Complex PTSD and narcissism are closely intertwined, although they’re not the same thing. But in families, narcissism in a parent can cause complex PTSD in the child. The parent might be emotionally absent or controlling or completely self-centered and have no ability to see or recognize the child’s unique and good self.
You hear all the time about how people struggle with the effects of a narcissistic parent — how they become wounded and vulnerable and self-attacking. But what’s interesting — and what’s never talked about– is how often the parent’s narcissistic traits or behaviors are absorbed by the child, and become their behaviors when they grow up.
It’s often said that if you have the self-reflection to ask yourself “Am I a narcissist?” you’re probably not a narcissist. I’m not sure if that’s totally true, because you could just say those words, right? But if you’re honest with yourself, you’d have to admit you do have some narcissistic behaviors. Everyone does. We all do.
These narcissistic tendencies are the elephant in the room around why people with CPTSD struggle with relationships. There’s a tendency to focus on the fact that none of the abuse was your fault — you did not ask for this to happen to you, but it’s worth asking yourself if you’re sometimes driving people away with the very same narcissistic tendencies that hurt you in the first place.
In most cases, they are just tendencies. It’s very unlikely that you actually have narcissistic personality disorder. Personality disorders are hard to change, but the wounds of Childhood PTSD that lead to these tendencies can be changed, and I can tell you how.
But first let’s talk about some of the behaviors that show up in traumatized people.
1. A Tendency to Focus on How We Feel
With CPTSD, we have a tendency to focus on how we feel all the time. It becomes dominant in our consciousness and can make it difficult to be sensitive to other people. Have you ever had that happen when you’re in a lot of emotional pain? It can be easy to overlook what’s going on in your companion’s day — what’s going on in their life.
I had a period in my life where three close family members died in less than a year. I got attacked on the street, I got dumped by a guy I loved, and then still more bad things happened. It got so that I was drowning in sorrow. I was overwhelmed and my PTSD symptoms were taking over my brain. I was barely able to read or have a conversation. I’d be on the phone talking and I couldn’t even remember who I was talking to sometimes. At the time I was in shock, but friends noticed I had grown extremely self-centered. As much as we need help during hard times, few of our friends want a relationship where one person does all the talking.
2. A Tendency to Focus on What Others Think of Us
Everybody tends to focus on what other people think about them but with CPTSD, we often preemptively attack ourselves for the criticisms we think other people have of us, for example, “I’m stupid, old, fat, no good, not lovable, or that they’re not including me.” It’s one of the hallmarks of a narcissist that they are very focused on other people’s opinions of them.
3. A Tendency to Think No One Will Understand
With CPTSD, we have a belief that our problems are so unique that no one has ever experienced them. I hear this all the time. When I coach people, they say, “Well, you know, I have problems you couldn’t possibly understand.” Here’s the thing about me: I have problems. They’re not as bad as some peoples’, but they’re worse than others’. I don’t talk about most of my trauma because part of my healing is that I don’t talk too much about it. If I did, it would dysregulate me and it might even dysregulate you. At this point, I know my experiences are real and valid, whether or not anyone understands. Now, I agree that, when you have CPTSD, a lot of people don’t understand. They don’t understand the nature of it, and they cannot understand why we don’t just fix our problems. They ask things like, Why do you keep getting together with the same kind of jerk? Why don’t you just not overreact? It’s so simple for them, right? It’s easy to think no one can understand. But it’s a narcissistic tendency to think that your problems are so much worse than anybody else’s.
It helps, when you’re talking to other people, to look for commonality. Look for what you can learn from other people’s experiences. Still, it’s good to be with people who understand. It’s also good to be comfortable with people who don’t have your experience. They may never understand your wounds, but you can learn so much from people who were less traumatized.
4. Victim Identity
Feeling always like the victim comes up in both CPTSD and narcissistic personality disorder, but with CPTSD, there really was victimization. For the record, a lot of people who have narcissistic personality disorder were also traumatized as kids. It’s not the only cause, but it can play a role in why people end up with that personality disorder. Even so, that doesn’t excuse hurtful behavior in them or in us.
If you were abused and neglected, you were a victim. I encourage, however, you not to let it be your identity. Most of the discomfort and shame that you feel is no longer caused by other people, nor even by the past. Mostly, it’s caused (in present time) by present-time fear and resentment (and I teach techniques to get free of that, which you can learn here). The solution is not to deny that you were victimized in the past. The solution is to develop your real identity, your true self whose identity was temporarily disrupted when you were traumatized. You are no longer a victim.
