“Would you say you are able to make decisions, or do you just sort of let things happen to you?”
“I’m not sure. I guess I’m not the best at making choices. Sometimes it’s just easier if other people lead the way or call the shots.”
“So, would you say you prioritize the needs and wants of those around you more than your own?”
“Do you even know what your own needs and wants actually are? Do you know what you like? What interests you?”
As a child, I grew up alongside addiction—as well as narcissism. The effects of having a parent or guardian with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are not dissimilar to those that can arise when you’ve grown up with a parent with addiction.
The children of narcissistic parents might struggle to make decisions because we were constantly second-guessed or criticized for our choices. We may become anxious at the thought of confrontation as a result of parents who forbid us from, or punished us for, disagreeing with them. We sometimes lie about big and small stuff alike, because honesty was met with disapproval when we were kids and teens. We strive to please others at our own expense, because we were guilt-tripped or otherwise manipulated into prioritizing our parents at all times.
I hadn’t considered myself to fit this description until I started therapy in 2016, when my psychologist came to the conclusion that I may be an “adult child”—a term used to describe many adult children of alcoholics whose behaviors and lives were fundamentally shaped by growing up alongside addiction.
What It’s Like Being an Adult Child
According to the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, adult children might be isolated, introverted, and afraid of people. We can also be approval-seekers with no sense of a concrete identity, may be frightened of anger and criticism, or can frame themselves within a victim mentality even when it doesn’t apply. We may also have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, or be more concerned with others than themselves (often as a way to dismiss or ignore our own faults), struggle to express emotions, feel guilty for standing up for ourselves, fear abandonment, and judge ourselves harshly.
Adult children may feel we need permission to do the simplest things, or expect everyone to disappoint us (forgoing friendships or romance as a result).
Children of narcissistic parents might struggle to make decisions because we were constantly second-guessed or criticized for all our choices. We may feel inexplicably drawn to turmoil because our carers created drama. We may also feel we need permission to do the simplest things, or expect everyone to disappoint us (forgoing friendships or romance as a result). We struggle with authority, or simply accept dysfunction in our relationships because it is our norm.
How to Cope as an Adult Child of a Narcissist
In therapy, I noticed certain behaviors that lined up with the symptoms of being an adult child.
My sense of self was beyond fractured. I was shit at making decisions. I was terrified of anger in all forms, even healthy and necessary anger. No matter how much approval I got from my partner, or my boss, or my friends, I felt like a liar. It felt as though they’d all realize what a crappy, or boring, or generally awful human being I was at any moment.
During those therapy sessions I realized I needed to better acquaint myself with who I really am. I had to figure out what I liked and didn’t like, what made me happy and what didn’t. These are difficult questions that many people struggle with; but as an adult child, my sense of self can be so convoluted that answering something as simple as “Did you like that film?” becomes impossible.
These are some of small things I’ve done along the way to take better care of myself as a result.
1. Make some small choices.
I’ve never been skilled at making decisions, mostly because I have never trusted my own judgement. I’ve never believed that I could possibly know what’s best for me. In reality, we are often the greatest authority on our own lives. That doesn’t mean we’ll always make the best calls, but it does mean that, objectively, there are very few people who could ever know us as well as we know ourselves.
Start small. Choose the date-night movie, rather than letting your partner or friend do so.
If you find yourself allowing other humans and circumstances to govern the trajectory of your life, consider taking a step back. You may not be able to create a roadmap immediately for where you want your entire life to go, so start small. Choose the date-night movie, rather than letting your partner or friend do so. Pick a take-out restaurant to order from. Put on the Spotify playlist that you know fills you with warmth and tranquility. These actions may seem small, but they’re the foundation for making bigger, more important decisions later on.
2. Take a breath before becoming defensive.
This one’s a little bit harder. It can be hard to accept criticism—even constructive criticism delivered with the intention to help one grow, learn, or thrive.
I had to teach myself that not everyone who criticizes something I have done or said is trying to attack me. There is a difference between an empathetic critique and one specifically designed to hurt or mock.
Keeping a clear list in my mind of the people who I know love me and have my best interests at heart has helped. For example, I trust that my husband, brother, and best friend all care about me deeply. If one of them suggests a way in which I can improve an article, take better photos for Instagram, make a recipe tastier, or save money on my electricity bill, I have to believe that they aren’t doing it to make a harsh judgement. They just want to help.
The next time you receive constructive criticism, try taking a breath before answering. If you’re in the company of a non-toxic friend or loved one, remind yourself of that. It only takes a few seconds of quiet contemplation for the defensiveness to melt away—at least a little.
