“Not all addictions are about drugs or alcohol. Some of the most toxic addictions are found in our adult relationships that replay our childhood trauma.” — Author
I was asked to write this. I know there’s an ongoing need for this information to get out — to give everyone a voice who may have gone unheard earlier in their lives out of “respect” (fear) of their elders.
Some of us grew up in an era that minimized a child’s choices or their voice. It seems that an entire generation was conditioned to recognize “The Look” of their parent’s raised eyebrow that signaled a warning to behave, while silencing the child into submission.
Never far behind was their stock response that…”children should be seen, but not heard”.
So, I’m writing this for anyone who grew up confused, feeling unsafe, or like they got screwed out of a childhood. Screwed out of a voice. Out of happiness. Or out of a self-identity.
I’m writing this for anyone who grew up seeing how their friends lived and wondering why the f*ck their home life was different. Unsettled. Unhappy. On edge. I listened to the man who asked me to write this in hopes of letting others know that they’re heard. They’re understood. And, they’re not alone.
My intent is not to trigger anyone, so please let this be a trigger warning for some.
Parents and caregivers are supposed to be a child’s guiding light. Their friend. Their moral compass. The proverbial kick in the ass to stay on the straight-and-narrow. To buckle down and study. To teach a child to make good choices for themselves. To love them unconditionally. And to base their boundaries on self-worth and self-respect.
It doesn’t always work out that way.
Understandably, many parents and caregivers grew up in a time that had a different set of social values:
Suck it up and don’t complain.
Keep your home life private.
Do as I say, not as I do.
Many of these caregivers were doing all that they knew how, and all that they were taught.
Unfortunately, this is how trauma is introduced.
And tends to repeat.
Is it intentionally handed down? No, not always. More common than not are pre-existing values and norms that hitch a ride without much awareness into the cycle or the generational patterns that repeat.
Trauma usually gets handed down in one of two ways: those who wind up reliving what they were taught. And those who wind up repeating what they were taught.
The thing with trauma is that it requires self-awareness in recognizing the patterns, the cycles, and the habits on repeat. The easy part is looking at our grandmother, or mother, or step-father and picking apart everything we don’t like about them and swearing to ourselves that come hell or high water, we’re never allowing ourselves to be treated that way, or treating those in our life like that.
The tougher part is in gaining the self-awareness that is necessary for looking within and for honestly and accurately examining ourselves. Self-awareness is also necessary for assessing what has remained in our lives out of familiarity. Or, dare I say because it’s become comfortable.
Many times with an increase in self-awareness comes an increase in shame. In self-sabotage. And further self-betrayal.
…which perpetuates trauma.
Turning a blind eye on familial patterns and cycles is seen as easier in the moment.
The fact is, when toxic is taught as normal, it’s learned as normal.
We keep those blinders on in childhood in order to survive. The same blinders are worn into our adult relationships where we habitually replay our earliest trauma as “familiar”, time and again.
We may not see the patterns, but we instinctively feel them. It’s like a dance that we were never formally taught, but somehow know the steps. We keep in time to the music, always knowing the next step. We intuitively test potential partners to hear their story, to watch their behavior, to feel that familiar, but often toxic, connection.
And, to watch how familiar they are with the dance.
Recognizing whether our choices are a result of our earliest upbringing requires us to take a few steps back from that familiar song and dance. It requires us to re-assess the situation from a more objective angle and to be honest with ourselves.
To see the situation for what it is.
To accept that what may feel comfortable, isn’t always in our best interests.
The 6 Biggest Signs You Were Raised By A Narcissist
First, there is a common misnomer that a person who is narcissistic is strictly someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This is not totally accurate. Anyone who falls within the “Cluster B” personality disorders in the DSM-V (2013) and displays narcissistic traits— whether or not they meet the criteria for diagnosis — can be labeled narcissistic. On average, 1% of the general population is diagnosed with NPD, and approximately 2–16% in clinical settings, so overall NPD is pretty rare. Males tend to be diagnosed more often with as many as 75% of the cases.
