This is a highly personal piece and one that, as a private person and a textbook introvert, it took a great deal of courage for me to write. I did so for the thousands of women out there just like me who were raised by a narcissistic parent and are still feeling the aftershocks. This is something I’ve never shared publicly before. I’m volunteering this now because I know my story will help others.
Without getting into the gritty details, suffice it to say that my upbringing was unconventional. Not on the surface, of course. For those looking from the outside-in, it would seem that things in our home were just fine. But, they were not.
It took years of therapy and introspection to repair the damage. I’m in my late-40s now and can finally say that I’ve come to terms with all of it. I’ve spent over a decade learning how to parent myself, how to be a healthy adult, and conditioning myself to view life through a new lens. It’s been a soulful journey, and I’ve learned a lot, which is precisely why I wrote this.
“It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
What is a narcissist?
The term ‘narcissist’ is based on the mythical figure Narcissus. Due to an intense fixation on the self, a narcissist is often thought of as a braggart or someone who holds themselves in very high regard. Yes, a narcissist is pathologically and unnaturally obsessed with themselves and with their image, though the degree to which may vary. Selfies and excessive glances in the mirror do not necessarily mean someone is a narcissist. A true, clinical narcissist is something far more sinister. If you’re the child of one, you know this better than anyone.
Is your parent a narcissist?
The following list includes some of the most common traits of narcissistic parents. Having one of them or several does not automatically mean your parent is a narcissist. But if you think you see your parent here, it may be worth digging into deeper.
It’s human nature to be at least a little bit self-serving, but a narcissist takes this to the extreme. It’s impossible not to notice the focus they place upon themselves and their own needs, especially at the expense of others. The child of a narcissist inevitably grows up in the shadow of the parent and is charged with the task of ensuring their ego is elevated, always.
Sometimes it takes just one conversation to spot a narcissist. With them, virtually everything is an ordeal. From catastrophic language to exaggerated movements, it’s all about drawing attention to themselves. Any opportunity to show off or sing their own praises is pounced upon. If there isn’t an opportunity available, they’ll create one. A lack of interest in anyone else’s thoughts or opinions and the need for one-up-manship are also telltale.
A narcissistic parent consistently tries to neutralize the feelings of the child. Some narcissistic parents outright ignore or neglect their kids. They are fully aware they’re doing it, and often, it’s by design. Their disregard serves as a constant reminder to the child that they’re not really that important. This allows the focus to remain where they feel it belongs, on the narcissist. Eventually the child gives up trying to share their own accolades and a lack of personal pride settles in.
Lack of empathy
A narcissist brings new meaning to the word ‘cold’. With zero capacity for empathy, they go about their business with no regard for how their words and actions might make others feel. They are unable to identify with what others are feeling and unwilling to offer any semblance of empathy or sympathy. This includes their own children. When it serves them, they may pretend to care, but deep down, they do not.
A handful of narcissistic parents actually want their child to succeed, sometimes pushing them hard to do so. But make no mistake. This is not because they are championing them, but rather because they want their offspring’s achievements to reflect well upon them and their parenting. They hijack all bragging rights and take full credit for their kids’ accomplishments, never letting the child know how proud they are of them.
The narcissistic parent may be jealous of their child’s youth, popularity, or looks. They are also possessive and try very hard to ensure the child does not create healthy relationships with others, especially relationships that do not involve them. Many children of narcissists struggle to make or keep friendships as the narcissistic parent is downright artful when it comes to finding ways to sabotage them. The resulting isolation forces the child to rely on the narcissist for their happiness, which makes them feel important. It also provides the narcissist with a perpetual victim which is a lifeblood for maintaining their twisted behavior.
Another deviant skill in their bag of tricks is the ability to drive personal wedges between siblings, friends, and other family members. The ultimate goal is to divide them from one another and bring them closer to the narcissist. By pitting people against one another and making other people appear untrustworthy, they once again force the to be child dependent on them for support.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation favorited by many narcissists. Its aim is to make the child doubt themselves and their own thoughts and feelings so they become more reliant on the narcissistic parent to clarify the world for them. This is sometimes aptly referred to as crazy-making.
Some narcissistic parents try to position the child in the role of parent and caretaker. They confide in them and treat them as an equal. The roles are unnaturally reversed forcing the child to become the emotional crutch and steward for a parent who is unable to fulfill their own emptiness. Because they have no friends of their own, they rely on the child. They share inappropriate thoughts and feelings that a child is not mentally equipped to make sense of.
