When we first wake up to the fact that we have an NParent, it can be either emotionally devastating or it can be the first of many epiphanies—AHA! moments that explain what was, up to now, inexplicable. Regardless of our initial reaction to the discovery of parental narcissism, however, that discovery opens the door to a growing realization of what we are really dealing with and who our parents really are.
Initially, many of us cling to our denial because we simply do not want to believe the awful truth that inevitably accompanies enlightenment, the truth that our Nparent is incapable of love and that which we have heretofore perceived as love is nothing more than self-serving manipulations designed to provide the parent with a reliable source of narcissistic supply. When our denial begins to fade, we are overtaken with a crushing sense of betrayal, a feeling of having been duped and used, and an emptiness where we once held the belief that our NParent loved us, despite a paucity of recognizable expressions of that love.
Some of us learned, as children, to accept other things as being symbolic of love: she gave us lots of stuff, or no restrictions, or didn’t interfere in our lives, so she must have wanted us to be happy because she never said “no” to us. We could not wrap our minds around the concept that we were neglected. Others, controlled and manipulated, perceived that control as evidence of love in that she went to great lengths to keep us safe, to make others admire us for our appearance or talents, or simply for how obedient and well-behaved we were. She loved us enough to teach us how to keep house, cook food, mind young children in preparation for the day when we had our own homes; she loved us enough to not make us go out into the big world alone, where we might fail or live poorly, or be without her ready guidance and if we did go out into the world, she was always there for us, ready with advice and suggestions, even commands for those times we were foolish enough to think we might know more than she did. That, we believed, was love—the faithful execution of her obligations as a parent because she loved us and wanted only the best for us—even if we were too young and selfish to see it.
And so we felt guilty for perceiving it as interference, for not wanting her help, for wishing she had been more engaged or involved in our lives, or for anything that intimated even the slightest hint of a lack of appreciation for all that she did for us… And that guilt kept us not only from revealing our discomfort to her, but to ourselves as well. It was unthinkable that she might not have done all of those things—or failed to do all those other things—for any reason other than for love of us. And yet, it didn’t feel loving…
One of the guilt issues we bump into as we begin healing is a feeling of betrayal—that we are betraying them, the narcs who were our parents or parental figures—when we start shedding our cloak of denial. There exists within us a sense that we are doing wrong when we peel the scales from our eyes and begin to see, recognize, and name the many truths we have held in abeyance. Even if we were miserable in our childhoods we, like them, often laid the blame on ourselves, even if we failed to see how we created our despair—we just took it to heart that it was our fault because it couldn’t be hers—she was our mother and mothers just automatically love their children—everybody knows that!
Those negative thoughts that crept in, the feelings of being unloved, the discomfort when shining a light on the truth—the guilt they invoked, came from feelings of betrayal. We felt like we were betraying them, after all they had done for us—and how little we had done for them, even when it was them who were actually betraying us.
Just what is betrayal?
Betrayal is inextricably entwined with trust, expectation, and entitlement. According to the dictionary, “Betrayal has to do with destroying…trust, possibly by lying;” it is “an act of deliberate disloyalty.”1 To be an act of disloyalty, however, there must first be a legitimate expectation of loyalty, an entitlement to loyalty. In some situations that entitlement is constant over time: the expectation that you will not betray your government to an enemy, for example. But in other situations, the entitlement changes with time: your entitlement to goods and services from your parents diminishes with time, for example, while your parents’ entitlement to your obedience and deference to their wishes diminishes as you grow older and more independent.
Individuation is a normal developmental stage that begins in the teens, a stage in which children begin to break away from dependence on their parents. This stage normally completes within a few years, culminating in a physically and emotionally independent adult. This is how it is supposed to be, and it is supposed to occur without feelings of disloyalty or betrayal holding us back. But with personality disordered parents, this can go terribly wrong: they work against our individuation, making us feel guilty for following the path laid out for us by Mother Nature and we, inculcated with their self-serving values and not knowing any better, go right along with them. We allow ourselves to remain enmeshed—even with ignoring parents, we remain enmeshed emotionally—and to continue in the one-down position of the child when we should be emotionally individuated and no longer need approval or emotional succour from or parents.
We may even take this belief that we belong in the one-down position to our parents—our primary authority figures—out into the rest of our lives, accepting subordinate roles as our due in work, friendships, and romantic relationships. This can manifest as a belief that this is where we belong, that we are not entitled to or capable of leadership—or even peer-level—roles with others; it can manifest such that we believe that we deserve nothing better, even though we want more and chafe at the limitations the subordinate role in life places upon us. It can manifest in a feeling of incompetence to run our own lives so we hook up with people who will take an authoritative role in our lives, rescue us from having to be responsible for ourselves, and assume a pseudo-parental role so that we can remain in the role we know so well and are comfortably familiar with: the subordinate, dependent, pseudo-child. This is how so many of us end up in romantic relationships, friendships, even work relationships, with other narcissists, with people who take over our lives and keep us where we have always been: bit players on the stage of our own lives.
