we meet it.
It's even more of a challenge when it overwhelms the dynamics of a family.
But today's guest says there are ways to free ourselves from the harmful effects of narcissism, and begin to heal.
She's Dr. Karyl McBride, this week, on "Story in the Public Square."
(bright music) (bright music continues) (bright music continues) Hello and welcome to a "Story in the Public Square," where storytelling meets public affairs.
I'm Jim Ludes from The Pell Center at Salve Regina University.
- And I'm G. Wayne Miller, also with Salve's Pell Center.
- This week we're joined by Karyl McBride, a licensed marriage and family therapist with more than 40 years of experience.
She's also an author who's most recent book is, "Will the Drama Ever End?
Untangling and Healing from the Harmful Effects of Parental Narcissism."
She joins us from Colorado today.
Karyl, thank you so much for being with us.
- You're welcome.
Thanks for having me.
- You know, the book is really insightful and powerful and we wanna talk about it, but you've written other books before, why write this book?
- Well, I started out with just finding a real void in the literature, actually, with my first book, when I wrote about "Healing Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers."
And at that point, the term narcissism wasn't well known.
People would say, "What are you writing about?
And then I did that book, "Will I Ever Be Good Enough?
Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers."
And then something interesting happened.
I had a lot of people coming to me from two angles.
One was, what if you're in a love relationship with a narcissist?
Who writes about that?
And so that sort of developed into my second book, "How to Deal with a High-Conflict Divorce with a Narcissist."
And then I was also getting the other angle from men, saying, "What about us, what about us?
Why are you just writing about women and narcissistic mothers?
What about the fathers?
What about the sons?"
And then I found another void in the literature, which basically had to do with, I'm a family therapist and it basically had to do with the void, again, in the literature about the narcissistic family, the dynamics of the narcissistic family.
And so I found that to be interesting as I've been seeing, you know, hundreds of people here over the years, and so began to do more research on that.
And decided we needed a book about the dynamics of the narcissistic family, kind of like, you know, back in the eighties when all these books came out about the alcoholic family, right?
But there hasn't really been anything written about the narcissistic family, per se, that I could find, other than a really old book back to the '90s somewhere.
- Yeah, I suspect if we took a survey of the folks in the studio here or just the average person on the street, if they knew somebody who was narcissistic, everybody would say yes.
But in more precise terms, what is narcissism?
- Well, I kind of, if we really look at true narcissism we have to look at several factors.
First of all, we have to look at, and I think this is really an important thing to lead off with, it's a spectrum disorder.
So I'll talk about the characteristics but you have to think of it on a continuum.
So we all have some narcissistic traits, you know, down on the low end.
And then the further you go with narcissistic traits along that continuum, you'll move over to the far end, which is the narcissistic personality disorder.
The trademarks, I would say, of narcissism that I think are important, that damage relationships, are lack of empathy and the inability to tune into the emotional world of others.
And then if we just look at, you know, the "DSM" traits, there are other things, you know, boastful, arrogant behavior, envious of others, exploitation of others to get your own needs met, believing that they're special, unique, you know, can only be around special peoples, go to special universities.
So those are just some of the things that are listed in the "DSM."
But I think in general, in the lay public, people tend to look at narcissism as just braggy, boastful, look at at me, I'm so great.
And I look at it differently, in that from what I've seen in my clinical experience, who really cares about that?
And if someone's braggy or arrogant or boastful or whatever, they're annoying.
You stay away from 'em, sure.
But the things that I'm more worried about and I write about in this book, are what are the traits of narcissism that harm relationships, harm love relationships?
And particularly for me, because my platform is child advocacy, what harms children?
And that's really what I focus this book on.
- So Karyl, children who grow up with a narcissistic mother or father, and in some cases both, can suffer significant damage.
And one piece of that damage, one diagnosis as it were, is PTSD.
Talk about what PTSD is in this context and can it be lifelong without intervention?
- Yes, and I make a differentiation in the book around PTSD and complex PTSD.
And so PTSD is, you know, having a collapse or an emotional dysregulation based on some trauma that has happened to you in life.
But usually that may be just a one-time event.
Whereas complex PTSD is, which I think adult children of narcissists have, is when there's like a series of events, like a whole childhood.
And people have dysregulation emotionally, they have trouble with relationships, they have triggers that remind them of the trauma.
They dysregulate, if anything psychologically or emotionally reminds them of the trauma.
And it causes other symptoms, you know, such as numbing of pain and inability to address the feelings and wanting to stay away from things that resemble the trauma.
And yes, it untreated, can go on forever.
And oftentimes, even when treated, people can still get triggered.
You know, you can look at someone who's been in treatment for a long time, let's say, and they really understand their triggers.
They're really good at recognizing and managing them, but they can still get triggered.
- So can narcissistic family systems or the complex, can that be intergenerational?
In other words, can those dynamics be passed from one generation to the next, and even to a generation beyond that?
I'm very interested in the intergenerational aspect of this, 'cause we've seen it certainly in other diagnoses and conditions.
- Yes, I do think it can be passed through the generations and it's usually because it's a learned behavior, or it's because people haven't been treated and they tend to parent the way they were parented.
