Can Buddhism Help the Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents?
Updated: Jun 28
This article is a brief consideration of the Second Noble Truth, one of the Four Noble Truths, a set of teachings considered to be core to Tibetan Buddhism. The Second Noble Truth explains the source of suffering, as taught by Buddha Shakyamuni over 2,500 years ago. I will first describe the Second Noble Truth in my own words. I will then consider my personal understanding of suffering while I was growing up, with specific reference to my experience as a child of narcissistic parents. As part of this consideration I will discuss how my childhood understanding corresponds to the teachings of the Second Noble Truth. Finally, I will explore the relevance of the Second Noble Truth for the adult children of narcissistic parents who are engaged in contemplative psychotherapy.
Per my understanding, the Second Noble Truth teaches that the root cause of all suffering is the false belief that a real self (also referred to as ego) exists. In other words, self is a mental construct. This means that self is an idea that exists in the mind, as opposed to something tangible that exists in reality. Simply put, it takes effort to deny the truth and maintain an illusion. The process of denying the truth of egolessness and taking steps to maintain the illusion of a real ego underlies suffering in all of its manifestations.
It is my understanding that the Second Noble Truth also teaches that the concept of self is a defense mechanism used by the mind to cope with the frightening truth that consciousness is all there is. Consciousness is vast, open, spacious, limitless and without ground. The boundless nature of consciousness is terrifying to the mind, and so it creates the illusion of a solid, separate, unchanging self, in an attempt to create some ground and soothe the terror. The boundless nature of consciousness can be characterized by the three marks of existence – egolessness, impermanence, and interconnectedness – which describe the truth of human experience. Per the three marks, self is an idea not a reality, things are constantly changing, and everything is connected to everything. Because the three marks of existence are true, they are constantly presenting themselves to the mind. The mind is afraid of this reality, and in response to the three marks, the mind works hard to reject these truths. This work is fundamentally aggressive, in the sense that it is rejecting experience. The process of rejecting experience and creating the illusion of self is the source of suffering.
Finally, I understand the Second Noble Truth to provide a detailed framework for understanding how the mind creates a false self out of consciousness. According to the Second Noble Truth, consciousness is constantly being born and dying, again and again, in a quick succession of infinitesimally small moments. These moments are so small and so quick that they appear to be continuous. According to Holecek, the ego concept is constantly being generated out of consciousness and it exists no matter what (2009, p. 45 – 47). Holecek also states that suffering is not the result of the existence of an ego concept; rather, suffering is the result of how a person relates to the ego concept (2009, p. 45 – 47).
Because I grew up with narcissistic parenting, any discussion of my childhood experience of suffering must include a discussion of needs. The central issue of narcissistic parenting is the family’s focus on the needs of the parents while simultaneously regarding the needs (and feelings) of the child as not only secondary to the parents but as problematic (Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman, 1994, p. 4). Alice Miller, a key figure in Western psychology on the topic of narcissistic parenting, describes the importance of needs in any discussion of self (or ego) for the children of narcissistic parents. Miller describes healthy development as including “healthy self-feeling” which she describes as “the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and needs one experiences are a part of one’s self” (2007, p. 28). Miller later goes on to describe the lack of well-being in adults who never developed “healthy self-feeling” during childhood (2007, p. 39-40).
In order to discuss how my childhood experience of suffering corresponds to the Second Noble Truth, I need to make the leap that needs are an expression of the false self or ego. It’s a leap in the sense that I have yet to come across an explicit discussion of needs within the literature of Buddhist psychology. Within Western psychology, Miller’s work does discuss needs in relationship to self (2007). However, I understand Miller to be using the term self as defined by Western psychology. In other words, when Miller refers to self, she is talking about a “functional ego” that “allows children to survive, function, and develop during their early years when they cannot yet fully recognize or draw on the power of their larger being” (Welwood, 2000, p. 37). This is somewhat different from, although not necessarily incongruent with, Buddhist psychology’s definition of ego as a false mental construct in response to the terror of boundless consciousness. I am still grappling with how to understand and integrate the Buddhist and Western views.
