Because narcissistic parents are so unpredictable, and their mood changes so mercurial and frightening, the young child quickly learns, largely on an unconscious level, that s/he (i.e. the young child) must be able to ‘read’, with great precision, such a parent’s feelings and emotions lest s/he fails to respond in such a way that meets the parent’s emotional needs and, as a result of such failure, inadvertently upsets him/her (sadly, this is never possible to fully achieve as the narcissistic parent’s emotional needs are infinite and cannot ever be fully sated).
In other words, the child is driven and compelled to develop a profound level of empathy for the narcissistic parent as a means to helping to ensure his/her (i.e. the child’s) psychological survival (the alternative is to be psychologically crushed). I remember, as a child of about four, I had a recurring nightmare of being a tiny insect next to an enormous boulder which was invariably and inexorably rolling towards me, threatening to crush me. In fact, sometimes this image would intrude on my mind when I was awake, seemingly out of nowhere. At the time, of course, I could not discern its (now) all too obvious meaning.
By the time I was eight or nine years old my empathy for my mother was so acute that she (in her typically melodramatic manner) would tell me that I had ‘a sixth sense’ and could ‘read her mind’ or, even, that I was ‘psychic’, so good was I at being able to tell exactly what she was feeling within a second of her entering the room. Absurd nonsense, obviously. The truth is, I’d simply had no choice, and no conscious control, over developing my unusual empathetic abilities.
There is a heavy price to be paid for this process. When my mother was very depressed, for example, I felt her pain as my own and would become obsessively preoccupied with her unhappy condition, able to think of nothing else. This could last for days at a time.
Indeed, because the child of the narcissist becomes so deeply attuned to his/her parent’s mental state, this substantially interferes with his/her own sense of self as a separate, distinct, individual person in such a way that his/her sense of a personal boundary between him/herself and the parent becomes blurred and nebulous. This, in turn, is highly likely to lead to a collapse of his/her incipient and precarious sense of personal identity as well as of his/her sense of intrinsic value (if, indeed, any has been allowed to develop).
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).