Part of the Kathy Caprino’s series “Living and Working Better”
I’ve experienced narcissism throughout my life, but it took many years to fully recognize or understand it. As I became an adult, I continued to attract emotionally manipulative and narcissistic people into my life – including bosses, colleagues and even “friends.” I started to think, “What the heck is going on here? How can it be that I continually experience these painful, traumatic situations and relationships where others don’t seem to?”
I didn’t uncover the real answer to that question until I became a marriage and family therapist, and studied how humans develop and grow, and also what can go terribly wrong with our emotional development and personality and identify formation when we’re exposed to abuse, manipulation and childhood trauma.
When I learned about narcissistic personality disorder, my world was completely rocked. I realized then exactly what had been going on for many years (in fact, all my life), and also learned what we have to do to address and heal our own wounds from being exposed to narcissistic trauma as young children, when we were too young and defenseless to make sense of a chaotic and frightening world.
Years later, as I became a career coach and began delivering my Amazing Career Project course, I observed that a significantly large portion of the women who came to the course and who were frustrated and deeply dissatisfied with their lives and careers had in fact, experienced traumatic emotional manipulation or narcissism in childhood. And I began to see clearly that when you’ve grown up with narcissism, you will, almost assuredly, carry the narcissistic wound inside you.
According to psychologists, when a child is trapped in a narcissistic relationship with a parent, they can either internalize or externalize the traumatizing behavior of the parent. As described by Dr. Jane Petersen in her article “Healing the Narcissistic Wound“:
The child who externalizes their experience perpetuates the pattern by projecting onto others the shame, guilt, humiliation and fear that she experienced and cannot tolerate herself.
Narcissistic behavior can be internalized as well. In these cases,
the child first develops a protector identity, usually dissociative, whose aim is to reduce the harm by anticipating the narcissist behavior of the adult. The child does this by creating an internal version of the narcissistic adult’s behavior. Later as the child develops, this part that arose as protector begins to function as a persecutor, a replica of the abusive adult that now lives inside the growing child’s own mind.
The bottom line is that when you’ve been traumatized by narcissism as a child, most likely you’re carrying a wound inside that has to be healed. If you don’t address it, it will wreak havoc on your relationships, your personal and professional fulfillment and success, and your own self-concept and self-esteem.
How can you tell quickly if you have a narcissistic wound to heal?
Here are 5 signs I’ve observed — both throughout my 18-year corporate life, then over the past 12 years working as a therapist, and career and personal success coach:
#1. You can’t overcome your driven need to be a “perfectionistic overfunctioner,” no matter how you try
There’s a term I’ve coined – “perfectionistic overfunctoner” – that emerged from my training about the driven fear and need to do more than is healthy, appropriate, or necessary, and striving desperately to get an “A+” in all of it. Hundreds of thousands of women suffer from perfectionistic overfunctioning, and when they do, physical and emotional crises emerge.
This driven fear to be perfect and to be everything to everyone often emerges as a coping and survival strategy, to save oneself from deep pain and rejection from narcissistic or overly manipulative parents.
Sadly, many cultures teach that “good” parenting is about pushing children to excellence. What I’ve seen, however, is that this form of parenting can become abusive and highly damaging when the pushing and pressuring is intense and unrelenting and when it means love will be withheld, and is conditional, given only if there’s high achievement. And many cultures around the world haven’t learned this vitally important lesson yet, thus raising very emotionally damaged adults.
#2. The idea of saying “NO!” to your parents or others (even when you are a mature adult), regarding how you want to live your life, is terrifying.
I’m utterly amazed day after day when I hear from women all around the world who are absolutely frozen in fear at the idea of telling their now elderly parents that they wish to create a new type of life for themselves. They know their parents will ridicule and shame them, and in some cases abandon them for “letting them down,” not living up to the parents’ expectations about the money, fame, recognition, and success they believe their children should continue to strive for.
#3. You set the bar for your own accomplishments so high, that you hate and shame yourself every day for not meeting and surpassing your own impossible expectations.
I’ve seen incredibly accomplished women (many who are well known in their fields and highly respected) feel “less than” and inferior, even after achieving what others would say are tremendous feats of success and impact. These women nurture impossible expectations, and when they fail to meet them, it’s confirmed in their own minds that they’re never good enough.
#4. When you’re in competitive environments, you might look like you “win” and “thrive” but deep down, you feel very scared, fragile and defensive.
Many highly competitive people appear confident and full of self-love and self-esteem, but inside, they’re devastatingly scared. Internally, they feel fragile, defensive and deeply afraid that they won’t “win” or come out on top in comparison to their colleagues or peers. For them, it’s not pleasurable to compete – it’s terrifying – yet they can’t stop themselves from competing at all costs.
#5. You reject those who challenge you
Finally, if someone challenges you and makes it clear they don’t like, “get,” or respect you, you internally reject and dislike them in excessive ways – unable to tolerate feeling unaccepted.
I’ve seen that those with a narcissistic wound need to be loved and accepted at all times, and when they’re not getting what they need emotionally, they go to a dark place of needing to reject those who triggered in them a feeling of being unacceptable. Even if it’s as small or seemingly insignificant as receiving a judgmental or nasty comment on Facebook or a LinkedIn status, people with narcissistic wounds will become excessively angry or indignant at the challenge, and go to extreme lengths to prove the challenger wrong or to discredit him/her.
Know that you don’t have to have therapy training to begin work to recognize if you have a narcissistic wound that needs healing. You need to shut out all the noise and chatter, tap into what you’re feeling at the deepest level, and be courageous enough to allow yourself to experience the full weight of your emotions. (If this is too frightening or overwhelming, seek out a great therapeutic provider to support you.) Once you can feel and recognize what triggers you to feel unsafe, unloved, and unacceptable, you can then explore the root behind that.
Two eye-opening questions to ask yourself are these:
- How old is this feeling inside of you? (This gets at understanding if this feeling emerged in early childhood, and if so, what was going on with your family and parents the first time you remember experiencing it.)
- Who did you crave love most from, as a child, and who did you have to be to get it? (A very powerful question from Tony Robbins’ documentary “I Am Not Your Guru” that helps you understand if you had to become someone you weren’t in order to be accepted and loved by your “tribe.”)
When you start to see more clearly why you experience relationships, people and events as you do, you can then do something concrete to move forward toward healing, finally finding new ways to thrive after narcissism.
(For hands-on therapeutic help, visit the American Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapy, and use the therapist locator to find a great therapist in your community who understands narcissism deeply and has learned how to support clients to heal from it. And for daughters of narcissistic mothers, read the helpful book “Will I Ever Be Good Enough” by Dr. Karyl McBride.)