One of the best things I've ever done for my own self-confidence and for my relationship with my parents was to go “no-contact” with my narcissistic mother for over a year. Narcissistic parents create a family dynamic which is all about putting their own needs ahead of everyone else. This becomes a real problem when we become adults because we can end up trapped by the unconscious belief that our parent's needs and desires must always come before our own.
Because the emotional dynamics of the parent/child relationship is so strong, this will keep us perpetually stuck as an emotional child emotionally even though we are physically adults. Since our unconscious mind projects our experience of our parents onto everyone else and onto the world at large, the limiting impact of being trapped in the role of a child who must always please their parents restricts our whole lives.
Going “no-contact” with a narcissistic parent is one way to grow up emotionally by breaking this unhealthy parental relationship dynamic.
In my case, things came to a head the day I finally stood up to my critical mother. We had been away for an extended-family weekend in the country to celebrate my mother's older sister's 90th birthday, during which I found the way my mother was treating my father extremely triggering. Everything he said or did, she would criticize. It was the very behavior I had found so damaging growing up around, and even in her 80's she was still doing it.
By the end of the weekend I had a migraine headache and knew it was time to finally express my anger in the form of some healthy boundary setting. It went about as well as you would expect at the time, which is to say not very well at all. However it was the start of my liberation from the perpetual need to keep my narcissistic mother happy.
After returning from the weekend, I exchanged a series of phone calls and letters with my mother where I told her exactly how I felt each time she said or did things that I found triggering. This was the first time in my life that I'd really told her how her behavior was impacting me, and it was very frightening. My nervous system went crazy. It didn't go down well with her, and she basically threw a tantrum to try and shut me down again. However, it was important for me to express how I felt and at least give her the opportunity to hear what I had to say.
The outcome of that was that we agreed that we should have no further contact for the time being. It was the most frightening and yet liberating thing that I have ever done. I went through tremendous feelings of fear, guilt and shame for exercising my own will instead of just continuing to cave in to hers. I suspect part of her motivation for suggesting that we have no contact was to punish me for asserting myself; but it actually worked in my favor because having no contact also meant I didn't have to continue to be triggered by her behavior
It was never my intention to cut contact with my father, but the practical implications of them living together and his passivity in not making the effort to contact me individually meant that I had very little contact with him during this time too. While my mother's critical behavior had always been overtly damaging to me, the damage from my father's passive behavior was due to neglect and the failure to stand up to my mother when she was behaving destructively. Having time out from both of them gave me an opportunity to continue my emotional healing using various forms of therapy without having to deal with being triggered by them every time we had contact.
I ultimately reconnected with my parents when I heard that my father had been diagnosed with cancer. At the time I didn't know how much longer he would live, and the only way I could see to be able to support him and spend time with him was to reconnect with them both; albeit on different terms than we had been before.
Although it was tremendously challenging at the time, the eventual outcome from breaking contact with my parents was very positive. I'm no longer so afraid of my mother, and it feels like she now treats me with greater respect. When I call to say “hello” for instance, she sounds grateful for the call; where previously she would sound resentful for all the time that I hadn't called.
I wouldn't say that my parents are totally different from our time apart, but what has changed is that I'm not so triggered by their behavior any more. When I say “Yes” to something my mother suggests, I know (and I suspect she also knows) that I'm now in a position to say “No” if the plan doesn't also suit me. I've gone from an adult/child relationship to an adult/adult relationship and for the most part broken the old emotional umbilical cord between us.
If you're considering going no-contact with your parents, here are a few tips:
Be Clear About Why You're Cutting Contact
It's important to be clear and honest both with yourself and your parent(s) about why you're cutting contact. The reason for cutting contact is to give yourself some time and space to work on your issues; not to punish your parents for their bad behavior. If your parents no longer behave in ways that trigger you but you're still angry about how they used to behave, then cutting contact may not even be necessary and could just cause unnecessary hurt. However, if you feel resentful towards them for they way they currently behave or their behavior is triggering you because of what has happened in the past and you've told them how you feel but got shut down, invalidated or criticized for it; then cutting contact can give you some space to work through your past hurts so you can establish a healthier relationship down the track.
The other reason to cut contact is to learn to deal with the feelings of fear, guilt and shame that you encounter when you put your desires ahead of your parents'. This involves learning to deal with your parent's distress without you going into emotional overwhelm yourself. Narcissistic parents tend to create emotionally enmeshed children, and this is an opportunity to break that emotional umbilical cord so you can become an individuated adult.
Remember that you and your parents are separate individuals and have your own separate feelings. The mere fact that your parent is upset about something you have done doesn't necessarily mean that you've done something “wrong” or that you have to race in and fix it for them. Cutting contact gives you the opportunity to experience your emotional separateness and to learn to allow your parent to have their experience separate from yours. This will bode will with all your relationships with people who are prone to manipulate you emotionally by making you feel responsible for their feelings.
