Narcissism is increasingly becoming a widely discussed topic as more and more people start opening up about their mental health. Living with a narcissist is a draining experience, especially when it’s one or both of your parents. Now add to that mix your struggle with anxiety disorder and you’re in double trouble.
To understand the relationship between narcissism and anxiety, we need to first understand how the interpersonal dynamic works. According to Alan Rappoport Ph.D., whose work “Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents” I used in my research for this article, there are two parties in this dynamic: narcissists and co-narcissists. Rappoport describes narcissists as people with very low self-esteem who attempt to control others with their views for defensive purposes. They’re interpersonally rigid, easily offended, self-absorbent, blaming, and find it difficult to empathize with others. Co-narcissists, on the other hand, are products of manipulations of their narcissistic parents. They tend to work hard to please others, submit to other’s opinions, worry about what others think and feel about them. They’re also often depressed and anxious, find it hard to know their views and experiences, and take the blame for interpersonal problems.
Narcissistic Parents – The Source of Anxiety
It has almost become a cliché to go back to your parents when it comes to problems with mental health. Unfortunately, most of the time this is the case, as they’re the people we spend most of our time with as we grow up.
Therefore, growing up with narcissistic parents means experiencing constant control, blame, intolerance of your views, disregard of your needs and feelings, negative comparison, high expectation and more. As a result of this stream of negative energy, the child has no choice but to adapt to life with his narcissistic parents. This prevents the child from developing healthy self-expression and self-directedness, which in turn makes him more tense and anxious.
Alan Rappoport calls this child a co-narcissist, comparing this relationship to a co-alcoholic and alcoholism. In the words of Rapport “Co-alcoholics unconsciously collaborate with alcoholics, making excuses for them and not confronting them about their problems in an assertive way.” In other words, to him, both narcissism and co-narcissism are adaptations that children have made to cope with their narcissistic parents.
Co-Narcissist – The Anxious Child
An innocent child who unwillingly becomes a silent observer of the narcissistic parent show has no say in the way this relationship is forming. And to be honest, relationship is perhaps the last word that comes to mind when you consider the way a narcissist treats a co-narcissist. In this dynamic, only the narcissist and his feelings and ideas are considered important, while the co-narcissist simply disappears from the picture.
Rapopport says the best way to think about that relationship is to think about it as if the narcissist needs to be in the spotlight, and the co-narcissist serves as the audience. The narcissist is on stage, performing, and needing attention, appreciation, support, praise, reassurance, and encouragement, and the co-narcissist’s role is to provide these things. Co-narcissists are approved of and rewarded when they perform well in their role, but, otherwise, they’re corrected and punished.
Among these two, the co-narcissist are the ones that are more open and prone to therapy, simply because the last thing a narcissist would want to do is talk about his/her deficiencies. Co-narcissist, on the other hand, are more ready to accept the blame and responsibility and work on their struggling mental health.
Three Types of Responses
Depending on personality, each child will have a different way of responding to the way he/she’s being treated. However, there are three common types of responses a child has toward a narcissistic parent: identification, compliance, and rebellion (Gootnick, 1997).
Identification is when parents demand their child to be the way they want – share the same qualities, values, feelings, behaviors, etc. If the parent was a straight-A student, he/she will demand the same from their child. If the parent is always negative about life, he/she will discourage the child from exhibiting joy.
Compliance is when the child becomes an approving audience and is being used by the parents as a way to boost their poor self-esteem.
Lastly, rebellion is when the child refuses to obey and accept the tyranny of the parents and starts doing the exact opposite of what is being asked. For example, the child may start doing badly in school or smoking cigarettes, to feel some level of independence.
How to Stop Hating Parents
Now that we’re clear about all the terminologies and relationship dynamics, it’s time to find out if you can stop the destructive hate towards your parents to regain your confidence back. Because that hate will keep you anxious and insecure about yourself.
Unfortunately, due to damaged self-worth and image, co-narcissist automatically assumes that everyone around them is narcissistic. So when they start going to therapy, they start thinking the same way about the therapist. Therefore, the therapist who helps a co-narcissist should aim to gradually develop in his patient confidence that he’s not dealing with a narcissist.
There is nothing more liberating to a co-narcissist than to discover a relationship that is not based on narcissism. Empathy, genuineness and positive attitude thus become core principles of a good healing process from narcissistic upbringing.
Unless a narcissist is ready to hear a lot of unpleasant things about himself/herself, trying to change that person is a huge challenge for the therapist. Therefore, the only effective way to address this issue with your parents from your end was mentioned in the previous example with co-alcoholics – you have to confront them about their problems in an assertive way instead of holding it within you. Accept them the way they are because this is how they were brought up themselves, forgive them for what they’ve done to you, offer them a solution and leave it to them if they want to take it or not. Be clear and honest with yourself that you’ve done your best and move on with your life.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that we’re all narcissist and co-narcissist depending on the situation and circumstances. When you feel insecure about the way others think about you, that’s a narcissist within you. Guilt, shame, and anxiety, on the other hand, are all manifestations of co-narcissism. Just like with anxiety, narcissism could become a problem when it start affecting the quality of your life. Realizing that you’re not the way your narcissistic parents see or think about you, and it’s them, that need to deal with their issues is what will help you mentally break free from that toxic relationship.