How to tell if you were raised by narcissists

The myth of Narcissus is a wildly famous story from Greek mythology. According to the legend, he perished admiring his own reflection. Psychiatrist and philosopher, Neil Burton MD, wrote for Psychology Today, “the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love.”  

Flash forward to reality in modern times, when it is reported that up to 6.2% of people have or have had narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). According to a 2018 study, NPD is defined as a  “psychological disorder characterized by a persistent pattern of grandiosity, fantasies of unlimited power or importance, and the need for admiration or special treatment.” It goes on to say that folks with NPD exhibit, “impulsivity, volatility, attention-seeking, low self-esteem, and unstable interpersonal relationships,” and that they struggle with interpersonal and occupational issues.

While some level of narcissism is natural in human development and there may be a healthy type of narcissism, severe cases can cause emotional damage to those around them. With genetic and environmental factors determining many aspects of personal mental illness, we know that family history is key to mental health. So let’s take a look at some tell-tale signs that you might have been raised by narcissists.

If your parents needed you to succeed for them to succeed, they may be narcissists

In the classic film Postcards From the Edge, we see Shirley MacLaine as actress, Doris, encouraging Meryl Streep’s character, Suzanne, to sing at her own birthday party. Doris silently mouths the words to the song along with daughter Suzanne and coaches her moves through the performance. In classic “stage mom” style, the mother needs her child to be perceived as successful.

Narcissistic parents often push their children to excel, but it isn’t necessarily for the sole benefit of the children. Professor Preston Ni M.S.B.A expounded on the idea in an article for Psychology Today, saying, “Instead of raising a child whose own thoughts, emotions, and goals are nurtured and valued, the offspring becomes a mere extension of the parent’s personal wishes, with the child’s individuality diminished.” 

If you find yourself questioning how hard your parents pushed you to succeed, there’s a chance that it might be a symptom of NPD. University of Georgia Professor Keith Campbell told Washington Post, “As a narcissistic parent, you look good and feel good because of the success of your kid.” One need look no further than the college admissions scandal for an example of this behavior.

If your parents didn't love you unconditionally, they may be narcissists

Mistakes and missteps are inevitable in the early development stages of human life. Children need unconditional love as they grow and begin to navigate and explore the world around them. John Amodeo Ph.D., MFT, expanded on this idea for Psychology Today saying, “As they struggle through life, we need to be unendingly patient — taking many deep breaths, and offering guidance repeatedly. Embodying a consistently loving, accepting presence, we create a climate for safe attachment”.

Unfortunately, many narcissistic parents are incapable of loving unconditionally and wind up creating an unsafe space for their child that may have a lasting effect since they lack the necessary nurturing needed in childhood. Karyl McBride, a licensed marriage and family therapist, wrote for Psychology Today that many children of narcissists, “learned that love is either about ‘what I can do for you’ or ‘what you can do for me.’ Many adults raised by narcissistic parents choose love partners based on this distorted meaning, which sets them up for dependent or codependent relationships.”

If your parents steamrolled everyone to fulfill their own desires, they may be narcissists

Narcissists are well-known for putting themselves and their needs above all others. If your parents consistently and primarily looked out for themselves only, then there is a chance they just might be narcissists. Now, we aren’t talking about self-care, such kid-free Sundays. Every parent deserves a reprieve to put themselves first from time to time. This is a deeper, darker kind of selfishness that ignores the needs and desires of children and can have serious longterm repercussions.

Dr. Robin Berman, associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, told Goop, “Their profound need for attention and praise subverts everyone else’s needs.” Psychologist Craig Malkin agrees, and told HuffPost, “I’ve seen clients whose parents made them feel sick, crazy, or selfish for expressing the most basic of needs.” This can create serious issues for adult children of narcissist attempting to create genuine, meaningful, and lasting relationships in their lives.

If your parents had big egos, they may be narcissists

Beyoncé waxes poetic on the subject of egos in her song of the same title singing, “Some call it arrogance. I call it confidence.” There is a thin line between a healthy sense of confident self and putting too much emphasis on one’s feelings of self-worth. And a big ego seems to be inextricably linked to narcissism.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, patterns of an inflated sense of self arise in those with narcissistic personality disorder. Serious issues can come up like, “a grandiose sense of self-importance,” and having, “a sense of entitlement.” If your parents exhibited these characteristics then they may have also had “unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment” and expected everyone to comply with their needs and expectations. They may also have exaggerated their own achievements in the search for praise, as narcissists are known to fish for compliments. 

