Narcissists are like the sun—they make everyone orbit around them. But what happens when someone pathologically vain and egotistical also happens to be your mom or dad? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen unpacks 6 signs you were raised by a narcissist.
Why did the narcissistic parent cross the road? They thought it was your boundaries!
Last week’s episode on toxic family members resonated with lots of listeners. Garrett from Oklahoma wrote in and asked to hear more about the effects of being raised by a narcissist.
So what happens when one or both of your parents are dangerously self-absorbed? What are you taught about yourself, the world, and your place in it? What are the glitches in your worldview you don’t even see because to you, they’re normal?
For the most part, kids in healthy families grow up to believe themselves to be worthy, capable, and loveable. But a narcissistic parent can mess with all of these things. This week, we’ll cover six beliefs that are planted when you’re raised by a narcissist. The good news? You can uproot all these lessons and cultivate new beliefs about your worth and purpose.
6 Signs You Were Raised by a Narcissist
- You believe it’s normal to have two faces.
- You believe your role is to make your parent look good.
- You believe your role is to take care of your parent.
- You believe you can’t have needs because that would be narcissistic.
- You believe, “Hey, they were right—I am superior.”
- You believe love is conditional, you are loved when you do what people want.
Let's dive deeper into each one of these beliefs.
Belief #1: “It’s normal to have two faces.”
Kids of narcissists learn it’s normal to show one face to the world but wear another behind closed doors. Narcissists thrive on constant admiration, so they learn to charm and seduce, at least in public. But in private, they are needy, critical, and demanding.
Many narcissists are pillars of the community or ardent philanthropists simply because it helps their image. If this was your parent, you may have gotten used to people approaching and saying things like, “Your dad is the greatest,” or “I just love your mom—how lucky you are.” But you knew that after the microphone was turned off or the fundraising gala confetti was swept up, mom or dad’s commitment to the cause ended.
To you and other kids of narcissists, this behavior was normal. When you were young, you might have thought every parent was magnetic in public and mean in private, and you might have drawn the conclusion that it had to do with you: you must have done something to deserve having the best side of your parent—the side they show to everyone else—denied. Today you know it’s not your fault (hopefully), but sometimes it’s hard to remember that not everyone is devious or two-faced.
Belief #2: “My role is to make my parent look good.”
Narcissists choose their relationships based on what their friends and partners can do for them and their image. So if you’re the child of a narcissist, your parent likely groomed you to magnify them, too. You learned your value was in making your parent look good.
This role, by definition, is a position that serves. You are support staff to the CEO, the stagehand to the star, the roadie to the headliner. And to make things worse, there’s no room for advancement; you can play a supporting role, but you can never have a spotlight of your own. Why? To a narcissistic parent, a child is just another appendage—an extension of themselves to further their own goals.
A childhood of filling a parent’s needs, however, keeps a kid from developing a sense of themselves. The result can be feeling unsure of what you really like or what you really want to do. Some adult kids of narcissists will look around and wonder how they ended up with this particular career or life.
In a healthy childhood, a parent values a kid’s goals, experiences, and emotions. It’s a parent’s job to notice what their kid is interested in and then fan the flames. It’s okay to strongly encourage your child to give your passion—say, baseball—a solid try, but it's also right to support their musical theater passion simultaneously and to listen if, after giving it a season, baseball just isn’t in the cards.
Belief #3: “My role is to take care of my parent.”
Related to making a parent look good is taking care of them when they’re down. Some parents don’t necessarily demand that their children perform. Instead, they demand that their children serve them. They need attention, consolation, and encouragement. Kids learn to put out fires, manage their parents’ moods and emotions, and support them in a way that a partner should do, not a child. Even though the path is different, you still end up at the same destination: feeling like you’re not allowed to have needs and wants of your own.