Taking Back Your Life from a Narcissistic Family Upbringing

Person with long blonde hair looks into broken hand mirror to piece together reflectionPeople with narcissistic qualities tend to view life in black-and-white: a world of only losers and winners, victims and victimizers. They loathe feeling like losers or victims. In the case of parents with narcissism, they often shunt those roles onto their children.

Why? Because people with narcissism need to be fed. A person with extreme narcissistic tendencies is like a balloon with a hole, endlessly leaking esteem, always needing a refill. Such a person’s air supply: attention. And who better to provide attention than the captive audience of one’s children?

If you had a parent with narcissism, you may have been trained to focus not on your own feelings and needs, but rather on those of your parent. Parents with narcissism may wheedle, confuse, or bully you into attending to them, ignoring their lies, and tiptoeing around their vulnerabilities. They generally need your life to be about them. Some people with narcissism, feeling empty at their core and lacking a healthy sense of self, may steal from your very relationship with yourself.

But you aren’t a child anymore. You have power and options you never had as a child. Here are six ways you can take back your life after a narcissistic upbringing:

1. See Beyond the Narcissistic Facade

People with narcissism tend to be pretenders. Dwelling in a cyclone of shame, they live in mortal terror of anybody saying the emperor has no clothes. They fear being seen as flawed or ignorant and hate feeling powerless or embarrassed. These fears tend to drive their behavior. To avoid feeling flawed, they have to be the best and insist on perfection from others. To avoid feeling ignorant, they act like know-it-alls and rarely admit they are wrong. To avoid feeling powerless, they act larger than life. And when they feel embarrassed, their volcanic rage may erupt, burying anyone in their path.

When you know this, you can see what drives their outlandish behaviors. You don’t have to take it personally, wondering what you did wrong.

2. Identify Distortions and Double Standards

When people with narcissism make a mistake, they tend to blame others. When you make a mistake, they blame you. When they succeed, they cite their superior character. When you succeed—thus temporarily stealing the spotlight they so crave—they may take credit for your success, call it a fluke, or diminish it by pointing out other times you have failed.

People with narcissism tend to distract and disguise. Like kids caught with their hands in the candy jar, they may try to confuse, belittle, bully, or otherwise avoid responsibility for their actions.

Don’t be taken in. Pay attention to what they do, not what they say. Their words are often attempts to throw you off and make you feel small or doubtful while making themselves feel big. Their arguments are generally not to be taken seriously or even responded to, because if you refute one argument, they may simply come up with another and another.

When they are abusive, manipulative, or withholding, see it for what it is. They are using you to avoid their own issues and satisfy their urges. They may feel entitled to do so. This is not healthy. Nobody is entitled to abuse or use another.

3. If You Are Drawn to People with Narcissistic Qualities, Be Clear About Why

If you have been drawn to people with narcissism, it may be because it is simply a familiar dynamic. But it can also reflect an unconscious hope that if you can find a person with narcissistic tendencies who happens to treat you well, it will make up for what you didn’t get years ago from a parent with narcissism. It is an understandable wish. Yet relationships with people with narcissism are often disappointing and superficial because people with narcissism generally don’t care about treating others well.

You don’t have to deny your desire for justice, validation, or reparation. But you can never get back lost years, nor are you likely to get an apology.

If you feel unfulfilled in a relationship or wonder if a friend or partner has narcissism, ask yourself why you are with them. Do you hope to change or reform them? Do you hope someday they will see how good you are and mend their ways? Pursuing relationships with people with narcissism may simply postpone facing the painful recognition that your parent couldn’t be there for you. Accepting and mourning that unfortunate truth can allow you to focus on what is best for you and pick healthier relationships.

You don’t have to deny your desire for justice, validation, or reparation. But you can never get back lost years, nor are you likely to get an apology. You will almost certainly never be rescued if you wait for it. The only person who can make it right is you, by your choices and by how you treat and view yourself.

4. Use Your Voice

Let’s say, for example, you give a person with narcissism a holiday gift, and they give you nothing. The person with narcissism then says something like, “You’re just trying to make me feel guilty because I didn’t get you anything.” This is classic narcissistic behavior, shifting the attention to you and putting you on the defensive. Simply knowing they are doing this may be enough to help you gain perspective, and you might choose to say nothing. But if you feel that you are shrinking in stature, you may feel better about yourself by speaking up. For example, in a situation like this you could:

  1. Confront it by saying, “No, that is not why I gave it to you. But now that you mention it, do you feel guilty for not giving me anything?”
  2. Use humor by taking their accusation about you trying to make them feel guilty and saying something like, “Well, is it working?”
  3. Be honest and direct by saying, “No, I gave you a card because I wanted to. And now that you mention it, I do feel hurt that you didn’t give me anything.”

