a good feeling arises when the false self-image is confirmed and no guilt is experienced when others are abused by them. They are very sensitive to criticism and either attack or get away. In this way, they do not take any responsibility for learning from their own mistakes and ultimately for growing up as an adult human being with adult emotions. The next section shows in more detail the experiences of a child who grew up under the care of one or two parents with a narcissistic disorder.

How does it feel to grow up in a narcissistic family?

  • I was not allowed to have feelings that would upset my parents.
  • As a child, I had to meet my parents’ emotional needs.
  • I quickly learned that my needs were not appreciated and I stopped trying to get them met.
  • I felt like I always had to behave in a way that would please my parents.
  • Our family had to look good to the outside world, so I was expected not to tell others what was going on outside the house.
  • Sometimes my parents’ need to look good to the outside world meant that I received some positive attention.
  • I was expected to guess and accommodate my parents’ wishes without them having to ask.
  • When I tried to set boundaries, my parents ignored them.
  • I was not allowed to make mistakes or change my mind.
  • The less emotional support I received, the more afraid I was of losing this support.
  • I learned to be super responsible to please my parents.
  • I learned that parents can act selfishly because they have a right to do so.
  • I have problems forming and/or maintaining new intimate relationships.
  • I have an enormous need for external validation.
  • I learned early on to perform well, where my performance was often not appreciated.
  • I had no inherent value other than doing things for my parents.
  • My parents react hurt or angry to criticism, so I quickly learned not to cause turbulence.
  • I had to give up my sense of “me” to survive in my family.


Characteristics of narcissistic parents

Safe parents meet a child’s emotional and physical needs. They set clear boundaries for themselves and give you the space to do the same. They respect the child’s boundaries and ensure that the child is safe and feels safe. They do not engage in manipulation or mind games. A secure parent establishes and lives by strong and positive values for the family. A loving parent allows his or her children to express their own needs and can establish and maintain an intimate and happy relationship. Narcissistic parents cannot do this. The following characteristics provide insight into how to recognize narcissism within the family.

  • Every conversation is ultimately about him or her.
  • Expect to always meet his or her emotional needs.
  • Ignores the impact that negative comments have on you.
  • Constantly criticizes or belittles you.
  • Always know what is best for you.
  • Blames others instead of looking at any own shortcomings.
  • Expect to jump up to help at the slightest peep.
  • Is mainly concerned with their own interests or addictions, ignoring your needs.
  • Has a very high need for attention.
  • Brags, complains, teases.
  • Becomes excessively angry when own needs are not met.
  • Blackmails and intimidates.
  • Can’t stand criticism.
  • Has an attitude of “Anything you can do, I can do better.”
  • Behaves seductively and/or is overly charming.
  • Is vain and constantly looks for compliments from others.
  • Is not satisfied with less than the biggest or best.
  • Seeks status and confirmation. Spends money to put out the eyes of others.
  • Forget what you have done for him/her and only remember what you still owe.
  • Threatens abandonment (or suicide) if you don’t give in to his/her desires.
  • Do not expect any punishment for exceeding standards.
  • Ignores your feelings and calls you oversensitive or selfish when you express them.
  • Tells you how you should and shouldn’t feel.
  • Cannot listen and is not open to opinions other than their own.
  • Is more interested in his or her concerns than yours.
  • Tries to control what you say or do (micro-management).
  • Tries to make you feel helpless or inadequate when you do something yourself.
  • Has superficial feelings and interests.
  • Uses emotional blackmail to get his or her way.
  • Exploits others through lies and/or manipulation.
  • May possibly engage in physical or sexual abuse of children.

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