23 Things Only People Who Were Raised By Narcissistic Parents Will Understand

Your life doesn’t stop being traumatic once you turn eighteen. It continues as a cycle of trauma reenactment. You may wonder why you become easily entrapped in toxic relationships with people who resemble your parents or exploitative friendships that seem to reenact your childhood adversity. This is because adult children of narcissists tend to become subconsciously drawn to dangerous people as a result of their upbringing. Their bodies and minds are accustomed to chaos and even biochemically “addicted” to it due to these early traumas. You are still working through ancient programming and beliefs.

Your independence is vital for your own safety and well-being. So is your alone time. Being hyper-independent and alone most of the time may seem like a lonesome burden to people who weren’t raised by a toxic parent. But for you, it’s absolute bliss. Being alone means you finally get to choose who gets to be in your life and who has the ability to affect your emotions on a daily basis – a choice you never got to make as a child when you were constantly bombarded with the problems of the adults who were supposed to take care of you. As an adult, you find yourself savoring your alone time as you give your nervous system the time and space it always needed to heal.

You were an adult before you ever got to be a child – and now, you sometimes still feel like a child in an adult’s body. You may have grown up being told that you were very “mature” for your age. People often comment on how you seem to have wisdom beyond your years. Yet as an adult you find yourself still feeling like a child at times. That’s because as a kid, you were simultaneously infantilized and parentified. Narcissistic parents demean their children into feeling like they can’t venture out into the world on their own without their help to keep them dependent on them; on the other hand, they also shoulder their children with the burden of being parents to their parents.

This parentification trains young children to manage the emotions of their parents while also failing to meet their basic developmental needs. As an adult, you’re a natural caretaker. You “picked up” after the adults in your life, tending to their issues at a young age, ensuring they were taken care of. In adulthood, you may repeat this pattern and be prone to codependency in relationships, becoming overly empathic to toxic people who drain your energy. You grapple with the unmet needs of childhood as you learn to set healthier boundaries and reparent yourself.

You have a deep craving for connection – yet it scares the living daylights out of you. Narcissistic parents tend to become enmeshed with their children, treating them like objects and extensions of themselves. As an adult, becoming too “close” to someone frightens you because that means they have the power to harm you and take over your life. You tend to feel “suffocated” in relationships, even if you have a pattern of jumping from one relationship to another.

You’re afraid to shine so you dim your light to avoid “discovery.”  Narcissistic parents train you to shrink with their hypercriticism. While most parents want their children to succeed and be happy, narcissistic parents tend to be pathologically envious and lash out at their children even when they’re doing well. As an adult, you fear retaliation for owning your strengths and gifts. You often shortchange yourself and believe you’re unworthy or undeserving even if you’re overqualified. Even when life is going extremely well, you hold a lingering fear of having “too much” success and happiness, having to constantly remind yourself that you are enough in order to battle your early conditioning. Giving yourself permission to enjoy yourself and the positive aspects of your life without developing a hyperfocus on even the most miniscule negative details can feel like a daunting task.

You live in a world of extremes when it comes to emotions. There’s very little grey area when an adult child of a narcissist starts their healing journey. They may be overwhelmed and terrified by their intense rage or sadness. As a child, you were usually punished for having emotions at all and emotionally invalidated. You could have a harder time validating and identifying your own emotions as an adult and may have learned to suppress these emotions to cope.

You gravitate toward narcissists, and they gravitate towards you. Dangerous people and situations ironically feel more like “home” than safe ones and you find yourself always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You find yourself easily entangled in relationships or friendships with narcissists in adulthood – and paradoxically, this can initially feel “safer” than a healthy relationship which is not in line with your sense of “normal.” You don’t trust what seems “too good to be true” or what’s easily handed to you, because you had to work hard for everything you have now and even had to endure punishment or nitpicking when you achieved amazing things as a child. Instead, you find yourself waiting for the “catch” (even when there is none) when it comes to happy and safe relationships, accomplishments, or situations. Your subconscious mind operates on the philosophy that, “It’s better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” 

You “thrive” in fantasy relationships. For adult children of narcissists, the safest relationship is the one that doesn’t actually exist or ones with emotionally unavailable people. That’s because you do not fear getting hurt because you know the relationship can’t truly come into fruition. This can lead to you becoming easily infatuated or developing limerence toward people you know deep down can’t make you happy – but they certainly provide you with the hope of happiness, without all the fuss – at first. While these trysts may seem harmless at first, these relationships still end up harming you because you end up investing in a future with someone you know is ultimately not compatible with you.

You’re extremely resourceful – because you had to be. When it comes to confronting life’s obstacles, you’re a talented MacGyver at inventing creative solutions – you can essentially turn anything into gold. That’s because you had to transform all the crises of your childhood into opportunities for survival. This can be an adaptive trauma response that guides you through life’s adversity in adulthood.

You have a hard time saying no – and apologize constantly even when it’s unnecessary. Disobeying your narcissistic parents was always met with brutality. As a result, you may have a hard time setting boundaries and turn to people-pleasing or fawning as self-protection.

You have more of an addictive personality than most. Early childhood trauma can leave you with a compulsion for relief and distraction. In some cases, it can even make you highly sensation-seeking, reckless, impulsive – always searching for the next adrenaline rush of excitement to counter your emotional numbness. That means you may feel addicted to certain self-sabotaging behaviors, self-harm or even turn to substance use to take you away from the trauma that you’ve experienced.

