Trigger warning: abuse
In a memoir piece I wrote about my disturbing relationship with my narcissistically disordered father, I elaborated on how his neglect, sadistic mockery, objectification and abandonment nearly destroyed me. The proverbial silver lining of having been groomed throughout my childhood to accommodate a narcissistic family system is being able to bring my recovery full circle by providing trauma treatment to those who, like myself, were born into families defiled by parental narcissism.
Hence, given my personal plight and what I see evidenced in the survivors of familial narcissistic abuse who come to me for psychotherapy, it’s become clear that when domination replaces love within marriages and child-rearing, the narcissistically disordered family takes on nefarious cult-like properties characterized by trauma bonding.
Those who present with malignant narcissism, or what is referred to as narcissistic personality disorder have deep-rooted, persistent and intractable symptoms, rigid personality traits and exploitive entitled ways of operating. They harbor extreme expectations, reinforced by a deluded sense of entitlement and “specialness” and evidence of an absence of empathy, along with intense needs for aggrandizing, attention, and admiration.
Their persistent lack of compassion and insight infiltrates their relational maneuvering. Needing constant control, the personality disordered narcissist has the uncanny ability to impersonate feelings so as to manipulate others and achieve desired outcomes. In the most extreme form, malignant narcissists are psychopaths, driven towards criminality and the urge to sadistically destroy others.
Within a narcissistic family system, trauma bonding defines the relational template. Trauma bonding is a form of tenacious attachment reinforced by a repetitive cycle of abuse in which the narcissistic spouse and narcissistic parent are imbued with tremendous power.
Family members are reduced to supply, a term coined in 1938 by psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel that is descriptive of the narcissistic objectification of a designated target. To survive, the narcissist’s family employs an adaptive coping strategy of acquiescing and normalizing terrifying dynamics so as to mitigate the threat of psychological annihilation. The pathological allegiance that ensues with the narcissistic abuser is known as Stockholm Syndrome.
The insatiable needs of the narcissistic spouse and parent demand uncompromising compliance and worship from their family. Children are groomed to be mirrors. They serve to reflect back their narcissistic parent’s grandiosity (the mini-me golden child) and to carry the narcissistic parent’s hatred and “badness” (the scapegoat). For the malignant narcissist, their children and their spouse are simply a means to procure attention and shore up their false personae. Children and spouses of narcissists are forbidden to exist for themselves or request any accountability. They exist solely to cater to the ravenous, primitive needs of the narcissist.
Resembling a cult, the narcissistic family collectively obeys and conforms to the dictates espoused by the narcissistic family leader.
Techniques and methods such as exploitation, triangulation, gaslighting, punishment and marginalization are methodically administered to bring about thought reform, assert control and derail individuality. Love bombing, in which supply is made to feel special and loved is interspersed with terror and the incessant indoctrination of absolutist beliefs.
In the narcissistic family, any deviation or opposition from the group mind is met with an aggressive onslaught of punishment or exile by the narcissist at the helm of the family. Extreme forms of psychological manipulation brainwash the family into compliance. As “love” is interspersed with fear, family members are managed. Isolated in a closed system in which outside influences are monitored, thought processes are controlled. Subservience is enforced as the lives of family members revolve around the demands of the disordered narcissist.
This sort of daily psychological tyranny wreaks havoc on family members. My client Sean somberly recalls how months of psychological mind games and stonewalling from his parents and siblings was more corrosive than any of the beatings his malignant father regularly administered.
Diana Macey, the author of “Narcissistic Mothers and Covert Emotional Abuse,” writes, “The spouses of narcissists cannot be independent or emotionally secure people. They are there to maintain the atmosphere the narcissists can thrive in, and this is the toxic atmosphere of miscommunication and tension that allows them to play their games and to be the ‘good one.’”
Accordingly, the marital dyad between a malignant narcissist and their spouse subsists on collusion. In order to sustain for the outside world a farce of normalcy while chaos prevails behind closed doors, the narcissist must assert dominion over their spouse.
By controlling the finances, perpetrating veiled mockery and blame for manufactured transgressions (gaslighting) and feeding off their spouse’s guilt and longings for restitution with intermittent feigned contrition, the narcissist tears away at their spouse’s stability and sense of self. As the familial atmosphere of dissonance and fear escalates, the narcissist’s spouse is increasingly shaken and traumatized. At this stage physical abuse, social isolation, infidelity and sexual assault are common developments.
When children are part of the narcissistic family constellation they function as pawns. The favored golden child is groomed to emulate the narcissistic parent and wreak havoc on the lives of those who question the narcissist’s motives. This includes the non-narcissist parent.
Known as parental alienation, this emotionally violent form of child abuse involves the narcissistic parent utilizing their child to alienate and reject the other parent in order to establish unquestionable devotion and loyalty. By triangulating the child in marital debacles, the narcissist positions themself to appear unblemished in the eyes of their child while corrupting the child’s perception of the targeted parent. The child’s disrespectful oppositional behavior towards the targeted parent is encouraged and rewarded by the narcissistic parent.
In divorce proceedings, parental alienation is utilized in an attempt to sway court decisions concerning custody battles and child support. The narcissist will use the child as a tool to either deny egregious allegations or will require the child to manufacture damaging lies implicating the innocent parent of abuse.