5. Martyrdom, Blaming, and Being Too Nice
Another victim “format” that you’ll see in CPTSD people (and in narcissists as well), is the long-suffering victim: “I’m so nice all the time, but everyone on the planet is just awful, and they’re mean to me for no reason.” I’m kind of making fun of that because, if you think that you’re the only nice person on the planet, you might actually be a narcissist! People with CPTSD are like everybody — we have a mix of good and bad traits. And like everybody, we do better when we work on healing the bad traits and the vulnerabilities, and when we develop our strengths.
Sometimes we think we know how other people should live or how they should think or what they need to change about themselves. It pushes people away, to say the least, when we do that. Believing we know better than others what is best for them is arrogance. When we do this, we’re putting ourselves above other people. This can be expressed as control, criticism, unsolicited advice and pressure. If you feel like you’re just trying to be helpful to people and you’re finding that they’re not receptive, something you could ask yourself is, “Am I giving them advice in a way that makes them feel criticized or like I’m trying to control them? This can be perceived as a narcissistic trait. The best thing you can do if you want to influence other people (in a good way) is to just do really well yourself — solve your own problems, and show up happy and free in their presence. They might ask you one day how you did that.
7. Failure to See the Role We Play in Our Problems
Another narcissistic tendency is that we have a hard time seeing our own role in our problems. It’s not just that we think we’re innocent victims and blame other people. We also have trouble realizing that we have agency to create problems or solutions, all by ourselves. It’s not easy. And some things are very difficult to change, but we have agency. That tendency to think, Everybody else controls everything and they make everything bad for me…”– that’s a narcissistic tendency. When we think that other people control things and we can’t, what we’re basically doing is taking our standard allotment of power (which is about the same as everybody else’s, because everybody has some power over themselves) and we’re giving it to somebody else. It’s better to keep your power, so you can use it to see where you made errors, and make the changes needed to become empowered and happy.
8. Sensitivity to Criticism
Just like actual narcissists, trauma has made some of us too fragile to hear criticism. In the case of narcissism, a person cannot tolerate disruption to their belief that they’re perfect and above everything. But a person with CPTSD is often so hurt, they feel they can’t afford even one more bit of criticism, that it will destroy us. In this way, CPTSD sensitivity to criticism mirrors a narcissistic tendency.
What we need is a coping mechanism to deal with criticism so that it doesn’t get in — so that we can keep it “on the front porch” of our listening and not let it into the house. We need to consider, Is it good criticism? Is it something I need to hear and can learn from, or is it just an attack?” Knowing the difference and opening our hearts to hear appropriate (and gentle) criticism strongly distinguishes us from actual narcissists.
9. A Tendency to Develop Unequal Relationships
People who have narcissism want to be surrounded by people who look up to them. But I’ve noticed that people with CPTSD tend to have difficulty with equal relationships. There’s always one person who is up or down. Now, of course, unequal relationships have a place in the world. It’s the case with a parent and a child, or an employer and a worker, that one has more power. Somebody is in charge there. So there’s a place for that kind of imbalance. But for our closest relationships, we want to have the capacity for equal relationships.
Part of healing is to develop comfortable, equal relationships, even though real communication in such relationships can be tricky and complicated. Unequal relationships allow you to skip over the nuanced and vulnerable parts of communication. As you heal, you may find you have a greater capacity to connect with and enjoy friendship with equals.
10. A Tendency to Make Sweeping Accusations
Another narcissistic tendency is that we sometimes make big sweeping accusations. We say things like, “Education is just brainwashing for the masses,” “Religion is all about social control,”or “Everyone I know is a narcissist.” I see this particularly in YouTube comments — people who just say, “It’s a terrible world out there! Nobody cares about other people anymore.” And we know when we read those comments, they’re talking about their experience, and it feels like it’s everybody. But that’s what happens with CPTSD when it’s not healed: Anxious thoughts tend to calcify to a bitter attitude toward life.
It’s self-centered and narcissistic to think that “I’m the only good person and everybody out there is bad.” It puts us above everybody. And, of course, nobody likes it. It pushes people away. It’s usually said by people who have unconsciously decided to isolate themselves.
11. A Sense of Entitlement
Finally, a narcissistic tendency in people with CPTSD is a sense of entitlement, where we believe that other people are responsible for making our lives better. We sometimes blame “them” for failing to make the world better, or leaving us to pay our own way, or leaving us lonely. This reflects an unhealthy belief that we have a special status as people who are damaged, that we are like children and “they” are the parents.
We tend to very easily see the obligations that others have towards us. But we don’t see our reciprocal obligations toward them. We all need help sometimes. So see what you can do to become that person who is able to help others? Even if it’s in a tiny way, just helping somebody in some simple way will help you to begin to see the goodness that is inside you.
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