Running Head: ADULT CHILDREN OF NARCISSISTIC PARENTS: THE ECHOES
Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents: The Echoes
The term narcissist is often used to describe someone who is self-centered, conceited,
vain; or simply an insensitive, egotistical, know it all. As a personality trait, there is a notion that
a mild case of narcissism can actually be healthy, that it helps people cope with life‟s ups and
downs; while an intense or severe case is harmful, primarily to the narcissist themselves. The
understanding that severe psychological damage can be done by a true narcissist, to the people
who love them, is not widely understood or addressed; in many cases narcissism is minimized as
a form of mental illness. In an article about Narcissism in Psychology Today, Carl Vogel writes:
Intensely narcissistic people often live tumultuous lives, as few people can tolerate them
for long. But having a milder version of the personality type comes with many side
benefits. Subclinical narcissists are happy. They are less likely to be depressed, sad or
anxious, and rate their subjective well-being more highly. They're less reactive to stress and recover more rapidly from it. (Vogel, 2006)
How does one determine whether the level of narcissism present is mild or severe? A true
narcissist stays off the radar; in fact they are model citizens: they pay their bills on time, mow
their lawns every Saturday, attend church on Sundays, and are active members of the PTA.
Narcissists may be annoying, hard to get along with, ego-maniacs, but there is a certain level of
cultural admiration for the tyrannical, workaholic, CEO who came from nothing and built an
empire. They may be a jerk, but a successful jerk nonetheless, and their antics to be endured if
one wants to get ahead. Whether the tyrant is a boss or a spouse, psychologists advise their
clients to treat the narcissist as if they were temperamental children, to
“butter them up, let them
be the center of attention, don‟t expect much, don‟t cross them, keep a sense of humor”
This is very good advice if you‟re an adult, but what if the narcissist
happens to be your mother, father, or primary care giver? A parent who manipulates a child into meeting their own emotional needs is no longer “charismatic, charming, exasperating or downright ludicrous“, but cruel and abusive; the effects of which are rarely diagnosed or treated in the children or adult children of narcissists. The symptoms of a narcissistic family system are exactly what make a
diagnosis so difficult everything seems so "perfect".
The emotional damage done by a narcissistic parent can, in many ways, be even more
devastating to the healthy ego-development of a child than overt abuse, because it is so insidious.
Although many of the same symptoms occur in the client‟s life that stem from the incest family,
the alcohol troubled family, the physically abusive family, and so forth, none of those issues
were present in the narcissistic family. In fact, the family of origin seems to have functioned
quite well—at least on the surface. Like “a shiny red apple with a worm inside”, the narcissistic
system hides its dysfunction, even from the people who grow up inside of it. This masking is
what makes treatment so difficult; you cannot heal what you do not understand.
The term narcissist is derived from the story in Greek Mythology about a beautiful young
man named Narcissus who was so infatuated with himself that he fell in love with his own
reflection in a pool of water. He grew so frustrated that he could not have the object of his
affection (himself) that, to end his suffering, he plunged a dagger into his heart and died. There is
another character in the story that is often forgotten: Echo. According to the story, Echo was a
beautiful, but overly chatty, nymph who was cursed by Hera so she could no longer form her
own words, only repeat what others said. When she falls in love with Narcissus and finally hears
him say “I love you”, she can finally tell him that she loves him too. She does not realize that he
was declaring his love for his own reflection, not for her. The story of Narcissus and Echo
exemplify the narcissistic family system. Narcissus is the self-centered parent who looks for their
idealized image to be reflected in everyone and everything around them. Echo symbolizes the
child, who is a mirror for the narcissistic parent, and must reflect back their idealized image in
order to hear the words “I love you”. The child never learns to develop a separate “voice” that
expresses who they are or what they need. What they do develop, however, is an uncanny ability
to know who their narcissistic parent wants to be, and what they need. In a narcissistic family
system, the parent-child roles are reversed: if the child can correctly meet the emotional needs of
the parent, then maybe, just maybe, they will be loved in return.
