I Come From a Narcissistic Family

As a member of a narcissistic family, my childhood was skewed. The following list is from The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment, by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman, and it perfectly describes the dynamics of my early years. The list is taken whole from the Pressman book, but the comments in double parentheses are mine:

_____ I was not allowed to have feelings that might upset my parents.

_____ As a child, I had to meet the emotional needs of my parents.

_____ I learned early on that my needs weren’t valued so stopped trying to get them met.

_____ I felt that I had to act in ways that pleased my parent(s) to avoid being abandoned. ((When I was a teenager, they did kick out a couple of my brothers, so this was a very real fear.))

_____ Our family had to look good to outsiders, so I was required to keep the family secrets. ((It’s not so much that we had to look good to outsiders but that we had an unspoken agreement to keep the secret, which was that we were not the close knit family we seemed. In fact, I am a bit nervous writing about this even now. As if I am doing something wrong. As if I’m “tattling”.))

_____ At times my parent’s need to look good to others did help me get some positive attention. ((I remember my father telling me once that I had to do what he said because he wanted to be able to be proud of at least one of his children.))

_____ I was expected to read my parent(s) mind and give what they wanted without their asking.

_____ If I tried to set limits and boundaries, they were overrun by my parent(s.)

_____ I was not allowed to make mistakes or change my mind.

_____ The less emotional support I got from my parent(s), the more fearful I was that I’d lose it. ((This was true until, as a young teenager, I realized they would never give me the support I needed and gave up expecting it.))

_____ I learned to be super responsible to please my parent(s.) ((Second oldest and oldest girl of a large family. Talk about super responsible! By five, I knew how to do laundry, iron, cook simple meals, wash and dry dishes, sew and embroider.))

_____ The rule in my family was that parent(s) got to do selfish things because it was their right.

_____ I have had life-long problems making and keeping intimate relationships. (Actually, this is not true as far as I can tell. I had an intimate relationship for thirty-four years that ended only when he died. At times, though, our relationship seemed more like a mutual support group since he also was the child of a narcissitic family. He’s the one who helped me to finally see the truth. Apparently, our family secret was so secret, it was even secret from me!)

_____ In relationships, I worry about the other person finding out how defective I am. ((Not any more. My relationship with my now deceased life mate/soul mate taught me that even if someone knew the real me, I could be loved. As for friends, after a lifetime of thinking people didn’t like me, it recently dawned on me that people really did like me. That was an incredible revelation, and has made a big difference in my relationships and in my life.))

_____I have an overwhelming need for external (outside of myself) validation. ((I don’t think this is true so much any more since I am learning to validate myself, but it was true when I was a child and even decades afterward. And for all I know, it could still true. When I did a personality profile for one of the dating sites I signed up for, it said I was looking for “someone who’ll always strive to make me feel attractive, desirable and loved with undivided attention and a sense of physical security. Someone who’ll make me feel young and alive with a flirty manner around you, and who’ll renew my passion for life by opening my eyes to new experiences and opportunities.” Sounds about right.))

_____ I learned to achieve early on to bring glory to my family OR Even though I did well in school, my parent(s) ignored my achievements. ((Yep!!! Straight “A” student here. Never so much as a single metaphorical pat on the head.))

_____ I became fragmented trying to figure out what my parent(s) wanted from me.

_____ It was dangerous for me to recognize and express my own power as a child. (I didn’t recognize I had any power. I’m still struggling with empowerment.

_____ I had no inherent value other that what I could do for my parent(s.)

_____ My parent(s) became hurt or angry when criticized so I learned not to rock the boat.

_____ I had to give up my own sense of self to survive in my family.

The strange thing to me is that even as a very young child I knew that my parents were doing the best they could. I knew they had their own problems stemming from their own dysfunctional backgrounds, so I didn’t blame them for the situation. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that anger at my upbringing erupted. I was the child, for cripes sake! They were supposed to figure out what was best for me; I wasn’t supposed to figure out what was best for them.

Writing about my narcissistic family background isn’t so much about airing family secrets or putting the blame on anyone as it is an attempt to understand the dynamics of my current situation: looking after my 97-year-old father and doing the best I can for my dysfunctional, homeless, and highly narcissistic older brother.

This is the first in a series of posts where I will be trying to find the pieces to the puzzle, if for no other reason than to free myself from my past and allow me to run headlong into the future.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

12 Responses to “I Come From a Narcissistic Family”

  1. Carol Says:

    You don’t really want to hear what I have to say on this subject, but I guess I’m going to say it anyway. I told my SIL once that navel-gazing offered very little in the way of positive results other than the discovery of lint. She was embarking on a course of psychoanalysis. She was discontent with herself and was convinced that how she was dealing with life had a lot to do with her mother. I think in the end the only satisfaction she felt was in shifting responsibility on someone else. It didn’t solve anything. Her life didn’t change until she made specific decisions for changes that would have a positive impact on her own life.

