Self-trust, self-love, and self-knowledge can be taught to a daughter only by a mother who possesses those qualities herself. – Dr. Karyl McBride, from Will I Ever Be Good Enough
I’ve written a great deal about narcissism on Forbes and my other blogs, and I’m always floored at the response. It’s clear that there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who were raised by at least one narcissist, and it wreaked havoc on their self-esteem, their feelings of well-being and safety, and their confidence and courage. Being raised by a narcissist gives rise to a belief throughout our lives that we are just not “good enough” despite everything we try and bending over backwards to please others.
And it damages your boundaries, which are the invisible barriers between you and your outside systems that regulate the flow of information and input between you and these systems. These damaged boundaries thwart your ability to communicate authentically and powerfully, and taint your own self-concept, which in turn damages your relationships and your capability to thrive personally and professionally in the world. Most adult children of narcissists never get the help they need to recover and heal, because they have no idea that what they’ve experienced as children is unhealthy and destructive.
I’ve had a good deal of personal experience with narcissism throughout my life, and can tell you unequivocally that if you were raised with a narcissist parent, your boundaries are not what they need to be, in order to be healthy, happy and confident. As a marriage and family therapist, I saw firsthand too that adult children of narcissists can live their entire lives (unless they get help to heal and overcome it) thinking they’re not good enough, and seeking validation and recognition at every turn, yet never feeling they get it.
Often, children of narcissists are overly-sensitive, deeply insecure, unable to see themselves as good, worthy and lovable. And sadly, 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.
Narcissism has popped up on my radar even more this month, and now I’m ready to take some additional action to help others on this. Many of my clients have expressed their sudden realization that they were surrounded by narcissism growing up, and now they see clearly how their careers and personal struggles tie right back to what they learned as children of narcissists.
First, I’d like to define narcissism so we have a working definition.
The Mayo Clinic shares this:
“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. You may be generally unhappy and disappointed when you’re not given the special favors or admiration you believe you deserve. Others may not enjoy being around you, and you may find your relationships unfulfilling.”
Recent studies have shown that 6% of the population have experienced clinical NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) at some point in their lives. But many more experience non-clinical symptoms.
From my work, I believe that narcissism is far more prevalent than this, and adult children of narcissists are all around us, yet they don’t know it or recognize it because they aren’t taught about this disorder or hear about it in the normal course of their lives.
There’s much to say about the damaging effects of narcissism, but I’d like to focus today on how it effects us in our careers.
Below are the hallmarks and signs that you might have been raised by a narcissist and learned some damaging lessons from it. But I need to share that it’s critical for your well-being that you don’t turn around and begin blaming (and hating) your parents if indeed they are/were narcissists. Everyone is doing the best they can in life, and their disorder most likely stems from their own damaging childhood and upbringing that was in need of healing, which they never received.
So we’re not blaming here, but shedding light on this critical problem so that if you’ve suffered from being raised by a narcissist, you can recognize the problem immediately, get some help, and navigate through the challenges successfully.
Below are the nine traits of narcissism outlined in the powerful book Will I Ever Be Good Enough, by Dr. Karyl McBride (which I’m finding extremely helpful). A true narcissist will have some of these traits, not all, and these traits are on a spectrum with varying degrees to which these will be demonstrated:
The narcissist personality:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of her.
9. Shows arrogance, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
I’ve found too that narcissistic parents demand that you agree with them or else they’ll reject you, because being challenged to them means they are not loved.
Therefore, adult children of narcissists experience love that’s conditional only (based on certain conditions and specific actions that must be demonstrated). From that experience of needing to behave in a certain way to be loved and accepted, they never receive the validation, empathy, and unconditional love and nurture that we humans all so desperately crave.
For me personally, the most damaging and egregious examples of narcissism I’ve experienced involved not only toxic colleagues and bosses, but individuals in my personal life as well.
One example was a supervisor, who, on the day of the 9/11 attacks, went around the office pretending to care about how the employees were feeling, when in fact, he was completely devoid of feeling. It was a fake “show” of concern that his advisers told him he should undertake to show he was a good leader. But if you watched his eyes and his “affect” as he spoke to grieving and frightened people, you’d see clearly that he felt absolutely nothing. I later had to report to this man, and when I shared a complaint with him about his behavior to me, he responded in a very scary way – revealing that he simply would not tolerate being challenged. And what happened later validated that.
Another experience of narcissism I had was with a family member, and I learned throughout my life that I couldn’t speak up if it meant I didn’t agree with this person. If I challenged the individual, love would be withheld, and that is very threatening and scary experience for a child. We’ll do almost anything as children in order to be loved.
I’ve seen in my therapy work and coaching that adult children of narcissists often feel this:
• Never good enough or valuable enough
• Deeply afraid to speak up confidently or challenge others
• Very attuned (to an almost uncanny degree) to what everyone around them is feeling, because they have a hyper-sensitivity to what others are experiencing (they had to have this in order to survive being raised by a narcissist). This can lead to their inability to protect themselves from others’ emotions.
• Chronically unsure of themselves, and overly-worried about what others think of them
• Deeply insecure, because they never experienced unconditional love. Any love or care that was given was done so under certain challenging conditions that made them feel inauthentic and fake.
• That the relationships they’ve 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 and they have no idea what to do.
• Finally, 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 the above experiences resonate with you, it’s time to gain greater awareness of what you’ve experienced in childhood, so you can have greater choice over your thoughts, mindsets and behaviors in order to heal.
We don’t just “get over” being raised by a narcissist. It takes strong therapeutic support to “peel the onion” and heal the wounds — to have the courage to look at the specific brand of narcissism you experienced (it’s different in every family), how this has impacted you and the way you operate, and learn new behaviors that will allow you to heal the child within and become the adult you long to be.
For more from Kathy Caprino, visit her 6-part webinar training series Dealing With Narcissism.