This favored child is the parental narcissist’s enabler and is continuously embroiled in creating distress through inciting acrimonious conflict between chosen targets so as to divide and conquer. This could mean alienating the scapegoated sibling or vilifying the non-narcissist parent. They are brainwashed to believe that fulfilling the narcissistic parent’s sinister agendas by spying on family members and promoting smear campaigns, will ensure they are loved by the narcissistic parent. Their enmeshment with the narcissistic parent feeds the delusion that by pleasing their parent they can manage the chaos and their pain.
Sometimes the favored child enabler is constitutionally predisposed to experience sadistic pleasure as the narcissistic extension. If that’s the case, they are likely to develop a narcissistic disorder themselves. Furthermore, if the non-narcissistic parent is a compliant, obedient enabler who fails to provide protection, the damaging consequences for all the children are further exacerbated.
If it is the mother who is the narcissist in the family the daughter is viewed as a source of supply that is required to glean the sort of attention and admiration that the mother vicariously covets.
As a result, the daughter of a maternal narcissist is not in touch with her true self. The daughter is merely a tool utilized to fulfill her mother’s infantile needs and satisfy her mother’s endless insatiable appetite for complete control. What is not allowed by the mother, the daughter suppresses, represses, and denies, for defying the narcissistic mother would mean prolonged abuse and punishment.
On the other hand, the son of a maternal narcissist is often simultaneously idealized and groomed to abdicate their inherent needs for love and care, while assuming a romantic and parental role. Known as covert or emotional incest, this violation of trust and abuse of power is a prevailing trend between the child and the parental narcissist. This perverse reversal of roles and enmeshed dynamic is presented to the child as a badge of honor.
In the worst case scenarios in which the narcissist is a psychopath, physical molestation may also occur. In these instances the psychopathic parent may be pedophilic and present a threat to other children.
As the scapegoated child, I was the designated source of scorn. Galvanized by envy, narcissistic family members derided my gifts, needs and feelings while sadistically characterizing me as a selfish ingrate. Being put under a microscope for the purpose of pouncing on every and any perceived flaw, set in motion fawning and self-loathing. It also ignited in me the need to dissociate from the reality of relentless cruelty.
Object relations theorist Ronald Fairbairn explained how the attachment processes in severely abused children necessitate the use of dissociation to preserve the good deified parental object. This strategy is crucial to the abused child’s survival. The unbearable betrayal of abuse and rejection must be walled off and denied. Consequently, the child blames themself so as to preserve the parent as good and humane. The child believes it is their badness that is responsible for the caregiver’s cruelty. This offers false hope necessary to survival.
The endgame in a narcissistic family system is complete subjugation. Folks who were groomed to accommodate the unquenchable needs of their narcissistic caregivers, to over-function, to endure abuse and neglect and disown dependency needs, limits and intelligent guardedness, are especially ripe for subsequent narcissistic victimization. Although these predispositions are not a decisive measure for who becomes the narcissist’s mark, these traits broadcast that one is a malleable naive source of supply that can be easily seduced and controlled.
Irrespective of constitution and ego strengths, one cannot emerge unscathed from a narcissistic family. Familial survivors of narcissistic abuse are vulnerable to incurring complex trauma. They will struggle with disruptive sensorial discomfort and chronic feelings of danger and fear. According to Tracy Malone’s PTSD checklist at Narcissistic Abuse Support, hyper-vigilance, pervasive depression and anxiety, dissociation, flashbacks and cognitive dissonance are just some of the symptoms ignited by narcissistic abuse.
Likewise, in “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk writes, “Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones.”
Hence, those survivors who embark on a path of recovery grapple with a fog of confusion and derealization. As the victim hobbles together a cohesive chronology of surreal familial dynamics they will vacillate between the emotional flood of panic, shame, grief and rage and debilitating numbness. They will also identify developmental disasters incurred through chronic narcissistic abuse.
Indeed, given my personal plight with familial narcissism the cultivation of interpersonal discrimination and discernment could not be attained. Persistent neglect and mistreatment left me starving for intimacy that I lacked the life skills and acumen to satisfy. This struggle is not unique for those who were born into families headed by malignant narcissists. Intimacy is coupled with danger.
Either acquiescing to the needs of others irrespective of the harm incurred, or counter-dependent posturing becomes habituated relational patterns. Longings for love clash with simultaneous fears of engulfment and abandonment. Moreover, the glorification of pathological caretaking obfuscates the difference between authentic generosity and a conditioned sense of obligation motivated by survival fears. This is especially true for survivors of emotional and physical incest.
Breaking free of Stockholm syndrome so as to heal attachment injuries is a daunting task for survivors of familial narcissism. Dismantling a maladaptive relational imprint of servitude or identifying with the aggressor, while piecing together an emotionally anchored cohesive narrative of one’s history is the survivor’s burden. Through this courageous and laborious process, complicated bereavement will lead to the naming and reclaiming of boundaries, conditions and standards. It is only through this often brutal and prolonged undertaking that a full, satisfying life free of narcissistic tyranny can transpire and toxic generational patterns can be broken.