The following selections are from an interview with psychologist and psychotherapist Danuta Golec by Agnieszka Jucewicz. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in 2017.
AJ: Could you describe a narcissistic parent?
First of all, I need to stress that narcissism, despite its bad reputation, is a natural human characteristic which becomes more or less prominent at different stages of our development. It reaches its highest point in infancy and early childhood, when a baby is solely focused on itself and treats its mother as an extension of itself. Then, during puberty, it takes on the form of a fierce, yet temporary, self-obsession. It intensifies again, a few years later, when a young person reaches adulthood and becomes a mom or dad. A tiny, wrinkled creature has been born and the parents are absolutely delighted.
AJ: Are they delighted with the child or with themselves?
They’re overjoyed with what they’ve created and often project themselves onto the child. A son or a daughter brings about new opportunities for parents to mold their new “ideal me”.
In this regard, all parents are moderately narcissistic.
For the same reason, the last time narcissism has the opportunity to naturally appear is when grandchildren are born.
AJ: What makes someone a narcissist?
In order to understand narcissists, we should consider the main difficulties with which they struggle. Firstly, there are problems with detachment and intimacy -- these two are impossible for a narcissist to combine. Second, self-esteem issues -- they are hugely egotistic on the outside and immensely fragile on the inside. Such a person is constantly torn between the two extremes of “I am God” and “I’m a worthless human being”. And last, but not least, they completely lack empathy.
Whatever the result, the root causes of narcissism are genetic and biological, and this nascent narcissism is only strengthened by negative environmental factors and early life experiences. In particular, parenting practices seem to play a crucial role in shaping narcissistic tendencies. Sensible, responsible and present parents are able to set flexible boundaries, have a realistic vision of themselves and share this vision with the child; they can maintain a healthy balance between constraint and freedom.
We all know that setting strict limits and ignoring a child's needs and aspirations will surely have a damaging impact on its development.
But satisfying all of a child’s demands and turning a blind eye to the rules may have equally serious consequences. This type of parenting can cripple a child psychologically and prolong the phase of “infantile omnipotence”, strengthening a child’s “I do what I want” attitude.
AJ: “I do what I want and nothing can stop me!?”
Nothing! Not even other people’s needs -- these children ignore the fact that their mom, dad or any other person might be tired, unhappy or busy. Parents should gradually teach their children that not all of their demands can be fulfilled. This slow unpleasant process is an essential part of mental development, it builds up children’s resistance to stress and prepares them for uncomfortable situations in the future. If parents shield their children from unpleasant moments, constantly invest all their attention and energy on them and only give praise --“you’re exceptional”, or “you’re better than anyone”-- they will more likely than not raise a narcissist.
AJ: What happens when a narcissistic child grows up and becomes a parent themselves?
They are not equipped with key parental necessities -- a sensible mindset, empathy and an ability to place their child’s needs before their own.
Narcissistic parents see the baby as a reflection of themselves and often can’t tell the difference between their own wishes and those of the child.
They also easily acquire the child’s emotional states, from joy to different sorts of fear and anxiety. If no family member is vigilant enough to notice the problem, recognize its source and draw others’ attention to it, they all become stuck in a tight, hermetic emotional meld.
The child of a narcissistic parent is unable to live independently and set their own boundaries. Lack of detachment and borderlines also means a lack of intimacy. Instead of intimacy, they are saddled with an unhealthy psychological merger. Sometimes, a young person tries to overcome this situation by creating a new “artificial” persona.
AJ: They put on a public facade to try and hide from others?
Not only from others, but also, and mostly, from themselves. These people conceal their real needs, hopes, and aspirations deep inside. On the outside, they construct a different personality consistent with their parents’ expectations. As the years go by, the disparity between the “real me” and the “false me” widens, causing personality disorders, and often leading to emotional breakdown or depression.
Young people who have been trying their whole life to please their narcissistic parents suddenly wake up as adults feeling unhappy and unbearably empty inside. They can’t connect with themselves and find it extremely difficult to relate to other people. Consequently, they shut others out and live outside reality, wasting their potential, rejecting opportunities and ruining relationships.