In a healthy family, parents are able to see their children as separate individuals they allow
them to express their own opinions and feelings; to make mistakes, to grow, and discover who
they are as people. John Bradshaw, the author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, writes:
What a child needs most is a firm but understanding caretaker, who needs to be getting
his or her own needs met through other adults. Such a caretaker needs to have resolved
the issues in their own source relationships, and needs to have a sense of self-
responsibility. When this is the case, such a caretaker can be available to the child and
provide what the child needs.”
(Donaldson-Pressman, & Pressman, 1994, p. 94)
A narcissistic parent, however, is incapable of giving their child this understanding and
freedom. Just as the echo child needs someone to reflect in order to exist, the narcissist does not
exist without a reflection and that reflection better be flawless or it will make the parent look,
and feel, like a failure. The parent‟s emotional needs are met by appearing perfect; they will
spend their lives striving for superiority in order to mask their deep feelings of inferiority. Alfred
Adler wrote:The fundamental dynamic of human striving is a constant movement from a felt "minus"
to an imagined "plus". The striving is influenced by: the type and intensity of the "minus"
feeling (inferiority or insecurity); the degree of activity; the strength of the feeling of
community; and the particular goal of an imagined "plus". (Stein, para. 15)
What exactly goes on in a narcissistic family on a day to day basis that makes it so damaging?
If an overtly narcissistic parent is an alcoholic dad who, in a rage, breaks furniture during the
sleep-over, or a neglectful mom in short shorts at the casino cussing like a sailor, then what does
a covertly narcissistic family look like? Unfortunately, it looks more like Joan Crawford with
drawn on eyebrows, and giant shoulder pads chasing little Christina around screaming, “No wire hangers!”
In Christina Crawford‟s memoir,
Mommie Dearest, she exposes the abuse that went on behind closed doors, shattering the façade of the loving family with perfect children that her mother had so carefully manufactured. On the surface, Joan Crawford‟s four adopted children
were clean, well dressed and obedient. The house was beautiful, Joan Crawford was a successful
movie star and she bought the kids the best money could buy. After the memoir was published, a
few people who knew Joan believed what Christina said, but most of those closest to the family
denounced her as a spoiled brat who was trying to make money off of her dead mother. Bette
Davis was outraged by the book:
I was not Miss Crawford‟s biggest fan, but wisecracks to the contrary, I did and still do
respect her talent. What she did not deserve was that detestable book written by her
daughter. I've forgotten her name. Horrible. What a vile way to cash in on her mother‟s
name. Miss Crawford wasn't my close friend, but what her daughter, who I understand
was adopted, did was absolutely vile. To do something like that, who saved you from the
orphanage, foster homes, who knows what. If she didn't like the person who chose to be her mother, she was a grown up and could choose her own life. (Chandler, C. 2008d.)
Christina Crawford‟s story is a perfect example of the Echo child. It was her duty to unconditionally love her mot her, but her mother‟s love was always conditional. In Christina‟s book, she explains this role reversal beautifully: The image was of a bottomless pit into which you could pour years of loving kindness, and attempts at reconciliation, without visible results. It failed to erase the one
mistake…there just wasn‟t enough love in the world to fill her need…She demanded
constant reassurance of devotion that she left no room for love. It was impossible to love
her. (Nathiel, 2007, p. 45) To a narcissist, love equals performance and performance equals love. Their thought process is: “If you love me, you will make me look good, and when I look good, I will love you.”
However, the expectations of a narcissist change constantly— what pleased them yesterday may
incur their wrath the next, depending on the circumstances, or who they want to impress. The
secret and deep seeded fear of every narcissist is that they are truly worthless— that if they are
not better than, or at least as good as, everyone else, they are inferior, and therefore unlovable.
They are empty vessels needing continual reassurance, and their child can never be good enough,
for long enough, to be loved. Unfortunately, this failure to please is almost always interpreted by
the child as a result of their own inadequacy.
