Opinion: Narcissistic Parents Know What to Say to Inflict Terrible Pain

Walter Rhein

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Growing up under the influence of my narcissistic father was an enormous challenge. I look back on those days with sadness and regret.

My narcissistic father used to beat me down by talking about painful events in my life. He’d often present these moments as if they were comical. He’d tell the same stories multiple times.

At public gatherings, my father had a set of stories he would tell. I was the punchline in many of these stories. Every time we had a family reunion, he’d tell these stories again.

He also told these stories to strangers. Sometimes, I would see people look at me with sympathy. These were brief looks, but they taught me more about life than my narcissistic father ever did.

When you are a child, you are still working out your place in the world. My narcissistic father gave me advice about the world that turned out not to be true.

As I grew up, I learned to ignore what my father told me. I would pretend to listen to him and then do what I thought was right. Even so, my father had a big influence on how I treated other people.

My narcissistic father was abusive to everyone in our family.

Physical violence was part of the problem, but everyone can recognize that kind of abuse. It’s more important for people to recognize abuse when abuse is presented as a normal interaction.

My narcissistic father could be abusive when he had a big smile on his face. Eventually, it got so that every time I saw him I felt tension.

The moment my narcissistic father entered a room, we all had to put our armor on. He’d look at me and smile and then say something that could make me feel miserable for days.

There’s an old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” This saying isn’t true.

Consider how often people get into fights with total strangers on social media. Somebody might respond to your post in a way that makes you angry for days.

That represents an interaction with a total stranger. Now think about how much worse it is when you are interacting with a parent who knows everything about you.

My narcissistic father would make comments about ex-girlfriends that provoked intense pain. He seemed to delight in picking at wounds. He always smiled when he said things like that.

“That girl was always too good for you anyway.”

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of this relationship is that I learned how to be cruel to people. My narcissistic father spent decades training me to say the most terrible things to people.

I haven’t spoken to my narcissistic father in more than twenty years. Even so, if I become angry about something, I can still instantly think of five devastating things to say.

I can make people cry with a few words. The phrases scroll through my mind like that scene from ‘The Terminator.’

Today, I make the conscious choice to say something nice instead. I refuse to accept that cruelty is part of normal interaction. If I am tempted to say something cruel, I stay silent or say something kind.

I no longer endure the company of people that make me wear armor. I suppress that tension. I surround myself with people who are kind and do not attack me.

It took me a long time to learn that attacking people is not part of a normal relationship. You have to support the people you care about. Attacking the people you love only drives them away.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI
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