Let Go Of Trying To Change Your Parent
It's very tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that cutting contact will change your parent's behavior. This line of thinking, whether expressed consciously or remaining unconscious, goes: They've behaved badly so they deserve punishment and if I can punish them enough I can force them to change. Unfortunately this is exactly how your narcissistic parent probably behaved towards you up until now, and this is precisely the sort of power-and-dominance play that caused you harm in the first place. It's not likely to work well in reverse either.
Let go of trying to change your parent, and focus on uninstalling the hot-button triggers in yourself that they know all too well how to push. That way, they don't need to change; you'll be fine either way. If they do change, that's a bonus. My parents do seem to have mellowed over the last few years since we've cut and re-established contact, but they've also both had cancer during that time and I think that left them feeling a little less powerful and a little more grateful for their adult children.
If at all possible, remember to tell your parents that you love them, but you just find their current behaviors too distressing at the moment to be around. In hindsight I would have liked to have done a better job of pointing out that my relationship with my parents was really important to me; I just couldn't remain around the toxic dynamic between them. However it's also important not to beat yourself up when being truly assertive with a parent for the first time as an adult. The situation is likely to be triggering and it's bound to be a little messy first time you apply any new assertive behavior. Do the best you can to communicate assertively rather than aggressively even in the face of possible aggression from your parent, then let go of any attachment to the outcome.
Avoid Labels And Stick To Feelings And Behaviors
When cutting contact, it's best to avoid labels and to stick to specific feelings that you have in response to specific behaviors from your parent. There's no point saying “I'm cutting contact because you're a narcissist”; that's just firing a critical judgment at them. Be specific about the behavior that you find hurtful. In my case, what I said was “I feel very angry when you criticize and belittle my father in front of me”, and gave specific examples of comments that I had heard my mother make about my father which had left me feeling upset.
Narcissists tend not to respond well to criticism, and are likely to be triggered when you explain why you are cutting contact. If you don't feel strong enough yet to endure the hostility or conflict that this may cause, you can cut contact without giving any reason beyond “I need some time out from our relationship to work on myself and sort some things out”. Do it by letter if the thought of doing it in person is too frightening. Remember to focus on that fact that you are doing this to take greater responsibility for yourself and for learning to manage your feelings, rather than blaming your parent for how you feel.
Be Realistic About Their Response
While it's important to be as clear as possible with your parent about why you're cutting contact, it's also important to be realistic about their response. If your parent was emotionally mature and self-aware, they would realize that a re-negotiation of the parent/child relationship from adult/child to adult/adult is a normal part of human development and would understand that a little separation anxiety on both your parts is a normal part of the process. While they may not entirely enjoy the feelings of loss that come with losing power over their little boy when he becomes a man, for an emotional mature parent their joy and pride at seeing you self-actualize and become your own man would normally outweigh the pain they inevitable experience in the process.
But narcissists aren't emotionally mature and self-aware, otherwise you probably wouldn't be in a position of considering cutting contact with them. Narcissists interpret all communication, however well-formed, through the lens of their own paranoia. Be prepared for them to start firing guilt trips, fear and shame at you on all cylinders to prevent you “abandoning them”, which is likely to be the way they will see it in their mind. I was very clear with my mother about the specific behaviors she engaged in that I found destructive, but all she appeared to hear was that I didn't accept her the way she was and therefore I was a bad person.
Get Yourself Some Therapy During Your Time-Out
While it's not helpful as adults to perpetually blame our parents for the damage their behavior caused us when we were children, it is important to acknowledge that what happened wasn't our fault. Narcissistic parents are generally unable to acknowledge their children's feelings, which is usually what caused the damage in the first place. While parents are in a unique position to heal the emotional wounds of their children, narcissists generally don't have the emotional bandwidth available to fulfill this role.
That's where a therapist comes in. Find a good one who is willing to listen to your inner child's protests, acknowledge your deepest feelings of fear, guilt, shame, anger, resentment and hatred towards your parents; and give you unconditional love in return. A good therapist will teach you how to express these feelings in a manner that isn't destructive to yourself or other people, and will give you a safe place to vent your emotional baggage. If the pain goes really deep or you've experienced the emotional overwhelm of trauma, consider techniques like Somatic Experiencing or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR).
Don't waste the time you have free from the negative impact of your parent. If you cut contact but don't actually use the time to work on your issues, you may just be avoiding the issue while punishing them with abandonment; which is just a narcissistic strategy that you probably learned from your parent; and you don't want to keep perpetuating their dysfunction, do you?
Learn To Deal With Guilt, Fear and Shame
Cutting contact with a parent who raised you to believe that the purpose of your life was to serve them and to comply with their every wish and demand, spoken or unspoken, is likely to bring up a lot of guilt, fear and shame. Talk this over with your therapist. Debrief with understanding friends who have been down the same path. Join an emotional support group and share your experience in an environment where you can get some unconditional loving support for what you are going through.
