Of all the advice out there on narcissists, very little of it is aimed at the narcissistic families. Structured around the designs of one (or more) narcissistic figures, these families destroy their members and perpetuate trauma, unquestioned, for generations. If you’re coming back from decades of abuse in a narcissistic family, then recovery is never simple nor straightforward. It’s a matter of peeling back layers, painfully, until the light can shine on your wounds. Dealing with a narcissistic family isn’t like dealing with any other toxic structure. It’s a war designed to break you, and it requires hard choices.
Narcissistic family isn’t your average family.
There is so much advice out there about dealing with toxic and abusive families. But most of this advice is not aimed for the benefit of narcissistic survivors. Yes, narcissistic families exist. Headed by one or more narcs, they create complex and brutal power structures which continue to punish long after the abuse has ended. When you grow up the child of narcissistic abuse, you learn how to question everything — especially yourself. And you learn how to deny yourself the most basic shred of love and compassion.
Coming from a narcissistic family means you never get to play a normal ballgame. You start your life with no rules, save the ones set by the narcissists. As life moves on, this tragedy continues into adulthood when you cycle through the same patterns. You get subjected to the same chaos and all the same pain. It plays out in your relationships and in your mental health, too.
The truth is that you can’t just treat your family like basic abusers; run-of-the-mill toxic people who can have their bad behavior explained to them. That’s not how narcissists work. Devoid of empathy, these family members can become the monsters under the bed. They can turn into the darkness that lives inside us, and they can punish us through several manipulative and abusive techniques. Recovering from a narcissistic upbringing is hard, but not impossible. Start with honesty. Once you can see them for who they are — then protect yourself by setting boundaries and cutting ties.
What you need to know about dealing with narcissistic family.
If you came from a narcissistic family, then you have to take active steps to protect yourself. That begins with knowledge, and adopting some truths to heat. Treating your family the way other people treat their families is dangerous. You need to see your family for what it truly is, and that starts by remembering that they are far beyond “toxic” and will take you down.
Not your average “toxic”
A narcissistic family is not your average toxic. Sliding along the scale from soul-destroying to physically, sexually, mentally, emotionally, spiritually dangerous — these families create generations of trauma and societal damage. They usually couple multiple forms of abuse together and differ from the typical family in that they will seek to destroy those who deny them. This is done in different ways, but is an emotional destruction carried out by ostracizing behaviors not dissimilar to cult approaches.
There is no change
While some families can experience significant change across generations and through communication, it’s not so with the narcissistic family. These are not families formed by people who will change or admit faults. Instead, they are headed by those who cannot see their errors, and who take any suggestions or outside desires as personal attacks. Narcissist parents won’t change after watching a season of Schitt’s Creek. To this person, they are always right and you are always wrong.
No-contact (can be) key
Toxic people operate at different levels. Some are relatively harmless, creating more of an annoyance in our lives than anything else. But narcissists are different. Unable to maintain balanced or mutually beneficial relationships, no-contact becomes the only option when dealing with some narcissists. This means erasing all ties completely, and creating so much distance that they can no longer access you in any way, shape, or form.
Death doesn’t end things
If you think death will end the complicated relationship you have with a narcissistic family member — think again. The survivors of narcissists are often left with more questions than they ever had while their loved ones were living. That’s because the narcissist is never fully honest, present, or open with the people in their lives. Even the ones closest to them. That’s especially true of narcissistic parents who spend their lives maintaining the appearance of being “above” their children.
Healing takes forever
There is no one set time frame for healing from narcissistic abuse. As a matter of fact, for many it becomes a lifelong journey. That’s because so much of the damage done is mental and emotional. Trauma too is common in the close-knit ties of narcissistic family. Resolving that trauma is something that has to happen on multiple fronts. It changes the landscape of our brains and our ability to think clearly in the direction of our needs and dreams.
Damage is unknowable
If you’re dealing with a narcissistic family, you must understand that the damage runs deep and is entirely unknowable from one day to the next. Today, you may be able to hold it down, process the emotions. You may be able to carry on and do what needs to be done. But eventually there comes a day when all of this comes wobbling down; a day when the insecurities come back and the voices of those narcissists become a roar in your head. On those days, you have to be soft with yourself and compassionate about the journey you’re on.
Patterns are passed down
There aren’t enough in the healing community willing to acknowledge the learned patterns from a life lived raised by narcissists. Even if you don’t end up with NPD yourself, you can’t help but to pick up narcissistic behaviors of your own. This is common, even if only becoming skilled at detaching emotionally the way you were detached from. Watch out, or you can take on some of the same behaviors as the narcissists in your family.
