The Impact of Growing up with a Narcissistic or Borderline Parent

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People come to therapy for varied reasons that almost always have their roots in patterns of relating that they learned at a very young age. I’ve found that a huge proportion of therapy clients grew up with a parent who had traits of either Narcissism or Borderline Personality disorder. This is not usually something people are aware of when they first seek treatment— rather, they know that they’re anxious, or depressed, or going through a hard time. Often, though, as they begin to talk about their lives and their history, I hear stories that suggest one or both of their caregivers had traits of narcissism or borderline personality.

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There are tomes upon tomes written about each of these character disorders, but here are some short descriptions of both:

Someone with narcissism is self-absorbed and lacking in empathy. This can take the form of acting like a hot-shot all the time, being charming and successful, and becoming scathingly critical of others who attempt to take the stage. There is also a kind of narcissism that actually manifests as low self-esteem, constantly comparing oneself to others and falling short. This “deflated narcissist” may be hyper critical of both themselves and others. At the core of all narcissism is shame. So, children who grow up with a narcissistic parent learn how to protect that parent from ever feeling embarrassed or insecure.

People with borderline tendencies tend to be emotionally volatile. They attach to and idealize people very quickly, and then will hate them just as quickly (sometimes within the same day). At the core of borderline personality is a lack of identity— people who suffer from borderline personality disorder don’t know who they are, so often they waffle around trying to be who others want them to be. Being in a relationship with someone who has a borderline disorder is often described as “walking on eggshells.”

While there are many people who can be diagnosed as having narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, there are many more who have traits of these disorders without meeting the full diagnosis. In fact, all of us sometimes have narcissistic and borderline reactions to stressful things… it’s normal! It becomes a problem when the narcissistic/borderline patterns and behaviors are someone’s main way of relating and dealing with things.

While these two character structures can look very different from each other, there is a surprising amount of commonality in their impact on children. If you were raised by someone with Narcissistic or Borderline traits, here are some common difficulties you may still face as an adult:

You are hyper-attuned to other people’s emotional needs at the expense of your own.

A narcissist always needs an audience, and can become angry and punitive if they are not getting the kind of attention they want. So, often children of narcissistic parents grow up watchful and on edge, ready to attend to their parent at any moment. As a result, these children often don’t learn how to tend to their own emotional (and sometimes physical) needs, or to ask others to help them do so.

With a parent who is borderline, a child learns that emotions can change from minute to minute. The children of a parent with borderline personality disorder learn to be watchful, not make waves, and not need too much from their unreliable parent. This can mean that, like the children of narcissistic parents, they never learn how to care for themselves emotionally.

You are more likely to choose partners who are self-absorbed or emotionally volatile.

One of the worst parts of being human is that we usually pick the familiar over the good, whether we mean to or not. When you grow up learning to tiptoe around someone’s emotional explosions, or to applaud at things you don’t enjoy because you know it’ll be worse if you don’t, or if you develop a fine-tuned radar for other people’s needs and feelings, then you will naturally feel compelled to continue doing these things in your adult relationships. You will likely even feel more attracted to people who have narcissistic or borderline traits. This is why therapy is vital to recovering from these childhood dynamics. Therapy’s aim is to make the unconscious conscious, so that you can choose whether you really want to keep playing the role of audience and comforter, or whether it might be time for you to receive some emotional care in your relationships.

You are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and having a personality disorder yourself.

I hate being the bearer of bad news, but this is statistically true. The reason for this is that when we are children, we model ourselves after the people who care for us. So, if you had, say, one parent who was highly narcissistic (self-absorbed and constantly requiring admiration), and another parent who provided the admiration and possibly took the partner’s emotional abuse, then your two available models for relationship are the narcissist or the accommodating parent. If you had one parent who flew into rages on a dime and constantly accused their partner of being unfaithful, and the other parent was always aiming to please or trying to escape/avoid the accusations (possibly through affairs), then those will be your relational models. Many children of borderline parents learn borderline behaviors, and same with narcissistic ones.

The good news, the very very good news, is that it is never too late to experience other types of relationships that can help you heal from the profound damage of growing up with a dysfunctional parent. Therapy can both provide a different type of relationship, and also help create the neural pathways that allow you to find a nurture your own mutual, empowering and loving relationships.

How Do I Deal with My Toxic Mother?

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From a young woman in Macedonia: Hello. I would like to ask you how to deal with my mother who is always negative. First of all I must say that she is a good person and would never hurt me. However she has always been a very negative person which affects me really bad. Since I was a child,she has always been crying about her small health, financial and any other issue she would have. I’ve always lived in fear that something bad will happen,that she will die,that we are destined to be an unhappy family and I’ve never been happy in my home.

The first words I hear every morning must be her bragging or crying about something, its a very bad start of the day to see your mother unhappy but this is an everyday thing for me. She continues this during the whole day and even if someone says something positive she always has something negative to find. She is always crying,screaming to us,bragging how everything is horrible.When I try to talk to her about this,and tell her that this affects me really bad in every field of my life, she starts making drama and bragging to my father that I want to control her and that I am bad to her. Even though I only say to her that I want her to be more positive just because it will make us all happier, she tells me that I am mean,bad and horrible person who doesn’t respect her.

I feel very depressed because of this, she has made me think that things can never be good,never improve,there must be something bad in everything,that I am bad just because I don’t want to see her unhappy and bragging everyday…

If I tell her that I can’t listen to this everyday she tells me to go and live on my own than.I am only 20 years old student who can’t live on my own.I strongly believe that everything is energy, and wonder how to have a good positive attitude and life when I have such a bad energy coming from the most important person in my life.I must say that this affects my mental health really bad, I don’t want to wake up in the morning because I don’t want to listen to her , I hate my home, I am depressed and I am becoming negative on my own. I am very jealous to every happy family.

Answered by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker on 2019-01-13 – Link

A.
It sounds to me like your mother is profoundly depressed. She is looking at the world through a filter of negativity and despair. There’s a saying that every cloud has a silver lining. But for your mother, if someone gives her a silver lining, she immediately puts a cloud around it. It is a sad way to live, especially since it is so advanced that she can’t even let the love of a caring family help her change it.

You didn’t mention whether your father shares your concern. I certainly hope so. As a daughter, there is very little you can do to change your mom’s attitude. But your father may be able to encourage her to get into treatment with a mental health professional.

It is not healthy for you to deal with this constantly. Since you can’t yet make a home of your own, you need to find ways to “leave” without physically leaving. Leave for school early. Get involved with school activities or a part time job that keeps you out of the house as much as possible. Find other young people who are doing positive things through volunteer work or an activity you enjoy. Spending time with them will help balance out the negativity of your mother.

Don’t argue with your mother about her attitude. You can’t change her. She will only change if she decides to get the treatment she needs. All you can do is let her know that you love her — which is a lot.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie