I help a lot of people who are recovering from a relationship with a narcissist, whether a parent, partner, friend, employer, or other. Narcissistic parents do the most harm, but for many of my clients the trouble does not end when they have grown up and left home. This is because narcissists are at their worst when things do not go their way, and one of the greatest challenges in life is ageing. Narcissistic parents often become worse as they age. How do you behave according to your deeper values while protecting your well-being, around such a parent?
I don't believe that anybody puts their hand up early in life and says, "Please give me a personality disorder, make me a selfish person who harms my kids!" This is not to deny our responsibility for our behaviour, but as I will discuss in another blog post, narcissism is a kind of insanity. I often suggest to people that they think of it in similar terms to intellectual disability. Instead of the intellect, however, the retardation has taken place at the emotional and moral level. As a result the narcissist has a distorted relationship with value: an inflated sense of their importance, and a correlating lack of empathy for others. Sure, they might play the game of empathy (and they may be masters at keeping up appearances), but when it really comes to it, when they are tested in any true way, they lack it. To understand the emotional mechanism that causes these we have to look at a narcissist's relationship with shame. Shame is a universal human experience. It can be unhealthy, but in the right amounts, in the right contexts, experienced and held in the right way, it is vital for our emotional and moral health.
Narcissists are people who have never learned to tolerate shame. They react to it cutting their experience of things in half, and walling off the shame. This is why they rarely make genuine apologies or take real responsibility. Instead they protect themselves from feeling shame by seeing themselves as superior. If shame says "You're bad" they counteract it by telling themselves "I'm excellent." Things do get complicated, for to avoid responsibility the narcissist may express self-loathing, to distract you by eliciting your sympathy, but ultimately there is this sense of entitlement in a narcissist, a double-standard, a sense of being different and better.
The problem with this very unhealthy coping strategy is that, as the narcissist ages, all that feeds their sense of superiority usually fades – depending on the individual it may be their body, their prowess, their sphere of influence, their mental capacities. Usually they deal with this challenge at first through the psychological defense known as Denial (yes, the same defense they use to ward off shame). A common example of this is acting like they are young. Hence the stereotypical ageing man who trades his wife for a sports car and young lover. However as denial ceases to function, their worse defenses begin to emerge. These include envy, for example in the mother who criticizes her daughter-in-laws cruelly, and other forms of subtle or not-so subtle aggression.
Putting others down is a key defense-mechanism of the narcissist, because as I have pointed out they need to feel superior in order to feel valuable. They often put others down more vigorously as they age in order to retain that sense of superiority which is being challenged by the effects of ageing. Who they criticize is often determined by other features of their distorted narcissistic psychology. For example a narcissist tends to “split”: to divide others into all-good or all-bad. Hence the uncle who behaves gregariously to one of nephew while relentlessly putting the other down. Or the narcissistic mother above, whose sons can do no wrong but whose daughter-in-laws are wholly inadequate in her eyes. Narcissists split because they cannot tolerate the emotional complexity involved in healthy relationships, hence they have favourites (i.e. good people) and dissapointments (i.e. bad people) among their children and other people generally. Sometimes, of course, the one person is seen by them as all-good, and then all-bad, and then back again, in a roller coaster of affection and rejection. This is why many narcissistic parents fall-out with their children over some petty grievance, and then the relationship is repaired and all is good, and then there is another falling out and cutting off, and on it goes. As a narcissist ages this idealising versus devaluing pattern may worsen. They will take no responsibility for it, of course, blaming their child instead, and in the good times denying that any rupture ever happened.
The narcissist’s sense of value needs to be inflated like a balloon. When it deflates they often become depressed. This depression may take the classical appearance, or it may look different to the untrained eye, for example they may become manic or aggressive. In older age, paranoia is common at this point. Suddenly others are spiteful in the narcissist's eyes. They fear the malevolence of the world. I said that their psychological defenses worsen, and this is a further defense, against their fear of dependence and helplessness. Remember, they need to see themselves as superior, which means believing they are invulnerable and all-capable. Rather than accept such a state they defend themselves by projecting them onto the world in the form of imagined threats and dangers. For whereas the healthy person accepts with some grace the realities of ageing – increasing dependence and incapacity - for the narcissist these experiences lead to despair, to a lost sense of value as a person, and to a sense of the world as bereft of meaning. Their paranoia is a last ditch defense against such despair. For if other people or the world is threatening them, then they must still matter. They still have value. Of course many ageing narcissists do not fall so low emotionally and hence do not need to defend themselves through paranoia or madness. They stay afloat at a level of fearful self-absorption, whining about the aches and pains of age or the lack of care of others toward them.
As a friend of mine put it in response to one who did some damage in our friendship circle, narcissists are “walking projection machines.” We have seen how the narcissist “projects” their sense of helplessness by imagining that the world is malevolent. Another form of projection common to narcissists involves their ability to project their feelings into others: to make others feel the way that they secretly do. These are feelings that the narcissist cannot acknowledge or accept as their own. So they instinctively dump these feelings into others through manipulative means. The most common example is when they make their children feel ashamed, that emotion which above they cannot tolerate, but there are others. Their helplessness in ageing may lead to the narcissist to manipulate their child into feeling powerless in their presence, while they themselves try to exert control over everything in order to feel the opposite. By doing this they maintain the illusion of being powerful. This can be very hard for the adult child who is now caring for them, but who thereby feels powerless and controlled, or who finds themselves somehow feeling ashamed constantly, or who simply finds there parent impossible to negotiate with.
