Worryland: Familiar Territory for Women with Narcissistic Parents: Caroline’s diamond solitaire glitters on her clenched left hand. She’s engaged to Ryan, a man she truly loves. However, Caroline’s happiness comes with a warning: her mother, Trudy. Already Trudy has told Caroline that if she invites her future mother-in-law to go wedding dress shopping with them, then Trudy is not coming. She’s the mother, and it’s her day. Worry keeps Caroline awake at night. Maybe she and Ryan should just elope.
If you’re a woman who has a parent with narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic traits, then Caroline’s story might feel familiar.
Why do women with narcissistic parents often feel so anxious? Second guess themselves? Why do they disregard their own needs?
The Emotional Inheritance for Women with Narcissistic Parents
Parents with narcissistic traits have difficulty understanding and accepting their children’s feelings. Research has found that people with narcissistic traits have difficulty handling their own emotions. They become anxious, depressed, or angry when they feel rejected or even slightly criticized. On top of it, narcissistic parents lack self-awareness and can’t take responsibility for how their behavior impacts their children. Their children stand guard, reading their parents’ emotional temperatures. Growing up like vigilant, undercover CIA agents, it’s not surprising that children of narcissistic parents become anxious adults.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way. When you learn to set boundaries with your narcissistic parent, over time your worry will start to diminish. This is not an easy process! It takes practice, patience, and courage. With the right tools, learning to set boundaries with your narcissistic parent is like establishing other healthy habits, such as exercise and getting enough sleep.
The Beauty of Boundaries
What is a boundary, anyway? Simply put, a boundary is an acknowledgement of what you want and don’t want, and how you are willing to be treated and not treated.
Setting boundaries can be very anxiety-producing for women with narcissistic parents, especially when they are setting those boundaries with their parents.
Here are the steps:
1. Identify what you want. This step might be easier said than done, since putting other people’s needs before your own could be your default setting.
Remember Caroline? Caroline wanted to enjoy wedding dress shopping. She wanted to include her fiancé’s mother. Caroline decided to write down how she felt and what she wanted. This helped her see that what she felt and wanted was reasonable and understandable.
2. Identify the feelings that come up when you identify what you want.
Core feelings for women with narcissistic parents are often guilt, anger, and shame. Remind yourself that no matter how you feel-- FEELINGS PASS. To most people, happy moments feel fleeting; negative moments feel interminable.
When negative feelings come up, notice where you feel them in your body. Your knotted neck? Your sour stomach? Your hot hands? In your mind’s eye, find a color that is soothing to you. Breathe that color into those parts of your body. Next, allow the negative feelings to flow away, using an image that works for you-- waves flowing out to sea, clouds drifting away in the sky, a bird soaring in the sky.
3. Decide what the boundary is.
Caroline told her mother when she was going wedding dress shopping with her future mother-in-law. She told her she was welcome to join them. She also told her mother how she expected her to behave and that she would have to leave if she violated Caroline’s code of conduct.
It’s hard to try out new behaviors, especially ones that make us feel anxious. It can help to remember that anxiety is actually a very predictable process. It tells us change is too hard. Something terrible will happen. And worst of all, we certainly don’t have the capacity to deal with whatever that terrible thing is.
The goal is to change your relationship with worry. The relationship is no longer “me versus worry”-- a relationship with a winner and a loser. Instead, as you accept your feelings and know what you want, worry becomes something you can face and handle.
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About the Author
Dr. Stephanie Kriesberg is a licensed psychologist with twenty-five years’ experience treating children, teens, and adults. She has a private practice in Concord, Massachusetts. She is an expert in treating adults with narcissistic parents.
Dr. Kriesberg provides individual therapy and family guidance, and offers workshops on issues related to narcissism.