Even for the most secure adults from the healthiest families it can be difficult to break away from parents and their influence. For adult children of narcissistic parents (ACoNs), it is a life-long challenge.
Violated Boundaries with Narcissist Parents
ACoNs typically struggle with sustaining a resilient sense of independent self and setting healthy boundaries. Trained to fulfill the narcissists’ needs in whatever way they demand, that role may fundamentally define you. You are likely to carry a heavy weight of (false) responsibility and (unearned) guilt, and as a result may feel complexly entangled with and while also estranged from your family members.
Asserting boundaries is especially resisted by narcissistic parents. This is because boundaries threaten their ability to maintain their “false face” to the world and their divide-and-conquer control of family members through abusive tactics such as ridicule, projection, and playing the victim. Narcissistic parents continuously violate their children’s boundaries because they see their children as manipulable extensions of themselves, not individuals with their own unique personalities, passions, and needs.
Often such children have been parentified, or placed in the role of parent, by and for their emotionally demanding parent(s). Such demands pivot the child into an adult role that she is not ready for but tries to fill nonetheless.
To make matters more painful, ACoNs are often deeply invested in “winning” their parents’ love, an ingrained compulsion that tends to last far into adulthood. All children want their parents to love them. Even realizing that our parents are narcissistic does not make it easy to let go of the fantasy that they will someday finally take responsibility for their actions and provide appropriate love and care. Nor does it make setting boundaries with them easy.
Setting Healthy Boundaries with Narcissist Parents
Having had your boundaries crossed from early childhood in a variety of ways, you are likely to struggle to define what “normal” healthy boundaries are in your other relationships, including with your partner and children. Sometimes the worst models in life teach the most important lessons, and not repeating your parents’ abuse and manipulations is your best guide.
Paying attention to and respecting your own needs and feelings is crucial to asserting appropriate boundaries in all areas of life. It is also good modeling for your own children.
Tune in to Your Feelings. Listen to yourself. The more you practice attuning with your feelings the better you’ll get at it. If you feel resentful, for example, it may indicate that someone is violating your boundaries. Keeping a journal can help make you more aware of your feelings.
Give Yourself Permission to Say No. Although you may not have had permission to say no to your parents, healthy people say no and accept no in stride. As an adult you need to become comfortable with no in your life and learn to assert it with your parents for your own emotional well-being.
Care-Take Yourself. Adult children of narcissists have been trained to take care of their parents at their own expense. Part of maintaining healthy boundaries is recognizing your need for self-care. That may mean taking time by yourself and/or doing something relaxing or fun.
Reach Out. ACoNs are trained to keep family affairs private, and they often isolate themselves as a result. Setting healthy boundaries doesn’t just mean saying no. It can also mean opening yourself and saying “yes” to getting closer to other people who are trustworthy.
Seek Support. ACoNs learn to ignore their own feelings and needs. Unburying your feelings with a trusted therapist and with close people who understand is essential for processing the trauma of the past and moving beyond it. Note that it is vital to find a therapist conversant with narcissism, since those who are not may do more harm than good.
Be Direct. It is not easy for ACoNs, but being direct about your boundaries—what you will and will not do—is an important part of being a functional adult. Becoming direct about your needs and limits may feel awkward at first, but it will get easier with practice.
Going Limited or No Contact with Narcissist Parents
Adult children of narcissists are groomed from day one to play their role in the family system. Their parents never stop pushing them to continue playing that role because as far as they are concerned that is their children’s life purpose. As ACoNs age they sooner or later confront the reality that their mother and/or father cannot reciprocate all but the most primitive form of love, far from the unconditional love we all hope to give and receive within our families.
In some cases, limited or no contact with abusive parents may be the only way to avoid conflict and further harm. For many people, particularly those with actively abusive families, going no contact is the healthiest choice, at least for a significant period of time.
When setting boundaries with your family of origin, you need to consider the stakes for your own partner and children as well as for yourself. In particular, you need to help your children navigate away from the narcissist family legacy of emotional and physical trauma.
Raising our own children with the love and respect, including appropriate boundaries, that we did not receive is often the most healing path we can take in processing and releasing the pain of having narcissistic parents.
Julie L. Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Carry You, about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family. Read excerpts. Her articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post.
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