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Exploring Complex Feelings Towards Your Narcissistic Parent

Anger, compassion, and guilt.

Key points

  • Most adult children know it’s not their parent’s “fault” for being narcissistic.
  • The challenge most adult children face when experiencing their anger is that it scares them.
  • Guilt can be healthy or toxic, depending on what function it serves.
Callum Skelton / Unsplash
Callum Skelton / Unsplash

Adult children of narcissists ride a familiar roller coaster. It starts with the gradual rise of feeling the white-hot flame of anger toward the narcissistic parent, to the sudden drop where guilt overtakes because they are also registering compassion or sadness for their narcissistic parent. After the sadness or compassion comes the sense of deflation.

Why does this happen?

When it comes to our attachment figures, we are wired to attach to them purely for survival, but within that wiring, we need to see them in a good light, even when they are abusive. To my knowledge, humans are complex mammals, and we are the only species to depend on our parents for 18+ years.

Complex Feelings and Internal Conflicts

Within that relationship comes a whole gamut of feelings: longing, anger/rage, fear, disappointment, sadness, joy, disgust, and love/hate. What’s challenging is that we often feel a complex blend of emotions toward our parents, which makes the relationship all the more nuanced and difficult.

If we only felt anger towards them, for instance, deciding to go no or low contact or have tighter boundaries with them would be easy. But because we feel multiple feelings towards our parents, we often experience an internal conflict: How do I hold both my anger and rage with the tender and sometimes loving feelings I have? The problem is that we both long for and despise them. What do we do with that?

Logically, many adult children know that their narcissistic parent’s ineptitude for empathy and healthy boundaries, for instance, is hardwired into their personality (hence, narcissistic personality disorder). Even if the parent isn’t a full-blown narcissist but has many traits, adult children recognize that the way forward in their parental relationship will mostly be resting on their shoulders. “I know I can’t change my mom/dad” is often the start of many sentences, finished by, “but I wish she/he would recognize the hurt she/he causes me.”

The Trifecta: Compassion, Anger, and Guilt

Most adult children know it’s not their parent’s “fault” for being narcissistic. They can recognize that certain environmental and psychological factors played a role in their development, which naturally leads to feelings of compassion for the traumas their parent faced. This compassion is often competing with an equally important emotion: anger. The two felt together tend to lead to guilt. It’s a strange equation: compassion plus anger equals guilt.

Anger, however, need not be seen as a moral emotion. It just is. The way a wind storm is not immoral for cutting power, the feeling of anger is not immoral either. When used adaptively, anger usually asks us to protect ourselves somehow or change our expectations. When we act impulsively on our anger in ways that cause harm to ourselves or others, that sense of guilt is healthy and natural. But for just feeling anger? Guilt is not necessary.

The challenge most adult children face when experiencing their anger is that it scares them. In most households with narcissistic parents, anger was not modeled well. Narcissists are prone to episodes of rage that can either be as obvious as a hurricane or as subtle as a change in temperature. In most cases, adult children internalize two ways of expressing anger: through violence and explosion or shutting it down and repressing it. As children, their expression of anger was likely ridiculed, minimized, or ignored completely.

Anger Is Information

When you feel anger rise in your body, your mind begins to label it. Common labels felt by adult children of narcissists include: “Anger is bad,” “I should be kinder; it’s wrong to be angry at someone for something they can’t control,” “Anger is a toxic emotion,” etc. These labels likely elicit anxiety and guilt, completely deactivating the emotion's potency and information. It’s amazing what language can do too.

If our anger could simply be seen as information that naturally occurs in a relationship, we’d be less afraid and probably healthier as a result. Adult children of narcissists struggle the most with their anger because, as children, they were not allowed to be defined or sovereign, and anger helps us do that.

Anger connects us to our needs and mobilizes us to take action to meet them. It’s one of the most self-honoring emotions we have because it helps us see where we are not being treated right or when we are in situations that compromise our well-being. And adult children of narcissists do not feel entitled to love themselves because that could compromise the relationship with their parent. According to a narcissistic parent, a child who strives to love themselves is being selfish—pot, kettle, black.

Compassion and anger can coexist.

You absolutely can feel compassion for your narcissistic parent’s upbringing and impoverished emotional maturity, and you can feel deep anger towards them for the ways in which they’ve harmed you. Guilt for feeling anger won’t get you very far unless you’ve acted out in ways that violate your values, which will help you course, correct, and make repairs.

However, let’s be clear: narcissistic parents are not the best people to get relationship feedback from. You may be setting a boundary with your narcissistic parent or limiting contact with them and feel guilt either because: you feel it’s wrong or they are accusing you of being uncaring.

In both instances, the boundary is still needed. The feeling you have about that boundary deserves consideration. Why do you feel it’s wrong? Usually, the answer is that you feel you should have a relationship with them because they’re your parent. Should is not reason enough to feel guilt, though.

I like to tell people that you can feel your feelings, one by one, if you allow yourself the freedom to have them. Can you accept that anger is not only part of your experience with your parents but is simply a part of living? Can you acknowledge your compassion without giving up your boundaries or sacrificing yourself?

Feeling All Three

Guilt is typically felt if we have caused injury to someone we care about. When it’s healthy, it guides us toward repair and resolution. But when it’s used as a bludgeon to prevent ourselves from developing our own selfhood and expression of needs, it does a great disservice to the human spirit.

You will likely feel all three emotions towards your narcissistic parent. Let yourself feel the anger so that you can make adaptive changes, allow the compassion to touch your heart, and remember to be cautious about how far the guilt takes you.

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