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Narcissistic Families & the Pain they Bring

Take a look at this picture. What do you see?

For many they would explain that the person on the left of the TV screen appears to be harming or attempting to harm the person on the right side of the screen. We might even label the person on the left as harmful, scary, or an attacker. Whereas, the person on the right we may label as the victim or innocent bistander scared and fearful for what's to come. But let's zoom out for a second see what is happening in it's entirety.

Woah! That's quite a change isn't it? What appeared one way to the cameraman all of a sudden takes on a very different light when the picture is presented in it's entirety. The one we once would have labeled as the victim was really the attacker and the attacker really the victim. This image is a representation of how narcissism can appear to the outside world. The one who is, in-fact, doing the harming will present themselves as the victim when given the chance to in order to protect their fragile self-esteem and self-image(3). This often means that the victim will be presented in a negative light when reacting to the narcissist, just as in the picture above.

There are many relationships where we can experience an interaction with a narcissistic person. We can meet friends, significant others, spouse, and even family members who abuse us in this especially hurtful and toxic way. Usually, we are unaware of their toxic behavior until we are so close to them it feels impossible to escape. Escape and healing become especially difficult when it is our own family who engage in these dysfunctional and toxic dynamics. So how do we spot a narcissist when they reside in our own family and how do we begin to heal in the midst of it all?

Healthy Vs. Narcissistic Parenting

For healthy families, parents strive to raise healthy, independent adults. They achieve this by taking on the responsibility for their children's emotional and physical needs. Then, gradually, parents teach independence by allowing their child to take on the responsibility for their own emotional and physical needs. Thus, promoting a sense of independence and establishing an ability to care for their own needs.

For narcissistic families, the parents primary goals are not on the wellbeing of the child, but rather how the child can meet the parent's needs. Love is completely conditional and based on this.

Usually this change occurs later in their child's life as the child begins to develop more autonomy and independence. Most noticeably, this occurs when the child begins assert their own needs and differentiates himself/herself from the family. Now, let's take a moment to recognize that this process of meeting one's own needs and differentiating themself from their family of origin is all completely normal and healthy. However, narcissistic parents do not see it as this. Instead, these parents see these behaviors as threats to meeting their own individual needs. This is when they begin to fight back and family dynamics turn into a war zone for pain, toxicity, and destroyed relationships among many, even those who never asked to be involved(1).

What happens to the Children?

Children who grow up in narcissistic families often struggle to differentiate themselves from their family members, as they were not modeled or encouraged to become independent adults. Thus, they often will wait for their parent to respond before determining their own reaction to the same event. The children serve as a reflection of their parents, leaving them without unique identification for themselves.

Adult children struggle to connect to their own emotions due to having nowhere to express them or have them met. This impacts their ability to make decisions for themselves as they have no emotions for behavioral guidance leaving them relying on others for how to respond and behave. Children who grow up in narcissistic family dynamic struggle with low self-esteem/confidence, indecisiveness, need external validation, experience poor relationships, especially romantic, in adulthood, and are unable to recognize and meet their own emotional needs(1).

Going against the narcissistic parent is not tolerate, something children learn early on. This can result in high levels of dysfunction in the family that can go on for years appearing to be completely healthy. However, when a family member, usually a child, begins to shed light on the unhealthy dynamics and attempt to differentiate themselves from the family unit the painful affects can be felt by all. Such as the photo above, the narcissistic parent has kept others from seeing the full picture and the child that threatens to expose what is behind the camera cannot be tolerated. This is too big of a threat for the narcissistic parent, so they fight back. Some tactics the narcissistic parent may employ is blaming others for their behavior, withholding affection, turning siblings against each other, spreading smear campaigns, and isolating the child threatening to expose it all.

Stick around for the next blog post because we aren't done yet. Narcissistic family dynamics are far too complicated for just one article. Next time we will take a look and dive deeper into what dynamics you can expect from a narcissistic family. This will help you identify these toxic behaviors in your own family so you can begin the journey of healing. We'll also highlight some ways that you can take steps to healing and peace.

For those who are or have experienced this type of abuse and toxic dynamics, please don't hesitate to seek help. You are not alone. Mental health services can be helpful in processing your experiences and developing tools to heal. Sometimes we need therapy to help us deal with the people who should be in therapy. If you're in the Quad Cities area, don't hesitate to reach out to schedule an appointment today to start your journey to healing.

Sources:

  1. Mauro, M., (March 21, 2010). The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/take-all-prisoners/201003/the-narcissistic-family-diagnosis-and-treatment

  2. Cikanavicius, D., (November 5, 2018). How Narcissists Play the Victim and Twist the Story. Retrieved from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-self/2018/07/narcissist-delusion/?li_source=LI&li_medium=popular17&fbclid=IwAR2KSyTQDmIhxW1qBOuSImr3YcY0X0ATwA23fzuUmZuNpGigJNduNbv3_is

  3. Mayo Clinic. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662