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The Narcissistic Family
The healthy, functional family system is like a galaxy, where everyone in the family is a star. But the narcissistic family allows only one member to be the star. So the narcissistic family is, as Dr Mc Bride allegorizes in her book on daughters of NMs, like a solar system, where everybody in the family revolves around the narcissist. Mc Bride writes that 'the unspoken rule in these families is that they do not discuss this dynamic and it becomes a family secret.' (McBride, p71). The narcissistic family is not a democracy.
A healthy family operates like a democracy. The core family values are love, care, and freedom of expression. There are some clear, although flexible, boundaries between the parents and the children. The parents are responsible for nurturing the children and ensuring their safety. The goal of the parents is to build their children up, to equip them for life. Everyone in the family is of equal importance.
By contrast, the narcissistic family operates like a tyranny. Love, care, and freedom of expression are replaced with abuse, control, and repression. The boundaries are either too rigid or inexistent. The children are exploited by the parent(s) and made to feel unsafe. The goal of the parent(s) is to use the children for their own benefit. Some family members are treated as if they were more, or less, important than others.
Family therapist Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse saw 6 typical family roles in the alcoholic family:
The alcoholic (or other substance abuser) for whom the alcohol takes priority over the family
The chief enabler, a co-dependent spouse who tries to keep the family together
The family hero, a high-achiever who makes it look like everything is okay
The scapegoat who takes the blame for all the family's ills
The lost child who keeps a low profile
The family mascot, a jester who acts as comic relief for the family
Wegscheider, Sharon. Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. 1981. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books. Pages 85-88.
These roles have been extended and adapted to other types of dysfunctional families. The typical roles in the narcissistic family are usually seen as:
The narcissistic parent
The enabling spouse
The golden or all-good child
The scapegoat or no-good child
The lost or forgotten child
The golden or all good child is the recipient of all the narcissistic parent's positive projections, and is their favourite child. While the ‘hero' saves the family by being perfect and making it look good, the golden or all good child may struggle to live up to his status. The golden child is usually victim of emotional and (covert) sexual abuse by the narcissistic parent. He is also witness to, and sometimes takes part in, the other children's abuse. Many specialists believe that witnessing your sibling's abuse is as damaging as receiving it.
The scapegoat, or no good child, is the recipient of the narcissist's negative projections. They can never do anything right. In some models of dysfunctional families, the scapegoat is also known as the rebel. However, the name ‘rebel' implies that the child has chosen this role, which is debatable. The scapegoat is usually victim of emotional and physical abuse by the narcissistic parent.
The lost or forgotten child just doesn't seem to matter to the narcissist, and avoids conflict by keeping a low profile. They are not perceived as a threat or a good source of supply, but they are usually victim of neglect and emotional abuse.
Tina Fuller, an ACoN who wrote a book on narcissistic parents, has come up with her own categories: ‘In my findings, adult children of narcissists usually fall under one of three categories. I have named them Conformer, Rebel and Runner. All children start out as conformers, but it's the parental feedback that determines a child's category.' (Fuller, Tina pp. 789-791).
The Conformer is another word for the golden child, the Rebel is the same thing as a scapegoat, and the Runner is very similar to a lost child. But what Fuller does is give the impression that the child is active in choosing their behaviour: they conform, rebel, or run away. By contrast, the golden/scapegoat/forgotten model implies that the choices are made by the parent. But Fuller at the same time states that all children start as conformers and then act in either of three ways depending on parental feedback. In other words, the children conform to their parent in rebelling or running away. This paradox reflects the struggle of being the child of a narcissist. It seems impossible to escape their control. Even rebellion against them is a result of their choice.
In reality, in the narcissistic family, the attribution of roles by the narcissist may differ from the role ‘chosen' or most suitable for the child. This is why a high-achieving child may be the narcissist's scapegoat in spite of acting as the hero and making the family look so good. Equally, the narcissist's golden child may be a total loser to the outside world. And a child might rebel without becoming the scapegoat, but rather a lost child to the narcissist. To add to the complexity, roles can change over time. In addition, one of the parent's hero may be the other parent's scapegoat, etc. The role is therefore determined by the observer. Everything is very much a matter of perception in crazy-land.
Whatever the roles really are, the narcissistic parent has a favourite and everybody knows it. This creates envy and division amongst the children. This helps the narcissist in several ways: it channels the hatred of the children away from them and towards other members of the family, and it enables them to rule according to the good old adage ‘divide and conquer'. Even the golden child will be made jealous of his siblings by the narcissistic parent, who will ensure they highlight something the others have that they don't. There is therefore very little chance of mutiny as the children are too busy hating each other, or competing with each other, to see where all of this is really coming from. The narcissistic parent sells to his children the fallacy that love from them is available, but that it is something in limited supply, and that they will only receive it if they win a competition against the rest of the family.