Remember, hard as they may try, people with narcissism can never take away your truth, experience, or feelings. They can dispute it, threaten you, and deny it, but they cannot make you give it up. They are projecting on you what they can’t feel in themselves. Don’t take it on.

5. Seek Balance

Being raised by a person with narcissism can throw your life out of balance. One way to regain healthy balance is to do the opposite of what your parents did. For example:

  • If you received much criticism and scant praise, you may need to sidestep criticism (including self-criticism) and increase self-acknowledgment.
  • If you have been compulsively driving yourself in reaction to people with narcissism who called you lazy, you may want to slow down and focus on quality of life. Conversely, if you have been underperforming in reaction to pressure from people with narcissism, you may want to push yourself beyond your present comfort level.
  • If you have felt deprived, allow yourself to desire and receive more.
  • If you were not allowed to say no or point out what was wrong, you may need to spend time saying no and focusing on what should change in your relationship, family, workplace, or society.
  • If you have been giving people with narcissistic qualities the benefit of the doubt to your own detriment, you may want to start questioning their actions and believe in yourself, perhaps seeking the guidance of a trusted therapist or friend as you do so.

6. Trust Yourself

Your parents may have shamed you when you experimented, asked questions, or expressed your views. This may have led you as a child to become more dependent on them or alienated from yourself. Even in adulthood, you may second-guess yourself, struggle to make decisions, and shy away from taking risks that could enhance your life.

When you have to make a decision or when a challenge arises, ask yourself, “If I knew I was absolutely trustworthy, what would I do?” Then assess how you can make that happen. By assuming you are trustworthy, that your feelings are valuable, and that your intuition is reliable, you can see that you have within yourself all you need to handle challenges—despite what your parents may have tried to make you believe.

If you were raised by a parent with narcissism, you are not alone. Millions of adults have had a parent with narcissistic tendencies. No matter how you were treated as a child, you deserve to be seen, heard, and do what is healthiest for you.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Dan Neuharth, PhD, LMFT, therapist in Greenbrae, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 25 comments
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  • Alyce

    Alyce

    November 29th, 2016 at 11:08 AM

    I love the picture that accompanies this piece, because it is all a bit like putting back together the pieces of your life that another person has left shattered.

  • SGGirl

    SGGirl

    September 5th, 2018 at 11:05 AM

    I love that the article gave little snappy comebacks… sarcasm doesn’t come natural for me.

  • tonia

    tonia

    November 29th, 2016 at 1:51 PM

    I believe that people are drawn to those who possess these traits because this is what they are accustomed to, what they know, and sometimes we go with what feels the most “normal” to is even when it decidedly isn’t.
    I think that we have a tendency to gravitate toward what we now, even when we are aware enough to know that this is something that is hurtful to us.
    It is what we are accustomed to so it feels like it might be something that we should keep in our lives.

  • Casey

    Casey

    November 30th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    Like a broken mirror though- maybe you can get the pieces back together, even apply some glue so it won’t break again, but the scars and old wounds are always still going to be there and for many people they are always going to be painfully visible.

  • Brenda

    Brenda

    December 2nd, 2016 at 2:14 PM

    I would loe to go back to the past and change what happened to me, but I’m lucky to be here still

  • Janis

    Janis

    June 20th, 2018 at 1:01 AM

    Kintsugi
    en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintsugi?wprov=sfla1

  • Karen D.

    Karen D.

    December 2nd, 2016 at 2:50 PM

    This article melted a few of my shards together! The damage Narcissistic and negative psychological traits can inflict on fellow humans (and pets) should warrant a separate subject in our schools under Life Education! If you understand the context of a Psychological condition, you are well equipped to deal with it (your parents/siblings) or steer clear from a potential partner and save yourself a quarter of a lifetime’s agony! I took my ex to Federal court to get psychological help and received it… 6 months on…all the counselling and courses have not worked and we have children together….its way too late from personal experience once they reach adulthood and the behaviour is entrenched!

  • Bianca

    Bianca

    December 23rd, 2016 at 9:16 PM

    There is no cure for NPD. Even those who have high narcissistic traits without the full personality disorder won’t recover because recovery requires admitting that something is wrong. It requires understanding that you need help, and a willingness to put in the necessary changes. A narcissist would never genuinely say that they need help. There is nothing wrong with them~ That’s why they’re narcissists.

  • Liz

    Liz

    November 19th, 2017 at 3:39 PM

    Could someone write an article on things a person with NPD should do to help rebuild relationships and become better? What if someone doesn’t know if they are, but they read yhis and think some of these things sound like areas I have been guilty of doing. How should they go about addressing and correcting those behaviors?

  • Brian

    Brian

    December 2nd, 2016 at 5:55 PM

    This triggered an awareness of a part my fathers personality that I only had fragments of before. The withholding of praise and minimization of any accomplishments of mine. When I had problems, it was all about him. Best, Brian.

