Why We Have To Learn How To Deal With Narcissism And Narcissistic Feeding
By Sally Davis, guest writer
For my entire life, I have felt like a burden. I felt like I was inconvenient to my family; a hassle, annoying, always in the way. I was consistently described as ‘challenging’ or ‘tricky’, so much so that I began to believe this is who I am and adopted that as part of my identity. It felt normal to create drama, problems and discomfort. I didn’t just live in chaos and create chaos - I was chaos.
It has been like the self-fulfilling prophecy of my life. I felt like I walked around apologising for myself, for being there, being a nuisance. I could revel in drama saying “it just follows me around!” but knowing full well that I needed the attention to validate myself. But I had so become the ‘problem protagonist’ in my own life that the more appropriate question was, who was I without being the source of chaos, a problem or a burden? When you are told that’s who you are, it becomes so ingrained in you and conditioned that it becomes your identity and you can be barely conscious anymore.
What I never realised in my life until I started working closely with a mentor is that making myself the centre of attention and validating myself through others is narcissistic. The more I started learning through mentoring with Lighthouse International what narcissism is, the more I could understand the root of it and where this had started in me. The more I looked at the feelings I had about myself - that I was a problem and a burden - and saw that this stemmed from my relationship with my parents, it became clear to me that my own narcissistic traits were born out of their narcissism.
Narcissism and Narcissistic Feeding Defined
In an article in Psychology Today, Darlene Lancer explains narcissism as being a fundamental deficiency of core needs in early development that inhibits healthy emotional development over time. She writes “Narcissists’ deficient self and inner resources make them dependent on other people to affirm their impaired self-esteem and fragile ego”.
The term narcissistic supply, or narcissistic feeding, comes from how a narcissistic person will use other people in their life to build their significance or their idea of themselves. Family and personal relationships to the narcissistic person become a means to an end, as their connections serve a function: to serve them.
They will encourage, discourage, reward and punish you in a way which is purely dependent on their own thoughts, feelings and view of themselves. But, whatever their action, it will always be out of their own dire need to be more powerful, more beautiful, more special, more significant and more valuable than you.
When I saw this behaviour in myself, of needing to build my own self-significance, I became aware of the hurt and pain I had felt inside from my childhood and my teens. And then because I could see it in myself, I could see it in others and most starkly in my parents.
“Better Things To Do”: Narcissistic Damage Through Neglect
Dr Susan Forward writes in her book Toxic Parents that “Parents who focus their energies on their own physical and emotional survival send a very powerful message to their children: ‘Your feelings are not important. I’m the only one who counts’”.
(Forward, 1989) Parental narcissism in the form of neglect is not always about physical neglect, although it is, but it is more about what that physical neglect implies - you are not a priority. But physical distance isn’t necessary to get this message across. Parents can be in the same room as their children or adult children 24/7 and still neglect them emotionally and spiritually due to total self-absorption. Dr Forward calls this ‘damage through omission [rather than] commission’. (Forward, 1989)
For me, neglect was both physical and emotional. Growing up, my father would very rarely attend school events, because he saw it as a waste of his time which could be better spent in the office. And if he did attend, he would complain that school concerts were just “loads of children who didn’t know how to play their instruments”.
My mother has also at various points in my life used neglect in the form of the silent treatment as a form of punishment and manipulation. The message this sends as a child or adult child is “when you do not please me, I withdraw love”.
In my teens, both of my parents moved abroad after their divorce and very rarely visited. Both parents expected me to visit them twice a year yet would rarely visit themselves. In 10 years, my mother visited the UK approximately five times and on two of those visits, she did not see me.
My father visited the UK more frequently but still made many visits in which he “didn’t have time to see me”. The self-absorption was ever-present as work was always placed as more important than his own children.
One time when I was at university, I had a phone call with my father and I invited him to come out to visit me in my university town which was less than an hour outside of London by train so I could show him around, have lunch and we could spend the day together. My father’s reply was: “Oh I don’t have time for that, I have things to do”. His view of himself, as busy and important, was reinforced through making statements like that even though they were at the expense of his daughter. Even though this was a rejection of me, it fed his own self-importance.
Narcississtically Feeding On Your Flaws and Failures
Parents who are narcissistic and narcissistically ‘feed’ on their child think that it is their duty to make sure their child lives up to their expectations. This means they are overly critical and they think that they are loving you by disciplining you and pointing out your flaws. However it is not done for your personal growth as an individual human being, it is your growth as an extension of them. It is not done with love and affection and it’s not a conversation; it is a demand, it is a harangue justified as love. Narcissistic parents can shout at their children for not behaving in a certain way and describe it as character building, or something that you need to learn.
One summer I helped with the reorganisation of my father’s home office, my father shouted at me and called me a bitch. I was so terrified that over the next few days whilst he was away on business, I worked all hours possible to organise everything perfectly. When he came back and went into the office, he came down and gave me a big hug, convinced that his method had worked although it had left me terrified of my father’s cruelty. When my sister was younger, she suffered from anorexia, and my father shouted at her one day that she needed to eat or he would ram it down her throat. She started eating the next day and my father said “maybe she finally realised that her dad does love her”.
Narcissistic parents feel they are justified in their actions no matter how abusive, distressing or controlling because they are not concerned with the emotional wellbeing of their child, they are only concerned with how it reflects on them and will use cruel, humiliating or machiavellian methods to do so.
