It’s Narcissist Friday!
God could raise children in the woods and bring them out as adults into society. Instead, He brings helpless infants into relationships with people who need to grow up themselves. Parents are regular people with fears, bad habits, and areas of brokenness. Through those relationships, children learn to cope with the brokenness of the world.
Now, this isn’t really the way it was supposed to be. When God set up this whole system it was good. Sin and the resulting self-focus damaged our ancestors and us in more ways than we know. From the beginning, with Adam and Eve, damaged relationships and broken people were all we had to work with. We learned early to protect ourselves and use others; and we learned that from parents who had learned it from their parents who had learned it from their parents and so on.
So often the narcissist in a person’s life is a parent. The damage that was done to the victim was done early, often so early that the victim doesn’t even realize that he or she was damaged. Without understanding what is happening, the victim goes from narcissistic parent to narcissistic partner, perhaps one after another. As we have considered before, the inability to set boundaries, to express feelings, and even to love can carry from childhood into adulthood.
So what do you do with a narcissistic parent, one who is still living and still in relationship with you?
My particular focus on this blog is toward Christians. Christians often look to the concept of honoring parents as a command from the Lord. How can we separate ourselves from the narcissist and still honor him/her? Not everyone can move away far enough or just not answer the phone.
The answer goes back to boundaries. Proper boundaries establish a distinction between you and someone else. The fewer boundaries you have between you and another person, the more intimate the relationship and the more your identity is defined by that person. In a normal marriage, this intimacy is appropriate and very close. In a healthy family, these boundaries can be at a minimum. But even in these intimate situations, there are still boundaries.
Some religious teachers make this even more difficult for victims by saying that parents continue to have a right to control in a child’s life even when the child is an adult. This gives narcissistic parents permission to expect submission from their adult children. But respect for parents is different from obedience and influence of parents is different from control.
It is important for children to grow independent of their parents. If the parents won’t help with this, the children need to do it for themselves. The adult son or daughter must think their own thoughts and live their own lives. They may have to find quality counsel to help with this, to establish boundaries that begin the process.
Should the victim of a narcissistic parent simply cut off the relationship? How would this work in the light of the command to honor the parent? I believe that boundaries can be established, along with the appropriate psychological distance, even when the parent is still active in the relationship. In other words, it shouldn’t be necessary to end the relationship. However, this is an ideal and some may feel the need for the distance to be very firm (and long) in order to find health.
Obviously, I can’t cover enough in a short article to help with specific situations, but let me simply say this:
I believe that I honor my parents when I become a healthy, functioning adult and when I am able to pass that health on to my children or to use that health to bless the people around me. It does not honor them for me to continue their brokenness through my life. Even if they don’t see the need for me to be a person separate from them, I still must be able to establish and maintain boundaries, own and value my feelings, make independent decisions, and learn to share myself as a real person with others. If, through their narcissism, my parents have dishonored themselves, I honor them best by finding a way to break the evil patterns in my life and in the lives of those who follow me.