It feels impossible to change. We know we are not satisfied with this supporting role but don’t know anything else, have never been encouraged to grow into something more. Our NParents, needing us to remain subordinate so they could remain superior, needing us to be needy ourselves so that we could remain connected to them and remain a source of NSupply, our parents created this for their own benefit. To achieve this goal, our individuation had to be derailed and our natural drive towards independence and willingness to strike out on our own, be thwarted. Whether the parent was engulfing or ignoring, they did nothing to encourage and guide our attempts at individuation, either turning them into opportunities to gain more NSupply or squelching our attempts to increase their sense of control. My mother, for example, allowed me to take the classroom portion of Driver’s Education and to get a permit—but she never allowed me behind the wheel of her car, nor did she permit me to take the driving portion of the class: she did not want the responsibility if I ran over somebody, she told me. Other NParents, however, can’t wait for their Scapegoat Child to be a licensed driver: now the kid gets to run all of the errands, pick up the younger siblings from school, pick up prescriptions, and generally expand her role as personal maid to the NParent.
This, whether you recognize it or not, is the ultimate betrayal. The deliberate choice of a narcissistic parent to keep their adult child tied to them so that they can benefit, is the ultimate betrayal, not only of the child, but of the natural order of things, the natural process of maturation that we are all supposed to go through. By keeping you shackled to her with guilt, a false sense of obligation, or a fear of doing wrong, your NParent betrays the actual purpose of motherhood: to raise and give to the community a productive adult member who will do the same—raise and give to the community another productive adult member—so that the society can continue. It is the ultimate betrayal, to prevent you from completing your journey from childhood to fully functioning adulthood, just so they, your NParents, can keep a ready source of NSupply on hand.
Curiously, when we realize how we were used and betrayed and begin to feel a normal, natural sense of unhappiness with the situation, it is we who feel like we are betraying our parents by recognizing and embracing the truth of what they have done. It is as if we feel the entitlement of our parents extends to lying to ourselves and allowing them to exploit us to whatever degree they wish. This is toxic guilt in action—normal guilt exists to teach us right from wrong, to make us feel bad inside when we do wrong in order to encourage us to avoid that bad feeling by doing right. Toxic guilt occurs when normal guilt is perverted by our learning a false definition of right and wrong, by being taught by our parents that black is white, good is bad, and wrong is right. They define right and wrong in terms of what serves them, not in terms of what serves us (the truth serves us) and this, then, is the penultimate betrayal: teaching us to sublimate ourselves and our needs and even our normal developmental processes to their greed for NSupply, and teaching us we are wrong and bad to resist, even in our minds, doing so. They teach us that, unless we betray ourselves, we are betraying them and committing the single most heinous act possible: disloyalty to them. That they have sacrificed us on the altar of their greed and selfishness is simply never acknowledged. That they have taken from us our birthright and perverted our natural emotional and sociological development in order to benefit them simply does not come under consideration. The obligation is a one-way street—your obligation to them—including the obligation for loyalty: they feel no sense of loyalty to you, only outrage when they suspect a lack of loyalty on your part to them.
This, then, is the betrayal: your legitimate expectations of love, support and dependability from your parents unfulfilled. Your reactions to this betrayal do not, in any way, constitute a betrayal on your part. When one person betrays another, the loyalty contract between them, whether formalized or not, is broken and the betrayed party is entitled to take action, be it filing for divorce, charging the betrayer with criminal charges if applicable, or just walking out of the traitor’s life.
Make no mistake, if your parents are narcissists, they betrayed you and they betrayed you in one of the most fundamental ways humanly possible: they put their desires ahead of your needs. They taught you to serve them rather than how to become a strong, confident, independent and autonomous human being. They taught you to fear, to be afraid of being “in trouble” not just as an 8 year old contemplating doing something forbidden, but as an adult contemplating doing something healthy and independent. They taught you that failure or less than perfection would cause a withdrawal of their approval—which you had learned to interpret as parental love—rather than teach you that failures were the essential stepping stones to mastery and success. This was your birthright and it was the responsibility of your parents to raise you to be confident, independent, and autonomous. When they sought to turn you into the family scapegoat—or golden child—when they assigned you a role and a destiny that did not have your own best interests at heart but their own, they betrayed you and every day that they continue the charade about what you owe to them, they betray you again.
So what can you do about it?
You can recognize that you are being ill-used and have been from your earliest days. Rather than being an autonomous being to whom they were obligated to prepare for an independent life, you were to them a nascent servant, someone to eventually provide them with that which they so dearly desired: narcissistic supply. Rather than use shackles and chains to bind you to them, they chose the invisible fetters of fear, obligation, guilt and began to bind you with them so early in your life that you cannot remember when it began. You can see that is was wrong, that they were wrong, and that you were wronged, and you can walk away from the abuse by recognizing that you are now the one shackling yourself to them. The fear is an illusion: they cannot stop loving you because they never loved you in the first place. The obligation is a lie because the real obligation was from them to you, not the other way round. And the guilt is just a house of cards, constructed to keep your chains looking too strong for you to break. They betrayed you, took from you your birthright, your entitlement to be loved and guided into a successful and confident and independent adulthood and instead, gave you a lifetime of servitude to their dysfunction.
You can speak the words forbidden, think the thoughts not permitted, take the illicit steps from bondage into freedom—you can liberate yourself by simply recognizing that you are being betrayed every single hour of every single day—and have been since your earliest days—and withdraw your consent, your complicity, your participation in your betrayal. It takes but a single word—“no”—or a single action—refusing to accept abuse—or a single step—away from the abuse—to set your feet on the path of freedom and ending the abuse.
You have been betrayed since you were a tiny child—don’t let them get away with it any longer.