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.

6 Things Adults With Childhood Emotional Neglect Need to be Happy

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Funny thing about people who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): they go through their entire adult lives with a set of requirements for happiness in their minds. But sadly, those requirements end up keeping them from being happy.

CEN folks don’t know it, but the things they think will make them happy have little to do with their actual happiness. In fact, their notion of happiness is mostly about protecting themselves.

Growing up with your feelings unvalidated (Childhood Emotional Neglect) sets you up to feel that there is something wrong with you for simply having normal human feelings. Then, moving through your adulthood, you then feel you must not only protect yourself from your own feelings and needs but also hide them from others.

The 6 Things CEN People Think They Need to be Happy   

  1. To be 100% self-reliant: The child of Emotional Neglect looks to his parents for emotional support and validation but, too often, no one is looking back. This is how he learns that asking for help is wrong. This is why the child, once a CEN adult, believes that his own happiness depends on his own self and no one else, and feels very vulnerable about asking or accepting help. From anyone.
  2. To never, ever, ever appear emotional or needy: Yes, the CEN adult judges her own feelings and emotional needs as a weakness. So she naturally assumes that everyone else will judge her the same way. I have seen CEN people try to hide their desire to find a spouse, conceal the warm feelings they feel toward a friend, or try hard to conceal their hurt feelings from the person who hurt them.
  3. To make no mistakes: CEN folks are highly tolerant of other people’s mistakes, but when it comes to themselves, the opposite is true. I have told many of my CEN clients that they expect themselves to be superhuman and never make mistakes.
  4. To not be asked about their feelings: The CEN man or woman lives in dread of their spouse asking them what they feel. To them, that question seems intrusive, impossible, and perhaps just plain wrong. “As long as no one asks me, I’ll be happy,” they tell themselves.
  5. To have no conflict: CEN people tend to avoid conflict. Conflict feels threatening because it requires skills they don’t have enough of, like identifying their own feelings and expressing them with an awareness of the other person’s feelings too. It’s not the fault of the emotionally neglected child that he did not learn those complex skills. His parents simply didn’t teach him.
  6. To keep most people in their lives at a distance: Deep down, the CEN person harbors a fear that something is wrong with her. She’s not sure what it is, and she can’t put it into words, but one thing she does know is that she doesn’t want anyone else to see it. So she keeps herself shut down, or walled off, to prevent anyone from getting too close. “As long as no one sees my flaws, I’ll be happy,” she tells herself.

What CEN People Actually Need To Be Truly Happy

  1. To ask for help, and accept it: To really be happy, you can learn the beauty of mutual dependence, and the empowerment of accepting support from others who care. Taking the risk to ask for help and accept it opens doors to validation, comfort, and solace that only makes you stronger, not weaker as you have always believed.
  2. To accept your own needs as valid and real: Your parents taught you that you have no right to have emotional needs. But when you try to deny or hide them, you are denying and hiding your deepest self, and this can never make you happy. Accepting your feelings and needs will allow you to honor and express yourself in a way that can lead to true happiness.
  3. To learn the voice of compassionate accountability, and use it: “It’s OK, nobody’s perfect,” you might say to a friend. And now, it’s time to turn your compassion toward yourself. You can learn to talk yourself through mistakes so that you grow from them, while also holding in your mind the reality that everyone makes errors. This is the voice of compassionate accountability, and it will set you free.
  4. To become comfortable identifying and sharing your feelings: Learning these skills gives you a new way of managing difficult feelings. That’s because naming a feeling immediately takes some of its power away. It also gives you the ability to think about that feeling, begin processing it, and finally, if needed, share it. The better you can do this, the deeper and more rewarding your relationships can be.
  5. To view conflict as a normal part of life: Conflicts are the opposite of avoidable, because when you avoid them, they only fester, making matters worse. When you view conflict as an opportunity to work out problems, you can start addressing problems directly when they occur. This gives you the ability to make your relationships stronger, and make you overall happier.
  6. To let the people in your life get closer to you: Research shows that human connection is one of the life factors that contributes the most to human happiness (and perhaps even the top one). So the harder you work on these six areas of your life, the more you will notice that instead of draining you as they always have, your relationships are now actually giving you energy.

These 6 Things Are Not as Hard as You Think

The most difficult thing about these six things boils down to three things: taking risks, tolerating making yourself vulnerable, and doing things that feel, on some level, wrong. But it’s important to recognize that you’ve been walking the path your parents set for you for years. It’s not your fault; it just is.

To make these changes, you will need to make a choice to take a new and different path. A path that feels unfamiliar, yes. Vulnerable, yes. Wrong, yes.

But it’s a path that will heal the effects of the Emotional Neglect you were raised with and offer you the true, connected happiness that you’ve always deserved.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be difficult to see and remember. To find out if it affects you, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

For help learning how to identify, name and process your feelings, see the book Running On Empty. For help with improving your relationships, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.