What I learned growing up was to repress my own needs, focus on the needs of my parents, and to express false needs that were either encouraged or tolerated by my parents. In other words, my mind created a concept of a self that was defined by the rejection of my own needs and taking on my parents’ needs as my own. I identified deeply with this false self and believed wholeheartedly in its existence. A crucial aspect of maintaining this false self was to view my parents as evil. There was a solidness and permanence to the evil I made them out to be. At that time, I couldn’t hold the complexity of two adults, wounded in their own ways, doing the best they could, probably operating from a mostly unconscious place while inflicting harm. Another aspect of maintaining this false self was to view myself as separate from my parents. Even today, after several years of working through my childhood experiences, it is still difficult for me to place myself in the context of my family and to work with my cultural and biological heritage.
I understand the suffering that I experienced to have two parts to it. On the one hand, I suffered because I was believing the idea of self to be real. In addition, I was suffering because I was repressing my true experience of needs (and feelings) and replacing them with a false experience of needs (and feelings). I believe the first instance of suffering corresponds to the teachings of the Second Noble Truth. I understand the second instance of suffering to be more aligned with the definition of ego prescribed by Western psychology, which I refer to above with the term “functional ego.” My hypothesis is that children of narcissistic parents experience a double whammy of suffering that results from turning away from the truth. In other words, the false self these children create is doubly false. The self is false in the sense that self is a mental construct. The self is also false in the sense that the characteristics of the mental construct were in large part imposed on them by others.
The Second Noble Truth is relevant to contemplative psychotherapy for the adult children of narcissistic parents for three reasons. First, the Second Noble Truth can help these adults relate to feelings in a new way. For example, considering feelings as one of the five skandhas can allow these adults to view feelings as momentary eruptions of consciousness that begin and end. This can be a liberating perspective for anyone who previously experienced emotions as overwhelming or all-encompassing. Second, the Second Noble Truth can open these adults up to new and different sources of inner strength. Coming to terms with the self as a false concept forces us to look elsewhere for refuge. Upon finding no suitable replacements for the false self, these adults might begin to consider taking refuge in unknowable and unobtainable consciousness. This weakens the grip of the ego and creates the potential to expend less energy trying to maintain the ego façade thereby creating an opportunity for reduced suffering. Third, the Second Noble Truth can support the adult children of narcissistic parents with noticing habitual patterns and creating the space for making different choices. With contemplation, these adults can see the five skandhas playing out in everyday life and begin to understand how these patterns keep one imprisoned in suffering. This realization might make one naturally curious to explore existing patterns, try new things, and have a different experience.
In conclusion, the Second Noble Truth explains the source of suffering to be a false belief in the reality of self. In my personal experience growing up with narcissistic parents, I experienced the suffering described by the Second Noble Truth through my identification with a false self that I created to repress my needs and focus on meeting the needs of my parents. The Second Noble Truth offers valuable insights into suffering that can be used to support the adult children of narcissistic parents who engage in contemplative psychotherapy as part of their recovery process.
Donaldson-Pressman, S. and Pressman, R. (1994). The narcissistic family: Diagnosis and treatment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Holecek, A. (2009). The power and the pain: Transforming spiritual hardship into joy.New York, NY: Snow Lion.
Miller, A. (2007). The drama of the gifted child: The search for the true self. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a psychology of awakening. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
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About the Author
Diana Calvo is a psychotherapist and coach who helps people get unstuck and transform their day-to-day experience of work and life. After 20 years successfully climbing the corporate ladder, Diana experienced her own journey of healing and awakening. She discovered her true calling to guide others on their journey out of suffering and into a life of purpose and joy. Diana left the corporate world to start her own coaching business. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her dog Joey and a beautiful view of the mountains. She works with clients across the globe.