Because most people find ageing difficult and the worst therefore sometimes comes out in them, it is easy to excuse such narcissistic behaviour, ascribing it simply to old age. Such an attitude is damaging for adult children who have spent a lifetime trying to develop a more healthy sense of who they are after all the damage done by their parent in childhood. A dilemma such adult children often face, is not only what to do around their parent to protect themselves, but how to remain compassionate. I will offer some principles to guide action, but I will begin by saying that the instinct to compassion is good. For a start, nothing will build up your sense of self so much as doing what you know is right, is kind, is just. And no action will leave you feeling unlovable or without value so much as the opposite. Compassion for a narcissist is right and good. After all, as I say, who puts their hand up to become such a person. As Philip Larkin wrote in his famous poem regarding harmful parents:
“But they were fucked up in their turn,
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy stern,
And half at one another’s throats.”
The instinct to do what we can for our parents is a good thing, no matter how lousy that parent was. Within proper limits, of course. This is not about evaluating their behaviour and deciding if they deserve it, rather it is about you doing what is good. So it has less to do with their personality and more to do with your deeper, better values. That said, there are some important principles that can guide what you do, and how you do it, when dealing with such a parent as they age. The first principle is knowledge of their narcissistic psychology, which I have just sketched, and beyond that you need self-knowledge, you need to remain in touch with reality, and you need to set boundaries and maintain them well. I am assuming here that you will remain in contact with your parent, and may be a carer for them in some capacity. I am leaving aside cases where such parents are so toxic that you need to cease all contact, which is sometimes best.
Principle two: Self-knowledge
You were raised by this person. The behaviours you now witness in them are probably exaggerated versions of what was always there. This means that your buttons are going to be pushed. Perhaps it will be your sense of shame, or of helplessness, or of not mattering and existing only to serve them, or that some catastrophe is just around the corner. You need to recognise this process within you, and you need to hand back, so to speak, the things they project or dump onto you - to see that it belongs to them and not to you. To let it go from within. You are a separate person without their debilitating emotional disorder.
This sense of a separate self is vital. You should take stock of how far you have come. You should distinguish your healthy coping strategies from the unhelpful ones you received from them. You should reflect on who you are as a different person to them, and importantly on who you want to become - get clear on your values. Your parent may try to draw you back into the old drama, and you must come to recognise your buttons and how they push them, and return each time to your better way of being. When you focus on your better values and identity and act accordingly, you gradually change your emotions into healthier ones.
Principle Two: keep in touch with reality
Knowledge is power. And sanity. Narcissistic parents can do damage not only to your sense of yourself but also to your sense of what is real and reasonable. Gaslighting is common. It is important to do some reading as per above to recognise how and why a person becomes narcissistic and what type of narcissist your parent is. You need to recognise that your value as a person is not dependent on their opinion of you, but on how you are in the world toward others. And how you are with yourself: you need to become your own wise, compassionate parent and caretaker. Furthermore you need to become more clear on what healthy parenting and healthy relationships look like. You have to develop a sense of proper boundaries, which we will discuss below. You need to develop a big picture sense of what it is to flourish as an individual and in relationships which is good and realistic.
In the context of reality I should mention that the term "narcissist" is often loosely used as a form of abuse, applied to people who are certainly not personality disordered. I agree that this is problematic, and they you should be wary in using the term. At the same time, everybody who has come to counselling with me to discuss such a parent has described behaviour that is clearly at the level of the personality disorder, and without being able to engage in formal diagnoses it is important for the sanity and well-being of such people to call a spade a spade.
Principle three: enact boundaries
Boundaries are about what you will tolerate from your parent with respect to words and actions, but equally they are about what you are willing to do, and how you will respond to your parent’s behaviour. As I mentioned above you should try to become more clear on exactly what behaviours of theirs affect you the most, and in what way. How do those actions make you feel? Angry? Helpless? Numb? What do they make you think? What do they make you do? For example are you still trying to placate their impossible demands? Or taking responsibility for how they feel? Discern the patterns and their content. Does your parent attack you directly, or by insinuation? Or do they aim the attacks at your partner or children instead? If you want control of boundaries then you need clarity about what is actually going on.
When you ask your parent not to do certain things as a way of setting boundaries, you cannot control their response. They may listen and comply, or they might only pretend to while continuing to call you ten times a day, or they might explicitly reject your requests. You cannot control their response or their behaviour, but at this moment you have asserted your boundaries for your own sake. By doing this you stand up to them and express your self-respect despite their attempt to diminish it. Of course you may be ‘punished’ for this, but often it is worth it. You can then enact they boundaries as far as your actions are in your control. Answer only one phone call a day.
When you assert boundaries you will need to have clear consequences in mind. You will need to communicate them to your parent, and to enforce them, just as you would a child. "I can only answer one phone call a day, and as I said I am busy and can only speak for thirty minutes - I will have to end the call then." When adults fail to enforce consequences children lose respect for boundaries, and it is the same when dealing with the childishness of narcissistic parents. Remember of course that, just as when dealing with children, you should act in a firm but calm manner. Try to maintain a nonplussed demeanour, reminding yourself that your parent is like a child in this moment. Know yourself and do not let them shame or guilt you as a means of manipulating you.
This is a brief over-view, sing-posting a few principles which can help guide you with your narcissistic parent. What kind of relationship, what boundaries, and what actions are best for you is a question that cannot be answered generally, but can be worked through by considering your desires, values, and situation.
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.