The Narcissistic Family

 “Mom in Reflection”  epicharmus / photo on flickr

See column on the right side of this website labeled Narcissistic Personality Disorder  for a complete  list of all NPD related articles and videos.

Article published on May 1, 2011 in Psychology Today by Karyl McBride, Ph.D.

The Narcissistic Family

Clinical experience and research show that adult children of narcissists have a difficult time putting their finger on what is wrong. Denial is rampant in the narcissistic family system. “The typical adult from a narcissistic family is filled with unacknowledged anger,  feels like a hollow person, feels inadequate and defective, suffers from periodic anxiety and depression, and has no clue about how he or she got that way.” Pressman and Pressman, The Narcissistic Family. It is common for adult children of narcissists to enter treatment with emotional symptoms or relationship issues, but simultaneously display a lack of awareness of the deeper etiology or cause. The narcissistic family hides profound pain.

In a nutshell, the narcissistic family operates according to an unspoken set of rules. Children learn to live with those rules, but they never stop being confused and pained by them, for these rules block children’s emotional access to their parents. They are basically invisible – not heard, seen or nurtured. Tragically, conversely, this set of rules allows the parents to have no boundaries with the children and to use and abuse them as they see fit. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Let’s browse some common dynamics from this profoundly dysfunctional intergenerational system. Keep in mind there are degrees of dysfunction on a spectrum depending on the level of narcissism in the parents.

The family secret is that the parents are not meeting the children’s emotional needs or they are abusive in some way. This is the norm in the narcissistic family. The message to the children: “Don’t tell the outside world…pretend everything is fine.”

The narcissistic family is all about image. The message is: we are bigger, better, have no problems, and we must put on the face of perfection. Children get the messages: “What would the neighbors think?” “What would the relatives think?” What would our friends think?” These are common fears in the family. “Always put a smile on that pretty little face.”

Negative Messages:
Children are given spoken and unspoken messages that get internalized. Those messages typically are: “You’re not good enough.” “You don’t measure up.” “You are valued for what you do rather than for who you are.”

Lack of Parental Hierarchy:
In healthy families there is a strong parental hierarchy where the parents are in charge and shining love, light, guidance, and direction down to the children. In narcissistic families the hierarchy is non-existent. The children are there to serve parental needs.

Lack of Emotional Tune-In:
Narcissistic parents lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental.

Lack of Effective Communication:
The most common type of communication in narcissistic families is through triangulation. This is where information is told through one party about another in hopes it will get back to the other party. Information is not direct. Family members talk about each other to other members of the family, but don’t confront the individuals directly. Alas, causing the creation of passive-agressive behavior, tension, and mistrust among family members. When communication is direct, it is often in the form of anger or rage.

Unclear Boundaries:
There are few boundaries in the narcissistic family. Children’s feelings are not considered important. Diaries are read, physical boundaries not kept, and emotional boundaries not respected. The right to privacy is not typically a part of the family history.

One Parent Narcissistic, The Other Orbits:
If one parent is narcissistic, it is common for the other parent to have to revolve around the narcissist to keep the marriage intact. Many times the other parent has redeeming qualities to give to the children, but is tied up meeting the needs of the narcissistic spouse. This often leaves the children’s needs unmet. Who is there for them?

Siblings Are Not Encouraged To Be Close:
In healthy families, we encourage our children to be loving and close to each other. In narcissistic families, children are pitted against each other and taught competition. There is a constant comparison of who is doing better and who is not. Some children are favored or seen as the golden child and others become the scape-goat for the parents projected negative feelings. Siblings in narcissistic families rarely grow up feeling emotionally connected to each other.

Feelings are denied and not discussed. Children are not taught to embrace their emotions and process them in realistic ways. They are taught to stuff, repress, and are told their feelings don’t matter. Narcissistic parents are typically not in touch with their own feelings and therefore project them onto others. This causes a lack of accountability and honesty…not to mention other psychological disorders. If we don’t process feelings, they do leak out in other unhealthy ways.

Not Good Enough Messages:
These messages come across loud and clear in the narcissistic family. Some parents actually speak this message in various ways and others just model it to the children. Even with arrogant and boastful behavior, under the veneer of a narcissist is a self-loathing psyche that gets passed to the child.

The Dysfunction Can Be Obvious or Covert:
In narcissist families, the dynamics can be seen or disguised. The dysfunction displayed in violent and abusive homes is usually obvious. Emotional and psychological abuse, as well as neglectful parenting, is often hidden. Where the drama is not displayed as openly to the outside world, it is just as or more damaging to the children.

In reviewing the above dynamics one can see how this kind of family can stink and look pretty at the same time. If you recognize your family here, please know there is hope and recovery. Although we can’t change the past, we can take control of the now. We do not have to be defined by the wounded in our family systems. As Mark Twain defines the optimist, I also see the recovering adult child: “A person who travels on nothing from nowhere to happiness.” We can create new life that will flow through us to the future and stop the legacy of distorted love learned in the narcissistic family. If we choose recovery, we can defy intergenerational statistics.

