It wasn’t until college that Susan realized the level of dysfunction in her family. There were signs earlier in her life but the pieces were never put together until she stumbled on the word narcissism. Then, it was as if a dense fog was lifted and everything became clearer.
Everything the family did catered around her narcissistic mother. Her mom was a successful politician who spent continual hours on the phone, in meetings, holding press conferences, attending dinners, fundraising, and pandering to the needs of her constituency. Her absence from family gatherings, sporting events, and doctor’s visits was always excused by her dad. From a young age, Susan was taught that her mom was important and therefore she did not have to conform to normal maternal expectations.
In an attempt to glean some understanding of her dysfunctional family dynamic, Susan dissected the narcissism and then reconstructed her childhood. It took some time and quite a bit of energy, but in the end she learned how her family protected her narcissistic mother.
- The element of disguise. While the narcissist might appear to others to be highly independent, in actuality they cannot thrive without an adoring audience. Many narcissists intentionally pick professions to help satisfy that insatiable craving. However it is not enough, so the family is expected to feed the narcissist’s ego on demand. Most of this is done in secret to maintain the illusion of autonomy. Looking back on her life, Susan began to realize that her mother’s presence coincided with downturns in her political career. When things were thriving for her mom, she didn’t see her. But when times were difficult, her mom was omnipresent and needy.
- The fear of disapproval. Narcissists hate to be embarrassed, especially by their own family. A spouse or child not living up to the narcissist’s standards is immediately shunned, ignored, or neglected until they conform. As a result, the family becomes fearful of the narcissist’s disapproval and goes to great lengths to give the narcissist what they demand. Susan’s fear of her mother’s disapproval led her to participate in sports that she didn’t like, attend functions that she hated, and declare a major that did not match her talents.
- The power of denial. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism which allows as person to create a fantasy world of perfection separate from the flaws of reality. The spouse of a narcissist is frequently enlisted as a co-conspirator so as to maintain the narcissist’s standard at all times. The family minimizes the impact of an abusive outburst by pretending it didn’t happen or that it wasn’t that bad. Susan’s dad would make excuses for her mom’s rantings by saying that the stress of her job caused the anger. When Susan made attempts to confront her mom about the hurtful words, it was denied and thrown back on Susan.
- The efficacy of deception. Narcissistic families believe lies such as our family is special and therefore we don’t have to do things the way others do them. Or, our family is superior to others because of our power, influence, wealth, and/or beauty. These deceptions allow the family to live outside the rules of society thereby creating a bond that is difficult to break. Susan was taught that her family’s influence entitled her to a prominent political internship even though her skills did not justify it.
- The utility of displacement. One of the unspoken family rules was that no one was to express anger towards Susan’s mother because of the difficulty of her job. So all annoyance, frustration, and aggravation was displaced. Susan’s brother was resentful of his father, her dad was constantly upset with the political consultant, and Susan internalized her anger. Families learn to displace their infuriation over the narcissistic behavior onto something or someone else. Unfortunately the underlying anger is not resolved this way and can remain for a lifetime.
- The acceptance of distortion. A foundational premise for all personality disorders, including narcissism, is an inaccurate perception of reality. Narcissism becomes a distorted lens by which the entire family views themselves and others. It is though this bias that the family circles the wagons and protects the narcissist and their behavior. At first awareness, Susan literally became sick over the narcissistic falsehood she had experienced. But given some time and therapy, she stood independent of it without feeling guilty for not reinforcing or exposing it.
While every family has its’ own dysfunction, a narcissistic family cannot survive without these key protective devices. This is the glue that binds the family together for better or worse.