    I don’t see value in travelling backwards into the shadows and re-experiencing negative emotions. That being said, I know some believe it has great value, so I guess whether it works or not depends on your faith in the process.

    (See what I mean about probably not wanting to hear this? What you want/need is encouragement to take whatever steps YOU think will be helpful. I’ll try to be supportive of wherever they take you.)

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I don’t mind what you say. I do understand what your point of view, and basically, I feel the same way, but the truth is, the past landed on my doorstep. I’ve been researching how to deal with my brother, and have found a lot of such information as that which I posted here. I thought it was interesting enough to share, and since this is my blog, I added my own slant. But I’m not blaming anyone or shifting responsibility. I have no gripes. I’ve forgiven, moved past my youth — am basically a different person — but still, there is my brother. He ties me to the past because he is still living it. I am not re-experiencing negative emotions from the past. Whatever emotions I am feeling are being thrust on me now, in the present. Admittedly, much of my reaction to him stems from our childhood. If we didn’t have that in common, if I didn’t understand where he came from, I’d have called the cops long ago. Because of our upbringing, he became a total narcissist, and I went the other way and became almost totally other-centered.

      • Carol Says:

        I can imagine living with your brother and father brings you face-to-face with the past often enough to make it hard to ignore. I hope your research results in solutions.

  2. leesis Says:

    Please excuse me for this long response Pat but this is a journey I know better than…well…anything else actually.

    Don’t free yourself from the past Pat. This journey is just like grief but nowhere near as bad thank goodness! Successfully navigating this journey means you will take your past with you in a re-examined newly packed frame of reference that enhances your now and your tomorrows.

    It is a journey of discovery, of allowing emotions expression but not control (preferably in company of a supportive friend), reading, thinking (the deep type), understanding yourself first then the other people who counted (as much as we can understand another) and finally changing old habits.

    Assess your own actions over the years, asking yourself why you made the decisions you made at different ages. For example what made Pat give away her power to someone ‘out there’ to feel alive and wonderful and full of possibilities? (“I was looking for “someone who’ll always strive to make me feel attractive, desirable and loved with undivided attention and a sense of physical security… who’ll renew my passion for life.”)

    Consider who you are today as a result of how others were. Which bits do you want to keep? Which bits do you need to throw away because they are ‘maladjusted behavioural habits’ (Psychologies definition), or ‘survival behavioural habits’ (my definition) that just aren’t needed anymore. This includes how you’ve been believing, thus thinking, thus feeling, thus behaving, based on childhood conditioning.

    Then ask yourself if those reasons remain reasonable today. If not how do you want to respond today given who you are now, or rather, who you want to be? And the hard bit… (Okay the expressing hurt/anger is tough to but doable!)…start practicing breaking the rejected habits. You have to become the security officer of your own habitual thought patterns).

    An extended road map of this journey I call ‘The map through crap parenting to happy grown-up land’ (even copyrighted :)). In my experience both professionally and personally, this map works.

    As far as those you love who are being narcissistic…well, you love them! They are not only your family but also you fellow human beings messed up in their own ways. But they still don’t take responsibility for their actions whether they understand them or not (my guess is not) and you have to figure out how much of that you can tolerate.

    My far too long thoughts anyway…given with hugs 🙂

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Leesa, As always, your input is thoughtful and right on except for one thing — I didn’t mean to sound as if I needed someone to make me feel alive and wonderful and full of possibilities. I’m doing very well on my own in that respect! But having someone who makes me feel alive and wonderful sure is a plus for a relationship. I mean, I certainly don’t want anyone who makes me feel bad or unhappy or who deflects my possibilities. And to be honest, I’m not looking for anyone. Signing up for the sites was more of a way of saying yes to life than actually looking for a relationship.

      And oddly, I do have such a supportive friend to go on this particular journey with. I say “oddly” because she’s a younger sister from whom I was estranged for many years. We seem to be on the same path now, trying to go from here to a freer and more enlightened future full of wonder and infinite possibility. She also has a masters degree in therapy, which is interesting.

      And of course, there is always you. I love your insights and gentle nudges.

      To be honest, I didn’t realize I had many old habits, but when I found myself screaming at my brother after he pounded on my windows for attention more than 40 times yesterday, and actually broke a window when I stopped responding, I realized there is still a lot of that youthful upbringing left in me. Until he came, I hadn’t raised my voice to anyone since childhood. I didn’t even know that was still in me. It’s kind of funny — I was so afraid of my brother breaking a window because of my father, who had said he’d call the police if it got broken, and yet, I was the one who got furious, not my father. My father shrugged it off. Very strange dynamic here.