Since the parent‟s approval or disapprovalis arbitrary and unpredictable, the Echo child can
never quite let their guard down. To trust, or feel safe, in a moment of peace, is to be
disappointed when the calm turns quickly into a storm, seemingly out of nowhere, and for no
apparent reason. They learn to not trust as children and, as adults, “they may want to form close and loving relationships, but have difficulty letting down the barriers to trust they have erected” (Donaldson- Pressman & Pressman, 1994, pp. 13).
To survive somewhat emotionally intact, these barriers were necessary to the child‟s psychological and physical safety.The need for psychological and physical safety as essential building blocks for the
development of trust is an elementary stage described in most developmental psychological systems (including those of Erikson and Maslow). In a narcissistic system, children learn to distrust their own feelings, perceptions and self-worth; this skewed reality follows them into adulthood, affecting every area of their lives. “When one is raised as a reactive/reflective being — as an Echo— one has not been taught the skills necessary to live a satisfying life. (Donaldson-Pressman, & Pressman, p.18)
Communication in the Narcissistic Family System
There are rules in a covertly narcissistic family; elements that keep the narcissist feeling in
control, but keep the rest of the family in a constant state of wary anxiety.
The purpose of these rules is to insulate the parents from the emotional needs of their
children— to protect and hold intact the parent system. Therefore all of these unspoken
"rules for maintenance‟ of the narcissistic family system discourage open communication
of feelings by the children and limit their access to the parents, while giving the parents
unlimited access to the children. (Donaldson-Pressman & Pressman, 1994, p. 32)
How old is a child when the parent begins to sees them as a threat? Does it start as soon
as the baby comes home from the hospital? On the contrary, for the first twelve to twenty four
months, they are able to meet the infant's, physical and psychological needs, so that some level
of trust is formed between parent and child. When children are younger, their behavior is more
rewarding to the parent— they coo and giggle as infants, so that meeting their needs is more of a
task that requires very little emotional maturity on the part of the narcissistic parent. As the child
grows, however, and begins to develop a unique, and separate identity, their opinions, and
healthy need for individuation causes the parent to feel threatened, and rejected. In a healthy
family, a toddler‟s constant questions, and defiance can be somewhat annoying, but to be
expected. For a narcissist, this natural curiosity, and independence is interpreted as being
Somewhere between infancy and adolescence, the parent loses focus (if they ever had it)
and stops seeing the child as a distinct individual with feelings and needs to be validated
and met. The child becomes, instead, an extension of the parent. Normal emotional
growth is seen as selfish or deficient, and this is what the parent mirrors to the child. For
the child to get approval she must meet a spoken or unspoken need of the parent;
approval is contingent on the child meeting the parent system's needs (Donaldson-
Pressman, & Pressman, 1994, p. 30).
The echo child learns, the hard way, to keep their feelings, problems, mistakes, questions, and
opinions to themselves, or face severe disapproval, rejection and punishment from their
narcissistic parent. If they do share their true selves in a moment of unguarded honesty, they may
find those intimacies thrown back in their face at a later date. The communication style of the
disapproving narcissist is indirect because they fear clear, and honest confrontation. Instead of “
Mary, will you please take out the garbage?”One hears:“It would be nice if someone besides
me took the garbage out once in awhile, do I have to do everything around here? Mary, I thought
you said you were going to do this, you let it get too full and the dog got into it! I suppose you‟re
on the phone with that girl who you said was skipping school. Well, go ahead, if you hang out
with losers long enough you‟ll end up one too.”
The simple request to take out the garbage is not about the garbage at all— it is a loaded gun of communication. Indirectly, the narcissist has used
the garbage to: (1) elevate themselves as the only one who cares and actually does "everything‟—
insinuating that nobody else does anything; (2) singles out someone to blame forthe dog making a mess; and (3) brings up a previous confidence shared by Mary about her friend skipping school, and equates Mary, the friend, and the full garbage can to Mary ending up a loser. In this scenario, Mary may have just gotten home from school, or been helping the neighbor lady find her cat, but that is of no concern to the narcissistic parent. Mary's feelings are of no concern to this parent either, and to express them, or try explaining why she did not have time to take the garbage out, is pointless.
