Overcoming the legacy of a narcissistic father

narcissistic father
You need to put healthy boundaries in place to heal the damage from a relationship with a difficult father.

I am in my late 30’s, a child of a narcissistic father with alcohol issues who was abusive towards my mother. He wasn’t the compassionate and caring father I needed. How can I become strong enough to have a normal relationship with my father and attract a man who is loving and caring, rather than a carbon copy of my father?

As a child, you couldn’t afford to see your father as the self-centered man he really was. You needed to feel safe. You needed to feel loved. How could you meet your emotional needs while growing up in such a hostile environment?

The answer is simple. Unconsciously, you tricked yourself into believing that he loved you. By focusing on the few times he was pleasant, you excused his drunken, abusive and selfish behaviour. You convinced yourself you had a normal, loving father.

At the same time, you have unwittingly absorbed some beliefs about yourself, your place in the world, and your relationships with men. While these beliefs are rarely spoken, they have come to govern your life. They might include:

  • I need to be perfect to get Daddy’s attention.
  • I don’t matter.
  • I am not good enough to be loved.
  • Men are dangerous.
  • Men are needy.
  • Men are selfish.
  • I have to give men whatever they want.
  • Because my partner might leave me at any moment, I have to struggle to keep him.

To have a healthy relationship with a man, you need to identify the exact messages you absorbed, and then counter them. But because these beliefs were instilled in you as a child, you face several challenges.

First, you need to identify these buried beliefs.

Second, you need to accept them as mere beliefs, and not as concrete truths.

Third, you need to replace them with positive beliefs that will aid your self-growth.

To identify your beliefs, look at how you behave in the company of men. Do you work hard to get their attention? Do you put up with abuse or negativity from male partners? Do you go out of your way to please them?

Techniques such as self-reflection, journaling and keeping a dream diary can help you identify the messages and beliefs that have such a hold over you.

It is also important to identify any compensating beliefs that you might have developed. In my experience, women with abusive fathers long to escape. To normalise the dysfunction experienced at home, they lose themselves in romantic stories and fantasies of true love. One day, your prince will come to your rescue.

Princes, however, are in short supply. And even if you were to meet a loving, caring man, your negative beliefs about men and about yourself would sabotage the relationship in the longer term. If you want to enjoy an equal and affirming relationship, you need to change those beliefs.

Once you have identified your beliefs, both the negative and the unrealistically positive, it is time to place them in context. Here is a simple way of doing this.

Consider each of your beliefs. You may like to write each one down in your journal. Now, ask yourself how each belief has affected your life.

A warning: when you question your beliefs, you will probably feel sad. You will start to see the harm they have caused you.

Grieve your losses and focus on what you were really yearning for as a child. You deserve to be loved and nurtured. Feel your deep desire for this love.

Having accepted that your old beliefs were not the gospel truth, you can replace them with positive beliefs for the rest of your life. These beliefs will help you develop healthy boundaries, so the relationships you develop in the future will be nurturing and fulfilling. Some suggestions are:

  • I don’t put up with lies.
  • I don’t put up with people who think only of their own needs.
  • The people I am closest to are able to compromise.
  • If I help people out, I expect them to be there for me when I need them. If they are not, I let them go.
  • I invest my energies in people who do what they say they will do.
  • I don’t put up with unconstructive criticism, negativity or abuse.

When you develop your rules, you must live according to your rules too.

When people violate your rules, mentally question their friendship. You might talk to them about the problem and see if they improve, but you must let go anyone who consistently fails to live up to your expectations.

If your father is still part of your life, it is important to develop a healthy relationship with him. See my post How to heal your relationship with an abusive father. Even if your father is no longer with you, there is still much that you have to heal. You might find a therapist helpful here.

Once you have established some positive beliefs about yourself and about relationships, you will see men more clearly. You’ll be able to tell an honest man from a cad. And you’ll begin to cultivate relationships based on honesty and trust, rather than shame and fear.

Need help dealing with a difficult childhood? Our team at North Brisbane Psychologists are here to help. Book an appointment today.