How do I know if my parent is really a narcissist, or if I’m just reading too much into it? What if I’m exaggerating or overreacting?
Dear brave soul, how courageous you are to ask these questions! The pendulum swing from eye-opening amazement that there may be a name for your experiences to cringing shame at labeling your loving parent as a narcissist is like no other. Putting a name to the vague traits and patterns that are so familiar can be liberating and terrifying at the same time.
What if they aren’t a narcissist? What if it’s just me?
These questions can be terrifying. What if the answer is no, and you feel shame for labeling your parent unjustly?
Questioning whether your parent has narcissistic traits can bring anxiety, fear, and shame. What if they aren’t narcissists, and you’re just overly sensitive? What if they were right all along, and you really were the source of their pain, their disappointment, their rage? If this were true, it would be crushing. And you can’t stop asking yourself whether your feelings toward them are justified.
But let me say this, and let yourself hear me with all of your questioning parts: your feelings are yours, and they are valid.
Your feelings are yours, and they are valid.
Whether or not your parents meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, your experience of them is yours. Your feelings are yours, and they are valid.
And then comes maybe the even scarier question:
What is the answer is yes?
What if my parent really is narcissistic? What does that mean for me?
If the answer is yes, it can be easier to release some of the burden they place upon you. It is not that you are irreparably flawed, imperfect, or unlovable. It is your parent who was critical, hurtful, and unable to love unconditionally. You don’t have to carry the weight of their disappointment, because it was never really about you – it was about them and their unmet needs.
Accepting that – that it is about them and their needs – can bring a rush of feelings. Anger that your parents never learned to meet their own needs. Grief that they couldn’t, and can’t ever be, the unconditionally loving and accepting family you longed for. A small, quiet voice that asks why they couldn’t love you.
Maybe you will find yourself wondering if there’s still a way to gain more of their approval without completely losing yourself. Maybe you will bargain inwardly – if I give Mom what she wants and name my daughter after her, will she give me a break on my parenting choices? If I let Dad give a speech at my wedding, will he stop threatening to object during my vows? Would it be so bad if I let them use the mocking nickname I hate, if they stop teasing me for being overly sensitive?
How do I relate to them now that I know?
Any healthy relationship requires setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. What your boundaries are will depend on your relationship, your goals in the relationship, and your loved one’s ability to adapt as you change. Can you say no when you need to? Can your parents respect your ‘no?’ Can you muster up the courage to hold firm when they press or disrespect the boundaries you try to create?
Only you know the answers to these questions. They are questions that deserve thought, care, and honesty as you work through them. Some of the answers may be yes. There may be some trade-offs you are willing to make. And there may be some that wring your heart with grief to say no.
For some, realizing the loving parent-child relationship they hoped for will never come to be brings them to a point of decision. Is it worth continuing a relationship that brings only pain, because they are “family?” Or will the guilt of cutting ties become unbearable? What is the cost of freedom?
If you are there, know that my heart is with you. You have the right, and the responsibility to yourself, to choose how you will be in relationship. Those decisions are hard and often deeply bittersweet, but they are yours to make. I will support you in the choosing, and walk with you through the valley.