Opinion: My Narcissistic Father Made Me Trade One Form of Abuse for Another

Walter Rhein

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One of the hardest parts of growing up with a narcissistic father was the loneliness. My father liked to keep us isolated and he discouraged us from participating in school sports.

We lived out in the country so it was impossible to visit other neighborhood kids. My father had an intense need to be in control.

He had a rigid worldview. His opinions were the law and we weren’t allowed to disagree with him. The only thing that made this experience survivable was my father’s laziness and indifference.

He wanted control, but monitoring somebody twenty-four hours a day is impossible. There were always times when I was allowed to be alone with my thoughts. I could do whatever I wanted as long as I hid it from him.

But surviving is not living. During those years I had a strong desire to develop a connection with other human beings. It’s hard to make friends when you’re not allowed to go anywhere or do anything.

Eventually, I did make friends, but they were not quality people. I didn’t receive good guidance from my father on how to dress or how to behave. Naturally, I gravitated towards other kids from broken families who were on the fringes of society.

My first serious girlfriend was also a difficult relationship. She was two years older than me, and very attractive much to the disappointment of my father. He tried to demean her appearance, but even he knew that the insults weren’t landing so he stopped.

At that point, I had a strong need to make a connection. However, I was not emotionally mature enough to create a healthy relationship. Besides, I had no experience with healthy relationships other than the ones I’d read about in books.

Naturally, I went all in on the relationship. We stayed together a couple of years, but I realized that she was as abusive as my narcissistic father.

Growing up in my household had groomed me for future abuse. I’d been taught to accept unfair treatment as inevitable.

What I needed was a caring person who taught me that I needed to demand respectful treatment. Fortunately, I did meet people like that eventually.

The world is full of people who recognize vulnerability. I wanted to get away from my father, but the girlfriend I chose slipped right into a similar set of behavior patterns.

I’m fortunate that I managed to avoid self-harm throughout those years. Those were difficult times, but human beings are resilient. Even in my darkest times, there were clues that a better world was possible.

I had a few teachers along the way who made a huge impact. I’m not talking about teachers who became mentors or friends. I’m talking about teachers who made one kind comment that sustained me for years.

My life got a lot better when I became more comfortable dating. My narcissistic father was always awkward around other people, so I did the opposite of what he did.

When I started to have the kind of success he could never experience, he became intimidated. He retreated from me. I don’t know if he thought that was a punishment, but it was the best thing he could have done.

Still, it took me a long time to emerge from the behavior pattern I’d learned from my narcissistic father. Even today, I have to be mindful of falling into past habits.

Once I started making connections with people, it became easier. I became less desperate for a connection and that made my relationships more healthy and natural.

It’s easy to recognize when a child is malnourished. However, when a child has been denied affection, it’s harder to see. That abuse can manifest as rage.

The first step to breaking this cycle is to recognize you have to be a positive example. I figured out that there must be other people who needed affection the way I did. I started to hand out affection with the hope that it might come back to me.

It worked.

Today I’m happily married with two lovely kids. I’ve learned how to have a positive relationship of affection and mutual respect. It’s not an easy journey, but people can escape the abusive influence of a narcissistic father.

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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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