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How to know if your parent is a narcissist17 min read

How to know if your parent is a narcissist

Growing up with a narcissistic parent shattered my self-esteem and left me chronically insecure about my self-worth.

When your self-esteem is severely bruised, figuring out daily life can feel like an insurmountable task sometimes. I constantly undermine my own efforts because that old belief that I’m just not good enough (or that I don’t deserve happiness) comes back to haunt me so easily.

The kicker is that low self-esteem is totally preventable.

I never had a good relationship with my father and I’ve spent years trying to figure out why

We’ve been at odds since I can remember. In our relationship, I was the one who was always left feeling confused and wondering what I did wrong, what I had done to cause such drama and upset, while he always seemed to walk away unscathed. From everything. Always.

Often I would even end up apologising for something that I was sure I was right about. What I thought I believed rarely held up to his scrutiny and I regularly did a complete 180 on my stance.

At some point, I started feeling neurotic and began to lose my sense of self. I had a very strong sense of alienation and felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. I became unable to trust my own judgement and began to question the reality of everything in my life.

I started second-guessing myself; my feelings, my perceptions and my memories. I became very insecure around my decision making — even with the smallest things. A part of me was constantly wondering if I was going insane.

After many years of always managing to make decisions that made me unhappy, I finally convinced myself that the world was right and I was wrong.

I concluded that I was somehow fundamentally in the wrong because the world at large seemed to live life and make decisions just fine – so the problem had to be with me.

Those were symptoms of gaslighting

His arguments were usually disguised as charming musings on the meaning of life. These kind of conversations were common since he profiled himself as a seeker of deeper meaning in all things.

Essentially, a Gaslighter spins their negative, harmful or destructive words and actions in their favor, deflecting the blame for their abusive deeds and pointing the finger at you. This is often done by making you feel ‘overly sensitive’, ‘paranoid’, ‘mentally unstable’, ‘silly’, ‘unhinged’, and many other sensations which cause you to doubt yourself.

— You’re not going crazy: 15 sings you’re a victim of gaslighting

I was the one who was “too sensitive” when I got upset for being the target of one of his outbursts (see narcissistic rage below). I was being “silly” when, at age 7, I cried a river and begged to stay at home because I didn’t want to spend the weekend with my father, having to tiptoe around his temper.

When I got lost on my way to his wedding it was “malicious” of me to miss the ceremony and he refused to send someone to pick me up or help me figure out where I was over the phone (this was before smartphones).

He told me he didn’t want someone so “unhinged” at the wedding anyway and that I didn’t deserve any help. I ended up walking in the pouring rain for three hours on empty countryside roads (in wedding-appropriate attire) until I found a bus and asked for directions – all the while questioning my sanity for still doing my level best to get to the wedding.

It had never even occurred to me that my father might be a narcissist. I’m assuming this is very common among people who consistently get gaslighted. As the situation gradually gets worse you normalise your experience and don’t see why it would be abusive.

I started trawling through online discussions where people talked about dating narcissists. A common theme was that every one of the people who (in hindsight) recognised that they had been gaslighted, were astonished at the kind of lies that their narcissistic partners were able to get past them.

No one thought of themselves as stupid, many people had, in fact, demanding jobs and had successful careers, and were astonished at how deeply they had allowed themselves to be manipulated. They recognised that the narcissist in their life knew them well and knew how to push their buttons.

I was recently reading an article on narcissistic fathers and as I went through the list it was like reading about my life

Having a close and meaningful relationship obviously always provides more sway over the gaslightee. Add to this that people who often are attracted to narcissists are primed to be abused because of their own personal history.

In my case, they were one and the same and as a result, it feels like I was set up to fail from the start.

Dad thought big. Check.

You do you, Kanye.

He was always taking on the world, probing the deepest recesses of his humanity to find the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (it’s 42, by the way, duh). He was always in search of enlightenment and was eager to share the wisdom he had gained in the process.

I had to sit through hours of him explaining how he remembers what it felt like to be born or what nugget of wisdom he found in a smoke-addled cigar-high as a teenager.

As a 10-year-old, I just really wanted to give him the latest update on my Polly Pocket collection.

Dad was charismatic. Check.