You’re prone to perfectionism and over-achieving. Having narcissistic parents means always trying to keep up with constantly moving goal posts and extraordinarily high expectations. Narcissists can live vicariously through their children, demanding that they fulfill the dreams and goals these parents didn’t (or did – and they must carry on their legacy). Some adult children of narcissists can become overachievers to try to gain the approval of their parents and to meet their expectations of them. Others might be conditioned toward rigid perfectionism because it gives them a source of control and validation they did not have in childhood. So long as you’re “perfect,” you are deemed lovable – at least, that’s what a narcissistic parent taught you to believe.

You’re hypervigilant – to everything. At the same time, you’d make a great FBI agent or detective. You may feel like you’re always on alert for what’s around the corner. That’s because your childhood trained you to pick up on subtle signs that chaos was about to ensue – the sound of your father’s footsteps may have clued you in as to when he was about to rage, or the shrill shriek of your sibling may have alerted you to abuse going on in the next room. You are especially adept at reading microexpressions, shifts in tone, gestures, and nonverbal cues. This hyper-attunement to danger can serve as a superpower that helps you identify red flags and toxic people – but it can also be exhausting to be so attentive to everything at all times.

You dissociate more often than you’d like. If you have unprocessed trauma, it’s likely that you dissociate more than the average person. That’s because ongoing complex trauma has trained your brain to escape from reality as a survival mechanism. You may also find yourself turning to activities that enhance that dissociation. Whether it’s binge-watching television, losing yourself for days in books, or feeling like you’ve lost time and memories altogether, you feel detached from yourself or your surroundings.

You vacillate between oversharing and being terrified of being vulnerable. You fear abandonment yet abandon yourself. Adult children of narcissists often search for a rescuer throughout their life – a savior who will finally make them feel seen and heard. In the early stages of their healing journey, this can make them overshare their traumas in an attempt to find someone who can finally “take care” of them in the way they always needed to be taken care of. At the same time, they fear being vulnerable and become easily gun-shy when relationships or friendships get too close. They might depart preemptively from too much intimacy because they fear abandonment or betrayal – a very valid fear considering all of the abandonment and betrayal they experienced in childhood. Yet they also abandon themselves and deprive themselves of nourishment and self-care.

You have a fragmented sense of identity. Trauma creates fragments – creating a split among memories, emotions, thoughts, and sensations. This sense of confusion can erode your sense of self. Being the child of a narcissist means also meant you were never given full reign over your own preferences, opinions, or beliefs. You had to internalize the belief systems, likes, dislikes, and attitudes of your parent and pretend to think the way they do in order to avoid reprimand. You were not given the freedom to be yourself or grow into who you authentically were. As an adult, your journey is about rediscovering who you are organically – not who you were expected to be.

You have a need to control your environment. Adult children of narcissists are extremely micromanaged and controlled by their parents. They were never given the agency to make their own decisions freely without a price. As a result, they may fear losing control as adults. They may try to micromanage their relationships or control their circumstances to assuage these fears.

You trust very few people. As a child, your privacy was often invaded by the narcissistic parent in ways no child should have to endure. You were likely under constant surveillance. You learned how to lie and hide many aspects of your life to protect yourself from their abuse. Now as an adult, you still keep your secrets close and your circle tight. For you, it’s the only way to “survive” and not risk someone using your personal information against you.

You have a hard time asking for help. You rely heavily on self-soothing because you had to be a parent at a young age – to yourself. You essentially raised yourself (and any younger siblings) because one or more of your parents lacked the emotional equipment to do so. This means you had to soothe yourself after witnessing rage attacks, endured the pain of watching how deflated your emotionally abused parent became, and experienced some of the verbal and emotional abuse yourself when you were the target of attack.  As an adult, this means you’re less likely to ask for help even during the worst moments of your life because you learned that you had to do everything yourself.

You have an interesting relationship with parenthood. Some adult children of narcissists fast-forward into marriage and parenthood, considered the traditional “milestones” of adulthood because they want to make up for the mistakes of their parents and experience the healthy, functional family they never experienced. Others opt out or delay parenthood altogether because they fear passing down generational trauma or feel like they’ve already done enough “parenting” by taking on adult responsibilities in childhood.

When any incident or crisis with your family happens now, it’s triple the trauma because of all the childhood wounding. For most people, any family crisis is itself a trauma all on its own. For adult children of narcissists, it’s double the wounding with triple the power. Any argument, conflict, or incident that occurs now holds within it the power to bring back the memories of the past, essentially “regressing” you back to your childhood fears and stressors – especially if there’s a crisis that demands that there be some kind of family reunion. It not only adds salt to the wound, it creates a whole new psychological injury. Outsiders may wonder why as a family you can’t just “work things out” – but they have no idea the terrors you have survived and the despair involved in having to revisit what you’ve escaped.

You’ve always wanted to have a “normal life.” One of your deepest desires was to feel normal and to have a “normal” childhood and life. But because of your upbringing, you may feel separate and different from others, especially those who had supportive parents. It’s worth mentioning that many adult children of narcissists can and do channel their trauma into success and joy and can end up living extraordinary lives – better than any type of “normal” they could have ever dreamed. Yet it’s still worth validating the sacrifices they were forced to make to get there.

Contact with toxic family members can re-open even wounds you thought you’d already healed. Speaking of regression, adult children of narcissists who maintain contact with their narcissistic parent can face additional anxiety on their healing journey. That’s because any criticism from the narcissistic parent or witnessing further abuse by the toxic parent toward the victimized parent can cause re-traumatization like no other. These “emotional flashbacks” hold a power beyond their years to make you feel like you’re reliving the worst moments of your life and like you’ll never escape. Low contact or no contact depending on your circumstances are often needed for true healing.

Shahida Arabi is the author of Healing the Adult Children of Narcissists: The Invisible War Zone and Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse. For more healing tips, follow Shahida on Instagram and Facebook.

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.