Being raised by a narcissistic parent disturbs even the most naturally resilient child. If your parent is at the severe end of the narcissistic spectrum, then your life is one long unpredictable experience over which you have little control. The self absorption of the narcissistic parent can leave you with long-term emotional issues. Your parent’s mood swings, emotional neglect and violent outbursts have likely left an indelible mark on your nervous system, making it difficult for you to regulate your own emotions.
The cruelty and abuse of the narcissistic parent are nothing short of traumatic. Being exposed to endless self centered behavior can trap you in exhaustion, and the manipulation and lack of insight, which is a common narcissistic feature, can wear you to the bone.
Narcissistic parenting leaves you alone-and unable to trust. So later in life, you might experience emotional flashbacks and get triggered into intense feelings of anger, fear, shame and helpless depression.
Typically, underneath the narcissistic parent’s false self, their veneer of superiority and perfection, lies a vat of deep insecurity. Usually they lack insight into themselves, and so narcissists are famous for projecting. And it this that leads them to relentlessly shame, smear and scapegoat others; including their kids. Life with a narcissistic parent comes with a lack of psychological safety. Often, It’s also physically dangerous such as when the parent explodes in narcissistic rage, or behaves recklessly with drugs and alcohol.
And often that intense level of childhood stress is enough to cause complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and all it entails.
The Connection Between C-PTSD and a Narcissistic Parent
Generally speaking, C-PTSD differs from PTSD in that it arises from repeated trauma. C-PTSD manifests with signs and symptoms like:
- Feeling unable to control your emotions
- A sense that you are different (in a bad way) from everyone else
- Dissociation and detachment
- Obsessed with your abuser
- Unable to maintain positive beliefs about the world you live in
A child is vulnerable and not yet emotionally mature. They need their parents to serve as reliable caregivers. When they have a narcissistic parent, the child quickly recognizes that their needs are secondary (at best). Frequently, as a defense mechanism, such a child will learn to repress their needs and feelings. If they can ignore their emotions, their parent’s neglect will seem less harsh.
Growing up in this setting has the potential to influence how a child develops into adulthood. Besides C-PTSD, it’s not at all unusual for the child of a narcissistic parent to:
- Develop low self-esteem
- Become a people pleaser
- Present as a helpless victim
- Have difficulty forming healthy relationships
- Experience chronic, toxic shame
The Role of Toxic Shame in Your Relationship With Your Narcissistic Parent
A narcissist cannot bear even the most minuscule sign of perceived weakness. One way that they avoid this fate is by perpetually shaming and bringing down the people in their life. This, they feel, will keep them in a state of superiority over others. Here are a few ways they do this to their children:
The narcissistic parent will expose private information about their child at the most inopportune time. Or, they can fail to advocate for the child who is being abused. This can shatter a child’s confidence and reputation. It’s an enduring source of toxic shame.
They may talk down to their child as if they were still a baby. Also, the parent with narcissism talks over the child and usually can’t, or won’t listen. This is often accompanied by aggressive posturing. In addition, the narcissist will suddenly go on the offensive with personal attacks. The goal of this kind of belittling is to keep their child on the defensive, e.g. the weaker position.
Whenever their child accomplishes anything, the narcissistic parent will redirect the attention onto themselves. They will downplay what their kid did. They will boast and brag about their own accomplishments. Or conversely, the parent may compete to see who is the biggest victim.
Goading and Playing the Victim
By provoking and frustrating a child, you can elicit a strong response. Sometimes, this is exactly what the narcissist wants. It makes them look like the victim. It also shames the child for what appears to be bad behavior.
The Blame Game
Simply put, everything is depicted as the child’s fault. The narcissistic parent will resort to gaslighting, if necessary, to avoid blame themselves. If they use this method, the child can grow up doubting their own perceptions of things, and endlessly questioning themselves, their actions, their reactions and even their own desires.
In my practice, children of narcissists grew up in what I call “a one person system”. In their families, there was only room for one person, and no more. Everyone danced to the narcissistic parent’s tune. Their family communication flow was a one way street. The narcissist “won”, the other family members lost. There was room for one point of view. That meant that there were no real conversations, only speeches and pronouncements.
And on some level, many of my clients gave up in defeat and despair. There are some common signs that you’ve had a narcissistic parent. What I’ve frequently seen is that children of narcissists often have a deeply embedded sense of toxic shame which sprang from having had little to no say, little to no ability to make an impact in their world. Children in this situation inevitably begin the think it’s because there is something innately bad or wrong about them.
Over the years, my clients have described core parts of themselves that carry the burden of toxic shame. They’ve used words like these.
- I am only a burden to everyone
- I am weak, trapped and hopeless
- At my core, I am completely worthless
- I’m helpless
- I’m ugly
- I’m unlovable
- I’m broken
- I’m invisible-no one knows I’m here.
- My only value is in what I can do for others, I’m worthless otherwise
Toxic shame is about obedience and compliance. It is the result of growing up forced to adapt to the narcissistic parent’s world and meet the parents psychological needs to the exclusion of your own. It grows wild when there is no real room for you to exist because your parent is too threated to allow you be your own unique and separate self. Every child’s natural instinct is to do whatever it takes to survive and thereby get the parent to take care of them. So if that means squelching yourself and making yourself small, then so be it. Keeping you small, hidden and non threatening is the function of toxic shame. And this kind of chronic shame -filled shrinking is a symptom of developmental trauma.
Toxic shame gets wired into your body, your brain and your nervous system. And it can fuel all sorts of destructive and compulsive behavior. It can make a person turn to substances, drive them into workaholism, or other types of compulsive behavior.
The blend of narcissism, C-PTSD, and toxic shame can set up a child for an adult life filled with suffering. Such a child may even become a narcissist themselves. This painful cycle will continue until the childhood trauma is processed. Fortunately, this is possible with the help of an experienced guide.
Finally, you can resolve C-PTSD and take back control of your life. Even toxic shame can be healed. Let’s connect and talk about the benefits of trauma therapy. I invite you to set up a confidential consultation soon.