3. Write down five things you like about yourself.
Although this point may sound cheesy, we can’t feel worthy or valuable unless we are aware of the stuff that makes us pretty great. When my therapist suggested I write a list of things I like about myself, he said it was alright to include physical or emotional traits, but not only physical ones.
I ended up with a note that read: “curly hair,” “fast reader,” “bilingual,” “caring,” and “body positive.”
It took me a long time to find five things. When I brought the list into my next session, I was expecting to be chastised for not coming up with better qualities (because, you know, adult children always expect to be chastised for everything). Instead, we looked at each trait individually and analyzed its deeper connotations.
For example, I’m a fast reader because I have spent so much of my life immersed in books, learning about people’s stories, and trying to create my own. The fact that I put “bilingual” on my list might suggest I care about my Hispanic-American heritage and value history. Even if I have always struggled to look after myself, I’ve still ended up with the ability to extend empathy and compassion towards others, which is no bad thing. This definitely ties into being “body positive” or “fat positive,” and actively working towards deconstructing beauty standards so that others may foster kinder relationships to their bodies. As for the “curly hair,” well, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to view our bodies as beautiful, so long as we do not believe they are the only worthwhile thing about us.
I highly recommend trying this at home. No matter how silly or inconsequential your list may seem at first, it will probably be immensely telling when you really sit with it.
4. Set some boundaries.
Adult children are often infantilized by their alcoholic or dysfunctional parent(s). According to Psych Central, “This can be as direct as making the child feel incompetent every time they try something new, or it can be as subtle as always stepping in and offering to do something they can clearly do for themselves.” It’s often a way of keeping us co-dependent, so that we do not believe we can possibly exist without them. This means that even as we grow older, we never really feel “grown-up.” We never believe we are capable, responsible enough, or otherwise equipped to fulfill the various roles in our lives.
In my own world, I now have two small children of my own. I have a home to maintain with my partner, and professional pursuits that bring me joy. Still, I often feel unworthy of them all. I feel like I am a child myself, and I worry that I can’t ever possibly be a good enough parent, worker, or partner as a result.
Cutting out dysfunctional relatives entirely may not always be possible. What you can do, however, is try to set some boundaries.
If I’m surrounded by voices of infantilization, things only grow more bleek. Cutting out dysfunctional relatives entirely may not always be possible, nor may it be the choice you want to make in the moment. What you can do, however, is try to set some boundaries: You don’t have to talk about cutting ties if confrontation is an issue for you. Rather, try limiting texting or phone calls, and restricting them to a certain time of the week. It’s also fine to do a bit of ghosting when it’s beneficial to your wellbeing.
Consider setting “off-limits” topics of conversation with your dysfunctional relatives, if possible. Try to explain that there are subjects you have no interest in discussing (body image, weight, and dieting to name a few examples). If you don’t feel at ease with a verbal conversation, try writing a letter, email, or text. There’s no guarantee that you won’t be met with guilt-tripping or gaslighting, but starting to stand up for yourself and your boundaries in small ways is crucial for feeling more secure down the line.
5. Embrace your sensitivity.
I’m a big believer in the reclamation of words once used to cause pain. As a plus-size person, for example, I’ve found indescribable liberation in reclaiming the word “fat” as a neutral, or even positive, descriptor, and I could say the same about the term “sensitive.”
Adult children have usually been gaslighted into thinking we are always the problem. Our alcoholic or dysfunctional relative(s) are often incapable of admitting wrongdoing or abuse, so instead they blame our “oversensitivity” and “snowflake”-like personas for getting so upset.
Although our feelings have always been valid, it’s also possible that we have become extremely sensitive, too. We may hurt easily, both for ourselves and others. We may be the first to cry during a movie. We may be happy criers, too. I recently bawled my eyes out when my toddler said “Gracias, Mama” for the first time after I gave her a pancake.
And this is okay! Being “too sensitive” is not an automatic character flaw. Try to see it as a reflection of your capacity for compassion. Even if you spent a large portion of your life feeling guilty for having feelings, it’s possible to break free of that.
Let yourself cry when you need to. Let yourself sob at the rom-com. Let yourself curl up with a blanket and tears after a hard day at work. Maybe, sometimes, you are “too sensitive,” but maybe that’s a beautiful thing.
Some of these steps might feel harder to pull off than others, but try to remember that it’s perfectly reasonable to start small. You might want to begin with that delicious take-out that you chose. Or, you could pull out your smartphone and write some positive things about yourself.
It’ll be trying at first because chances are that you’ve never felt it necessary or valuable to prioritize yourself, or think about yourself, or like yourself all that much. But it’s never too late to start.