If your parents did not have their egos fed with the praise they sought, according to the Mayo Clinic they may also have “become impatient or angry” when they did not get the treatment they thought they deserved.

​If your parents care too much about their image, they may be narcissists

Narcissists can be hyperfocused on their image and what they project to the world. If seeming like the perfect family was a priority in your house or an emphasis on outward appearances was pervasive, there is a chance your parents were exhibiting narcissism. According to the American Psychiatric Association, narcissists can be “preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.” 

The Washington Post told the story of a woman named Sara Shaugh, whose mother was a narcissist who focused largely on her daughter’s appearance. In fact, when Sara suffered life-threatening injuries from a wreck she remembers, “One of the first things she did was call my hairdresser because my hair was a mess. This was before they even knew if I was going to live or die.” 

On the subject of daughters of narcissistic fathers, HuffPost reported a common potential scenario, “As a young child, Dad would comment on how beautiful you were. But as you grew older, he would rarely miss out on commenting on weight and attitude.” Placing too much importance on physical characteristics can certainly be hurtful and carry over into adulthood.

If your parents were manipulative, they may be narcissists

Narcissistic parents are known for making great effort to get what they want out of any person or situation, and this can unfortunately include their own children. According to an article written by Preston Ni M.S.B.A. for Psychology Today, some common examples of methods that parents employ to manipulate their children are: handing out guilt trips, placing blame, shaming, drawing negative comparisons, pressuring, coercing, and manipulatively rewarding and punishing. Since love coming from parents with narcissistic personality disorder can frequently be conditional (either given with approval or taken away as punishment), children can be easily manipulated in the quest for acceptance and love.

Ni further explained in a separate article for Psychology Today the potential motivation behind the manipulative behavior, writing, “Narcissists may use their romantic partner, child, family, friend, or colleague to meet unreasonable self-serving needs, fulfill unrealized dreams, or cover-up weaknesses and shortcomings.” If you experienced this kind of emotional manipulation at home, it’s possible your parents were narcissists.

If your parents thought they were extra special, they may be narcissists

People who exhibit narcissistic traits tend to think that they are very special and may even believe they are better than other people. Licensed clinical social worker, Shanon Thomas described narcissistic parental behavior to Business Insider, saying, “They think they’re amazing — they think themselves to be smarter, better-looking, more powerful than other people, and they pretty much believe it. Even with their friends and peers, they believe themselves to be one step up.”

If your parents had interpersonal issues like grandiosity (that was either out in the open or internalized) or they were condescending towards people they thought of themselves as being above in some way, they may have been narcissists. And according to Ni’s article in Psychology Today, if they enjoyed showing off what they considered “their superior dispositions, be it material possessions, physical appearance, projects and accomplishments, background and membership, contacts in high places, and/or trophy spouse and offspring,” then the likelihood that they were suffering from some level of narcissism is pretty high.

If your parents were incapable of empathy, they may be narcissists

A 2013 study on narcissism and empathy defines the latter as, “affective sharing and imagining and understanding the emotions of others.” It turns out that a common trait that narcissists exhibit is, in fact, a lack of empathy. Not only can a lack of empathy arise from the fact that narcissists may not be able to fundamentally recognize or understand the emotions of others, it could also be due to the fact that they are so wrapped up in their own thoughts and feelings that they don’t or are unwilling to even notice. Dr. Robin Berman expounded on this idea in Goop, saying that a narcissistic mother could not experience “deep empathy because she could not get past herself to truly see you.”

According to Ni’s article in Psychology Today, children who are raised by parents who lack empathy may exhibit three potential types of behaviors (fight, flight or freeze) in response to the deficit. First up, they may “fight back and stand up for themselves.” Second, they may “distance themselves from their parents.” And finally they may “substitute their invalidated real self with a false persona (playing a role), thus adopting traits of narcissism themselves.”

If your parents were jealous of you when you were growing up, they may be narcissists

While we have already explored the idea that narcissistic parents need their children to succeed to feel like they have succeeded, there can be an even darker side to the parent-child dynamic that you may have experienced. Envy is a common trait of narcissists in general, but when it comes to children, it gets a little more complicated. Though narcissistic parents can push their children to achieve in order to make themselves look better, sometimes they wind up feeling and acting jealous of their own kids.

This may coincide with the fact that many narcissists “have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation.” If their children get the kind of attention they seek for themselves, it may be too much to handle and they become envious. According to reporting from HuffPost, “Some narcissistic parents can even envy or look down upon the success of their children, especially if that success enables that child to become independent of their parents, outside of their realm of power and control.” If you felt in competition with your parents or that they were jealous of your achievements, they may have been narcissists.

