Adult children of narcissistic parents had one or more parents who lacked empathy, exhibited an excessive sense of entitlement, and callously exploited their children. As a result, it’s common for children of narcissists to engage in the following five contradictory behaviors in adulthood:
1. Needing a great deal of alone time yet surrounding yourself with toxic people to fill the void.
The reason adult children of narcissists or even just those who had many adverse childhood experiences might require more alone time in adulthood is because they were deprived of their choices and agency in childhood. They were parentified as children, which meant that they were forced to take on adult roles and responsibilities before they were ready. That is why you may savor your alone time at what appears to be an extreme level to outsiders yet is completely understandable given what you’ve been through. Additional time and space are often needed to recuperate from the traumas of childhood to experience the innocence and peace of a childhood you never got to experience. Simultaneously, adult children of narcissists were not provided a validating and safe environment to nurture their development. Their emotional needs were not met, and they can struggle with a chronic sense of emptiness as a result. This means that even though they relish their alone time on a heightened level, adult children of narcissists can still be vulnerable to surrounding themselves with toxic people to fill that void – such as unempathetic friends, relatives, partners, and colleagues who resemble their narcissistic parents. This can happen early on in young adulthood before they’ve begun to look more closely at their patterns and can lead to re-traumatization. After experiencing this re-traumatization, it becomes even more vital to use your alone time to heal.
2. Being hyper-independent and searching for a rescuer at the same time.
As the child of a narcissist, you most likely grew up relying on yourself and fulfilling your own emotional needs because one or more of your caretakers lacked the emotional maturity to do so adequately. As an adult, this self-reliance and hyper-independence may have served you in many ways in your success or areas where having a sense of independence is beneficial and required – while detracting from your ability to ask for help. You may take charge in many aspects of your life. However, many adult children of narcissists and those have experienced complex trauma also tend to “search for a rescuer” throughout their lives – usually a romantic partner. On a subconscious level, they may seek out someone who will finally take care of them in the way they deserved to be taken care of as children but never were. This can make them susceptible to toxic people who are looking to exploit their vulnerabilities if their “knight in shining armor” is actually a covert wolf in sheep’s clothing.
3. Subconsciously recreating your childhood in an unknowing effort to resolve it, even while trying to actively avoid people like your narcissistic parents. You may feel unwittingly “stuck” in relationships with narcissistic and psychopathic people because your nervous system is accustomed to chaos.
When children grow up in unsafe, chaotic environments, their nervous system is uniquely affected in ways that can affect them throughout their adulthood. You may feel biochemically accustomed to chaos and desensitized to cruelty and trauma in ways that other people who did not have adverse childhood experiences did not. As a result, you might find yourself stuck in a trauma repetition cycle with friends or partners who resemble your caretakers in childhood. For example, a daughter with a narcissistic father may feel especially trapped in relationships with angry male partners because it taps into her core childhood wounds. A son with a narcissistic mother may find himself exploited by vindictive narcissistic women. This can be due to the way their nervous system is conditioned and as a part of a subconscious effort to “resolve” the original trauma – a hope that this time, the story ends differently with the adult child of a narcissist being loved and seen for who they are.
It should be noted that anyone can be the victim of a narcissist or psychopath, regardless of their childhood trauma history. However, adult children of narcissists can find it more difficult to extricate themselves from these types of relationships because the trauma bonds that form with narcissists in adulthood can be strengthened by the pre-existing trauma bonds children of narcissists often develop with their parents in an effort to survive. If you “fawned” and people-pleased to survive an abusive childhood, you will likely need to heal this fawning response in adulthood.
4. Having a perfectionistic streak and a need for control – yet losing control over your sense of self and safety in the world.
Adult children of narcissists as well as children of controlling parents in general develop an interesting relationship with control and perfectionism. They become conditioned to fear losing control because they’ve been controlled since birth. Their parents have constantly moved the goal posts to ensure that they always tried to strive for approval that they would be unlikely to obtain. As a result, many adult children of narcissists can develop perfectionistic tendencies and self-doubt, becoming impressive overachievers who may also suffer from a sense of Imposter Syndrome because of the bullying they endured. They might fear becoming “too visible” lest someone attack them since they usually have experienced the pathological envy and bullying of a toxic parent. They may need a sense of control over their environment in order to feel truly “safe.”
As a result, they might avoid opportunities where they could potentially lose control – whether that be work opportunities, opportunities to showcase themselves and their talents, or safe friendships and relationships that require a bit more vulnerability and intimacy. This lack of control can feel overwhelming to their nervous system which associates being visible with being degraded and punished. However, the solution is not about indiscriminately trusting people or getting exhausted by taking on every opportunity that comes your way – you cannot know who is truly emotionally safe or not until you’ve observed their long-term patterns, and not every opportunity will benefit you if the risks outweigh the rewards. The key is in establishing internal safety through emotional regulation and healing your traumas so you can enforce healthier boundaries in adulthood – while still taking advantage of the opportunities you feel genuinely good about taking on.
5. Depriving themselves and not feeling deserving of good things, even though your narcissistic parents expected you to be the best.
As a child, you were emotionally neglected and mistreated. You were not taught to expect basic respect or kindness from others – in fact, you were conditioned to expect punishment just for existing or exhibiting joy and healthy pride. Yet you were also expected to be the best in everything you did to bring pride to your family. You may have developed a “self-deprivation” mindset as a result, feeling like you were not good enough to ask for better treatment or experiences even when you went above and beyond your narcissistic parent’s expectations of you. As an adult, it can be helpful to establish an abundance mindset instead. Think of all the positive experiences you were deprived of in childhood as an “inheritance” that you should have received but never got. As an adult, you owe it to your inner child and adult self to give yourself all those positive and fulfilling experiences life has to offer. Re-parent yourself and recondition yourself to expect good things. Don’t feel like you have to “earn” good experiences like you did in childhood. Engage in “safe play” in adulthood to regain the sense of innocence you should have had. You deserved safety and peace. You are more than worthy of all the happiness and abundance life has to offer. You were always enough and deserving.
If you are the adult child of a narcissistic parent or have had a relationship with a narcissistic partner, you are not alone, and help is out there. You deserve support in processing your traumas and might find it helpful to process these traumas with a mental health professional.