2020 was a year to forget and anything that could help us get through was welcome. Before the pandemic, however, we had other things on our minds as the post below shows. Of all the posts I published in 2020, the one below was the most popular by far. It looks at the complex relationship and parenting issue named emotional incest and how this can be complicated with one parent being a narcissist. I hope you enjoy reading it again.
Please note when reading this article that even though I have used the terms “his” and “him” to describe narcissists and narcissism, it is not gender specific.
There are many articles around on the internet about all types of narcissism and the dangers of being in a relationship with someone who has these tendencies. The advice is clear: get away from the situation as quickly as possible. Anyone who is more on the codependent side of the continuum will testify that this is harder to put into practice than it sounds. However, what if the narcissist is your parent and has cloned you to be a living “perfect” version of him or her? A child chosen to heal the parent’s own broken past. It happens more often than we might imagine. For ease, I have highlighted this case with father and daughter. However, this concept is not limited to just that.
A parent who has developed a sense of narcissism through his own dysfunctional childhood often believes that by bringing a “perfect” child into the world and being seen as a “perfect” parent, he can heal the wounds of his own childhood. This scenario is often played out through a “chosen” child, the prince or princess who gets all his unhealthy attention. Through this child, he is proving to all of the people who doubted his self-worth (including himself) that he is a worthwhile individual with real value. However, the emotional manipulation that goes hand in hand with being the chosen one creates havoc for the child leading to extreme codependency or the next generation of narcissists. This process is often referred to as “emotional incest” where normal healthy emotional boundaries are not maintained by the parent.
“Emotional incest is not sexual. Instead, this type of unhealthy emotional interaction blurs the boundaries between adult and child in a way that is psychologically inappropriate. When a parent looks to their child for emotional support or treats them more like a partner than a child, it is considered emotional or “covert” incest. The outcome of this family structure often produces similar results — on a lesser scale — as sexual incest”. Rebecca Lee, writing on Psych Central.
Since a narcissist parent will use emotional manipulation that is based on his own shame, anxiety and self-loathing, he will rely on his chosen child to make him feel competent and worthwhile and the child is burdened with the ongoing responsibility of making her parent feel good about himself. The child rarely develops a healthy identity of her own and is seen as just an extension of their parent’s raging ego issues. The child is given the never-ending task of primarily “pleasing” the parent to the detriment of personal ambition and relationships. As this child grows up and attempts to deal emotionally with the demands placed on her by the parent, she adapts to the narcissist parent by becoming an accommodating child. This will bring in turn praise and conditional love as long as the child continues to feed the monster. Codependency is formed when a child incorporates this behavior as a habit in her search for unconditional love. Those who resist are given harder treatment and are more likely to be narcissists in later life due to being cast out as a “problem child”.
In practice, the above scenario often moves into the child’s adulthood unchanged. Her prime task set as a child continues, causing havoc with relationships, self-esteem and the child’s own parenting style. This is a child who has been taught to first think about her narcissist parent’s needs before her own. Her parent, who is often to the outside world, a loving father, successful businessman and a pillar of the community, is in reality an ego driven individual who has a grandiose sense of superiority over everyone around him. The demands placed on those chosen to be in his inner circle are impossible to fulfill and tailored only towards his needs. The chosen child may at one stage decide to resist and make decisions based on her needs, something that could be very new to a person who has been controlled all her life in her choice of career and partner. This causes the classic narcissist injury, revoking old feelings of rejection and abandonment for the narcissist parent who responds with classic emotionally manipulative tactics, emotional withdrawal, disapproval and focus on the less chosen children in the family. This punishment is handed out in the knowledge that the codependent child will always return, seeking forgiveness and apologising for what they have “done”. The child is trapped in the psyche of the narcissist parent who sees her achievements as an extension of his abilities as a “parent”. The parent is motivated to care constantly for her because it makes him feel good about himself.
While the child is extremely codependent towards the narcissist parent, it is often a different story with other people she becomes involved with. Here she resists any form of treatment that she perceives as controlling and manipulative and often plays a narcissist role herself and becomes an emotional manipulator. Given that she has learned to be pleasing and accommodating and is seemingly stable, she will attract partners easily. However, any relationship that is likely to clash with her incessant need to please the narcissist parent will be discarded, even if in some cases she might have wanted to stay in the relationship. Worse case scenario for her is the disapproval of her partner by the narcissist parent. This places her in conflict between his and her needs and true to form, her needs are subdued.
For a chosen child, life is never easy until they can learn to put healthy boundaries around their own and other people’s behaviour. They first have to understand what is really happening to them. They often refuse to see their narcissist parent for what they are. They are held by the child on a pedestal beyond reproach, their counsel sacred and the child often sees the narcissist parent as the only one who can truly understand them and provide them with the security they need. In effect, they are just only another pawn in the narcissist parent’s need to feel good about himself. It is child abuse of the highest order.