Narcissism

The 12 Dysfunctional Rules of the Narcissistic Family

Do these sound familiar?

Posted Mar 15, 2020

Pedro Ribeiro Simões [CC BY 2.0]
"Meeting Adelie" by Paula Rego
Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simões [CC BY 2.0]

In simple terms, a narcissistic family is one in which the needs of the parents are the focus and the children are expected in various ways to meet those needs. The healthy family model is turned on its head to support the parents rather than foster the children’s development.

As in other kinds of dysfunctional families, there is abuse and corresponding denial of the abuse. There is also secrecy, neglect, unrealistic expectations, an impoverishment of empathy, disrespect for boundaries, and ongoing conflict.

Unspoken Rules in the Narcissistic Family

Narcissistic homes have unspoken rules of engagement that dictate interactions among family members:

1. Acceptance Is Conditional

To gain acceptance, children must comply with the family narrative and value system. Expressions of difference are rejected and pathologized.  

2. Submission Is Required 

Everyone is expected to submit to the dominant narcissist’s authority, no matter how ignorant, arbitrary, cruel, or destructive it is.

3. Someone Must Be Blamed for Problems

When something bad happens, from a lost job to a spilled glass of milk, someone must be blamed for it. Typically there is a family scapegoat who is made to bear the main burden of the family’s problems, frustration, and unhappiness, as well as the dominant narcissist’s projected self-loathing. 

4. Vulnerability Is Dangerous

Mistakes, accidents, and weaknesses, even ones you take responsibility for, are cause for shaming treatment that can persist for years.

5. You Must Take Sides

Just as there is always blame and shame, there are always sides, and if you are not on the dominant narcissist’s side you are wrong. Children often feel forced to choose between parents, siblings, and other family members. 

6. There Is Never Enough Love and Respect to Go Around

Renewable resources in healthy families, love and respect are limited to the narcissist and whomever else is deemed worthy, usually a favored "golden" child. Respect for one person means disrespect for another.

7. Feelings Are Wrong

The feelings that make us human, help us connect and get our needs met, and protect us from harm are selfish and must be repressed. Only the narcissist has free rein to express feelings, have emotional reactions, and make demands. 

8. Competition, Not Cooperation, Rules the Day 

One-upmanship, favoritism, and constant comparison create a harshly competitive environment that undermines trust and breeds hostility and betrayal.

9. Appearances Are More Important Than Substance

Even if everyone is suffering, they must smile for the family photo.

10. Rage Is Normalized

Everyone is expected to swallow and endure the dominant narcissist’s irrational, explosive, and perhaps also violent rage. This may be magnified by other forms of mental illness and/or addiction.

11. Denial Is Rampant

To sustain the dominant narcissist’s control over the family, there is denial of 

  1. abusive incidents;
  2. the continual atmosphere of fear;
  3. the ongoing mistreatment of the scapegoat; and
  4. routine forms of neglect.

12. There Is No Safety

Although the scapegoat is targeted with the most abuse, everyone is on hyperalert because no one is safe from blame and rage. 

Adapted from The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free, by Julie L. Hall, Hachette Books. 

Photo of "Meeting Adelie" by Paula Rego: Pedro Ribeiro Simões [CC BY 2.0]

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