What is destructive narcissism? Let’s begin to answer that question with a brief summary of a Greek myth from which the concept of narcissism was developed.
Narcissus was a handsome young man who was greatly desired by the nymphs. One nymph, Echo, was especially enamored with him and told Narcissus of her love for him. He rudely rejected her and, in her shame and grief, she faded away until only her voice was left.
The nymphs were very angry and desired revenge. They petitioned the gods, who arranged for Narcissus to fall in love with his reflection in a pond. Narcissus thought that his reflection was a sprite. He fell in love with the reflection and kept trying to embrace it only to have it disappear every time. He was unable to leave the reflection even though he received no response from it. He pined away and died, leaving a flower in his place.
This myth has many elements that are used to describe the psychological impact of pathological and destructive narcissism:
• unresponsive to others needs or concerns
• a strong self-focus and self-absorption
• indifference to others
• lack of empathy
• an inability to grasp one’s core self as there is nothing there
• shallow emotions
• an inability to relate to others in a meaningful way
• strong admiration and attention needs
• consideration of oneself as unique and special
• grandiose, arrogant and contemptuous
Pathological narcissism is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition, 1994) and is termed narcissistic personality disorder. It is defined as, “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.” (p. 658) In addition, the person must have five of nine other described behaviors, attitudes and characteristics. These are generally intense and are disruptive to interpersonal relationships. The important thing to remember is that the destructive narcissistic parent failed to develop in important ways (i.e. developing healthy adult narcissism). This parent has considerable underdeveloped narcissism, but remains unaware of it. It is always possible to build and develop healthy adult narcissism, but it takes considerable time and effort on that persons part.
Destructive narcissism is defined as a pattern of behaviors and attitudes reflective of pathological narcissism but the behaviors and attitudes are fewer and/or less intense.Nevertheless, these behaviors and attitudes are troubling to others who are in a relationship with this person and/or have to interact with the person on a regular basis. The pattern of behaviors and attitudes are such that others experience considerable frustration, anger and feelings of incompetence; these individuals are blamed, criticized, devalued and demeaned in their relationships and/or interactions with the person suffering from a DNP. Destructive narcissism is a cluster of behaviors and attitudes — not just one or two distressing behaviors or attitudes. It is through your reactions to the person over time, which is validated by others who have similar reactions, that you can begin to identify someone with a destructive narcissistic pattern.
It can be difficult to identify your parent as displaying a DNP as you have experienced their behaviors and attitudes since birth and internalized them — you do not know any other way of experiencing your parent. As you read this article, allow yourself to remember your parent’s behaviors and attitudes, your feelings and reactions and compare these with the information presented here.
The “Parentified” Child
One way to identify a parental DNP is to determine if you were a parentified child.
Parents are expected to take care of their children and facilitate their growth and development toward becoming separate and distinct individuals. Many parents assume responsibility for the child’s physical, emotional and psychological well-being while also allowing the child to become independent and autonomous in preparation for adulthood. However, there are some parents who do not assume the parental role, but instead, put the responsibility for personal emotional and psychological well-being on their child. This situation results in what is known as a “parentified” child. The child is in the parent’s role instead of the reverse.
Read the following questions and see if any fit your experiences with your parent.
Were you made to feel responsible for your parent s feelings, well-being and/or general welfare?
Did your parent seem to be indifferent or ignore your feelings much of the time?
Were you frequently blamed, criticized, devalued and/or demeaned?
When your parent was upset or displeased, were you the target of his or her negative feelings?
Did you feel that you were constantly trying to please your parent only to fall short much or all of the time (i.e. you could never please him or her)?
Do you recall hearing one or both parents say any of the following?
• “Don’t you want me to feel good?”
• “You make me feel like a failure when you do”
• “You ought to care about me.”
• “I feel like a good parent when someone praises you.”
• “If you cared about me, you would do what I want you to.”
If you frequently experienced these feelings and events or heard these or similar remarks from your parent while growing up, you may be a parentified child and your parent may have a DNP.
The parentified child is a good example of having a parent with a destructive narcissistic pattern. There are some behaviors and attitudes that persons with a parental DNP can exhibit. Review the following and see how many characteristics apply
One or both of your parents:
• constantly sought attention and admiration
• wanted to be considered unique and special
• tried, or did, exploit others
• lacked empathy
• was emotionally abusive
• gave orders and expected immediate obedience
• had an inflated self-perception
• was arrogant or contemptuous
• exhibited an entitlement attitude
Did you feel that your parents never thought you were good enough? If you spoke of your parents insensitivity to your feelings, were you made to feel ungrateful. wrong, shamed or guilty? Did a parent almost always remind you of what he or she was sacrificing for you and you should show some appreciation? If any of these strike a chord, you may want to consider that you are the adult child of a parent who has a destructive narcissistic pattern. These are but a few of such behaviors and attitudes, and you can gain more understanding of these and others from Children of the Self-Absorbed (Brown, 2001) and The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern (Brown, 1998).
Responses To Being Parentifled
There are two major responses that parentified children have; the “compliant” response and the “siege” response.
