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.