Narcissism is a complex personality disorder, and one I am not professionally qualified to diagnose. I speak from my own extensive research and personal experience. One thing that struck me in all of my own healing is that narcissism is not a mental illness. It is a behavioral disorder. This means there is a conscious choice made by the narcissist to behave that way regularly. There’s no medicine to treat it. Therapy can help, but it is highly unlikely that a narcissist will seek counsel, as they truly believe the problem lies with everyone else, never with themselves.
This twisted persona often leaves a wake of emotional carnage in its path. This is especially true and equally tragic when the narcissist has children. Growing up with a narcissistic parent inevitably wreaks havoc on a child’s self-esteem, self-worth, and completely distorts the way they see the world and deal with others. All of this can create a lot of problems for the adult child of a narcissist who has aspirations of starting their own business. I wrote this piece for you.
If you were raised by one or more narcissistic parents, the chances you escaped from your childhood unscathed are virtually nil. Here are some of the common scars a narcissistic parent can inflict, how it might be affecting your life as an entrepreneur, and what you can do to help.
01. A lack of healthy boundaries
One of the deepest wounds a narcissistic parent inflicts on their children is instilling them with serious boundary issues. A narcissistic parent cannot seem to see the child as an individual person with their own thoughts, dreams, and feelings. They instead view them as an extension of themselves, one they can manipulate and control to suit their agenda. This unfortunate by-product is often a burden carried with the child as they navigate the difficult teen years. When confusion about who they are bleeds into every situation. It’s extremely hard to untangle.
With no clarity surrounding their sense of purpose and self, a lack of healthy boundaries then becomes an all-too-common issue for the adult child of a narcissist when they’re dealing with customers and clients. When professional lines are foggy, it can become stressful in a hurry. You may find yourself overextending yourself or giving away too much for free. You may become overly close with clients and friend them on Facebook or even deep-diving personally with your clients or customers on personal issues outside the scope of your work together.
The Fix: Depending on how blurred your boundaries are, you may need to seek the professional help of a therapist. There’s no shame in that. Another hugely helpful resource is the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life and the subsequent Workbook. (#aff)
02. The need for approval
One of the first behaviors a child of a narcissist learns is to please others. The irony is, a narcissist can never truly be pleased and will always make the child work to try to earn their attention and love. But it’s a game the unwitting child simply can never win. As the child grows, they inevitably learn this but by then the damage has already been done. By spending years unsuccessfully toiling in the trenches trying to find something (anything) that will win the approval of the narcissist, you begin to believe that the problem lies within you; That what you produce, what you think, what you do simply isn’t good enough and never will be. To rectify this, you may spend years trying to seek the approval of others.
Symptoms may include difficulty saying no, especially if you really want to, promoting everyone else’s work but never your own, or constantly stressing over whether everyone is happy with your work together. You may mentally assign feelings to your clients and colleagues, assuming they feel a particular (often negative) way about your time together, when if fact, they may have greatly benefitted from your professional encounter.
The Fix: Understand that in an emotionally perverted twist, the narcissist dented your self-esteem intentionally to elevate themselves. The answer lies in clarity. When you dwell in authenticity, your right people will be attracted to you and your offerings naturally. With proper branding techniques, your wrong people will naturally not feel a connection to your work. Start with knowing yourself intensely. Understand your core values, know that you don’t have to work with everyone, nor do you have to try to please everyone. Seek your ideal clients and your work together will unfold seamlessly. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to find your perfect client, this free quiz can help.
03. Lack of voice
Echoism is a phenom recognized by many, but probably not by its official name. Dr. Craig Malkin defines it as a learned state where “people never or rarely feel special, focus on others too much, at the expense of their own needs, and might even feel depressed or anxious.” The result is the tragic failure to develop a voice of one’s own. Often, this manifests in the form of borrowing inspiration from others or even in copying their work (usually without malicious intent).
Copying from others within your marketplace may be the unconscious result of feeling unable to figure out how to verbalize your unique idea in your own words. Or it may be that you feel certain it will not be good enough so you lean on someone who is making it work in hopes of bolstering its chances of success. Instead of sitting down to write or create, you may spend hours online searching for a topic, a methodology, or a finished product only to slightly tweak someone else’s version and roll it out as your own. You aren’t necessarily trying to copy, you just cannot find a way to express what you’re trying to say in your own words.