If your parents were neglectful, they may be narcissists

As we know from Greek mythology, Narcissus met his demise admiring his own reflection. It is fitting then that one of the key aspects of narcissism is self-absorption. When a parent exhibits this character trait, it can manifest in the form of neglect — sometimes even bordering on abuse. 

Washington Post reported, “Children don’t offer the type of continuous positive feedback narcissists crave,” and that parents can react in two different ways to this lack of admiration. Either they become “hyper-controlled” towards their children or they abandon them for other people or things that validate them in some other way. With the latter, children wind up growing up without a truly present parent and that can lead to serious intimacy issues later in life. When explaining the long term effects of this kind of neglect, Dr. Robin Berman told Goop, “These parents are so self-obsessed that their children feel invisible. Without being seen, these [kids] cannot develop a stable sense of self and may grow up to be narcissists themselves.”

If your relationship with your parents is superficial about wealth, they may be narcissists

For narcissists, amassing material wealth and possessions can be more important than personal relationships since outward appearances are so important to their sense of self-worth. Since we know that feeling special and flattery are key factors in feeding the narcissistic ego, it is no surprise that “They go out of their way to seek ego-boosting attention and flattery,” according to Ni’s article in Psychology Today.

Narcissists are also competitive and jealous by nature so “keeping up with the Joneses” and one-upmanship is a natural manifestation of those traits. They also seek others to be envious of them as they are of others. That’s where being rich and/or having a fancy life comes in to play.

Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and college psychology instructor, wrote for Psychology Today that, “They want to make sure they appear wealthy, popular, and elite. They’re often materialistic and greatly enjoy name dropping, as associating themselves with the hottest brand or famous friends makes them feel important.” If your parents bought expensive toys and put the utmost importance on making the neighbors jealous, you may have been dealing with narcissists.

If you are competitive with your siblings, they may be narcissists

A little healthy competition with siblings is completely normal but if you find yourself in a deeper, lifelong competition with your brothers or sisters, it may be a sign that your parents were narcissists. Sadly, it seems many narcissistic parents raise their children to be competitive with each other on purpose.

HuffPost reported, “Narcissistic parents are well-known for ‘triangulating’ children against one another as an attempt to unnecessarily compare them, demean them and feed their own sense of power and control over their children.” This can result in picking favorites as well as someone to blame, and this favoritism can be very destructive. A separate HuffPost article breaks it down, writing: “Both projections are two different sides of a narcissist’s personality, but the chosen child and the scapegoat will have two very different childhoods, and this pits them against each other, even into adulthood.”

On an individual level, children who are raised in this manner suffer in their own personal lives as well. HuffPost elaborated, “This pattern of idealization and devaluation teaches us that love is unstable, frightening, and ultimately unpredictable. It causes us to walk on eggshells, fearful that we may displease others.” 

If you attract narcissists into your life, your parents may have something to do with that

If reading about narcissists is reminding you of people in your social circle, a significant other, or even your boss, it is important to note that it is common to attract this type of person into your life if you were raised by narcissists. People who were brought up on conditional love often seek the same in adulthood because it is the only kind of love they have known. Trained marriage and family therapist and life coach Kathy Caprino wrote for Forbes, “they are so familiar with narcissism (because they dealt with it all their lives) that they unconsciously attract it into their lives, through their adult relationships, and in their work cultures and careers.”

Further elaborating, she wrote: “The relationships they form (either at work or in personal life) are deeply challenging and unsatisfying (and even toxic and frightening). When they step back and look at these relationships honestly, they see narcissism all around them.” In regards to adult children of narcissists in the professional realm she says, “They feel used and beaten up by their work, by their bosses and their colleagues, and can’t understand why their careers are so challenged and difficult.”

If you exhibit narcissistic traits yourself, take a closer look at your parents' behavior

If reading about narcissism and the character traits that the disorder commonly entails resonates with your own behavior and you find yourself drawing correlations to your parents’ behavior, there is a chance that you were raised by parents dealing with narcissism themselves. We know that sometimes the traits can be handed down generation to generation, if the cycle is not broken. And that it is quite possible that if your parents were narcissists then their parents were narcissists as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three possible causes for narcissistic personality disorder: environment, genetics, and neurobiology.

Psychologist Craig Malkin told HuffPost, “Some children see that the only way to avoid ridicule and abuse is to be like the narcissistic parent, and over the years, this survival tactic turns into the way they genuinely see the world.” He elaborated, “Extremely strong-willed children, more extraverted from birth, sometimes become narcissistic themselves in a game of ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.'” 

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