A child that finds themselves in a similar situation to Mary‟s will respond to the parent in one
of two ways: fight or flight. To fight back is perceived as rebellious, selfish and disrespectful. To
choose the flight option will be mistakenly seen by the parent as compliant obedience. Either
way, the narcissist believes they are right, and the children was wrong— end of story. The
garbage is not just the garbage; this whole situation is another opportunity for the narcissist to
reassure themselves that they are not a failure as a parent; they are, in fact, a good parent by
pointing out how irresponsible Mary was. On the surface, that sounds like a reasonable
explanation that few would see as "child abuse‟, but it is. To cloak shame under the guise of caring is precisely what causes such psychological damage to the Echo— they do not understand
why, if they are so loved, do they feel so worthless and unlovable? They conclude that what
mom or dad said about them must be true, that they really are ungrateful and lazy.
Another ineffective communication technique used in narcissistic families is triangulation.
The narcissistic parent uses a third party to talk through— a dog, a child, or even the other parent,
to create a buffer against intimacy, and to not accept responsibility for what they say or how they
say it. A more common and destructive form of triangulation is to use one person against another
to form an “alliance” with the narcissist. This is sort of a “divide and conquer” technique where
the narcissist positions themselves so other family members cannot form relationships with each
other. The narcissist needs to be the center of attention, and sees close relationships within the
family much like a jealous child would: “If they love each other then they do not love me.”
The parent will gossip about one child to another, share intimacies about their spouse, betray
confidences or even make up lies in order to remain “in the loop”.
The concept of intimacy being established because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the way a narcissist tries to feel in control. In other words, they believe: “If they do not like each other, then they will have to love me”.
A narcissistic parent is essentially an emotional child who relates to their own child as a“peer”— another adult who is trying to compete with them, or deliberately wants to make them look bad.
To a narcissist there is no “us”, there is only“ them or me”. They live in a world that is right or wrong, black or white, good or bad; if someone else is right then they must be wrong, if someone else is loved then they are unloved, if someone disagrees with them, that means they are trying to make them look stupid, and so on. Every feeling or experience of another is somehow a reflection of the narcissist‟s worth and value— whether it has anything to do with them or not. For example, if their child gets in trouble at school because they forgot their homework and feels bad about it, the narcissistic parent's first thought will be embarrassment— now the teacher will think they are a bad parent— they should have made sure the homework was done. Instead of being empathetic, or using this as a teaching moment, they are angry. The child is not permitted to express regret. The parent has already grabbed the situation, twisted it around, pulled it to close to them, will manipulate the child into feeling guilty for making angry. The narcissist has taken the focus off of the child‟s needs and placed it on themselves.
The discouraged child is now expected to comfort the parent so they don‟t feel bad anymore.
When this form of emotional co-opting occurs repeatedly, year after year, a child not only
stops telling the parent anything that may upset them, they stop being consciously aware of their
true feelings at all. To feel is to be disappointed, so the protective walls go up, creating emotional
safety from the narcissist and from feeling hopeful. Why desire intimacy and closeness if it
means being rejected? Why bother just to be humiliated and emotionally abandoned? Trust leads
to pain; therefore, trust becomes synonymous with pain.