  • bella

    bella

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    I can’t imagine having had all these kinds of issues with my own parents and then thinking that I had a healthy basis for being a parent myself. Of course it would be ideal if we all would get these things resolved before adding our own children to them mix because unfortunately it seems that what we were taught and given as children is what we are destined to give to our own children as well.
    How is this ever going to be fair to this next generation?

  • Linda

    Linda

    May 16th, 2018 at 3:53 PM

    I’ll be 56 in August. My narcissistic mother passed away 2 years ago. I remember when I was 4 years old my sisters told me to go to my mothers room and tell her I love her when she was crying and having one of her breakdowns. From the age of 4, I was responsible for seeing to her emotional needs, rather than the other way around. I had my daughter when I was 28. I was well aware of the abuse I had gone through, and thus determined to not pass that on to my daughter, and I’m pleased to say that I did not.

  • Jay

    Jay

    December 6th, 2016 at 8:18 AM

    This is a very good article. I am in the very difficult process of recovering from narcissistic abuse from both parents, primarily my mother who was a covert, malignant narcissist. Coming out of that denial and realization is devastating and just as frightening…because “now what??” The damage is extensive. It was not until after she was deceased a few years did I realize what it all was. She was a master of deception and manipulation and oh so charming. The gas lighting was crushing. I never knew there was a name for what she was. People loved her too. She had supply everywhere. When I began to come out of denial pieces started coming together and I could see how so much of what she did and how I related to her was all part of her set up to feed her needs. She got me good. This is a legitimate mourning process and accepting she really did not care or love me; she was not capable, it is true. So now it is my job to learn all I can about this and empower myself to take care of me; I never knew there was a “me”, this is the hard part. Being highly sensitive makes this work even harder. I was so brainwashed and shamed by her, my religion and my school. I feel like I am beginning to meet myself for the first time. I am trying to fight her negatives introjections and find my worth. I just realized today that I’ve been giving up on myself but I am the only one who can reverse that, not my therapist or spouse. There is an internal therapist taking root and it is helping. I am the captain of my own ship. I am learning how to self-nurture (really hard work). I never knew the concept of self care or being good to myself….what’s that? Developing a sense of being deserving is difficult also but I’m not giving up. She left a massive trail of destruction which will effect the offspring and the grand children for decades; financial, of course, just like she planned…to never be forgotten, even in death. This healing will be a work in progress but it is possible. It does feel good to be able to begin to stand up, speak the truth and take my power back. I matter after all!

  • AJ

    AJ

    January 31st, 2017 at 6:49 PM

    My therapist told me all of this about my mother when I was 25. It wasn’t until after her death when I was 57 that I fully cane to understand. And even admitted that she never wanted, liked, or loved me in front of my husband. I don’t think we ever get over never having a mother who loved us. I still feel the pain, but also the relief that she is gone. I hope you are able to come to peace. I hope we all come to peace.

  • Emily

    Emily

    July 31st, 2017 at 5:59 AM

    And this you CAN do!!!

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    March 21st, 2018 at 10:18 AM

    I just wanted to say I related to your comment so much. I have Just this week had the lightbulb moment after a therapy session where it was suggested my mother could have a personality disorder. The term narcissistic has already been discussed so I started to research NPD and to my absolute horror I realised the truth. I’m going back and forth in denial but deep down I know the truth, I’m journaling to keep a recording of this process and my thoughts and feelings. The statement ‘I matter’ has great significance to me to, those are the words that lead me to the truth. Thank you for sharing your experience and I hope your still taking care of yourself.

  • John

    John

    August 22nd, 2018 at 5:33 AM

    So pleased you are taking ownership of your feelings and your destiny…realizing what was wrong took me decades…I thought it was alcoholic family…then shame bound…it was this…I tried for years to convince them I should be loved, not scapegoated…now there is a new understanding , that shame and guilt, verbal and physical abuse were the needed weapons of a narcissistic family system..and I always shined a light on the dysfunction…thinking it would create change. It just made me feel alone with my wounds…if I knew 30 years ago this is what I would have to deal with, I would have left…I somehow thought all this was being middle born. It was not. It was malignant dynamic family narcissism. There is only personal change that does entail grief…and positive action on personal behalf…so dwelling on them is half the problem…the solution is self love and learning to do this. Which is difficult sometimes, because I believed what they told me…now realizing there is something strong inside that threatened the system..not something weak or flawed…To Thine Own Self Be True…a profound axiom.Living well, the best revenge. Blessings.

  • Doda

    Doda

    September 21st, 2018 at 3:07 PM

    Jay, I also have a narc mother.and I have gone no contact to save myself. I have been reading a lot about healing narcissistic abuse. Like yourself, the concept of self nurturing was completely unknown to me. I believe my enmeshment and abuse began when I was about 5 and continued until I went no contact at age 62. I am only beginning to figure out who I am. How could I possibly have any sense of self when I have been nothing more than a tool to make her happy. I feel like I have never been seen or heard, the lost child (even at this age). I am so lucky to have the support of my wonderful husband. I hope you have family and friends for support. Best to you, stay strong.