Destruction is inevitable
While your average toxic person may be able to handle criticism without going nuclear, that’s not the same for the narcissist. Ego is everything, and anyone who questions them (or denies them) is literally attacking that ego. The minute you stand up for yourself or demand a certain level of respect, you will be labeled an enemy. Once this happens, you’re out. You will be destroyed by any means necessary in order for the narcissist(s) to maintain their power and control over their family unit. It’s an “excommunication” of sorts, but it can be dangerous too.
How to manage moving forward.
Were you raised in a world designed by people who hated themselves? Did they force you into boxes, into numbness, just to survive or make peace? Healing from a narcissistic upbringing is a lifetime journey. It’s not the same as recovering from basic emotional abuse, or even basic childhood dysfunction (like amicable divorce). Moving forward can require moving beyond the veil of pretend and even cutting ties with the people who should love you most.
1. Move beyond the veil of pretend
Pretending your family is anything other than narcissistic will not serve you. While it may be taboo (even in 2022) to publicly admit that your family was filled with abusers, it’s the only first step that moves us forward. Seeing your family for who they are is putting on your glasses to see the future clearly. Once you’ve done this, you are empowered to interact with them more honestly, but with more backbone, too. It creates a sense of strength throughout your life that is transformative in its power.
Move beyond the veil of pretend and see your family for who they really are. It’s time for you to accept them entirely; the good and the bad. Take off your rose-tinted glasses and admit to the abuse, the upset, and all the disappointment. See the selfish behavior and the choice of self over love and mutual respect.
Once you’ve accepted that your family was damaged by a narcissist, you clear a path to recovery for yourself. You become redirected to an entirely new state of being. You’ll find new communities of support and different techniques to rewire and reprogram your behaviors and beliefs. Finding happy again means we have to learn how to see ourselves as we really are, rather than seeing ourselves as the villain our narcissistic family taught us to be.
2. Learn how to talk about it
Talking about narcissistic abuse is one of the primary ways by which we come to resolve it. It’s how we dig further into our own story (so that we can see the truth) and it’s how we connect with those who can help us push our journey along. When we speak up, we free ourselves. We break those shackles of shame and step out of the narcissist’s shadow once and for all. Finding the courage to take the first step, however, requires we learn to speak about it with ourselves first.
Start by journaling about your family and your experiences with them. Get it all out on paper. Say it all to the one person who was there for every second of the experience. Journaling is freeing, and it helps us to uncover memories and knowledge we didn’t realize we had. The next step is opening up to someone we can trust. Seek out someone outside of the family, or a professional with experience in assisting those who have been abused by narcissists. (Caution: not all therapists or counselors are qualified to deal with narcs.)
3. Become a better boundary setter
Are you still in contact with the narcissists in your family? Not everyone is in a place to cut ties or walk away from the people rooted in their lives. And you may not want to cut ties. That’s okay too. What you must become a pro at, though, is learning how to set boundaries. Theses are the limits beyond which our family may not cross. They are the lines that protect our wellbeing, our sense of safety, and even the trust we can put in those we love.
Become a better boundary setter in every part of your life. Start by setting boundaries with people who are safe. Say no more often and stop showing up all the time for things that stress you out or zap your energy. Once you feel confident with those who can accept “no,” it’s time to expand.
Start setting your foot down with the narcissistic family behind you. Again, small things can be the right place to begin here, too. Don’t show up for an event that’s minor, last minute, or inconsequential. Turn down a demand at the next family dinner. Up the ante as time goes on. With disrespect and destructive behavior, clarify your new position. If they can’t respect you, remove yourself from the environment. This is how you will reinforce your boundaries, and prove that you’re no longer settling for antics.
Putting it all together…
When you’re the adult child of a narcissistic family, life becomes a battle of recovery and self-actualization. You’ll spend decades trying to rebuild your sense of self, and you’ll spend decades trying to understand why the people who you loved most set out to destroy you. Getting there, however, is a process. Your journey isn’t like anyone else’s in the recovery space, and that’s okay. There’s a power in that and a beauty too.
Move beyond the veil of pretend and see your family for who and what they really are. Admitting this pain takes nothing away from the love or the happy memories that you are holding on to. Those things still exist too. Learn how to talk about your experience, even if it’s only with a professional who can help you retrace the trauma (and actionable courses of healing). If you’re still in contact, then become a better boundary setter. Draw the line and remove yourself from the family environment, if only to decompress. Find loved ones who can support you and lift you up. Be willing to cut the cord if they can’t respect you or honor the fresh path that you’re on.
- Day, N., Bourke, M., Townsend, M., & Grenyer, B. (2020). Pathological Narcissism: A Study of Burden on Partners and Family. Journal Of Personality Disorders, 34(6), 799–813. doi: 10.1521/pedi_2019_33_413