Adult children of narcissists are often gaslit by being told they are “too sensitive.” In fact, they are
sensitive, but sensitivity is not a flaw or cause to dismiss a complaint. Most children of narcissists learn to scan the narcissist’s emotional state as a proactive defense mechanism. They become sensitive to the energy of the narcissist and adapt themselves to what they sense.
And then there are some clients who fall into another category of sensitivity altogether, known as the highly sensitive person (HSP). Researcher Elaine Aron (1998), who coined the term, defines an HSP as someone who has heightened awareness and responsiveness to sensory stimuli. Thought to make up 15 to 20 percent of the population, HSPs are not necessarily emotionally reactive, but they do tend to feel things very deeply and pick up on emotional energy to a much greater degree. Their threshold for noticing tangible and intangible stimulation is much lower than the average person, meaning they can intuitively notice the unspoken worries, moods, and needs in others. For the HSP growing up in a narcissistic family, there is quite a lot to feel.
This increased ability to sense emotional energy can have several benefits. The HSP can more accurately anticipate the narcissist’s moods, which allows them to sometimes avoid being the target of anger or manipulation. HSPs are also natural chameleons, adapting to the needs of those around them as fits the situation. These traits can endear the HSP to their narcissistic parent.
However, there are also drawbacks to being highly sensitive. Some HSPs find it overwhelming to constantly be aware of others’ moods. They may feel compelled to solve others’ problems, even when they are too depleted to meet their own needs. HSPs may also overidentify with their narcissistic loved one because they recognize the other person’s pain and feel guilty if they don’t try to fix it. In addition, their ability to accurately read the subtext of the unspoken can make them more susceptible to manipulation, gaslighting, and people-pleasing.
When working with highly sensitive clients, it is very important to help them differentiate between compassion and emotional caretaking. Compassion
involves having care and concern for someone else’s pain without feeling compelled to resolve it. Emotional caretaking
involves the expectation that being aware of another’s pain obligates one to fix it. Many adult children of narcissists conflate these concepts and struggle with guilt or shame if they do not follow their usual pattern of trying to manage another’s emotions. In fact, HSPs sometimes self-identify as empaths and need extra support in developing emotional boundaries.
While some clinicians are skeptical of the concept of heightened sensitivity, we encourage you to consider the expert on their own experience. Anecdotally, we have observed a high rate of crossover between adult children of narcissists and those who strongly identify with being an HSP.
Clients and therapists alike sometimes find it hard to identify gaslighting when it happens, which makes sense, as the point of gaslighting someone is to create confusion and self-doubt. It can be particularly challenging to differentiate between gaslighting and genuinely different experiences of an event, as any two people may perceive the same incident very differently. In our new book, we’ve created the Gaslighting Decision Tree
to help you clarify whether a client is experiencing gaslighting or a simple variance between how two or more people perceive something. Download the PDF of this worksheet here
This blog is an excerpt from The Clinician’s Guide to Treating Adult Children of Narcissists
. Learn more about the book here