Attachment therapist have long understood that children need strong, secure attachment relationships with caregivers in order to make sense of themselves, the world around them, and other relationships that they will have with peers and relatives.
Let’s say that a child has a good attachment relationship with her parents. She will create a “model” of herself and others that says I am worthy, loved, and people are basically good.
Now, let’s say another child has an unhealthy attachment relationship with caregivers. The relationship is scary and unsafe. She may develop a model of herself and others that says I’m not lovable, something is wrong with me, people are unsafe, and I need to fend for myself.
As you could probably guess, most children of Borderline (BPD) or Narcissistic (NPD) parents tend to internalize the second of the models. Adult Children of Narcissists (ACoNs) typically struggle with strong internal messages of unworthiness and self-hatred. The world feels unsafe, people are not to be trusted, and the future feels terrifying.
Taking this a step further, parents with BPD are sometimes scary (even mostly scary) but on the other hand can be very loving and sensitive. It’s difficult for the child to know if they are experiencing “good mommy” or “scary mommy” on any given day, hour, or minute. This makes it difficult to know how to interact in any relationship–peer or otherwise.
I strongly believe that the term ACoNs can also apply to children raised in many church environments. So many of us were raised in an religious environment with adult leaders that portrayed attributes of narcissism. Innocent, impressionable children abused and traumatized in the worst way–in the name of God.
So what can be done?
Just one safe adult
The first step is finding one safe relationship with an adult or peer. This may be a therapist, an extended relative, teacher, friend, etc. I was in my early twenties when I went through an identity crisis, of sorts. I remember feeling that every relationship with a woman felt threatening. I felt unsafe, unloved, and severely broken. Why couldn’t I keep any friends?! Why did everyone tell me that I “had a wall up?” What was I doing wrong?!
I then considered a friend from high school. While we didn’t talk very often, I knew that she loved me so I mustn’t be all that bad. I also had an amazing therapist. She valued me and was always telling me that I was stronger than I believed. I held onto these two relationships with a passion. They were what got me through very dark times–until I started believing truth for myself.
Is there anyone–even one person–that you can identify as a safe someone? If not, has there ever been? What could you do to pursue a safe person for your future? How could this person help you reshape a distorted image of your God?
A different story
As ACoNs, we learn a story about who we are, about our families, and about our God. We tell and re-tell this story over and over again. Even if the story does not feel good and is not the story we want to tell, we continue to tell it unless we learn a new story.
So what story do you want to tell about yourself? For me, I grew up believing the story that I was a burden, I was alone, I was annoying to others, and I was weak. I believed this story well into my adulthood. In fact, I got into many relationships where I continued to play the role of a weak, silent, compliant woman. I believed it so deeply that I continued to make my story a reality.
But again, in my late twenties, through friendships and therapy, I began to understand that my known story was not the full story. I had to wrestle with the possibility that there might be other stories about me. These stories were of strength, bravery, value, and brilliance.
A good example is this: In high school school, I was a C average student. That meant that some of my grades were Bs but I had a few Ds in there as well. I never believed that I was smart or capable of making good grades. I never applied myself. In my twenties, I went to college and excelled. I easily made a 3.6 GPA. So, I wrestled with the idea that perhaps I could get a masters degree! Perhaps I had the determination and “the smarts” to obtain an advanced degree. So, I applied and was one of hundreds selected for my Family Therapy program. I got a 3.8 GPA overall, was the president of my student advisory board, and won a statewide student leadership award.
I’m not saying any of this to brag. I’m simply making the point that the story about my life that I believed in childhood was not a true story at all. I was believing the story told to me by my family. No one had advanced degree, no one was capable of advanced degree, no one had “the smarts,” and no one was allowed to believe that they had the smarts. When I began to believe a different story about myself, I made that story a reality. And that was just one part of the story. Just one chapter.
What do you believe about yourself now that you wish was different? Is there space for you to believe that your first story may not be the full story? Is there space to believe that your first story is not the story that your God believes about you?
This is a good place to start. Please comment or let me know what you think or how you plan to work through some of this. I appreciate you all.
(Source: Macfie, J. & Swan, S. (2009). Representations of the caregiver-child relationship and of the self, and emotion regulation in the narratives of young children whose mothers have borderline personality disorder. Developmental Psychopathology, 21(3), 993-1011.)