Reframing the role of parents can also help reduce feelings of guilt you may have about going no-contact with them. Consider that your parent wanted the experience of having a child. Even though they didn't ask you, you graciously gave them that experience; sometimes at considerable personal cost. You have already gone over and above the call in fulfilling your commitment to them. You don't owe them anything. Now that you are an adult, you have your own life to live; just as they had their own life when they created you. If they want you to be involved in your life now, it is up to them to make that attractive to you by behaving in a way that you enjoy.
Despite all the long sleepless nights, the nappy changing and all the intense emotional and physical demands of raising children, the reason most parents have children is because they want children. Emotionally unaware parents tend to see themselves as selfless martyrs; narcissistic parents especially so. If you feel guilty about not looking after your narcissistic parent after all they've done for you, remind yourself that creating a child to meet their own needs and desires was a fundamentally selfish motivation on their behalf, and if it turned out to be more work than they expected or didn't go the way they would have liked, that's not your fault.
Be Prepared For Your Sibling's Responses
Depending on your relationship with your siblings and their experience of your parents, they may or may not be supportive of your decision to go no-contact. One of mine was fairly neutral, while the other was antagonistic towards my efforts to escape my mother's control. That led to me not being invited to her 50th birthday party, which was painful at the time but also created an opportunity to finally talk about some of the issues in our family of origin without the traditional smokescreen of denial getting in the way. I could finally counter the view that our family was all perfect with the question: “Then why aren't you inviting your brother to your 50th Birthday party?”
Bear in mind that your siblings had the same narcissistic parent that you had, and are likely to have their own enmeshment and/or abandonment issues to work through. Everyone's experience is unique and it would be unusual for every adult child from a family to be at the exact same point in working through their childhood issues. So be wary of expecting unconditional support from your siblings or requiring them to see things your way. If they are supportive, great; if not, consider it an opportunity to work through the issues in your relationships with them too.
If one of your siblings has been abusive or engages in behavior that you find triggering, you may want to consider cutting contact with them for a time too. Otherwise though, this is an opportunity to untangle the web of emotional enmeshment that a narcissistic parent tends to create in entire families. Remember that, like your parents, the mere fact that your sibling may be upset doesn't necessarily mean that you're doing the wrong thing. This is an opportunity to allow your sibling to also have their own emotional experience while you have yours, thus breaking the emotional enmeshment with them too.
If your relationship with your siblings isn't toxic, it's worth investing a little extra energy into your relationships with them given that you're less likely to be connecting with them at family gatherings that you aren't attending. You don't want to leave them feeling abandoned when your issue is with your parents behavior, not theirs. Don't allow reasonably positive relationships with your siblings to take unnecessary collateral damage when taking time out from your relationship with your parent.
In an ideal world, you would re-establish contact with your parents when you've worked through enough of your own issues in private therapy that you aren't likely to be triggered by their behavior any more. If they do engage in behaviors that you don't like, you'll be confident and assertive enough to tell them so knowing that you can walk away again any time if they continue.
You aren't obliged to re-establish contact with your parents if you don't want to. If you're only just considering cutting contact now you don't even need to decide this yet. If they're still likely to be abusive to you down the track, you can just move on and live your life better than they did.
However if the primary problem is that their current behavior is triggering because you've been deeply wounded in the past, there's a good chance that once you've healed those wounds you'll want to reconnect; even if only out of curiosity now that your experience of them is different. If your reason for remaining disconnected is that you're still angry with them, then that means you've got some more emotional healing work to do. Don't avoid doing the work, but be patient as it can take a long time. It certainly did for me.
In my case, I re-established contact with my parents when my father was diagnosed with cancer because it wasn't practical to support and spend time with him without also contacting my mother; and since my mother was his primary support during treatment, restoring my relationship with her also helped him. Shortly after this she was also diagnosed with cancer, meaning my siblings and I had two ill parents to support at the same time.
Ideally I would have liked to sit down with my mother and formally establish some new ground-rules for our reconnected relationship, but it didn't turn out to be practical or really necessary. She was too focused on her husband's and then her own medical problems and doing when they needed to do to get treatment so that they would both survive.
Instead I went with the flow trying to be as supportive as I could while also dealing with my residual anger towards them and trying to get on with my own life. I was still very angry about a lot of things but I found other ways of expressing and dealing with that anger rather than dumping it on two sick elderly people with cancer, which is how I now saw my parents.
Let Go Of Your Expectations
If you want to be happy, the ultimate goal is to let go of your expectations of other people; especially your parents. But I don't believe you can fake it by saying things like “They did the best they could” if you still haven't healed your emotional wounds. The feel-good philosophy comes later.
I see my mother rather differently now to how I had most of my life, when I was basically terrified of her. I even laughed at her over lunch the other day. When she asked why I was laughing, I said “Because I find you funny”. She's a comic character. However, she's also very practical; something my father could benefit from a little more of. I'm able to acknowledge some strengths in her that I couldn't before when I still felt so wounded, even by those very attributes.
There are no guarantees in life, so your experience may well be different to mine. Making our own choices while learning to deal with uncertainty is part of truly growing up. In my experience, my mother and I get on better now than we ever did, and I'm sure that's partly because we didn't speak at all for over a year.