Narcissistic Parents

by Michelle Piper

Narcissistic parents cause “carried shame” in their children. Carried shame is different than “healthy shame.”  The important difference between the two in this case is carried shame originates from the narcissistic parent and is not your own, therefore not easily processed.

Healthy shame, on the other hand, is from ourselves. It is not from a narcissistic mother, or another external source.  It is from our own value system.

As an adult child of a narcissist (ACON), we may still unconsciously carry this shame with us. It can affect personal, work, and intimate relationships.  If you have a narcissistic mother in law or father in law, your spouse may carry shame and have some of the same reactions discussed here.

When we feel healthy shame, we are noting an “awareness function” that reminds us we are imperfect humans, limited, as all are all human beings and have operated out of our own sense of what is right and wrong. When appropriately felt, we don’t like it, but shame passes.

As it does so, it leaves us feeling whole and may even teach us a healthy lesson. However, if we carry the shame of someone else, like that of a narcissistic parent, it can have damaging effects on us and our relationships.

“I feel guilty all the time and I don’t know why,” is one way carried shame can feel.  Carried parental shame is toxic because it is injected from a parent’s abusive behaviors. You unintentionally hold onto the shame narcissistic parents should feel when they do boundary-less, harmful behavior.

A narcissistic parent does not feel healthy shame when they do violating behaviors to you but, instead projects that shame onto you.  Often, the result is that you feel inappropriate guilt and self loathing triggered by the narcissist’s inability to feel guilt, shame, or empathy.

As children, we can’t recognize that projected shame does not belong to us and, once we internalize it as a child, it is hard to see these feelings actually belong to our narcissistic mother or father, even as we become mature adults.

Carrying our narcissistic parent’s shame has crippling effects. Diminished sense of worth and value can last well into adulthood.

We can become hypersensitive to feedback because the negative voice we may carry from our parent amplifies the well meaning criticism from others we can trust, sadly, by activating the burning toxic shame from the narcissist who violated our trust in the first place.

Narcissistic parents transfer their shame onto their children, particularly the scapegoat of the family. This happens because a narcissist does not realize their behavior is shameful, but the scapegoat child feels something nameless is amiss.

Usually the scapegoat in the family is highly intuitive and prone to take on the pain and troubles of others. As the scapegoat matures, he or she often becomes the “truth teller” about the harmful behavior happening in the family and attracts negative attention from siblings and parents alike.  The child’s sense of reality may be eroded.

Shame can be an intolerable feeling that can give you a sense of inadequacy and unworthiness of feeling happy or free. When a child feels this way, they believe it is their own fault that their narcissistic parent treats them cruelly and doesn’t love them. Their trauma is carried with them for a long time. They carry the internalized message that they are not good enough, bad, and a defective human.

In a family with a narcissistic parent, the scapegoat is not a person, but rather an object, as narcissists tend to objectify all people. In contrast, when the child is in the golden child role the child is treated as the good object.

If, as a child, you were put in the scapegoat role and treated as the bad object, it can feel as if you existed solely as a container for the blame and burdens of the family. The shame that is placed on the scapegoat child would make any kid feel confused and unsure of why they’re made to feel this way, leaving them to try to figure out what they did wrong.

Because the origins of shame do not belong to you as an adult and childhood may be a painful and avoided memory, it is hard to figure out how to rid ourselves of such traumatic feelings.

Adult children of narcissists have learned to overcome it by releasing the feelings of ownership of the carried feelings in order to rid the shame from yourself.  Remove the shame that has nothing to do with you, carried shame, to make room for new experiences in your life.

To do this, get in touch with your feelings and what your narcissistic parent did to you when you were younger. If you were placed in the scapegoat role, you may have succumbed to the role and allowed all of the troubles and burdens of your family to be placed on your shoulders.

Now is the time to release all of that negative energy and know that what happened to you when you were younger was not your fault and that you are a worthy person.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelani October 31, 2012 at 6:58 pm

“I feel guilty all the time and I don’t know why,” is one way carried shame can feel. Carried parental shame is toxic because it is injected from a parent’s abusive behaviors. You unintentionally hold onto the shame narcissistic parents should feel when they do boundary-less, harmful behavior.”

Wow! Just wow! I’ve been reading a lot lately about NPD but had never read this put quite this way. This is exactly how I feel. I’ve always felt this way. Even as a small child. I’ve always felt like there was something just inherently bad about me. I’m just a bad egg. I would make a mistake or behave badly or make a poor decision (as children are prone to do without adult guidance and nurturing; I had an Ignoring Mother) and I always felt sooo shameful, like I, and everyone else, would just be better off if I didn’t exist. I try to look back at my life and tell myself “Hey, you weren’t bad, you were just a kid.”, but I still find myself feeling guilty, thinking I’m making excuses for myself, not owning up to the reality of how awful I am.
Your words are really powerful for me. I didn’t do anything wrong, my mother did. I shouldn’t feel guilty, my mother should. Her behavior doesn’t belong to me. I don’t own her narcissism. It’s hard for me to balance this carried shame with the reality that I am not a perfect person. I have done bad things. But I am trying to work through it all and draw that boundary between where what she did to me ends and I begin. Thank you!

