The central issue of being raised by a narcissistic family is that your needs could not be met. The family may have been disorganised or chaotic, or it could have been ordered and looked good from the outside, your parents may even have loved you, but they were not able to put your needs (the needs of the child) first and so foster in you a sense that it is okay for you to be yourself, to have and express and learn about all your needs and feelings. In this sense the most painful legacy of being raised in such a family is that you were never really helped to know and truly express who you really are.
In reality, these individuals are not raised to know themselves. They are raised to know others, to be able to predict what others expect from them, and to meet (or fail to meet) that explicit or implicit need.
The Narcissistic Family, Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman & Robert M. Pressman
Children from this kind of family suffer later in life in the following ways.
- Feeling bad or as if there is something wrong with you (though not knowing really what it is).
- Holding unrealistic expectations of self.
- Issues with trust, fear of trusting or being dependent.
- Being over concerned with the needs of others before yourself in a way that isn’t balanced.
- Difficulties communicating or talking with others or even relating to them.
- Problems with self assertion due to parents being threatened by your expression of needs and feelings or an inability to deal with them.
- Difficulties with boundary setting and discriminating your boundaries.
According to Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, therapists and authors of the book The Narcissistic Family, Diagnosis and Treatment, healing from such a childhood involves 5 critical stages which are outlined below paraphrased and with direct quotes where relevant.
Stage One Revisiting the reality of our childhood
This stage involves giving up fantasies and false beliefs the family has created in you. It involves accepting things were not ideal, that you had no control as a child, that the family lied about how good things were. This stage involves giving up the hope you can recreate an ideal family, arresting attempts to correct the past or get it right (and this includes giving up self blame as compensation.) Realising as a child you never had power and as an adult, until you heal, you still lack power.
According to the Pressmans at this stage we meet lots of resistance. It is essential that the focus stay on how the past affected you, not on any other cause or condition, including the pain of your parent’s own childhoods. It involves taking responsibility for our own healing and stopping the blame game.
At this stage of healing we often swing back and forward between some powerful ideas : “it was all my parent’s fault” and “I cant blame my parents”, “it’s all a cop out” and “I am just defective/deficient/pond scum”. Feelings must be validated in this stage of healing, experiences reframed and skills relearned.
To this end the therapists recommend the use of a picture in healing. To find a picture of yourself as a child between the ages of 3 and 7. This pictures serves as a potent reminded of your smallness and vulnerability, helps you to see yourself as you really were back then. They recommend the picture be placed in a frame and prominently displayed and later in therapy they recommend that we say positive messages to our child picture/self, potent words we would have longed to hear at that age e.g. : “I love you just as you are”, “You deserve love”, “You tried so hard to please”, etc. This helps to overcome the tendency we have to blame ourselves for what happened. Later on we can bring presents to the child in the picture, things they loved or show our care of and love for them.
When the adult can learn to accept and love the child in the picture, she is a long way toward being able to accept and love the adult version of that child. She (or he) is more able to assess realistically conditions of responsibility and control.
Further examples of healing techniques can be found in the text for this first stage of healing.
Stage Two : Mourning the Loss of the Fantasy
We encounter deep pain and fear at this stage of healing but the mourning stage cannot be skipped as it is essential that we ‘get’ and accept at a deep level that the family can never be healed, we can’t go back and redo things, and ultimately what happened to us was larger than us and far beyond our control.
Much sadness is encountered here but this sadness drives the point home that we need to re-invest our energy elsewhere than in our wounded family of origin.
Adults raised in narcissistic homes cling to the fantasy that they can somehow manipulate or control their parent/family of origin system to get the recognition and approval they require (that is, to get their needs met.) They had this fantasy as children, and they maintain it as adults. The reality, though, is that they had little control over their parent system as children and have little control over it now.
Concentrating energy on that fantasy is destructive for several reasons.
1. It presupposes that the patient is somehow wrong, or defective; if she could just do better, be different, find the key, then she could get her needs met. In short, it blames the victim.
2. It keeps the patient involved with the family of origin system, which may preclude creating or adequately maintaining her own family or relationships of choice. It is a waste of time.
3. It keeps the patient fixed on a goal that she can never achieve; getting her needs met …it is a set up for failure.
4. It sets up a situation where opportunities for good interaction with the parent system (or family) – if they ever occur will probably be missed because the constant underlying unrealistic expectations and resultant anger will make any kind of relaxed interaction impossible. It creates a pattern of missed opportunities.