While existing research shows correlations with both biological and environmental markers for some personality disorders including Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), other Cluster B disorders seem to be more specific to environment, such as NPD.
Thus, the patterns tend to be more learned.
So, technically, they can be unlearned.
You Feel Confused Or Guilty For Having An Opinion. If you’re raised in a narcissistic household, many times you’re silenced. You aren’t allowed to voice your opinion, because you’re seen as “wrong”. Your reality is denied. Your feelings are minimized or ignored, and you’re taught hypocrisy as fact.
“Get over it.”
“Stiff upper lip.”
“Do as I say, not as I do.”’
Having a different worldview or opinion from a narcissistic parent means challenging that parent’s perspective. And, challenging a parent’s perspective usually ends badly for the kid — verbal attacks, lashing out, insulting or laughing at the child are common. If the parent is malignant, physical abuse is common.
When a child is silenced, they carry those scars into adulthood: reliving it with poor choices for themselves, or repeating it as what was learned earlier.
For those who relive it, many seek out that old song and dance where being silenced is seen as normal; where going unheard is felt as familiar. They may find themselves unconsciously drawn to relationships where their opinion remains invalidated, their feelings ignored, their needs unmet. If they’ve learned that their opinion has never been heard or valued, they can give up on having a voice.
For those who repeat it, they may talk over others, gaslight the other person’s opinion as “nuts”, or the person as being “crazy”. They may be drawn to relationships where they can minimize others’ opinions, overstep boundaries, and silence those in their life, as they were once silenced themselves in childhood.
Your Self Worth Is Wrapped Up In External Validation. Kids who are raised in narcissistic households don’t receive unconditional positive regard, encouragement or praise. Attention is based on accomplishments. If you want attention, make mom or dad proud. Or make them look good. If you want praise, then outdo the other kids and let the parents shine.
This agenda can shape a child into being anxious — in chasing validation and support from others as reminders that they hold value, and that they’re doing a good enough job. The biggest problem is that if a child is turning to others to validate their worth, they’re also handing those people the power to take it away. If the child’s ability slips, or their accomplishments fall short, they’re ridiculed. Or ignored. Or shamed. What a kid learns is that their value is tied up in what they do, not who they are.
For those who relive this cycle, they often become anxious adults with many unmet needs for love and acceptance. They may constantly need to be reminded that they’re “good enough”, to be told that they have value, and reminded that they’re wanted and loved. And, they often find themselves in relationships that deny these needs, or that pull the rug out from under them when they least expect it.
For those who repeat this cycle, they often become over-achievers; perfectionists. They don’t allow themselves or others in their life to make mistakes, or to be humanly fallible. They often seek idealized relationships and are prone to devaluation in others and themselves. They base their value and worth on their accomplishments, as they were taught in childhood.
Image Is More Important Than Feelings. Kids who were raised to believe that image is the end-all of importance are often raised by what Millon (1996) identifies as a Compensatory Narcissist — those who are overly-ambitious, pretentious, and that nothing less than perfection is acceptable. Those who grow up where image is held in higher regard than emotions, authenticity, or genuine human connection learn that what they want (image) is more important than what they need (connection, affiliation, love, intimacy). This teaches a child that relationships can easily be discarded and replaced when what is wanted, changes.
For those who relive this dynamic, they may become numb to their own feelings, or live in toxic positivity. Because they were taught that how they look is more important than how they feel, this sets a person up for not only being out of touch with their own emotions, but becoming emotionally unavailable and fearful of emotional intimacy, or depth in relationships.
For those who repeat this dynamic, they may become body-obsessed, develop an eating disorder, or push themselves past their emotional breaking point with work, exercise, hobbies, education or social standing. Basic human connection is exchanged for transactional relationships, based on what you can “do” for them, or how good you can make them look.
