1. We trust too easily and we don’t trust enough.
The children of narcissists are taught that they live in a frightening world – one where love is rarely unconditional. In the early stages of healing, the sight of healthy love and affection always looks slightly suspect to us. On the other hand, the sight of toxic love is all too familiar and feels like a comfort zone. We trust in the monsters disguised as saviors far more easily than we do those who offer us a stable version of love.
Dangerous people represent the same challenges that we underwent in early childhood, so to our subconscious, they ironically feel a lot less frightening. The trick is not to trust too easily or not trusting at all: the balance is found in trusting ourselves. Until we’ve learned to grieve and heal our core wounds from childhood, we won’t be able to trust our inner voice. We’ll continue to ignore the instincts that could save our lives or pre-judge someone who may want the best for us; that is why healing is so essential on our journey to self-love and love.
2. We deeply desire commitment, but we also fear it like the plague.
Outwardly, we seem to be the types in search of long-term commitment. Some of us may even have a habit of settling just for the sake of settling down; long-term relationships can provide an odd sense of comfort to someone who has always felt alienated, especially by their own flesh and blood. However, deep down, we also have an intense fear of commitment, especially when it comes to committing to a person who may actually truly care for us. The prospect of a stable partner represents a “forever” that is frightening.
Due to the enmeshed and dysfunctional family we grew up in, commitment to us signifies another person having complete control over us and our emotions. As a result, we tend to defend our freedom whenever we feel it might be challenged and can withdraw when things get too intense. On one hand, this is good when it comes to weeding out those who were just trying to fast-forward us into a shady arrangement anyway. On the other, it can also put a damper on a healthier longer-term relationship when things always feel at a standstill.
3. We are hyper-attuned – to everything.
Changes in tone? Check. Micro-shifts in facial expressions? Noted. Gestures that contradict spoken words? Documented. We are emotional private investigators that are highly attuned to changes in our environment. We had to be in order to survive our childhood – we had to be on the lookout for whenever our parents were about to verbally, emotionally or even physically harm us. Due to this, we are highly sensitive and intuitive to the needs of others, but we are also constantly on the lookout for what’s about to come.
This hyperactive attunement in childhood abuse survivors has even been confirmed by research. It comes in handy when analyzing situations, picking up on someone else’s hidden emotions and predicting someone’s behavior, but it can help to take a step back from overanalyzing and also see the bigger picture every once in a while. In other words, it’s important to tune back to ourselves, what we’re feeling and how we can best take care of ourselves in that particular situation. We cannot control the actions of others, but we can control which relationships we continue to pursue and how we reclaim our power from toxic ones.
4. We can be ‘swallowed whole’ by the person we love; we make excellent caretakers but we have to work on becoming better boundary-makers.
Remember that hyper-attunement? Well, it comes in handy for being caretakers but not so much when it comes to maintaining boundaries. We learned to cater to the needs of our toxic parents at a very young age in order to survive. Many of us even took on parent roles. This means our boundaries are porous and need extra work and maintenance.
Otherwise, we can be swallowed whole by whoever we’re dating or in a relationship with. Their needs can become our fixation, often at the expense of our own. This can be especially dangerous if we’re dating another narcissistic person in adulthood. Learning that we have basic needs and rights seems like a rudimentary step, but it’s actually one of the most important milestones children of narcissistic parents can achieve.
5. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Since the remnants of our childhood tend to lead to destructive cycles in adulthood, it’s not often that we meet someone who embodies what love and respect look like. On the rare occasion we find consistency in a partner or even a friend, it can initially scare the hell out of us.
What does it mean to have someone believe in us and support us without a hidden agenda? We don’t know, so in the early stages of healing, we might unconsciously find ways to sabotage that connection before it even has a chance to begin.
For a long time, our mentality might be, “what can’t come near us can’t hurt us.” This is natural for someone who had to endure multiple violations even before they became adults. It can also be a protective barrier against predators who are drawn to our empathy and resilience. Unfortunately, when taken too far in some contexts, it means we lose out on opportunities for true intimacy along the way. During the healing journey, children of narcissists can heal their fear of intimacy once they begin getting to know and trust themselves first.
6. We become easily enmeshed with toxic people.
Due to our past experiences of abuse, we tend to become attached to toxic people and chaotic situations in early adulthood in a more intense way because they bring up past wounds while also cementing new ones. We internalized verbal and emotional abuse as a twisted sense of “normal” in childhood, so it’s no wonder that we rationalize toxic behavior in adulthood. Anyone can be the victim of a predator, but as a childhood abuse survivor, people who envy or belittle us seem like a natural fit because this type of pain-pleasure dynamic is all we’ve ever experienced.
Children of narcissistic parents may find that they have unwittingly become tethered to numerous toxic people throughout their lives. We have to do a LOT of emotional house-cleaning to detach from these toxic relationships once we reach adulthood. It is crucial to clear that space for heathier relationships to enter and to breathe fresher air away from the constant toxicity.
7. We are fiercely independent.
While we’re taking care of everyone else’s needs, we give little mind to who’s taking care of ours. The thing about children of narcissists is that they learn to fend for themselves early on, to strategically navigate a psychological war zone. Children of narcissists are fighters, so at the end of the day, they don’t really need anyone to do anything for them – or so they believe.
Independence is a powerful trait, but it’s also wise to balance it out with the ability to ask for help and to look for reciprocity in relationships. Do not allow your independence to deprive you of the love and affection you deserve and give freely to others, especially to those who are undeserving of your time, energy and efforts. You are not an emotional punching bag or sponge. You are your own person and you are also deserving of having someone care for you in return should you need it.
Many children of narcissists tend to get into one-sided friendships or relationships where they get drained by the other person without getting any benefits in return. They give, give, give without getting because they’ve convinced themselves they don’t need anyone to do anything for them. This endless ‘giving’ is usually rooted in a deeply painful feeling of never being quite enough and having to work hard to receive love. Children of narcissists are conditioned to become givers by their parents and they grow up with the belief that no one is there for them anyway. They must learn to ask for and be receptive to receiving the same type of love and attention they’re so used to giving to others.
8. We are afraid of being seen, so we either become too visible by oversharing or disappear altogether by withdrawing.
Sometimes, children of narcissists have a tendency to overshare in the early stages of healing in the hopes that someone will see their pain and come rescue them. They put themselves out there to find that rescuer – only to find that the toxic types pretending to do the “rescuing” are only there to feed on their wounds and exploit their vulnerabilities.
However, once they become their own saviors, children of narcissists tend to vacillate in the other direction – they tend to close themselves off so no one can hurt them. If we are vulnerable with you, it’s because we want you to see us for who we really are and accept it. We crave that intimacy. But we take a huge risk in this, because for us, being visible was always akin to being punished and degraded. So be gentle with the child of a narcissistic parent – they’re disclosing things at a slower rate than most because they are trying to protect themselves from annihilation.
9. Despite it all, we are magnanimous with our love.
Children of narcissists are remarkable – in their strength, in their resilience and in their capacity to love despite everything they’ve been through. When we grow accustomed to the safety of someone truly safe, we give it our all and our all is a whole lot of love that we never received ourselves. If that isn’t a beautiful feat, I don’t know what is. Just give us time and space to adjust to this sense of safety as a new normal. When we have reached an optimal stage of healing, we love fiercely, with intention, with passion, and with special care because we deeply know what it’s like to be unloved – and we never want anyone else to go through what we did.