Opinion: Narcissistic Parents Refuse to Process Their Own Trauma

Walter Rhein

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I have a lot of empathy for my narcissistic father. However, I don't want to spend any time with him.

I know he’s in pain. He has been in pain my whole life.

Narcissism runs in my family. It takes a courageous individual to break the cycle and insist on treating others with more kindness.

My father always said something hurtful when we talked. I remember wincing. As you get older, you learn to internalize the wincing so that nobody can see.

When I was very young, I tried to talk to my father about this. He told me to “Lighten up.”

He refused to recognize that his interactions with me were painful or that he had the power to change them.

Now and then, I remember seeing an expression on his face that revealed he realized he had gone too far. He never apologized, but he would be nicer to me for a few days.

My father didn’t understand that being kind after being mean is not an acceptable behavior pattern. I try to be kind without being mean at all. I don’t believe that kindness is a reward. I believe that basic human dignity demands that you treat others with kindness.

I know that my father used the same behavior pattern that his parents used with him. We would often have family gatherings. My father’s siblings delighted in cruelty.

I learned to recognize the subtle signs that a person is hurt. They half close their eyes to keep from crying. They take a deep breath. They fall silent.

When you say something cruel to another human being, you can see the strength get knocked out of them. Their shoulders sag. They reduce in size.

The whole dynamic of my family was to say something horrible to get a cheap laugh. People would sit around dinner tables making rude comments. Then they would cackle like beasts.

When I got older, I tried to get my father to talk about this. He refused. He thought talking about that kind of thing was stupid and a waste of time.

One of the weird rules of my family’s narcissistic interaction was that you could never be too mean. No matter what you said or what you did, the family always had to take you back in afterward.

You didn’t have to apologize. You didn’t have to reform. All you had to do was be extra kind to everyone for a day or two. Then when you got bored of being kind, you could go back to being cruel to everyone.

The problem with this interaction is that there is no accountability. My family believed that cruel behavior was inevitable. They believed cruel people still loved them. They believed this was the definition of love.

Over the years, I learned to reflect on my behavior. I decided it was better to pass on the cheap laugh if you had to say something hurtful to get it.

My father never learned this. He likes to be the center of attention. He speaks loudly and he does not care who he hurts.

Sometimes other people land blows on him and he absorbs them like a prize fighter. Still, those blows inflict damage.

I was in my twenties when I decided it brought me no satisfaction to say cruel things to my father. That meant I would have to endure his cruel statements with no retaliation. I tried it for a while, but it didn’t change my dad’s behavior. He continued his cruelty.

Eventually, I cut off all contact with him. Now, he blames me for the destruction of our relationship because I broke the rules. He refuses to recognize that the rules were terrible and needed to be broken.

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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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