The resolution of this stages drives home we will never change the family, but hope does come to be able to change ourselves and our responses and improve the quality of our lives. It also opens up the ability to have a more realistic relationship with our family of origin. I would add that this is a stage and resolution that may take years.
Stage Three : Recognition
This stage helps us recognise the affects and impacts of being raised in such a home, the ability to look at certain pattern and behaviours and say “I know where that comes from.” Here we see how the past is reflected in the present.
Essential to this stage is the recognition that behaviour traits we developed although dysfunctional or hurtful to ourselves and/or others now were essential to our survival back then. They enabled us to function. Now the situation has changed and our coping mechanisms need to change.
It is vital in the formation of a positive self image, however, for the patient to be encouraged to have respect for the child he was, and for that child’s ability to survive. He (0r she) is, after all, essentially a bigger, older version of that child : he deserved respect then, and he deserves it now.
The essential nature of this is that being raised in an emotionally neglectful or invalidating environment leads to an overly critical self, problems with and fear of criticism and rejection, fears of abandonment, a tendency towards people pleasing in an effort to win love.
The major issue to become aware of here is the ‘going back to the empty well’ phenomena. We may still entertain powerful fantasises that we can rescue the family or get what we needed again. Such fantasies set us up for failure and pain.
Stage Four : Evaluation
This is a very painful stage. Its where a lot of us get stuck in thought such as “I’ve screwed up my entire life”, “my parent’s weren’t that bad”. Here we encounter a lot of undeserved guilt. And here we must do the hard work of figuring out what behaviours and roles we need to let go of and those we need to keep or develop. Here we also need a lot of help to see that we did the best we could with limited skills, information and insight.
Stage Four : Responsibility for Change
Here we begin to work on changing those personality traits that although functional in childhood no longer serve us well or keep us stuck in bad patterns. We often need very good therapeutic or outside help with this stage as we don’t have a lot of models for healthy behaviours, nor a well developed and realistic sense of self.
Issues we may face here are. An inability to set and maintain boundaries, feeling unentitled to do so. Feelings of unworthiness. A tendency to be overly responsible for others. Issues with trust. Difficulties with intimacy. Difficulties differentiating and owning our own true feelings. Problems with people pleasing. Difficulties communicating and being honest about our true self and feelings as well as our true needs. Difficulties with finding emotional balance and regulating feelings. Problems with all or none thinking. Difficulties in striking a balance between depending in a healthy way and being independent. Problems with delaying instant gratification. Overcoming an enormous unrequited need for external validation.
A final aspect of this stage of healing involves two issues.
Firstly the need to confront. Confrontation of and with our family of origin or parents is dicey at best. We are not able to do this before we have established a secure base within ourselves, in my experience. We need to be able to be strong enough to hold onto our own reality in the face of minimisation or invalidation abuse and wise enough to discriminate parental defences and projections.
Confrontation helps us though by giving us the strength to speak for our own truth without attacking or disparaging others, but we need to go into such a confrontation with no expectations. We are merely there to express what we experienced and felt. We have no power over the response we will receive from dysfunctional parents and families.
The second thorny issue concerns forgiveness and I have written about my own personal take on this in another blog.
The issue whether or not to forgive in my mind very much depends upon our abusers degree of genuine contrition or apology. We need to be realistic that often our attempts at confrontation will meet a stone wall and the kind of reaction we meet when trying to address past issues will or should dictate our future degree of personal investment and involvement.
The Pressman’s take on this is issue, is:
When confronted with the issue of forgiving the perpetrator(s), our belief is that the issue is more in the spiritual domain than in the psychological. Although the issue of forgiveness has been dealt with at length… we do not pursue it. In our experience, the self imposed pressure to forgive the perpetrator often gets in the way of genuine recovery, as it can act to shut off the patient’s necessary expression of anger and self validation of feelings. When patients ask about the subject, we usually respond by telling them that in our experience forgiveness is a feeling or condition of being more than an act. As such, it can not be legislated or decided upon, if it happens, it happens on its own. Within this model forgiveness is no more necessary than blame. The patient is asked for a reflection of reality, not a judgement call.
In their book and work with clients undergoing recovery from narcissist families the Pressmans show the critical role acceptance of reality plays in recovery, the ending of what Robert Firestone has called fantasy bonded relationships in which we are enmeshed from childhood on. We cannot miss this crucial encounter with the acceptance of a reality that in being very painful is the price we pay for liberation of our true self from the wreckage and entanglement in narcissistic injury and wounding that keeps us trapped in depression and self blame.