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The Exhausted Woman
with Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC

Growing Up in the Shadow of a Narcissist

Marie’s first response to her therapist when asked about her childhood was “It was fine, my dad was perfect”. Now, this statement is gold for a therapist and begs to be mined further. After indulging Marie in the perfect father fantasy for a few minutes, the therapist took things on a different approach and asked about her mother. Marie described her as highly anxious, a bit of an alcoholic, stressed for no apparent reason, and unable to make even small decisions without consulting her father.

Further probing into her mother revealed a woman that seemed traumatized all the time. With no discernible traumatic event, Marie realized that her mom was responding to demands from her father. It wasn’t too long after the initial remark of “my dad was perfect” that Marie began sharing troubling stories of her childhood. Her revised description of her father fit the profile of a narcissist.

As the therapy progressed, Marie came to terms with her new reality that her dad was not perfect, rather he was narcissistic. This realization shook the foundation of her childhood and forever changed how she viewed him. She began to see that her own issues of insecurity, feelings of inadequacy, struggles with perfectionism, fears of abandonment, and obsessive thinking stemmed from living in the shadow of a narcissistic father.

Part of her healing process was to write down the things she absorbed and internalized as a child as true and reinterpret it through the lens of narcissism. This activity forced Marie to stop taking on excessive responsibility for her dad’s errors, stop walking on eggshells around him, and stop living out a false reality. Here are some of her old beliefs.

  1. Perfectionism is expected and demanded. Marie was expected to look well dressed all the time, even in casual environments when fashionable clothing is not expected. Likewise, her outward behavior was constantly criticized as she was told to project positivity regardless of how she felt.
  2. Dad is superior at all things. Any achievement Marie obtained was overshadowed by her dad’s even bigger and greater success. When she made the Dean’s list, he was Valedictorian. When she got her first job, he got one at her age paying more money.
  3. Dad is right even when he is wrong. Regardless of the evidence against her dad’s opinion, things are twisted around to him being right and everyone else, especially Marie, being wrong. The prime target for her dad defaulted to her mother first and then to Marie. This explained her mother’s high levels of anxiety and poor coping mechanisms.
  4. Dad doesn’t need to apologize. On the rare occasion when Marie would muster up enough courage to confront her dad, there was no apology and very little change. Rather, he played the victim card and blamed his childhood and wife for his behavior. Or, he would claim that because he financially supported everyone, he didn’t owe any apologies.
  5. Others will wait for him. Many nights were spent sitting at the dining room table for hours waiting to start eating. Her dad would have an “important call” that had to be handled first before he could eat. The expectation was that everyone would wait for him to sit down first and start eating first, then the rest of the family could eat.
  6. Dad’s likes should be hers. Marie was expected to like what her dad liked and do what he did without appropriate instruction, guidance, and often support. Somehow, just because she was his kid, she should know and do these things instinctively.
  7. Dad plays favorites. In Marie’s family, there was the favorite child and the forgotten child. The favorite child saw the charming side of her dad and received special privileges while the forgotten child saw the ranting and endured harsher punishments.
  8. Ignoring, raging, and overindulging are normal. Due to the favoritism, there was a push-pull abusive style of parenting. Her dad would figuratively push away a child with random rages and long periods of the silent treatment. Then he would pull in the favorite child with excessive spending and gifting.
  9. A gift is not a gift, it can be taken away. One of the rules of Marie’s childhood house was that all gifts could be revoked if she didn’t act, do, or say what was expected by her dad. Sometimes those expectations were assumed and not vocalized so there was always a fear of losing the gift right after receiving it.
  10. Her anxiety is a weakness. The constantly shifting parental foundation created anxiety in Marie. When she would try to talk about this with her dad, he would say that anxiety is a sign of weakness and not to tell anyone that she felt that way. This isolated her at a time when she needed support.
  11. She has no voice. There was no choice in which family vacations were taken, no cooperative discussion about doing fun activities, or consideration of for what Marie liked and disliked. Instead, if her dad wanted to do something then it is done, otherwise, she had to forget about it.
  12. Her anger is not real. After years of receiving inconsistent and random affection and attention from her dad, confusion over unfair and excessive discipline, and a constant build-up of pent-up anxiety, Marie found herself angry. Not a little, but a lot. Having a narcissistic father produced large amounts of anger which she had to purge. But when she tried to vocalize this, her mother and father said her anger was not real.
  13. Dad will cut her off or out. The fear that one day her dad will cut her out of life is real and not exaggerated. The evidence of this lay in the discarded lives of other family members. As a result, Marie had an anxious attachment to her dad.

After reviewing the list, Marie was able to see how these 13 statements contributed to her low self-esteem, suppressed anger, constant anxiety and depressive state. She stopped taking responsibility for his actions and started countering these statements with the truth having removed the narcissism filter from her mind.

Growing Up in the Shadow of a Narcissist

 


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APA Reference
Hammond, C. (2019). Growing Up in the Shadow of a Narcissist. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 18, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2019/06/growing-up-in-the-shadow-of-a-narcissist/