Living with a narcissist changes you. Being raised by one not only changes you, the changes you have to make to survive such a parent literally shape who you are, how you see the world, and your very beliefs—even your beliefs about yourself.
If you had been raised in a functional household by relatively normal parents, the changes you make when you first get involved with a narcissist are changes that overlay your fundamental Self, the Self that was formed in a functional household with loving, supportive, normal parents and role models. These changes are like a sticker that is affixed atop the person you grew up to be. And when you break up with the narcissist, the sticker may be painful and difficult to remove, but underneath, your original Self still exists—a bit battered and wary, perhaps, but there just the same. In fact, your original Self is probably what initiated the breakup with the narcissist in the first place.
But when you are raised by narcissists, it is considerably different. You may have an intact core personality buried under all those adaptive measures taken to survive a narcissistic parent, but the person you know yourself to be, the person you show the world, and the beliefs you have adopted and live by are the only Self that you know. There is no “original Self” beneath the layers of adaptations because she has never been allowed to develop and come into her own.
And that is what therapy and recovery is all about: peeling back the layers of adaptive behaviours and beliefs, salvaging what is healthy and serviceable, discarding that which is maladaptive, and creating new behaviours and beliefs that become your real Self. It is an arduous and often painful journey, fraught with self-doubt and obstacles but a journey each one of us can successfully complete given a good therapist and sincere motivation.
But we do not easily come to the realization that our recovery from narcissistic abuse is a journey we must undertake alone. Because our wounds were inflicted by others, too often we adopt the belief that our recovery from those wounds is also in their hands. Our narcissists must stop hurting us, must change their hurtful ways, must apologize for their sins against us and make amends and then we will miraculously be fine. A parallel belief is that once our Ns disappear from our lives through death or No Contact, we will be magically healed and become normal, functional, happy people.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The death of a narcissistic parent throws up all sorts of emotional turmoil. From relief at no longer being the go-to person for working off a nasty mood to grief at the loss of hope that someday it might get better, ACoNs get every emotion the adult child experiences at the death of a normal parent plus the unique combination of relief, guilt, and fear that belongs to the children of the abusive parent. You are going to see the same denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that everyone else has to deal with, crowned with relief at being finally released from the chains of being her whipping post, guilt for your relief (and anything else you may or may not have done that the N thought you “should” have or not have done), and even a kind of free-floating anxiety/unnamed fear. What you are not going to feel is normal. Or healed. Or even free.
Why is that? Because you long ago internalized your N in your head, where she will live and control you for the rest of your days unless you get proactive about changing things. The source of the problem, whether your N is alive or dead, is inside your own head and only you can fix that.
The good news is that you can fix this. The better news is that you don’t have to wait for your Ns to die to fix it. The not-so-good-news is that the fix takes time—years, possibly—and it is painful, and you may have to let go of a lot of stuff you presently hold dear: ideas, beliefs, possessions, even people. And you are going to have to do it alone because nobody, not even a therapist, can do it for you. And in the end you will be a different person from who you are today and a lot of people you know today are not going to like the new you.
That may sound discouraging, but if you take the time to really think about it, this is actually a good thing. How many people “love” you because of your dysfunctionality? Are you the person who never says “no,” who loans money, gives time, puts up friends, takes in unwanted pets, cast off furniture and bric-a-brac, never complains or speaks up? Wouldn’t it be lovely to have friends and family whose esteem for you was not inextricably linked to your value as a pushover? An easy mark? The person they can depend on to never, ever put herself first?
This who your Ns trained you to be: a person who puts herself last and who never allows even her own needs to interfere with the wants and expectations of others. Does that sound noble and good to you? It’s not. It is self-abusive and self-destructive. And if you are counting on the death of those Ns who trained you to be your release from servitude, you are in for a bitter, bitter disappointment because their deaths will not release you from a prison in which your own psyche has taken over warden duties.
The death of a narcissistic parent is an opportunity for healing…it means that the active emotional assaults from this parent are now over. Oh, there may be some rude surprises with the will and the obituary and even the services, but those are finished within a month or so and then you are on your own, no longer waiting for the next onslaught. But the Flying Monkeys are still around and you can bet they are eager to remind you of what NM thought, what is expected of you, and to keep her ugly legacy alive. And, of course, there is the NM in your head, heaping guilt on you for wishing her dead, being relieved at her death, and for daring to think of behaving or thinking or believing differently from the way she groomed you.
Your narcissist’s death will not set you free. You remain the same wounded person you were one moment before death claimed her. You still believe you are unworthy or unlovable or a failure or ugly or worthless or a clueless incompetent or whatever it was your N programmed you to believe when you were a helpless child with no life experience to give you any idea of the real truth about yourself. And you will stay stuck right there, captive of a dead narcissist, until you take action to free yourself.
Only you can do that and you don’t have to wait for him to die to begin. But nobody can set you free if you aren’t willing to literally defy all that you have been taught, to question even your most fervent beliefs, and to change at least some of what you believe and embrace ideas and concepts that are antithetical to what you have been taught to date. Only by taking control of your life, by becoming your own authority figure and repudiating the pseudo-authority that Ns and their Flying Monkeys assume, do you have any hope of becoming free.
And you don’t have to wait for your N to die to do that…