When you’re struggling to find your own place in the online world, it feels safe to use what’s already out there, especially if it appears to be successful for someone else. But deep inside, you know that you just can’t go around taking other people’s ideas either directly or indirectly. So the next time you’re struck with inspiration, from an idea to a blog post or a finished product, don’t waste time qualifying it by seeing what others in your arena are doing. Instead, choose to trust yourself, to believe in yourself, and run with your idea. Meet your right people where they are and success will be yours. That’s a promise.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with some good old fashioned research and in peeking in on your competitors. It’s smart, actually. But to retrain your brain, try coming up with something all your own from scratch. Use your own experiences, words, layout, plan – all of it. See what you come up with. I’m willing to bet you’ll be absolutely blown away at how amazing you can be.
04. Dodging attention
Do you repel the spotlight? Feel dizzyingly uncomfortable when people compliment or congratulate you? If you’re the product of a narcissist, this is all too common. You may be terrified of putting yourself out there for fear of being ignored, judged, or even a fear of being seen as a narcissist yourself.
As the child of a narcissistic parent one of your earliest jobs was to make sure you never, ever did anything that might allow you to outshine them. You’re taught from a young age that the spotlight is theirs, and theirs alone. If you were ever to break this rule you’d pay dearly, often by being humiliated and reminded how insignificant you and/or your accomplishments were. If there ever were a time that the narcissistic parent actually liked one of your ideas, instead of complimenting you and letting you know, they’d take credit for it themselves. Either way, you learned pretty quickly to keep your mouth shut when you did something you were proud of. Unfortunate symptoms of this behavior include adults who grow up shunning the spotlight, being deathly afraid of sharing information or ideas for fear they’ll be copied, ridiculed, or taken the wrong way by someone out there. Adult children of narcissists often feel highly uncomfortable with self-promotion, branding, and marketing for fear of being viewed as trying to ‘show off’.
The Fix: Know that if you don’t blow your own horn, no one is going to do it for you. Don’t allow your business to become an undiscovered treasure. If you want to have a viable business, you’re going to need to be willing and able to put yourself out there and advertise yourself and your offerings. If your upbringing has made this uncomfortable for you, then I highly recommend taking the time to get to know yourself at an intensely personal level.
Once you are secure with your who, your what, and your why, then you’ll naturally become more comfortable in articulating it and in sharing it with others. Right now you may be feeling insecure about who you are because you perhaps haven’t yet done the work to dig deep and figure out who you are at your innermost core. If this sounds like you, then it’s time to drench yourself in your own authenticity and learn to get very familiar with yourself and your reason for being. The free Archetypal Branding Quiz was designed to help specifically with all of this. At the end of the self-assessment, you’ll be gifted with a complimentary 19-page guide to your archetypal persona to help guide you on your way. You can also dive into my Brand Strategy course for more guidance on this. Begin with Brand Core for best results.
Along your journey, a narcissist may have stunted your personal growth, whether through harsh words, ridicule, or both. Remember they do this to elevate themselves, because they lack the self-esteem to stand tall on their own, and so they push you down to rise upon your back. Don’t let them snuff out your purpose. Let that light of yours shine, because whether you believe this right now or not, you have so very much to offer. What a shame it would be you to keep your gifts and talents under wraps hidden from the world. You’re all grown up now. You can’t go back and change anything, but you can start writing the rest of your story and you can do it starting today.
Here’s a letter I wrote the year after I chose ‘me’.
It’s packed with perspective aplenty and may inspire you as you set out on your own self-awareness journey.
It’s important to recognize that a true narcissist (parent or otherwise) is quite literally incapable of providing you with the love that you need and deserve. Your choices are to learn to live with that and limit your exposure, or to walk away altogether. That choice is deeply personal and one that only you can make for yourself.
Self-trust, self-love, and self-knowledge can be taught to a daughter only by a mother who possesses those qualities herself.
Of course it’s tremendously heavy to live a life with a parent who chose themselves over you. Nothing can take the place of a loving parent, but close friends and family you choose can help. Surround yourself with a cache of supportive friends and colleagues who will rally behind you and support you in your entrepreneurial and life adventures.
I’m not writing this for your sympathy. In fact, I don’t do well at all with pity. (Perhaps another byproduct of being raised to repel attention.) Rather, I’m writing it to send a message to the entrepreneur inside you: You can do this. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
Bréne Brown said, “owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” I showed up here today to bravely own mine. I invite you to do the same in the comments if you feel like you’re ready. Share out loud, or do so anonymously. Like all of your other choices in life, it’s up to you.
If you still need guidance, I suggest consulting with a local therapist to help. You can also check out these further resources for adult children of narcissistic parents.
I’m a Brand Therapist® providing psychology-based branding, copywriting, and consulting to individuals and micro-businesses in the creative arena. My signature services will help you discover and articulate your most authentic self so you can tell better stories, make more meaningful connections, and do more profound work.