Growing up, I never felt like I could learn in a safe environment and that if I didn’t know something or didn’t do something properly it was because I was being “tricky”, stupid or “a bitch” - words I learned to call myself from my father, not those I gave myself. The care and empathy required of a loving parent was missing because fundamentally my parents lacked the ability to take responsibility for their own emotional deficiencies and projected that onto me resulting in increased anxiety, low self-esteem and developing a high energy ego that would behave like a defence mechanism against my feeling of irrational inferiority.
Gaining Social Mileage: Narcissistically Feeding Off Your Success
A narcissistic parent does not regard the emotions of their child, only how their child makes them feel. When children are pleasing, they are congratulated. When they aren’t, they are a problem and they will be blamed for that. I learned in my teens that if I only shared positive elements of my life then my parents would remain pleased with me and congratulate me. I had learned enough times that if I shared a problem I was having with them, it was somehow made to seem like it was my own fault.
When I started working in a commendable sector, my parents were able to use my success to their advantage for their own kudos. My parents suddenly had something to tell other members of the family or their friends about what it was I was doing. One time I was let go from a role in a very toxic company with links to some high profile members of society and the royal family. Years later, my father would still refer to that as a company where I was “making a real difference”, rather than a job I had been bullied in. It made me feel like I had deserved to be bullied, like what I had experienced in that job which had been stressful and traumatising in many ways was supposed to be good for me. But this neglected the toxic environment it had been in reality.
Some years later, with a new job I got, when I shared with him what my salary was (which I now realise I did subconsciously to please him), he was ecstatic and was telling people that I made “as much as a fully trained architect” which was his measure for my success.
A few years ago, I received an award from a respected body in my field and brought my mum with me as it was during one of the rare times she visited. She beamed with pride during the whole ceremony, and said to people that I was her daughter. We passed one of my colleagues in the reception who said I looked nice, and I later got scolded by my mother for making a joke that I don’t usually make that much of an effort in the office.
There was nothing strictly damning in her behaviour that day but where it reveals itself to be narcissistic feeding was the fixation on upholding a superficial image and how, when I left that sector to pursue mentoring work, her support and pride in her daughter utterly vanished because it didn’t fit with her idea for who she wanted me to be, and who she had told her friends I was. “But you won that award!” and “You were so good at it!” being the two favourite sayings as to why I ought to have stayed in that line of work. My own personal development in my choice of career and my happiness was pushed down the priority list to make way for what would look good, sound good and that would impress other people.
Our research at Lighthouse, which psychologists and social scientists will confirm, has found that most people are almost entirely ignorant of narcissism - what it is and how it affects them - yet they are damaged by it, are fed on by it, while feeding on others - it’s the biggest pervasive ignorance of toxicity in family life and it’s getting progressively worse by generation.
In the same way that I was initially unaware of how I was making myself the centre of attention, my mother and father have been unaware and ignorant of how their narcissism is a product of their own developmental damage inflicted by their own parents and how that is now damaging their daughter. What we call the intergenerational nightmare.
It Isn’t Love: Narcissistic Feeding In The Name of Care
My narcissistic traits were born out of how my parents had treated me and the emotional dependencies that their physical and emotional neglect left me with. Because my feelings as an independent person were never validated by my primary caregivers (i.e. my parents), I was always seeking validation from them and other people. I would get into a state of deep anxiety if I was not verbally encouraged and given positive reinforcement, I needed compliments and was, subconsciously, continually testing people around me to be able to ascertain whether they would abandon me or care about me.
Where it is all the more dangerous is that I have understood the affection given by my parents when I was pleasing to them AS love itself. Which I now know it is definitely not. When they have fed on me, I have seen that as love - that either they are proud of me for something I have done that makes them look good or when they are controlling me over something I have failed to do - it’s all because they “care”. But the role of a parent is to love volitionally - i.e. love that is deliberately given through independent choice, not obligation and to counsel, lead, mentor and coach their child into realising their potential. Their potential.
When parental narcissism loses sight of this role and focuses instead on themselves and the building of their own significance, the damage that they do to their children leaves a devastating impact, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually and can even turn their own child into a narcissistic person as well because they never fulfilled the emotional needs of their child.
Calling A Spade A Spade: Confronting The Narcissism
The narcissism in my parents became extremely clear when I addressed it with them. Their self-absorption and self-significance, both classic narcissistic traits, was greatly threatened when I started putting boundaries down in my life for what they were no longer permitted to control, where their opinion was not requested or wanted, or their use of abusive language and even bullying tactics became unacceptable. Both of my parents demonstrated what is known as narcissistic rage based on this change in the status quo.
As Shannon L Alder says “You will never get the truth out of a Narcissist. The closest you will ever come is a story that either makes them the victim or the hero, but never the villain.” Their ability to take responsibility for their wrongdoing and their damage is at odds with how they have built their idea of themselves. In the case of my parents, when I wrote them each a letter addressing the hurt they had caused me in my life and how we can build a new, healthy relationship instead, neither of them replied. They could no longer feed on me for their own significance so I was no more of use to them, hoping perhaps that I would return to my former position as their narcissistic supply.
As I have begun my journey of healing from all the pain I experienced due to my parents' narcissistic abuse, it was through having the guidance of a mentor, coach and counsellor that I was able to learn how I had misunderstood narcissistic supply as love. I could gradually learn how to value myself as an individual human being without requiring external validation from others as I had when I was unconsciously behaving within narcissistic traits of my own. Although it has been a hard and painful process which is still very much in its infancy, I have felt liberation that can only be felt when that parental feeding tube is removed and I write in the hope this may help others.
Dr Susan Forward, Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy And Reclaiming Your Life, United Kingdom: Bantam Books, 1989
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