  • Mel

    Mel

    December 7th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

    If I tried any of the suggestions in point 4 with my narcissistic mother I’d never hear the end of the rage and abuse she’d throw at me – that kind of reaction to trying to have a voice around her is part of why I have no contact with her now. Rest of article makes good points though.

  • Nicky

    Nicky

    December 22nd, 2016 at 5:19 AM

    I’m 51 and when I left home and had children of my own things started to not make sense. I was given medication for it. I did 4he oppisit of what my family did eg Pease, encourage and get pleasure from my children’s achievements. This made my family even more determined to destroy. My farher then did something to my daughter to make her like him. I feel like he has picked her up, swung her around and battered me with her. She now hates me. I have a granddaughter who is 6yrs old who desperately tryst to contact me through other people but my daughter sabotages it every time. I love her and we want to spend time together but can’t take anymore mental. I know she is stuck in the situation I was bought up in and don’t know what to do. I ran myself into the ground trying to be around my family in order to be with her. I wanted to die.I was unable to work. It hertz so much. The on line advice is good but it makes them so angry that the find a way of punishing me for it and I’m sure my granddaughter is being punished to. I don’t know what to do.

  • Kim

    Kim

    December 28th, 2016 at 2:20 AM

    I agree with you you have stated here. As the daughter of a narcissistic bullying father I need to see through the facade and place all the distortions where they belong … with him and set about finding out who I am and what I believe in. … This is not an easy journey and takes quite a while. For me … what I hope to be the final phase to reclaiming myself is to face up to my own narcissistic ways/patterns. I remember as a teenager saying to my mum “why don’t people like me” and her answer was because they are jealous of what we have … I knew this was not the answer… I knew it was something about myself that I couldn’t put my finger on and she couldn’t tell me either. It was because I could not see beyond myself, I was not empathic, I had an inflated sense of myself of being better than others etc… Facing up to that is the hardest thing I have ever had to do … and I am still doing it many years later.

  • Kim

    Kim

    November 20th, 2017 at 12:40 AM

    This is a reply to Liz,
    Liz read my earlier comment about my own journey. there is something about recognising that other people don’t like you and you don’t know why? (This could be because you are narcissistic)

    My own journey has involved me facing up to my own narcissism which of course I learnt from my father. It is hard because we dont see our own narcissism … by very definition our lack of self awareness that goes with being narcissistic will hide our traits from ourselves. I believe that if you want to protect yourself from becoming narcissistic then we have to be open to the views of others that differ from our own. We have to increase our awareness of ourselves and the impact we have on others by being will to ask and listen to feedback .. particularly the things that we don’t like.

  • Kalvinder

    Kalvinder

    July 30th, 2017 at 11:55 AM

    This article explains why I have felt sp hurt over the last 28 years as it is whenever I have anything to do with a narcassistic personality that likes to make others feel bad.

  • Francesca

    Francesca

    August 24th, 2018 at 2:31 PM

    …”allowing yourself to desire and receive more”, “increase self acknowledgement”.

    I would really appreciate it if someone in the therapy industry would adress the following issue. I come from a narcissistic family and “sought therapy” with at least 10 different therapists. It was damaging. Almost not one of them was able to identify my problem, and in fact most seemed to think I was egotistical and entitled, because ‘everyone is egotistical and entitled’ (is how they think). The vast majority of therapists are biased towards the idea that people need to ‘face reality’, accept limitations and the like. I don’t mean ‘face the reality of narcissistic parents’. I mean expect less out of life, discipline myself etc. I wonder if it is because I went to ‘community’ therapists, often, aka free ones? They all had no interest in building me up, only in keeping me under control

  • Kim

    Kim

    August 25th, 2018 at 11:33 AM

    hi Francesca
    I am sorry to hear of your unsatisfactory encounters with therapists. I am a therapist and a client and your experience is very different to mine. I have had 3 different therapists over the years and the ones I have had have been supportive and understanding of my family circumstances. The journey is a difficult one as it involves getting in touch with your true self, getting to know who you truly are, discovering the learnt patterns from family life that are no longer serving you and changing them and learning about your strengths and gifts and treasuring them.
    Therapist operate in different ways and use different methods and approaches but overall therapist generally work towards their clients goals not their own. volunteer counsellors, volunteer their time for free or low cost and generally do so because they are wanting the experience in a supportive setting for qualifications or because they wish give back and support the community this way.

    To me it sounds a little like you haven’t found the right therapist for you yet. I hope that you don’t lose heart and stop looking… therapy can be. Sry rewarding.

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