So that's how it gets passed down.
Rather than, you know, I don't think we have enough research yet, I think they're looking for it, but rather than a genetic pass down.
- Karyl, do you have a sense, or I mean, just listening to this conversation, I'm curious, can you give us any examples of what narcissistic behavior looks like from a parent to a child?
What kind of behaviors are we actually talking about?
- Well, I think the, sort of, overall thing to remember in what I'm calling the narcissistic family, is that the parental needs take precedence over the children's needs.
So that's a flipped hierarchy, right?
Like in a normal family, a healthy family, the children's needs come first and the parent is there to take care of the child.
And the narcissistic family, the child is there to take care of the parent, and they're used in that way, to take care of the parent.
And of course, they're too young to know how to do that and it causes all of these symptoms and stressors for them.
But, you know, I guess more concrete examples would be, let's say I'm a narcissistic mother and I'm interested in music, and so I'm only going to take you to your music lessons, not your soccer that you like.
That would be one.
Or there are certain things that are kind of, what I call rules in the narcissistic family.
Like, we don't talk about our feelings because if we talk about our feelings, then that's a burden on the narcissistic parent that's too much for them to handle.
Or let's say you're too happy, you're too joyful or you're too excited, that may be too much for the narcissist to handle because then they become envious of their child, which is a horrible dynamic.
- So Karyl, I found one of the great powers of the book to be your use of comments from patients of yours.
You don't use real names.
You have no other identifying characteristics, of course.
And you've used these throughout the book.
I wanna read one of them and maybe we'll have time to read another one later, just to give our audience an example of the power of these comments.
And this is from a young woman whose mother was always putting her down.
And she said, quote, "I wanted so much for my mom to be proud of me, but she never was.
She told me that an article I wrote for the school paper was, in her words, 'kind of pointless.'
She'd often interrupt me when I was telling her something important that happened at school with, 'Can't you get to the point?'
And the worst of all was after a recital that I had practiced for months, when she announced in front of the whole family on the way home in the car that, 'You should really choose something else to focus on.
You're not nearly as good as the boy who played before you.'"
Break this down for us.
What was going on here with the mother and this child and how were you able to help?
- Well, hard to know, of course, what is going on with that parent, but my guess was that the child was somehow outshining the parent.
As I said, you can't do that with a narcissist, you can't outshine them.
Secondly, perhaps the parent didn't like that activity that the child chose, and so couldn't support it.
Or it could have been, you know, just too much burden on the parent to have to go to recitals or do things for the child, because again, the parent's needs take precedence.
And, you know, one of the huge things in treatment for adult children of narcissistic parents, is helping them see and understand that this is not okay.
That children have rights and children should be listened to and children should be seen and heard and encouraged to have their own interests and their desires and their own things that they like to do, so they can develop a healthy sense of self.
And so validating for the patient that this isn't okay, is a huge part of treatment.
And then in my five-step recovery program which I do in the third part of the book, you know, we break all that down in how do we heal from that and what steps do we have to take?
- We're gonna get to the self-help part in a moment.
But I wanna spend a little bit more time with the diagnostic part.
So you make a difference, you draw a distinction, between engulfing and ignoring narcissistic parents.
What's the difference and is the impact on children any different?
- That's a great question because they seem like they would be different, right, the impact would be different.
And I always say the impact of the opposite is the same.
The engulfing parent is just, you know, it's like what sometimes people call the helicopter parent but it's worse.
The engulfing parent wants you to be a reflection of them.
They tell you what to think, this is what we think in this family this is what we believe.
This is how we act, this is what we wear, this is how we wear our hair, this is how we dress, this is what we eat.
And so they just engulf the child so the child has no room for self-individuation, for self, you know, development.
In the ignoring narcissistic parent, that parent is ignoring the child.
So the child is using all their psychic energy to revolve and orbit around the narcissistic parent, just trying to get love and attention and approval, which we know all children want and need.
So they don't also get to develop this healthy sense of self.
So therefore the impact of the opposite is the same.
- So toward the end of the first part of your book you have a quiz, and it's 33 questions.
And the quiz is titled, Are you an Adult Child Raised by a Narcissistic Parent?
33 questions as I mentioned, and the more questions that you answer, yes, the more likely it is that you were raised by such a parent.
We could get into the quiz in great detail, and I would urge our audience to look at the book and read it, but why did you include a quiz?
What was the value you had or you saw in your readers taking a quiz?
- That's a great question, Wayne.
Because so many people, in my clinical experience, come to therapy with symptoms but they don't understand where it came from.
You know, they come with a love relationship breakup or depression or anxiety or hyper-vigilance or self-doubt, crippling self-doubt, or inability to give themselves credit.
They come with these other clinical issues, but in their past therapies, or just in their own self-reflection, have not been able to really pinpoint or identify, why am I like this, what's going on with me?
And so I think the surveys that I do in all three of my books, helped people understand where it came from and the dynamics.
And you know, if we don't know where it came from and what it's about, how do we treat it?
- So the second part of the book gets into great detail, some of the harmful effects of being raised by a narcissistic parent.
