Adult children of vulnerable narcissists have many things in common. But the impact their their narcissistic parent(s) have on them can vary. To be sure, narcissism always damages. But just how it damages, and how deeply it damages can differ. And how a person learns to cope with the damage differs, too. Moreover, many variables influence the coping strategy a child of a narcissist might adopt.
“Vulnerable” Narcissists and Their Children
Not all narcissists are the same. They come in two primary types: vulnerable and grandiose. And there are even more sub-types. But the main types are the ones mentioned above. When I first wrote In Sheep’s Clothing, and Character Disturbance, we didn’t have or use these terms. And hardly anyone was aware of how broad the narcissism spectrum actually is. (For more on this see: Narcissism Spectrum). But my early clinical research told me there were at least two main types. And, for lack of better labels, I used the terms neurotic vs. character disturbed to describe the the two types. We now us the terms vulnerable or compensatory type to describe the neurotic type.
Vulnerable narcissists are different from other narcissists. They’re actually quite sensitive. And they’re particularly shame-sensitive. That is, they hate looking bad or feeling bad about themselves. That’s what makes them so inordinately concerned about their image. Inwardly, their sense of self-worth can be quite poor. So they might always be trying to prove themselves. Such narcissists actually care what others think. And they want others to think of them favorably. So they actively seek admiration and adulation. Some are covert in their manner of doing this. And they cultivate manipulative (i.e. impression management) skill. Such folks can be quite the charmers. (See: Charming Narcissists Manipulate Well.) But others are so wrapped up in their own needs that they’re insensitive to others. These types try to build themselves up at the expense of others, including their children. And that can take a real toll on a child’s developing self-image.
Adult Children of Vulnerable Narcissists
Children of vulnerable narcissists are often caught in a real bind. Give mommy or daddy the adulation and admiration they seek, and all seems good. Be a positive reflection on them, and you have their favor. But dare to be your true self or declare your own worth, and you might have trouble.
Things can be even worse for children when a parent wants to build him/herself up at their child’s expense. It devastates a child’s self-image to feel demeaned, belittled, or degraded for not measuring up. But sadly, this unfortunate scene can set up a self-perpetuating pattern. As an adult, a child with poor self-worth can unwittingly repeat the same compensatory strategy. They can try to prove their own worth by comparing themselves to and discounting others. Perhaps this is the real tragedy of being parented by a narcissist. You inflict the very damage you sustained. And you do it unconsciously.
Adult children of grandiose narcissists have very different issues. And we’ll be talking about them in upcoming articles.