As long as I can remember people wanted to hear what my father had to say. They would gather around him like children for a story and eagerly await the words that were going to fall out of his mouth.

My father was into organising meditation weekends. This was in and of itself fine and the teachers he’d invite were nice, competent people. The part that I vehemently hated were the people who would attend these weekends.

I had a seething hatred for these groupies who treated him like a guru. They fawned over what a genius my father was and how amazingly enlightened he was — and they would always make it a point to come and tell me. Tell me how lucky I was that my father was such a genius, that I was truly blessed.

To anyone who had ever met my father, it came as a shock that I didn’t share their idolatry of him. When I’d elaborate on how he had a dark side I was often met with disbelief and adamant descriptions of how he’s such a nice, mellow hippie-type who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Easygoing and easy to get along with. Preaching world peace through enlightenment and all that jazz. For him to be anything else just didn’t compute for those in his little cult.

Dad was not around a lot. Check.

When my parents divorced I became the first kid in my class to have divorced parents (10 years later the kid with the parents still together was the odd one out). I went to live with the responsible one, my mother, at age 5, because my father was still couch-surfing and coming up with his next big plan.

Unsurprisingly, he missed a lot of visitation and I remember my mother regularly hanging up the phone and telling me he isn’t coming after all. I also vividly remember those times when I absolutely didn’t want to see him but got packed off with him for the weekend anyway.

The day to day blandness of children wasn’t exciting enough for him and we always ended up doing things that he was interested in. Which brings me to the next item on the list…

You did Dad stuff with Dad. Check.

My usual haunt was his office where I would play Tetris or Myst and play around with MacPaint. He was always running late. Occasionally he’d pop in wherever he had left me to tell me that he needed to work a little longer (read: 2–3 hours).

We would go an have dinner with his friends where they would spend hours talking about things I didn’t understand at all. We’d go meet his colleagues and I’d spend half a day sitting outside a meeting room reading a book (packing for a weekend with Dad meant my bag was full of books).

We watched movies and played games so that he wouldn’t have to spend too much time in direct conversation with me. When he did end up having to talk to me I remember being told to shut up if I didn’t have anything of value to say (school and homework were topics he had no patience for).

Good parenting requires joining with your daughter’s interests, even if it’s not your cup of tea. You watch her gymnastics or her field hockey games or go to the hobby store with her to pick up a knitting kit. When you have kids, you are no longer the center of your life; they are. The narcissist, on the other hand, will insist on doing things that he wants to do. 

— Psychology Today, Was Your Dad A Narcissist?

You wanted his attention, but he would give it sporadically, and only when it suited him. Check.

When I was still very young I fell under the spell cast by my father. He was everything that home wasn’t. He meant fun things and mom meant rules.

When I was with Dad I felt like the centre of his attention (the more I doted on him the longer I was able to keep his attention), because all we did was fun stuff and there were no rules whatsoever. At home, I had to clean my room to get my allowance, go to bed on time and do homework. Yuck.

Soon enough though, I caught on to that he really had very little patience for spending time with me. He didn’t follow through with that initial high and I’d end up going to bed and lying awake for hours pretending to be asleep (wishing that I was back home) just to get away from him. Oh, if only I had had a smartphone back then!

Dad could rage when upset. Check.

He had a temper and he had a trigger spot for that temper. I could never put my finger on exactly what it was because it was never the same thing twice. Trying to understand what I’d done wrong was madly dashing around in a circle trying to catch a moving target.

These outbursts would come out of nowhere and no explanation was ever given for them. When they occurred he was out to cause damage. He would say nasty things and mean them. His only goal was to win and any damage was acceptable so long as he got his way.

It was during one of these outbursts that I lost all respect for him. I couldn’t have been older than 6 when we were supposed to go out. I didn’t want to be with him at home and I certainly didn’t want to go anywhere with him. I did what 6-year-olds do when forced to do something they don’t want; I crossed my arms, furrowed my brow and said no.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. NO.

I flat out refused to put on shoes or a jacket and went to sit in the living room to cry and sulk to in order to get away from him and to make it crystal clear that I wasn’t going.