One of them is called impaired trust and I'm gonna ask you to talk about that, but I want to read one more passage from that part of the book.
And it's from a man in his 30s and he says, "Growing up, I never really felt I could depend on my parents for what you'd call emotional support.
That feeling that other people have, that their mom or dad is there is there for them no matter what?
I didn't get that.
I didn't feel it.
It wasn't there.
And there's no way I could have trusted them to hear how I really felt about anything.
Now as an adult, I still can't really open up with people closest to me, unfortunately.
Even with friends and my girlfriend, I don't really feel comfortable being vulnerable with them, so that gets in the way of real intimacy."
Again, very powerful.
Talk about impaired trust and the effect that has on a person, or the behaviors that that prompts or exemplifies itself with?
- The reason that adult children end up with impaired trust is because children need to know that their parents are there, that they can lean on them, that they can bring their feelings to them, that they can be guided and directed and taught and have empathy from that parent.
The narcissistic parent doesn't do that.
So the child is left sort of having no one to lean on, which basically teaches them, I have to do it myself, how can I trust?
Because their trust gets impaired over and over in their childhood.
And then of course, as we do with many issues, you know, that can be brought over into adulthood and people tend to think, well if that's the way people are 'cause that's how I grew up, then probably everybody's that way.
- So the final part of the book, you already mentioned, gets into some strategies, some things that people can do to begin to heal.
And, you know, we don't have the time, obviously, to go through all of it in great detail, but why don't you provide us just a brief overview of what those steps look like and how successful they can be?
I found them to be very successful.
I used them myself as well as with hundreds of clients.
But they need to be worked in sequence and I usually have people journal while they're doing them so we can track, you know, where they are in their recovery.
But there's five steps.
They're basically, step one, is first we have to accept that our parent has a disorder, because if we don't accept that then there's no place to go with it.
And then we move into grief, which for me, grief is working through the trauma, processing the feelings, very important, people stay in step one a long time.
Step two is working on separation and individuation, which is how do I separate myself from this dysfunctional family system over here?
Psychologically, not geographically.
Step three is building that new authentic sense of self now where I can be real and be genuine and figure out who I am, because again, that got impaired in childhood.
Step four is learning how to set boundaries and how do we now deal with the narcissistic parent in recovery, or the rest of the nest, as I call it, the rest of the family.
And step five, is how do we end the legacy of distorted love?
You know, how do we end it in terms of parenting our own children or the friends we're attracting or the love relationships we're attracting?
And finally, in step five, some people learn some narcissistic traits.
They're not narcissists, but they may wanna work on that.
And, you know, we encourage that to be addressed as well because people wanna stop the legacy - You know, I found in this portion of the book a fundamental message of hope that what happened to you isn't what has to be going forward.
But my question is, I read that once, is this really work that somebody can do simply through reading an important book on the subject?
Or is this something that really is best engaged through a relationship with a professional therapist?
- I think it can be done with the book and the journaling and working the five steps.
But the reason I always encourage people to do it with a trained therapist who understands this dynamic, is what I mentioned earlier.
There's just something so powerful about validation.
I can't tell you how many times I have said, a client tells me a story and I've said, "That's horrible.
That never should have happened to you.
You were only six years old."
And the client comes back with, "Really?
Because as we know, emotional and psychological abuse is, now some narcissists can physically and sexually abuse and other abuse too, but it's mostly the psychological and emotional abuse that is so hard to put your finger on.
And, of course, as a child you have no idea what that is.
- So, Karyl, I'm guessing there's no one clear answer to this question, but let me ask you anyway.
In your many years of this kind of work, how long does it take someone to heal?
- What I always tell people is expect about a three-year period if you're really seriously working the steps, because you're gonna be in step one the longest and it's the hardest step.
And then after therapy you're going to be continuing your journey, because as I said earlier, you can still get triggered here and there, you're just gonna deal with it better and differently and more effectively.
You're gonna be able to manage it better.
- So Karyl, for those in our audience who may wanna take this journey, where would they look for a qualified and licensed counselor and therapist such as yourself?
And keep in mind that we're broadcast all across the United States, and our Sirius XM show is carried also in Canada.
Where would you go?
I'm watching the show and I say, "Wow, that's me.
I want help.
I've never seen a therapist.
How do I find that person?"
- [Jim] You got about 30 seconds, Karyl.
We have been working on training therapists because I don't think the mental health field is up to par on this yet.
Forgive me for saying that, but.
So we do therapist training.
If you go to the book website, which is www.willieverbegoodenough.com and go to Find a Therapist, we have a therapist registry, where once people have taken our trainings, and they're from all over the world on our registry, and you can look there for your state, for your country, that's a place to start.
Well, it's an important book and a hugely important topic.
Karyl McBride, the book is, "Will the Drama Ever End?"
Thank you so much for being with us today.
That is all the time we have, but if you wanna know more about "Story in the Public Square," you can find us on social media or visit pellcenter.org where you can always catch up on previous episodes.
From G. Wayne Miller, I'm Jim Ludes, asking you to join us again next time for more "Story in the Public Square."
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