Are You Wondering If You’ve Had a Narcissistic Parent This Whole Time?
If you’re reading this article, chances are you have been looking at your parent’s behaviors through a new lens. Maybe someone made a comment to you about your mom or dad. Perhaps your spouse or long-time partner has been complaining about your parent and is starting to throw around the term “Narcissist”. Whatever the reasons are that brought you here, this article will help you come to a better understanding about what narcissism is, how it presents differently from sociopathy, and what you can do to make things better (or at least reduce harm).
What Exactly Is Narcissism?
It’s one thing to read about narcissism. It’s an entirely different thing to be in relationship with someone who fits the DSM 5 Criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Before you go off and read about the detailed criteria, first know this: the three main traits of narcissism are a sense of entitlement, lack of insight, and lack of empathy. This last trait can lead some people to jump to the conclusion that their parent may have sociopathic tendencies, or even full blown Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). While both disorders include a lack of empathy, the main similarity between NPD and APD is that both invest a great deal of energy into creating a false presentation of themselves to others. It’s really important to know the difference, so let’s take some time to contrast the two.
Are You Dealing With Narcissism (0 – 6.2%) or Sociopathy (0.2 – 3.3%)? Possibly Both, Though Very Unlikely (1% chance)
The most useful trait in distinguishing narcissism from other personality disorders is the grandiosity characteristic. According to DSM 5 “narcissistic personality disorder does not include characteristics of impulsivity, aggression, and deceit,” which are traits included in antisocial personality disorder. Deceit is not the same thing as exaggerating, although, narcissists will lie to you (as will people without narcissism – more on lying in a future post). Narcissists exaggerate because they care what others think about them (criteria #4 in the DSM 5: “Requires excessive admiration”); However, sociopaths don’t care at all what others think, as long as they are getting what they want. Narcissists are also more likely to stay in a relationship while sociopaths are more likely to abandon the relationship when things become too inconvenient or difficult for them. Narcissists are not attracted to violence and aggression whereas sociopaths are.
How Can You Respond To Your Narcissistic Parent?
According to Psychotherapist and best-selling author of Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me, Dr. Les Carter has the following to say about managing a relationship with a narcissistic parent, “You’re not required to collapse into the parent’s identity … part of healthy relationships is, we celebrate one another’s uniquenesses. Make sure that you allow yourself to keep your unique traits, preferences, interpretations and standards, whether the other person chooses to go along with you or not.” Essentially he frames the relationship of the adult parent and the adult child as the adult parent wanting to keep you, the adult child, just that, a child. Carter goes on to say how crucially important it is that you, “Don’t respond like the little child.” When your parent continues to put forth this “never to be disagreed with” dominant persona, you respond with, “Here’s what I believe; No, I don’t feel the need to change my position.” The minute your parent accelerates the emotional tone of the conversation, you need not match their intensity. If you respond like a teenager, they’ve won the constant long game of keeping you under their control.
Not only is it reasonable for you to exercise your right to be your own sovereign individual self, it is indeed your responsibility to be true to yourself. Conversely, as an adult, it would be irresponsible to act as if you need to check with mom or dad first before making a decision. If you do enough of your own work and self-examination, there may come a time when you realize that you have, in fact, become more emotionally mature than your own parent. To avoid being trapped by a narcissistic parent, you must be willing to take on the force of overwhelming narcissism with truth and courage. Truth happens to be a powerful antidote to many forms of mental illness. For a deeper dive into understanding how to navigate being in relationship with a person with NPD, I’d strongly recommend Laura Charanza and Dr. Les Carter’s YouTube Channel, Surviving Narcissism.
As Painful As It May Be, You May Have To Minimize Contact With Your Parent.
As a last resort, painful though it may be, take care not to underrate the potential necessity of getting the hell away from this person. Perhaps you’re made to feel guilty by your parent for trying to get away, to follow your impulse to grow up and become fully developed, as is the natural order. This desire to launch and become independent is what a healthy parent would want to nurture in you. The psychoanalysts of the early 20th century pointed out that the good mother always fails, because she stops being a mother. If your mother won’t stop being a mother then you need to get sufficient distance from her to complete your development; Because if she still thinks that you’re still her child, then she is infantilizing you, and tempting you to remain a child so that you don’t have to take on any responsibility.
I want to finish off this article with an important snippet from clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson speaking in Sacramento on the subject of the narcissistic mother, “If truth and courage won’t suffice, then departure is mandated. And if the price that you pay for that is a guilt trip, then don’t answer the phone. If you leave and you develop your own autonomy, then you might be able to take care of her when she’s actually old and frail, and there will be a part of her that’s quite happy that you escaped from her trap. And that’s the part that you could potentially redeem by your escape. So there’s nothing in it but good, even though you’ll pay the price in guilt. It’s a price you shouldn’t be required to pay to begin with, she doesn’t have that right to put that burden on you, when her job is to facilitate your competent departure.”
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.