The favourite child, or ‘chosen one', acts in fact as a decoy for the real family secret. While everybody can see the favouritism, the narcissist will deny it in words, but not in actions. Narcissists are much better at hiding and denying than this, so what's really going on? This obvious denial of an undeniable truth serves the purpose of hiding the real truth. The real family secret is hidden by the obvious non-secret fact that there is a favourite child in the family, a ‘chosen one.' In reality, there is only one favourite in the narcissistic family, and that's the narcissist themselves. They are the real chosen one. There isn't space for two ‘chosen ones' in the world of the narcissist. Understandably, the golden child is the one least likely to see this truth. In the meantime, this child is the recipient of everyone else's hatred.
This does not mean that the narcissist doesn't have a favourite child. They do. The golden child is indeed the one they love the most. But this love is not true selfless unconditional love for who the golden child really is. It is love for the narcissist's positives projection onto the child. In other words, the narcissist loves themselves through the golden child. What they love in fact is an idealised image of themselves projected onto the golden child. This child unconsciously knows that being loved is dependent on complying, or conforming, to the narcissist's projections and wants. The golden child lives in constant fear of losing the parental love and becoming a scapegoat or forgotten child.
By contrast the scapegoat(s) is (are) the receiver(s) of negative projections, and the recipient(s) of hatred and violent abuse. Possibly, it's the rejected true self of the narcissist that is seen in or projected onto the scapegoat(s). This might explain why the most sensitive of the children, i.e. the one most in touch with their true self to begin with, becomes a scapegoat. It may be that the scapegoat is the one who resembles the most the true self of the narcissistic parent, at least in the latter's eyes. This unconscious identification could also explain why narcissistic parents generally seem to scapegoat a child of the same sex, since this facilitates the identification process. Another factor for choosing the recipient of negative projection could be reminiscence of, or resemblance with people from the NM's past. For example, if the NM was very envious of a sibling, such as the golden child, she may scapegoat any of her own children who remind her of the hated sibling.
One of the biggest division created by the narcissist is the war of the sexes. Gender matters in the world of the narcissist, and everyone is made to believe that the other side has a better deal.
Everybody has heard of ‘Daddy's little girl' or ‘Mommy's little prince'. When the narcissist is the mother, she is more likely to project her negative traits unto her daughter(s), to be envious of them, and to be in competition with them. By contrast, the boys, or at least one son, are more likely to be her all-good or golden children. But in a family with only female children, a girl will become the golden child. And in a family with more than one boy, there will be at least one forgotten male child.
One reason why narcissistic mothers will scapegoat a daughter rather than a son may be cultural. In many cultures, the son is more valued than the daughter. A woman's narcissism may therefore be caused by the belief that her gender is a flaw, the root cause of her feelings of rejection or abandonment. Her hated true self is therefore very much a feminine one and will therefore need to be projected onto a daughter rather than a son.
It does seem that girls become more conscious of their mother's narcissism than boys, if one is to observe what comes out in books and on the Web. This awareness may indicate that, of all the roles, the Scapegoats (or Rebels) are more likely to see the light than any other of their siblings. Being the Scapegoat rather than the golden child may therefore be a blessing in disguise.
The important thing to remember is this: the narcissist is not capable of truly loving anyone, not even themselves. No one is getting their love because there is, very sadly, no love to be received. Neither ‘the boys' nor ‘the girls' are getting anything good out of this. Anything that looks like love from the narcissist is an illusion, a trickery. Don't be fooled anymore.
The term ‘role' is very appropriate for the narcissistic family. Indeed, as image matters more than substance to the narcissist, the family works hard on its external appearance. As soon as they have a witness, an audience, the narcissistic family starts performing. The narcissistic family on stage is very different from the family off stage.
On stage, everyone participates to the idyllic display, even the rebel, which shows how strong the family dynamic really is. On stage, the narcissistic family seems happy, and may create the envy of others who wish they could be part of this fantastic fun and loving crowd. This envy is the supply the whole family craves, it seems to compensate for all the pain endured during the time off stage. Perceived envy is the fuel that runs the narcissistic world.
Denial is at the root of narcissism, and at the core of the narcissistic family. Any exposure is a threat to the survival of the system, and must be addressed accordingly. ACoNs who raise any concerns about the family's dysfunctions report being ostracised by the whole family, including siblings they thought they were close to. Criticism, or any introspection, is perceived as an attack, and the response of the family is to attribute a fault to whomever makes the criticism. In other words, if you call the family crazy, the whole family will call you crazy back.
This is a how, in the past, so many children of narcissistic families, some very high-profile ones, have ended up in mental institutions. Some of them were lobotomised, others were submitted to electric choc ‘therapy ‘. Most came in with the neuroses of an abused child but ended up with much worse. Thankfully, most mental health professionals now understand family dysfunctions, and you will not be thrown into an institution by force. But who can survive being alone against the people closest to them? The only way out… is out. Support groups, competent therapists, and loving friends are the ones to go to instead. This does not mean that you must necessarily cease any contact with your family, but that you must be aware of the limitations of your family.
First Published: 5 June 2014 - Latest update: 30 March 2021
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