The process of building a protective wall around the heart is not a conscious one; it is the
magnificent brain's clever rewiring that helps the child survive a narcissistic system of emotional
abuse and neglect. Unaware that this rewiring has occurred, the adult child of a narcissist has
trouble figuring out why they have trouble with intimacy; why they lie when the truth would be
easier to tell, have anxiety attacks, or find themselves in abusive work situations over, and over
Although the process of healing is difficult, it is possible for the Echo to find their voice and
live a healthy life. If their therapist or counselor is familiar with the narcissistic family system, it
is not difficult to spot an Echo client who displays ACOA symptoms, but whose childhood
seemed “fine”.What prevents someone who was raised in a narcissistic family from becoming
one? It is the presence of an adult in their life: a teacher, parent, aunt or neighbor, who,
knowingly or unknowingly, loved, and accepted them. If there was one person who did not get
mad if they made a mistake, or did not expect anything in return if they did the child a favor,
then through this healthy“mirror”, they could see themselves reflected as valuable, unique and
loveable. They could experience being“ good enough”, just as they are. It is this same positive
parent-child model that will help heal the adult child of a narcissist. Not tough love, not behavior
modification or psychoanalysis, but a healthy, truthful mirror of the client‟s inherent beauty that
is not based on what they do, but who they are. The beauty is flawed, imperfect, and prone to all
sorts of mistakes, and miss-steps; but these are to be accepted, and learned from, not feared. That
is the truth that will finally set the Echo child free.
Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents: The Echoes
Adler Graduate School
Blame & Guilt
Blame & Guilt
Am I to blame for my husband's/child's/parent's mental state and behaviour? Is there anything that I can or should do to help him or to reach him?
Self-flagellation is a characteristic of those who choose to live with a narcissist (for a choice it is). Constant feelings of guilt, self-reproach, self-recrimination and, thus, self-punishment characterize the relationships formed between the sadist-narcissist and the masochistic-dependent mate or partner.
The narcissist is sadistic because, early on, he was forced into expressing his own guilt and self-reproach in this manner. His Superego is unpredictable, capricious, arbitrary, judgemental, cruel, and self-annihilating (suicidal). Externalising these internal traits is a way of alleviating internal conflicts and fears generated by the narcissist's inner turmoil.
The narcissist projects this "civil war" and drags everyone around him into a swirl of bitterness, suspiciousness, meanness, aggression and pettiness. His life is a reflection of his psychological landscape: barren, paranoiac, tormented, guilt ridden. He feels compelled to do unto others what he inflicts upon himself. He gradually transforms his closest, nearest and dearest into replicas of his conflictive, punishing personality structure.
Some narcissists are more subtle than others. They disguise their sadism. For instance, they "educate" their family members or friends (for their sake, as they present it). This “education” is compulsive, obsessive, incessantly, harshly and unduly critical. Its effect is to erode the subject, to humiliate, to create dependence, to intimidate, to restrain, to control, to paralyse.
The victim of such "edification" internalises the endless hectoring and humiliating criticism and makes them his own. She begins to see justice where there is only twisted logic based on crooked assumptions. She begins to self-punish, to withhold, to request approval prior to any action, to forgo her preferences and priorities, to erase her own identity – hoping to thus avoid the excruciating pains of the narcissist's destructive analyses.
Other narcissists are less sophisticated and they use all manner of abuse to domesticate their kin and partners in life. This includes physical violence, verbal violence (during intensive rage attacks), psychological abuse, brutal "honesty", sick or offending humour, and so on.
But both categories of narcissists employ very simple deceptive mechanisms to achieve their goals. One thing should be clear: such abusive practice is not a well thought out, previously planned campaign by the average narcissist. His behaviour is dictated by forces that he cannot master.
Most of the time the narcissist is not even conscious of why he is doing what he is doing. When he is self-aware – he can't seem to be able to predict the outcomes of his actions. Even when he can foretell them – he feels powerless to modify his behavior. The narcissist is a pawn in the chess game played between the structures of his fragmented, fluid personality. So, in a classical – juridical sense, the narcissist is not to blame, he is not fully responsible or aware of what he is doing to others.
This seems to contradict my answer to FAQ # 13 where I write:
"The narcissist knows to tell right from wrong. He is perfectly capable of anticipating the results of his actions and their influence on his milieu. The narcissist is very perceptive and sensitive to the subtlest nuances. He has to be: the very integrity of his personality depends upon input from others… A person suffering from NPD must be subjected to the same moral treatment and judgement as the rest of us are. The courts do not recognise NPD as a mitigating circumstance – why should we?"
