Since 2016 I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of people calling to inquire about therapy as self-described “children of narcissistic parents” (CONP’s). This is probably a consequence of the rise of the Trump cult. Until he arrived on the political stage, it was common to think of a narcissist as just “a self-centered person,” but Trump’s brand of paranoid, malignant narcissism has made us more aware of how destructive to others this character disorder can be.
When children are raised by at least one narcissistic parent, the experience wreaks havoc on their core sense of self. Some psychotherapists refer to the resulting condition as “Echoism”, because CONP’s have typically lost their own voices. The only way they were able to survive their childhoods with narcissistic parents was to lose contact with their inner lives and to experience themselves as mere echoes of their parents.
This, by the way, may help explain why those who’ve fallen into what I call “the trance of Trump” are so slavishly uncritical of everything he says and does. Trump has only two kinds of people in his life: those who are completely devoted to him, and enemies. The only way to be a Trump supporter is to echo whatever he says and does. Trumpism is fundamentally incompatible with any kind of independent thought.
Therapy for CONP’s means turning one’s radar around so that it no longer focuses just on the needs and feelings of the narcissists in their lives, but registers what is inside – their own needs and feelings, their own sense of what is true and what is right.
Sometimes there’s a tipping point in this process, in which CONP’s realize the enormity of the fraud that has been perpetrated on them. As they come to see that they’ve never been loved for themselves, but only for their usefulness to the narcissist, an overwhelming sense of betrayal arises, accompanied by intense rage. This is a potentially dangerous moment in the therapy process, because CONP’s can respond vengefully and destructively, but it’s also an auspicious time, when real insight and change become possible.
Savior cults like Trumpism have shelf lives. Eventually, as his followers begin to collide with those pesky factual realities, hastened perhaps by an economic downturn, I suspect that there will be a rapid awakening, followed by intense rage at having been so thoroughly conned. Then, just as after the death of Hitler, when no German could be found who had ever been a Nazi, Trump’s most ardent supporters will become his most passionate enemies. The recent actions of recovering Trump cultist Anthony Scaramucci may prefigure how this will look. If the same awakening happens for millions of others, there will be hell to pay, both for Trump and for his party.
The later stages of healing for the CONP can be inspiring to watch. When CONP’s finally succeed, often after great struggle, in turning their attention around, the doors to their inner lives swing open, and there is typically an intense emotional and spiritual rebirth as they re-discover their own capacities for courageous action, creativity and authentic love. To get a sense of the emotional and spiritual intensity of such a development, read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey.”
As I write, a full third of the population is still lost in the trance of Trump, although there are a few signs that a collective awakening may be brewing. For the rest of us, hope is hard to come by these days. But if the progression of our recovery from this national psychosis really does parallel that of the recovery process of adult children of narcissistic parents, then maybe there are reasons to hope. In this analogy, the lunacy and cruelty that now dominate our national life can be seen as the pathological consequences of the loss of our connection with our national soul. When we finally do collectively recover from our enthrallment with the Narcissist in Chief, then it’s reasonable to hope, as well, that we will also re-discover what is best in ourselves. If we do that, then there is no reason why we can’t also initiate a project of national reconstruction that won’t be aborted, as happened the last time history handed us a similar opportunity. Well, we can hope. And if we can, we must.