Narcissistic Abuse and White Guilt
“Is narcissistic abuse a privileged problem for white people?” This question has been coming up recently in my work with white clients. In reflecting on their own experience of narcissistic abuse, and with growing awareness of systemic racism and the reality of being black and brown in America, my white clients wonder if they have the right to complain.
This can be particularly confusing for white people who grew up with advantages in the realm of money and education. They will say things along the lines of, “My parents gave me everything. I went to good schools growing up. I played sports. College was paid for. I was never hungry and there wasn’t any physical abuse. I’ve never wanted for anything material. I grew up with a lot of privilege. I continue to live with privilege today.”
Then comes the self-doubt and questioning about the painful reality of having a narcissistic parent. “Am I being overly sensitive? Do I need to just get over this? Am I making things up because I need to create problems?” And, ultimately, “Is narcissistic abuse a privileged problem?” The implication being that living with privilege somehow negates any painful aspects of your life experience.
These issues are complex and there is a whole lot to unpack in this line of thinking. My intention here is to share some of the ways I approach these discussions with my clients. These perspectives are based on my experience of being white, being the adult child of narcissistic parents, and being someone who supports others (who are mostly white) through recovery from narcissistic abuse. I hope to open it up for further discussion and welcome all feedback.
We can’t deny the reality of white privilege. No matter how many problems I have as a white person, the reality is that I don’t have the additional problem of being black or brown. I’m not saying there is something inherently wrong with being black or brown. I’m saying it creates a whole host of difficulties because of America’s sociocultural context. To name just a few examples: fear of police violence and brutality that is often deadly; less access to loans, education, professional advancement, housing, property ownership, etc.; and blatant emotional and psychological abuse during mundane encounters with others.
I encourage clients to consider the possibility of acknowledging both realities: white privilege and narcissistic abuse. The privilege of white skin doesn’t negate the reality of problems faced by white people. It means white people don’t face a particular set of problems faced by black and brown people. There are some other privileges that go alongside this. One is the privilege of being oblivious to the suffering of black and brown people. Another is the privilege of being able to choose whether or not to do something about it.
We can question how helpful it is to compare one type of suffering to another. It’s my view that the essence of all suffering is the same. From a Buddhist perspective, the three poisons – grasping, aversion, and ignorance – are the root cause of suffering in all its various manifestations.
In an effort to be more concrete, consider how the experience of narcissistic abuse and of systemic racism share some striking similarities. (Note: As a white person I don’t have a direct experience of systemic racism. My comment is based on listening to black and brown people describe their personal experiences of systemic racism.) For one thing, in both cases, there is an abuse of power. Parents abusing power over their children in the case of narcissistic abuse. In the case of systemic racism, white people using their power to abuse people of color.
Also, in both cases there is the felt experience of emotional and psychological abuse resulting from neglect. This abuse is experienced by the child (or adult child) of a narcissistic parent, or by people of color living in a society where whiteness is viewed as the dominant cultural norm. This can look like: not being seen, validated, or understood; having your needs dismissed as trivial or irrelevant; being treated unfairly on a regular basis over time; facing consequences based on someone else’s whim; being expected to submit to the unspoken worldview that you are peripheral or less than; not having your concerns taken seriously; being trampled on when you try and assert yourself; not being supported in your endeavors; etc.
We can acknowledge that suffering, in its essence, is the same, while also recognizing the uniqueness of each individual and his or her experiences. The purpose of this discussion is not to trivialize our differences or to pretend we understand someone else’s experience. The purpose is to say: I know my own flavor of suffering. While I may not be able to know your flavor exactly, I know that I want you to be free from it, just like I want to be free from my own.
We can unite over this wish. We can take action for all kinds of issues, even those that don’t affect us directly. This is especially important in the case of systemic racism, where white people will need to be a part of the solution to a problem that they have the option to ignore.
We can practice being in the present moment and attending to what arises. There is the very real question of where to spend one’s time and energy. Practically speaking, what gets prioritized? Can we work on our own recovery from narcissistic abuse and also be committed to racial justice? Yes. We can learn to hold it all.
As white people are waking up to systemic racism, there is a sense of urgency to do something and to do something now. That sense of urgency is important and necessary. It’s also the case that whatever we do, it’s too late. It’s hundreds of years too late. Yet, we still must do something. Not looking away is a place of practice for white people.
Developing present moment awareness is an invaluable skill for grappling with this dilemma. Rather than focusing on grand plans and huge gestures, which can be paralyzing, we can focus on just the next step that is called for right now. Is this moment asking me to focus on racial justice or on my recovery from narcissistic abuse? Is this a moment for me to speak up or to be silent and listen? Is this a moment for me to take action? Is this a moment for me to rest? Is this a moment for me to cry? Is this a moment for me to read? To journal? To spend time with a friend?
In conclusion, I encourage my clients to remember that we can care for others and we can care for ourselves. It isn’t a zero-sum game. Narcissistic parents teach their children that relationship dynamics focus on one person at the expense of the other. As the adult children of narcissistic parents, we can unlearn this way of being in relationship. We can learn to have a healthy regard for both self and other.
If you are a survivor of narcissistic parents and want more information click here.
About the Author
Diana Calvo is a 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.