But, the contradiction is only apparent. The narcissist is perfectly capable of both distinguishing right from wrong – and of foreseeing the outcomes of his actions. In this sense, the narcissist should be held liable for his misdeeds and exploits. If he so chooses, the narcissist can fight his compulsive inclination to behave the way he does.
This would come at a great personal psychological price, though. Avoidance or suppression of a compulsive act result in increased anxiety. The narcissist prefers his own well-being to that of others. Even when confronted with the great misery that he fosters, he hardly feels responsible (for instance, he rarely attends psychotherapy).
To put it more plainly, the (average) narcissist is unable to answer the question: "Why did you do what you did?" or "Why did you choose this mode of action over others available to you under the same circumstances?" These decisions are taken unconsciously.
But once the course of action is (unconsciously) chosen, the narcissist has a perfect grasp of what he is doing, whether it is right or wrong and what will be the price others are likely to pay for his actions and choices. And he can then decide to reverse course (for instance, to refrain from doing anything). On the one hand, therefore, the narcissist is not to blame – on the other hand, he is very guilty.
The narcissist deliberately confuses responsibility with guilt. The concepts are so close that the distinctions often get blurred. By provoking guilt in responsibility-laden situations, the narcissist transforms life with him into a constant trial. Actually, the continuous trial itself is the punishment.
Failures, for instance, induce guilt. The narcissist always labels someone else's efforts as "failures" and then proceeds to shift the responsibility for said failures to his victim so as to maximise the opportunity to chastise and castigate her.
The logic is two-phased. First, every responsibility imputed to the victim is bound to lead to failure, which, in turn, induces in the victim guilt feelings, self-recrimination and self-punishment. Secondly, more and more responsibilities are shifted away from the narcissist and onto his mate – so that, as time goes by, an asymmetry of failures is established. Burdened with less and less responsibilities and tasks – the narcissist fails less. It preserves the narcissist's sense of superiority, on the one hand – and legitimises his sadistic attacks on his victim, on the other hand.
The narcissist's partner is is often a willing participant in this shared psychosis. Such folie a deux can never take place without the full collaboration of a voluntarily subordinated victim. Such partners have a wish to be punished, to be eroded through constant, biting criticisms, unfavourable comparisons, veiled and not so veiled threats, acting out, betrayals and humiliations. It makes them feel cleansed, "holy", whole, and sacrificial.
Many of these partners, when they realise their situation (it is very difficult to discern it from the inside) – abandon the narcissist and dismantle the relationship. Others prefer to believe in the healing power of love or some such other nonsense. It is nonsense not because love has no therapeutic power – it is by far the most powerful weapon in the healing arsenal. It is nonsense because it is wasted on a human shell, incapable of feeling anything but negative emotions, which vaguely filter through his dreamlike existence. The narcissist is unable to love, his emotional apparatus ruined by years of deprivation, abuse, misuse and disuse.
Granted, the narcissist is a consummate manipulator of human emotions and their attendant behaviours. He is convincing, he is deviously successful and sweeps everyone around him into the turbulent delusion which he consists of. He uses anything and anyone to secure his dose of Narcissistic Supply and discards, without hesitation those he deems "useless".
The narcissist-victim dyad is a conspiracy, a collusion of victim and mental tormentor, a collaboration of two needy people who find solace and supply in each other's deviations. Only by breaking loose, by aborting the game, by ignoring the rules – can the victim be transformed (and by the way, acquire the newly found appreciation of the narcissist).
The narcissist also stands to benefit from such a move. But both the narcissist and his partner do not really think about each other. Gripped in the arms of an all-consuming dance macabre, they follow the motions morbidly, semiconscious, desensitised, exhausted, concerned only with survival. Living with a narcissist is very much like being in a maximum security prison.
The narcissist's partner should not feel guilty or responsible and should not seek to change what only time (not even therapy) and (difficult) circumstances may change. She should not strive to please and to appease, to be and not to be, to barely survive as a superposition of pain and fear. Releasing herself from the chains of guilt and from the throes of a debilitating relationship is the best help that a loving mate can provide to her ailing narcissistic partner.