Experts Reveal The Most Damaging Lies We Learn From Narcissistic Parents

Is it possible to unlearn the misguided lessons they taught?

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Spoiler alert: The HBO family saga, Succession, is a deliciously sadistic, four-season study in narcissistic parenting. Anyone familiar with the show already knows that the Rupert Murdoch-esque patriarch of the fictional family, Logan Roy, seems hellbent on toying with and, ultimately, emotionally wrecking his four adult kids — Kendall, Shiv, Roman and the guy played by Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.


Logan's narcissism manifests itself through his all-too-clear desire to dominate, degrade, belittle, and otherwise intimidate his offspring as they compete to take over the family's sprawling media empire after their dad steps down as CEO. As a full-blown narcissistic parent, Logan knows exactly how to manipulate his kids into humiliating themselves for their dad's amusement.

Just as clear is that after a lifetime of living under the baleful gaze and stern fist of Logan Roy, the kids have come to believe that — deep down — their father is right about them when he proclaims: "I love you, but you're not serious people." They believe that they deserve his scorn and abuse. Their self-identities are so tied to Logan's treatment of them that it's unthinkable to try to break free of that narcissistic mold.


In other words, they believe this lie: Without Logan, they're nothing.

Of course, characters in a primetime socio-drama like Succession have the luxury of simply not existing between episodes. What's significant about the character dynamic explored so thoroughly through the lens of the show's creators is that emotionally abusive behavior like Logan Roy's toward his kids isn't fiction. It's a real problem in too many real families.

To better understand how narcissistic parenting can influence an adult's mental health, we reached out to a panel of parenting experts to ask, What are the damaging lies we learn from narcissistic parents? Here are their responses.

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Three experts share the damaging lies we learn from narcissistic parents:

1. We learn the wrong definition of 'love'

Young children learn what is “true” and “untrue” about themselves, other people, and the world at large largely from their parents. As an expert in self-deception, I use quotations that I say are “true and untrue” because many of the conclusions we make in early childhood are objectively false and can cause psychological harm to us as we age. This is particularly true for children of narcissistic parents because they are observing and learning from grandiose, attention-seeking adults who often lack empathy for others—including their child. 

Here are four highly-problematic lies people learn from narcissistic parents:

  1. Love is earned … and you’ll never be good enough. Often narcissistic parents communicate that perfection is necessary to be loved. In this way, not only is love conditional but it requires children to meet an ideal that no one can achieve — being perfect according to who their parent wants them to be. When internalized, this lie can seriously hurt the self-esteem of children. 
  2. People will always disappoint you. People with narcissistic traits are generally disappointed by other people, often because they fail to admire them in the way the narcissist wants. One consequence of this is that their children learn that trusting and connecting to others in an intimate way is unsafe and disappointing
  3. My needs don’t matter. Because narcissistic parents often believe that they are the most important person in the world, the needs of their children are often invalidated and overlooked. In this way, children often feel invisible as if their thoughts, feelings, and experiences aren’t important. 
  4. Love is competitive. Narcissistic parents are often wary of their children getting close to other people— and will actively manipulate or undermine their child’s relationships with others. Consequently, children learn to hide their true emotions, keep secrets, and compartmentalize their relationships to stay safe.

Dr. Cortney Warren, board-certified clinical psychologist, adjunct psychologist, UNLV School of Medicine

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2. We learn to suppress our emotions in an unhealthy way

I had a child with a narcissistic man. The worst thing that he drilled into my child after our divorce was that I was irrational and emotional. I am emotional, it’s true, but not overly so. My son learned that any expression of emotion was “over the top."

Emotions were labeled as “crazy behavior” while cold logic was overvalued. My son learned to shut down his own emotions and to repress and numb them. As an adult, he struggles to express himself and form loving, intimate relationships. 


Another unfortunate learning from his narcissistic father is that his worth is totally dependent on his accomplishments and ability to look good to the outside world. He was interested and connected to our son only when he was performing in ways that were a positive reflection on him.

While everything looked good on the outside, his Narcissistic father was verbally and sometimes physically abusive behind closed doors. The narcissist is always right and everything goes well as long as you agree with him. My son seemed like an object to serve his father’s ego and selfish agendas.

The third insidious learning from a narcissistic parent is the idea that the child is never quite good enough. This leads to feelings of shame and the idea that he can never really amount to anything. He is only valuable and loveable when behaving in ways that the father approves. 

Mary Kay Cocharo, licensed marriage and family therapist


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3. We learn to pursue the wrong priorities in life

Narcissistic parents are inherently competitive. Their communication usually includes a continual stream of subtle putdowns and outright criticism because it’s highly confronting to the adult narcissist for their child to become accomplished in any way that threatens their superiority. This applies to everything — academic accomplishments, sports, manners, friends, love interests, invitations, and every aspect of appearance. 

Not only is this demoralizing for children as they are learning and growing, but it also sets up a situation where the child tries to earn love by becoming more perfect and more accomplished. If a child succeeds to the extent that it reflects glory back to the narcissistic parent, the parent will often then credit themselves for the accomplishment. Either way, the child learns that love is conditional. 


As you can imagine this sets the stage for a lifelong struggle of perfectionism and never feeling good enough. And that’s a damaging lie. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be perfect to earn love and that you’re good enough just as you are.

Lisa Newman, positive psychology practitioner and certified intuitive eating counselor

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Carter Gaddis is the senior editor for Experts and Wellness with YourTango.