The compliant response is illustrated when you, as an adult:
• spend a great deal of your time taking care of others
• are constantly alert about acting in a way to please others
• are very conforming
• feel responsible for the feelings, care and welfare of others
• tend to be self-depreciating
• rush to maintain harmony and to soothe others feelings
• seldom get your needs met
The compliant response is a continuation of how you acted as a child — when you were expected to take care of your parents. You are continuing to act out these behaviors and attitudes in your relationships, but don’t seem to be able to have a relationship where your needs are met.
The siege response is one of defiance, rebellion, withdrawal and/or insensitivity. You work hard to prevent being manipulated by others, getting engulfed or enmeshed by others demands and feelings, assuming responsibility for others welfare and emotional well-being and from feeling diminished when you do not meet others expectations. In short, even though you are an adult, you are reacting to others as if they were your parents who expected and demanded that you meet their expectations. You decided at some point that you did not want to comply with your parents wishes and demands. You were trying to become separate and independent and had to fight hard to overcome being parentified. You are still fighting that battle with others in your life and this is negatively impacting your other relationships.
To get an idea of the persistent effects of parental destructive narcissism, take a moment to review this list of life themes that can result from a parental DNP. Do you display two or more of the following life themes?
• Generalized dissatisfaction with self and the course of your life.
• Trying, but not succeeding, to be in emotional sync with others.
• Constant reflection on your flaws, incompetence, and other faults
• Lack of meaningful and satisfying relationships
• The inability to allow others to become intimate or close
• Meaning and purpose in your life is lacking
• There are interpersonal problems with family, friends and/or work relationships
• You constantly feel isolated and alienated (i.e. not connected to others)
• You are overwhelmed by others demands or expectations
These themes point to some lasting effects of your parentified childhood experiences that have implications for your life and your relationships today.
Healthy Adult Narcissism
You may have the idea that narcissism is not desirable because the focus thus far has been on destructive narcissism. However, there are the concepts of age-appropriate narcissism and healthy adult narcissism that point to the positive aspects of a self-focus. Age-appropriate narcissism is a concept based on the notion that we grow and develop in our ability to become separate and differentiated people and that this is a process that begins at birth and continues throughout life. One way of illustrating age-appropriate narcissism is to think of the infant as self-absorbed, grandiose, omnipotent and all the other characteristics described as destructive narcissism for an adult. It’s ok for the infant and early child states, but not age-appropriate for adolescents and adults. When adults have failed to develop age-appropriate narcissism, this is termed as underdeveloped narcissism. These adults are still in an infant, child or even adolescent state as far as their developed narcissism is concerned.
Healthy adult narcissism is characterized by empathy a sense of humor, creativity, wisdom, sense of personal responsibility, the capacity for developing and maintaining satisfying intimate relationships and altruism. This is the ideal state for adults. What happens is that the process to develop healthy adult narcissism continues throughout our lives. Children of the self-absorbed have to work particularly hard throughout their lives to attain this level of development, as they were not allowed to complete the expected tasks at an earlier age. If you had a parent with a DNP, you may have areas of underdeveloped narcissism that need attention.
You may still have an unsatisfying relationship with your destructive narcissistic parent even though you are now an adult. You may have:
• made attempts to react as an adult in interactions with him or her
• tried to start a dialogue to explain the negative effects of his or her behavior and attitudes on you
• confronted your parent about their insensitivity, indifference or exploitation and lack of empathy toward you
• tried to not get upset when your parent blames, criticizes or devalues you only to find that nothing worked
You may even have experienced feeling worse after trying any of these as your parent was able to arouse your frustration, anger, guilt and/or shame,
You probably had one of two responses. Either you gave up and withdrew, or you continued to try that which was not working or effective. You did not understand what was happening and continued to carry some intense negative feelings in either case. If you withdrew, you may have severed relations with the parent. You do not want to have anything to do with him or her, nor do you want your parent as a part of your life. The down side of this strategy is that you may have distanced yourself from other family relationships that you value.
If you continued to try and get your parent to understand what you were experiencing, you stayed churned up because you made no headway You are not accepting that your attempts to get the parent to understand did not work before, are not working now and will not work in the future. It is difficult to recognize and accept that there is nothing you can do or say that will cause or help your parent to change. The only change you can affect is personal. You can learn to:
• emotionally insulate yourself
• keep your uncomfortable feelings from being triggered
• build and fortify your boundaries
• develop your underdeveloped narcissism to become healthy adult narcissism
• erect defenses against their negative projections, accusations, remarks and the like
You cannot change your parent, but you can become an adult who does not have to dread interacting with your parent or having negative feelings triggered and other uncomfortable reactions. You will never have the kind of parent-child relationship that you consciously or unconsciously yearn for — and it can be difficult to give up that fantasy.
Nina W. Brown is a professor and eminent scholar of counseling in the Educational Leadership and Counseling Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She received her doctorate from The College of William and Mary and additional training in group psychotherapy from the American Group Psychotherapy Association. Dr Brown is a licensed professional counselor a nationally certified counselor and the author of 10 published books.