He came to where I was sitting on the sofa, threw himself on the floor on his back and wiggled his arms and legs in the air while, in a mocking tone, imitated a baby crying. That was supposed to be me.

“Waa, waa, waa, I don’t wanna do anything! Waa, waa, waa, I don’t wanna put my shoes on! Waa, waa, I’m not wearing my jacket!” he taunted.

At that moment my tears vanished and I lost all respect for him as any kind of authority figure. I refused to accept that someone who behaved worse than I did could be put in charge of me.

I stood there watching him in utter disbelief and thought “He can’t be allowed to be responsible for me, I’m only 6”. I have never felt that ashamed on behalf of someone else since that day.

You are habituated to seeking out people that are unavailable. Check.

Most articles focus on children of narcissistic parents dating unavailable people. I skipped dating because I was struggling to get a handle on myself, let alone bring in someone else to complicate things. But I did go through a lot of friends because of this.

As I was growing up I had perfected the art of making friends with people who were distant and unavailable. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to people who would echo those early experiences with my father.

What I learned about love and caring in childhood was that they are never given freely; that these must be earned, fought for and always cost you something. Relationships full of anger, disappointment, pain, fear and strife were normal to me for many years.

All my friendships ended, some got uglier than others. I rarely understood that I was sidelining my own feelings and needs in order to maintain an unhealthy relationship with someone. We all normalise our experiences and I preferred to think of myself as less wounded than I really was.

I was quick to blame myself because what I had learned was to self-criticise. I had developed a habit of ascribing failures and bad outcomes to my own fixed character flaws. The world was right and I was always wrong because I struggled to trust my own thoughts and feelings. I was looking to others to define what was real and what wasn’t, essentially handing over control of the relationship.

Every time I was unconsciously searching for some kind of a connection that would heal my past experiences and I didn’t see the source of my neediness clearly. I was looking for a fundamental love and acceptance that I had missed out on and lacked a healthy model for relationships.

I accepted being treated poorly for many years, by many people because I didn’t really know what a healthy, mutually respectful and caring relationship felt like. I was looking to others to feel good about myself.

I was afraid of being alone — as if being alone proved that I was fundamentally unworthy and lacking — and it drove me to find new toxic friends even before the old ones had left. Sometimes the old friends left because of the new friends.

We learn about love and relationships in childhood

One of the conditions I had set for myself was to work out my own issues before having children. For me, it was essential that the buck stops with me.

The attachments we form with our parents or primary caretakers teach us about love and relationships and give us a blueprint to build with.

Babies learn that the world is a safe place populated with people who care about them with parents that are alert and attuned to their needs; parents that respond consistently and reliably through gestures, body language, words, presence and energy.

What we learn early on gets internalised as unconscious working models of how relationships work. If a parent makes no effort to soothe or ignores crying, the baby learns that the world is not to be trusted and that she is on her own. She learns to look away from the source that might comfort her and shuts down her emotions in an effort to protect herself.

People like this desperately want to have a close connection but are always on high alert because they are afraid of being abandoned or rejected. They are emotionally very volatile. This happened to me and I always disliked that part of myself.

Final thoughts

To have come to this realisation — that my father was a complete narcissist — at age 33 feels late. I’ve already had a good three decades of dealing with both the issue and the aftermath and it’s been very consuming.

Maybe this isn’t so unusual though. From the stories I’ve read online and the conversations I’ve had with peers, many people come to this realisation much later — usually after several failed relationships and sometimes a lot of therapy.

It often starts out as unhappiness in early adulthood and later manifests as issues in relationships, as it did for me. The cost of moving forward without understanding the influence of the past is high.

At times I thought that when I had been emancipated from my father’s constantly inconsistent influence, that I was just going to be able to put the past behind me. For years I rationalised his behaviour and treatment of me because I hoped that there was still a way to have some kind of relationship based on mutual respect.

Eventually, when every interaction with him left me in tears, I finally decided that it’s time to draw a line and end the relationship entirely. I was just so tired of trying to have a relationship but always ending up being blamed for every little thing.

I feel so much better now. No longer do I have to convince myself to try again with my gaze fixed on an invisible succubus in the distance. Letting go was not easy, but it was worth it. More than I owe him a daughter, I owe myself a safe existence and self-care.


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