      The weird thing about my life is that the worse the home situation beomes, the better (and lighter) the rest of my life gets. Perhaps because I am getting rid of some long buried habits, or at least excavating them and bringing them to the light of the day.

      As always, thank you.

  3. IsabellaStines Says:

    Kudos to you for being brave enough to dig into your past and share your findings. Even if it does break you, I’m a firm believer that truth is the only thing that can heal, too.

    Best of luck!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, I too believe that truth is the only thing that can heal. I heard today that some of the prevalence of old age dementia is due to the stresses of such unresolved issues. As we age, we lose the ability to block things out, and so the old walls come tumbling down, leaving us vulnerable when we have the least mental resources to do something about it. It’s better to bring those walls down when we can still handle the stress.

  4. Malene Says:

    Were I a teenager I would exclaim “OMG”. I’m not, so I’ll refrain from using that particular acronym. Pat, in the past few years since my mother passed away in particular, examining and making peace with my familial background, I have occasionally wondered if not one or both of my parents were in fact narcissists. Then, I read your list above, along with your personal commentary and Yup! my family and my childhood and life experiences fit the bill to a tee. It’s nearly eerie just how similar, in fact, your experiences are to my own. Up to and including finding your life/soul mate and that helping you move away from some of the unhealthy patterns and establishing a solid sense of self and worth,

    I wonder if not that gift from our deceased mates is not in some small part responsible for us feeling the loss of them so profoundly and for so long? After all, their passing has sent us on a journey where we are on our own, in which we’re left to discover if what our relationships with them gave to us – in terms of personal growth, sense of self etc. – is actually the truth and whether we have learned that it is, from so deeply within, that we can rely on it staying with us even after their reassuring. physical presence is no more.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Strange to think that two people who have never met can be on the same path.

      I think you could be right about the gifts from our deceased mated and feeling such a profound loss. It’s not just that we’re now on our own and are left to discover what the gave us (such an interesting and beautiful thought!) but that in my case anyway, his death thrust me back into a situation that our shared life had protected me from.

      Wherever we are going, however we are getting there, I know we will be okay. Having dealt with so much trauma and yet still able to look ahead to better tomorrows (better than today, I mean), we are strong.

  5. Visualizing a Life of Joy | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] I Come From a Narcissistic Family […]

  6. Natalie Gary Says:

    Dear Pat,
    If you don’t mind me asking; Did you get severely depressed or suffer from anxiety ? And if so, what helped you get to where you are today ? I’m really needing to know because my whole family has abandoned me and even though my mother was really yhe only one in the family that’s not a narcissist, after my super-narcissist dad retired two years ago, she is now under the influence of him 24/7 and won’t even call me now. I thought she was my best friend but I know that with my father around now, she is willingly his doormat because her nerves are so bad, I believe she’s just to tired to fight him. She was all I had for family. How did you get through your abandonment issues? Like, what do you believe helped you the most ? I’ve been so depressed since he retired and pray all the time for things to somehow turn around. Narcissism is just completely beyond dysfunctional !! I can relate on what you went through and I’m so sorry. What is it that gives them the right, in their own head, to manipulate & control others ? Do you know if it’s hereditary ? I’m sorry! , I am just so disappointed and confused & could use a little advice ? If you don’t mind ?
    God Bless You Pat !!!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I used to get terribly depressed and anxious. I got through my early years simply by getting through them. I lived with my soul mate for many years, which gave me a respite from my family. His death taught me I can deal with anything, which is good since somehow I ended back in the same situation I left decades ago.

      Children of narcissists have a lot of the same problems as children of alcoholics, so perhaps Alanon might help you. There are all sorts of support groups, so if Alanon doesn’t seem as if it would be a good fit, look for some sort of group. Groups help us deal with our problems because we learn that we aren’t alone, and sometimes others can offer suggestions. If you can afford a therapist or can get some sort of financial assistance, then do that, too.

      If you have no support group available in your area, try journaling. It won’t change anything but it might help you find a way through the mess by getting some of the pain out of your head and onto the page.

      Narcissists don’t need to be given the right to manipulate others. They simply don’t see others as real. Only their needs are paramount. If your mother wants to stick with your father no matter what, you need to do what you can to save yourself. Find something just for you. I recently started taking dancing lessons, and they have helped tremendously. It takes a long time to come to the realization that we are separate from our families. We define ourselves.

      I’m sorry I’m not more help. It’s always a struggle to deal with those we love when they don’t return love in any way we can recognize.

      Wishing you peace.

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