Your Adult Relationships Are A Repeat Of Childhood Trauma. This is the biggest red flag of being raised in a narcissistic household. Here is where we learn what is considered as “normal”. Functional. Acceptable. This dynamic can include anything — how we see ourselves and our relationships with others, how we identify with our relationships (as transactional or as authentic), our behavioral patterns that are seen as normal or accepted, and how we feel about ourselves.
The biggest overarching theme of narcissism begins…here.
Many have learned that if mom taught them that relationships are a means-to-an-end, then their two options are to either use relationships in a similar way, or avoid them. If dad taught them that emotions are weakness, they learn to suck it up, to hide their emotions, or to overreact because they’re out of touch with their emotions. If silencing and belittling were common, silencing and belittling will feel OK in our adult relationships. If we saw our parents stonewalling each other or using sex to get what they want, these too can be learned as “normal”. Black or White thinking is what is taught.
Those who grow up to relive the toxic narratives usually find themselves struggling with a sense of Self, difficulty with establishing and maintaining boundaries, challenges with intimacy, trust issues, and fears of abandonment. Many — if not most — are unconsciously drawn to relationships where their earliest pains are relived, time and again. Why? Because it’s taught as comfortable.
Kids who grow up to repeat the toxic narrative, usually struggle with seeing it. More often than not, they will deny it, or rationalize their behavior. Because Ego plays such a starring role in narcissism, anything that could be seen as threatening to their Ego, is denied. Rationalized. Or, projected onto others. In some cases, regression is common where as an adult, they regress; they turn the emotional clock back to a “safer” time where they were the kid being taught the pattern instead of the adult now repeating it.
You Learn Not Trust Anyone, Including Yourself. Kids who were raised in toxic environments don’t grow up with a sense of stability, safety or trust. They learn to survive. To question everyone. To believe everyone has an agenda.
Those who grow up reliving trust issues will usually find themselves in situations that further traumatize them and shatter their trust. They may have a history of narcissistic partners who have gone ghost, discarded them, or cheated on them. They may have had their trust betrayed by toxic friends who proved treacherous, or by family members who operate on hidden agendas of covert manipulation and hero mentalities.
Those who grew up to repeat the cycle of trust issues are mirroring what they were taught — that no one and nothing is to be trusted. To get what you can, and leave. To leave others before they leave you. To never let anyone into your heart. These are the kids who grow up being taught to fake a smile, and are taught opportunism as survival.
You Don’t Know Who You Are. The fact is, when a kid has had their voice silenced, their opinion shamed, or their feelings invalidated, they can’t know who they are — because who they are has been silenced. Shamed. And invalidated. They learn to keep quiet, to let others lead and they become the invisible follower. They become complacent. Agreeable. Always nodding along with the others, always betraying themselves.
Those who grow up to relive this situation usually find themselves feeling numb, empty and unhappy. Joy is not felt; anger or depression are often the go-to emotions because they’re felt as safe, familiar. When a kid has been silenced and shamed enough in childhood, they can become spiteful and angry. Because many were shamed for being themselves as kids, they may have given up on learning who they are, or in appreciating their individuality.
Those who grow up to repeat this cycle, often find themselves following the crowd. Some may call it the Chameleon Effect where they’ve learned to easily mimic, blend in, and change their identity based on who they’re hanging around. They may change how they dress, how they wear their hair, the music they listen to, or their opinions. Their sense of identity is fluid, and undefined. Both those who grew up to relive their pain and those who grew up repeating it, weren’t allowed to be themselves as kids, or were shamed for it.
Being raised in a narcissistic household has long-term effects. Increasing self-awareness is a solid start in learning not only about ourselves and where we’ve come from, but in empowering ourselves to face our early trauma so we can overcome it, rise above it, and end the cycle.
McBride, K. (2009). Will I ever be good enough: Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. New York, N.Y. : Free Press.
Millon, T., & Davis, R. O. (1996). Disorders of personality: DSM-IV and beyond (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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