Greenbrae therapist helps adults who were raised in narcissistic families

The Independent Journal, Marin California/April 22, 2008

Therapist Dan Neuharth of Greenbrae treats adults who have grown up in narcissistic families.

Narcissistic parents habitually criticize their children, demanding that they be perfect and undercutting them when they're not.

Neuharth - son of Al Neuharth, the egocentric founder of USA Today - knows what it's like.

"I was very unhappy, growing up," he says. "I thought there was something wrong with me."

Now Neuharth, a licensed marriage and family therapist, sees others whose lives have been damaged by narcissistic parents - a mother or father who is self-absorbed and self-centered, and whose only family goal is children who get good grades, look beautiful and star in the school play.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, widely used in the United States, defines narcissism as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and a lack of empathy."

With narcissists, says Neuharth, "it's all about appearances." With their children, "no attention is paid to whether you are a good person, do you have meaningful friendships, are you proud of who you are?"

Men and women who grew up with egocentric parents often discover their problems late in life. Children tend to be loyal to their parents, and blame themselves for their dysfunction. When in treatment himself, Neuharth was taken aback when his therapist suggested he lived in "an emotionally dangerous family."

His reaction? "What are you talking about! I'm from a good family."

He says his first thought was to fire her.

In workshops he conducts on narcissism, Neuharth says participants "are tremendously relieved to recognize that they are not alone. At the same time, they feel great sadness when they realize what their parents have done - because a parent is supposed to take care of you."

One of his clients, a 58-year-old woman who asks not to be identified because her mother still lives in Marin, says she always played second fiddle to her mother's whims and desires; her mother would make scenes in restaurants, sniff at any compliments she received, threaten consequences at the slightest misbehavior and systematically "ruin every day."

"My sister and I could never be right. My mother could never be wrong," she says.

Her treatment as a daughter carried over into her 30-year marriage to a man who was equally controlling. "I didn't have any say. I didn't realize I should have any say."

Neuharth grew up in a newspaper family, in Rochester, N.Y., headquarters of the Gannett newspaper chain. (Gannett owned the Marin Independent Journal from 1981 to 2000) He worked on the Miami Herald and Nashville Tennessean before getting a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern. He taught journalism at University of Florida and San Diego State until 1982, when his father started USA Today.

His father was famously egotistical: he installed a huge bust of himself in the USA Today lobby in Arlington, Va., his son says; when he toured the country on the USA Today Buscapade, piped music played on the bus after every stop: "He's got the whole world in his hands É"

The younger Neuharth, now 54, worked briefly on USA Today, but soon became enmeshed with another notable egocentric: Werner Erhard, the Marin-based inventor of est.

Neuharth, who had taken est training himself, remembers interviewing Erhard for USA Today, preparing a Q&A article for the editorial page. He recalls an editor, reading Erhard's grandiose (and arcane) responses, asking "Does this guy speak English?"

Not long afterward, Neuharth received an invitation to do public relations for est; he had always wanted to work in San Francisco. His reaction was "why not?"

Erhard proved to be as controlling as his dad, Neuharth says: he tape-recorded every press interview to make sure he was never misquoted; he wore makeup whenever a photographer was due to take his picture.

Neuharth left when his job turned out to be extolling Erhard instead of the program, a pop (and popular) course in self-discovery.

It was est, however, led him to become a psychologist: at one session with about 250 people, participants began talking about their fears, their struggles, their lack of belief in themselves. "These were people who seemed to have it all together. It was a real revelation to me, that people have fears and tragedies that don't show on the outside. It was the beginning of my interest in the inner life, in psychotherapy."

He got a master's at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda and a Ph.D. from Alliance University (then the California School of Professional Psychology). He began practicing in Marin 16 years ago.

A lifelong bachelor, he is engaged to marry Christina Robinson, and lives with her and her three teenage children in Greenbrae. As a stepparent, he tries to use praise, not ridicule, and to be permissive instead of controlling, though (he smiles) "there has to be a balance between rules and order, and having a nice warm place to live."

After a prolonged falling-out 10 years ago, he and his father are getting along better. Before that, "I found that when I talked to him, he could be condescending, sometimes just mean.

"When I tried to talk to him about it, he got upset. I told him I'd like to have a better relationship with him, 'but if you talk down to me, I'll just absent myself until we can talk as equals.'"

Over and over in his practice, he hears tales of the emotional abuse narcissistic parents - moms as well as dads - can inflict.

Narcissistic parents tend to criticize the person, not the behavior, Neuharth says. "The narcissistic parent says 'you're a bad person; you'll never amount to anything.'"

Narcissists are "very small inside," Neuharth says. "They try to compensate by acting large outside."

His father was tough to work for; secretaries were often reduced to tears, but Al Neuharth didn't seem to care: he titled his autobiography "Confessions of an SOB." Now 84, he seems to have "softened" a bit, says his son. He lives with his third wife in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and they have adopted six children.

When Dan Neuharth meets with clients who are struggling with the issue of narcissistic parents, he assures them that they are not to blame for their unhappiness, "but at the same time it doesn't do any good to blame your parents, either. The parents are responsible for what they did, but now you are responsible for what you do with your life."

He assures them that - with counseling - their lives can change.

"As a teenager I thought I would never be happy. But I am happy now - and life is just getting better."

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