Some children of narcissistic parents can also grow up to be overly conformist adults. Constantly instructed on what to do as children, they are incapable of making their own decisions as adults. They tend to sacrifice themselves to satisfy others, and very often end up in toxic relationships. This strategy of prioritizing another person’s needs and wishes stems from being completely unaware of their own goals and preferences.
AJ: What happens in the relationship between a narcissistic parent and their child if the offspring starts to manifest signs of independence?
It’s a confusing situation for a child as they're driven by the two conflicting urges of staying close to their parents or being an individual -- remaining a baby or becoming a grown-up.
Parents should support their child in this process by providing them with a safety net while simultaneously giving them the liberty to make their own choices. Narcissistic parents fail to do so. They insist on controlling the child to prevent a separation.
A child’s growing independence and eventual detachment is a catastrophe for every narcissistic parent.
Treating the child as an extension of themselves delays and protects the parent from confrontation with themselves, and with who they truly are -- an empty human shell. For that reason they desperately try to coax and manipulate their offspring into staying close, while also resorting to emotional blackmail, threats or punishments and often abusing their child with verbal aggression and the silent treatment -- anything to evoke a feeling of guilt and responsibility. Such a mistreated and poisoned child, even if they manage to grow up and move out, will always remain psychologically chained to their toxic parents.
AJ: What does a child’s failure mean to a narcissistic parent?
It’s like a monsterous scratch on their car -- they treat it like their own tragedy. Instead of comforting the child, they dramatize, snap, make scenes, or even cry! And the child learns that every debacle is a colossal misfortune. The same rules apply to successes.
A narcissistic parent cherishes their child’s triumphs as their own, often exaggerating them and falling into euphoric states of self-amazement.
We should keep in mind that such a person doesn’t have healthy self-esteem. They live in delusion and project their distorted visions onto their child, emphasizing whatever matters to them and ignoring everything else -- for example, the child’s actual talents and interests.
AJ: What’s the future worst case scenario for that child?
It might enter its life as an adult lacking a fully constructed identity. Extreme cases involve serious pathologies, such as psychosis, or borderline personality disorder. Such a person doesn’t have the resources to handle the pressure and responsibilities of adulthood. They’re lost, ill-equipped and most often unable to build healthy relationships. Their professional life might become problematic too, mainly due to their fear of the attention or creativity associated with individualism and self-reliance. Or, on the contrary, they might strive maniacally to earn rewards and appreciation in order to “outrun” their parent. More often than not it’s a chaotic, desperate fight without rhyme or reason. Above all, these young people struggle to understand and accept themselves and are extremely prone to chronic depression and other neurotic disorders.
But the worst case scenario doesn’t necessarily have to happen. A lot depends on the people surrounding the child. Not only family members, but friends, friends’ parents, colleagues, neighbours -- sensible people with emphatic minds who can moderate the destructive influence of narcissistic parents. My patients frequently mention teachers as their life mentors. These figures recognized the child’s situation and their potential. They offered help and guidance and provided these young people with an alternative role model -- one completely opposite to the parent at home.
AJ: Is it always a positive experience? On one hand that young person finally has a healthy role model to look up to, but on the other, they suddenly become aware of their parent’s imperfections. It must be confusing.
It is a confusing experience but ultimately it improves that young person’s life. The realization of their parent’s narcissism is a great start. It gives the person a chance to look at the world through their own eyes, not through the eyes of their parent, and to finally see themselves for who they truly are.
Positive and effective interactions with other people teach the young person that dependency doesn’t have to be toxic and that not every attachment involves manipulation or abuse.
It also teaches them that it’s perfectly natural to be in close relationships with other people and still remain themselves.
AJ: Can having a narcissistic parent be advantageous?
If you’re asking whether growing up with a self-absorbed parent can strengthen the child’s character?The answer is: no. We can only talk about the damage inflicted. Obviously, if the parent has a successful career, they’re able to provide their child with financial comfort, even luxury, but expensive education and holidays in Bahamas will never replace a nurturing home environment and a child’s healthy psychological development.
Danuta Golec is a psychologist, and psychotherapist from the Polish Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. She is also a translator, and founder of the Ingenium Outbuilding, which publishes books in the field of psychoanalysis.
--Translated from the Polish by Martyna Kardach