Did something seem ‘off’ in your family growing up?
Did the rules in your family not seem to apply to the outside world?
Were you forbidden to question your parent’s perspective even if you disagreed?
Today I want to offer some reflections on narcissistic abuse in families. In short, nobody wins in such scenarios. The narcissistic parent constructs the family system in a way that benefits them. They do this via manipulation and coercive control. The “relationships” they have to other family members are inherently insincere. They are means towards the ends of maintaining the narcissistic person’s inflated self-worth. Nobody around the narcissistic parent is noticed or appreciated for who they really are. Worse, the relationships between other family members are severely strained.
In today’s blog I show how the roles that spring up around a narcissistic parent are part of that parent’s myth of superiority. Next, I describe how some family members are allies and others become enemies. These designations solely benefit the narcissistic parent. Recovery will require the survivor to figure out who they are apart from role they played in the family. Doing this requires a relationship where they can share how they really felt in their family and be understood. I discuss how to find such relationships and understand how you may have believed in your narcissistic parent’s myth of superiority in the first place.
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Mythical Allies and Enemies in the Narcissistic Family
A narcissistic parent’s first priority is to protect their inflated yet fragile self-worth. They require protection from a sense of worthlessness that plagues them. They find protection in the myth of superiority. A myth that requires constant reinforcement by the whole family to seem true.
In order for the narcissistic parent to believe their own myth they need allies and enemies. Allies are family members deemed to be superior along with the parent. The narcissistic parent favors the child they see as similiar to themselves. The parent will assume they know all there is to know about this child. They smile upon this child but only know this child as an extension of themselves. The favored child does not get to be recognized or known for who they actually are.
This must be so whether the favored child likes it or not. The narcissistic parent wins their loyalty based on the child’s fear not their love. The allied-with child knows that disagreement with the narcissistic parent is forbidden. It would mean departing from the only reality the narcissistic parent can tolerate. No child wants to operate in a reality that is unshared with their parent. Fear of this outcome propels the child to commit their loyalty to this parent.
Enemies are family members who prove the narcissistic parent’s superiority by being so inferior. The scapegoat child plays this role. By seeing this child as the worthless one and influencing the child to see themselves this way the narcissistic parent protects their myth of superiority. Now it is the scapegoat child who is offensively inferior. The narcissistic parent and their allies can collectively revile this enemy.
Similar to the favored child the scapegoat child must comply with this role or else. There is nothing the scapegoat child can do to convince the narcissistic parent that they are adequate. The parent needs to find this child as inadequate to keep the myth going. If the child shows pride in themselves the narcissistic parent will not recognize them. Negative parental recognition beats no recognition any day. At least the child is somebody to someone rather than nobody to no one.
What Life Feels Like for the Allies and Enemies
The resulting family system is a tightly orchestrated drama. As in all dramas it is not real. The allies and enemies sense the lack of reality in varying degrees. They are both in a terrible dilemma. They need to be somebody to their narcissistic parent to psychologically survive. Yet the terms of being somebody require them to contort their souls into the role they are offered. So they get recognized by the narcissistic parent but feel inauthentic and even unreal to themselves.
The narcissistic parent exploits the inner lives of the other family members to maintain their myth. The allies and enemies have to live with the parent’s lie. In order to believe this lie they cannot look too closely at it. So the inner lives of children of a narcissistic parent often feel claustrophobic. There are a lot of forbidden thoughts and feelings and few permitted ones. The child must stay thinking what they are allowed to think. This disrupts the child’s freedom to honestly know themselves and those around them. The favored and scapegoat child can find their private experience to be an unwelcome space. They may seek to distract themselves from this realm with activities or sensorial experiences.
Joan had always found herself avoiding quiet time with herself. She felt a sense of dis-ease that she could not shake. The only relief from this discomfort would be distraction. She could immerse herself in books, television or schoolwork where she did not think about herself.
She had good reason to feel unwelcome in her own mind. Her mother was narcissistic and required Joan to despise her older brother just as her mother did. She had made Joan her ally. Consciously Joan felt appreciative towards her mother and disdain towards her brother. However something gnawed at Joan that made her feel fake at a deep level.
As a young adult in therapy she was able to reflect on the lie of her mother’s superiority she had to uphold. She and her therapist determined that he dis-ease within stemmed from this lie. She had to work to avoid what she knew to be true because it could conflict with her mother’s myth. Finding distractions was how she coped.
Tragically no bonds can develop between the allies and enemies in the family. Like siblings finding themselves on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon line in the Civil War, conflict is the only viable option. The favored child has to revile the scapegoat child in alignment with the narcissistic parent. Otherwise they will be committing the emotional treason of consorting with the enemy. The scapegoat child is understandably left feeling betrayed by the favored child. Neither child has much of a say in being pitted against each other but it is difficult to see this at the time.
Joan found herself devaluing her brother just as her mother did. She would make up an excuse to leave any room he entered. She would writhe in obvious discomfort when she was in the same room, claiming that he was breathing too loud. She would complain that he chewed his food too loudly. She found everything in him to be repulsive on a conscious level.
Her brother did not like her treatment of him and they had a very adversarial relationship. Mutual dislike ruled their childhood and adolescence. It was not until later in Joan’s therapy that she could reflect on the source of her dislike of her brother. As the myth of her mother’s superiority felt safer to challenge she felt more compassion towards her brother.
Finding it Safe to Bust the Narcissistic Parent’s Myth of Superiority
The narcissistic parent’s psychological order depended on their myth of superiority being upheld. For children who survived such parents recovery is possible. It requires close relationships where the myths are not required. The survivor gets to honestly know, think and feel into their experience without risk. The other person is not fragile like the narcissistic parent. This person’s attachment to the survivor is based on care rather than exploitation. The survivor gets to discover they have much more freedom in this type of relationship.
Narcissistic abuse by a parent can create the impression for the child that this is the only option life offers. In order to free oneself from the parent’s myth of superiority one must be able to view this parent from a different vantage point. A different relationship with a safe person or persons can be such a vantage point.
There are often two challenges that arise when trying to bust the narcissistic parent’s myth of superiority. First, it can be confusing how to identify people who are safe to be honest with. One resource to help with this challenge is Module 4 in my online course on Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse. In this module I go into depth on how to identify who is a safe person for you. You will learn the traits that define safety for you. You also receive a spreadsheet that lets you identify who feels most to least safe to you in your own life. You can find the link to the course by clicking here.
The second challenge is to understand how you could have ever believed in the parent’s myth of superiority in the first place. Survivors may blame themselves for not ‘seeing things sooner’ or ‘calling out’ their narcissistic parent earlier. In module 2 of my online course, I go into why they are not to blame. I discuss how belief in the parent is necessary to survive as a child. In the end you get to have a compassionate understanding towards yourself and how you survived.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.