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Michelle Piper November 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Dear Kelani,
You are welcome. Thanks so much for letting me know what was helpful to you in this article. Carried shame and other carried feelings is a helpful concept I learned from Pia Mellody’s work and she has a few books you may find helpful. Best of luck to you!
Michelle

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joseph December 13, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Narcissistic mothers are not mothers. They are disabled people with no business having children. They are sick, in every way. They transfer the symptoms of their ravaged soul over to their kids. It is insidious, confusing, gross, and evil.

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Roger January 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm

It is so true, they aren’t mothers at all. My NM would project onto me all the time and it took me so long to realize that she was making me feel bad about things that I shouldn’t. If something went wrong, it was my fault. If she didn’t like something, it was my responsibility to fix it. It confused me and made me question myself almost every day. I tried to be a good son but was always shut down.

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pall June 20, 2013 at 1:05 am

really true after reading this column i feel iam in some rehab treatment and iam getting better day by day it actually saved my mental life, thanks michelle, and everybody here, i did not a get a job in USA and came back to India, my mother has changed me from golden to scapegoat, wants to put shame in me as if I killed somebody, I just did not succeed in getting work visa or job, but i can work in my country but her dreams of getting rich are over hence ,till i read this blog i was so depressed carrying guilt shame, but i feel better

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Joy September 3, 2013 at 3:26 pm

This makes clear a clearly difficult reality, I understand better what has been happening to me in life, it is good to know that it is a true challenge for those who have been victims to keep seeking answers and gaining tools to restore a broken spirit, I am encouraged by this information, now I can rebuild a healthier self esteem in time, taking each day and working with these newfound tools! Thank you for this information for better understanding.

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tropicpar September 28, 2013 at 5:31 am

This is good information, and I am thankful that it is freely available. Having a narcissistic parent is challenging and not even mental professionals discuss it or identify the complex situation. Good mental health professionals are very rare and, mostly, treat symptoms such as shame superficially. For me, the haven’t seem to catch up with my situation, factors or profundize in family disfunction. I feel validated, instead, by this information.

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Anonymous September 21, 2013 at 11:05 am

Thank you for writing about such difficult, vague, not clearly-defined feelings and intuitions that children and adult children of narcissists have, but have NEVER been able to put their finger on. You bring them to light with the utmost clarity. Things that have been lifelong, confusing, vague, yet creepy feelings become aha! light bulb moments when reading your articles. It is just the most amazing feeling to have after so long. You have such a talent for being able to put words, clearly, onto lifelong, confusing, horrible feelings. I am always fearful of thinking of my own narcissistic mother in a cruel way (don’t ask me why)… But it’s never felt cruel to think of her in this way when reading your articles, just brutally honest, which is such a sigh of relief to finally have that honesty. Thank you so much for this! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

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withheld January 26, 2014 at 9:10 am

Please answer this question? My NM will ask me a question. I answer it. Then she says, “That’s not my question.” and proceeds to ask another similar one.
HOW do I respond to her habitual “that’s not my question?” communication???

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Anonymous May 23, 2014 at 1:42 am

Thank you for all this information that you provide so freely. It is helpful for so many, I believe. Even helpful to me, who is myself a therapist, and a recovered child of two narcissistic parents.

I´ve had long separation periods from my parents. I worked through my experiences and buildt my own life. Then for periods I´ve tried to see if things were changed, especially as my mother begged for contact and promised not to do those things again. I never trusted her, of course. But out of mercy, and also because of the positive things a family can provide after all, I have tried again and again. Whenever I set healthy boundaries, however, my parents blame me and label me in negative ways towards the rest of my family.

Now I have children of my own. I promised myself that if my parents ever let their destructiveness reach my children, I will breach the contact again. When they were small, things functioned better. But now that my kids are getting older, my mother´s manipulation is reaching them too. After a really really bad episode that scared my children, followed by my parents´denial, blaming it all on me, and going behind my back to tell their one-sided version to my siblings, setting them all up against me – now enough is enough.

My dilemma is: Whether to breach the bond completely between the children and their grandparents, or allowing some contact (for the childrens sake, not the grandparents´). And what about the rest of the (manipulated) family, who are taking my parents side? They are so much part of the destructive system in our family. Also, I would need advise as to how much explain to children (one older and two younger).

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Melanie June 19, 2014 at 10:17 am

Focus on creating a life without any of those family members in it. Think of yourself as creating a new beginning for a healthy life with your children, your spouse if you have one…your core family.
You are striving for balance in your present situation but that is impossible with people who feed on creating drama and exerting control. You have to believe that and accept it for a healthier life. If don’t accept their behavior for yourself, don’t accept it for your children. Your parents won’t be different with them. They just have more angles to manipulate now.

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