Growing up with at least one narcissistic parents almost always means there was an emotionally incestuous or parentalizing relationship between the narcissistic parent & her child. Since narcissists are so self-absorbed, they often have children to take care of them or to fill some need in their life. This is where emotional incest, aka parentalizing, comes into play.
Parentalizing, parentification, covert incest & emotional incest all describe the same thing. (To simply, we’ll use “parentalizing” in this post.) It is when a parent & child’s roles are reversed, when the parent makes the child responsible for her emotional well being. A parent who talks to a child about adult matters such as her sex life or failing marriage is indulging in parentalizing. Although this behavior may not sound so bad, it is devastating to a child. Her feelings & issues can be made worse when people tell her how lucky her parent is to have her to count on or other misguided comments such as, “She needs you!” “You have to be strong for her!” “I don’t know what she’d do without you!” On the outside, this parentalized relationship may appear loving & good. The parent & child are close- what a wonderful thing! When people see the relationship, they encourage it or make those misguided comments, often without realizing the harm this is doing to the child.
Children who have survived a parentalizing relationship with their parent or parents often grow up full of guilt, angry, depressed, possess poor relationship skills, are in co-dependent relationships, have a very overdeveloped sense of responsibility (feeling responsible for everyone in their life) or have addictions. Another side effect you rarely see mentioned though is the feeling of needing to be invisible, to blend into the background.
Parentalizing parents seem to take up all the space in the relationship with their child. Be they overt or covert narcissists, they share one common thing- the fact that they come first in that relationship, period. Through fear or guilt, they give their child the message that they are more important, & their child isn’t important at all. Children often internalize the message, & as a result feel they must stay invisible so as not to disturb their narcissistic parent. Never upset that parent! Either comply with anything & everything the parent wants or stay strong for her.. All of these ideas are to please the narcissistic parent & avoid the rage that comes from not pleasing her. These thoughts even continue into adult relationships, such as “If I’m good enough to him & give him what he wants, he’ll stop hitting me.”
Parentalizing parents also communicate the message that they aren’t able to handle things, they are weak, & need the child to clean up their mess. This message tells the child that her needs are just too much. Just existing is a burden to the parent. Her needs aren’t important, including the need for validation. In fact, often the only validation the child gets is when she is her parent’s “savior” by fixing her parent’s problem. If she dares to express any need, chances are good it will be met with anger, even rage, so the child learns to fade into the background until she is needed.
Feeling invisible, I think, is rooted in shame. We are ashamed of having needs, wants, feelings because we were made to feel ashamed of them. Our parentalizing parent also gave us the message that we aren’t important. Both of these things, I believe, work together to create a root of toxic shame. Toxic shame can cause you to feel so ashamed of who you are, that you don’t feel worthy of anything. You assume people won’t want to help you or even talk to you. Simple things most people don’t think twice about can be a challenge for you, such as leaving your home. You may feel so ashamed of who you are that you don’t think you should bother people with your presence. Even expecting help from salespeople, service people, or staff in a hospital may seem impossible because of that deep root of shame. It’s surprising just how deep shame can go.
So what do you do to get rid of toxic shame?
First, pray. Ask God to help you to heal. Obey any instructions He gives you.
Next, push yourself outside of your comfort zone sometimes. The more you see you can do things successfully, the more confident you will become & the less hold shame will have on you. Sharing things with trustworthy people, you will see that other people actually do care about you which helps as well.
Also, question the shaming beliefs when they come up. Why do you feel so ashamed of yourself for wanting something? Why do you feel to blame for a situation where you had no control? Things like this. Ask God for the answers if you don’t know them. And, ask Him to help you to release those beliefs.
I have learned these things help a great deal. I have slipped up, unfortunately, & when I have stopped doing these three things, I fell right back into old, dysfunctional & miserable patterns. For them to work, you have to keep doing them, even when it gets uncomfortable. Remind yourself of these things often. You’ll be glad you did!