The Six Faces of Maternal Narcissism

The disorder of narcissistic parenting creates significant emotional damage to children. If not understood, children raised by narcissistic parents grow up in a state of denial, thinking it is their fault and they are simply not good enough. If good enough, they would have been loved by that parent. While this is a cognitive distortion about self, the myriad of internal messages gleaned from childhood have a haunting effect on adult children of narcissistic parents. “Will I ever be good enough?” “Am I lovable?” “Am I only valued for what I do and how I look?” “Can I trust my own feelings?” Sound familiar?

The word “narcissism” is becoming more of a household term, but is usually used in disparaging others. It is not funny, sometimes not understood, and often used to describe a haughty or arrogant person. The reality is, true narcissism is a serious disorder that harms children. I don’t find the humor. Narcissists are truly all about themselves and cannot show genuine empathy. They have a limited capacity for giving unconditional love to their children. The alarming effects are cause for concern.

Identifying parental narcissism is not about encouraging another category of victims. Carrying anger, blame, resentment or rage for that parent is not the point. It is about love, education and understanding so that healing can happen. Children and parents need some common points of connection to be able to recover and move forward with a deeper template. Being able to identify childhood internal messages is significant to thousands. Often a narcissistic parent is not a full-blown narcissist, but has many narcissistic traits. The impact of understanding can assist in repairing past damage. It is true that full-blown narcissists are unlikely to change, but the adult child can do his or her own internal work for recovery.

That said, the six faces of maternal narcissism are identified as: the flamboyant-extrovert, the accomplishment-oriented, the psychosomatic, the addicted, the secretly mean, and the emotionally needy. A parent can be a mixture of these types and often that is the case. Although brief, the following will explain each type.

The Flamboyant-Extrovert: This is the mother about whom movies are made. She’s a public entertainer, loved by the masses, but secretly feared by her intimate house partners and children. She’s the show biz or stage mom and is all about performing. She’s noticeable, flashy, fun and “out there.” Some love her but you despise the masquerade she performs for the world. You know that you don’t really matter to her and her show, except in how you make her look to the rest of the world.

The Accomplishment-Oriented: To the accomplishment-oriented mother, what you achieve in your life is paramount. Success depends on what you do, not who you are. This mom is about grades, best colleges and pertinent degrees. But… if you don’t accomplish what she thinks you should, she is deeply embarrassed and may even respond with fury and rage.

The Psychosomatic: The psychosomatic mother uses illness and aches and pains to manipulate others, to get her way, and to focus attention on herself. She cares little for those around her. The way to get attention from this kind of mother is to take care of her. This kind of mother uses illness to escape from her own feelings or from having to deal with difficulties in life. You cannot be sicker than she. She will up the ante.

The Addicted: A parent with a substance abuse issue will always seem narcissistic because the addiction will speak louder than anything else. Sometimes when the addict sobers up the narcissism seems less but not always. The bottle or drug of choice will always come before the child.

The Secretly Mean: The secretly mean mother does not want others to know that she is abusive to her children. She will have a public self and a private self, which are quite different. These mothers can be kind and loving in public but are abusive and cruel at home. The unpredictable, opposite messages to the child are crazy-making.

The Emotionally Needy: While all narcissistic mothers are emotionally needy, this mother shows the characteristic more openly than others. This is the mother you have to emotionally take care of which is a losing proposition to the child. The child’s feelings are neglected and the child is unlikely to receive the same nurturance that he or she is expected to provide for the parent.

If your parent had some of the above traits, it is important to note that they were not born that way. They likely had their own insurmountable barriers to receiving love and empathy when they were children. This does not take away your pain. We cannot ever condone child abuse. But, this knowledge does help accomplish a deeper understanding.

If your mirror is empty and your childhood lacked in proper nurturing, remember as an adult that recovery is the answer. It is mostly internal work that must be done. The healing five-step recovery model is outlined in Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. Once we understand, we can move forward and build an internal mother who is always there when you need her. Unlike the narcissistic mother who is always there when she needs you.

Book: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: The Narcissistic Abuse Survivor’s Guide to Healing and Recovery

I am available to talk about any life issues that are concerning you. Private, confidential counseling by telephone.

Podcast Shows on Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

Whether to Forgive or Not Forgive the Narcissist Abuser
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: What Is It?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Parent/Child Abuse
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: The Family Portrait
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Narcissistic Mothers
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Mothers and Daughters   
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Answering Your Questions

Listen to Podcasts

How Do I Honor a Father and Mother Who Act Dishonerably?
Difficult Controlling Mothers: Life Without the Guilt Trip
This entry was posted in Child Abuse, Children, Family, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Parenting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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