“A family is a tyranny ruled by its weakest member.” George Bernard Shaw nailed the truth with this quote, and no better example is the narcissist family.

The Narcissist Family Playbill

The narcissist family can be understood as a play with characters that serve the lead—the narcissist (usually a parent). The narcissist’s most basic need is simple: to protect himself from his gaping sense of worthlessness by upholding his fun house illusion of perfection.

Narcissist families are uncannily similar, with the actors playing pretty much the same roles. If visible to the outside world, the performance would appear to be a tragically sick and cruel farce. To the family members burdened with their roles, often since birth, the act is their painful “normal.”

The Narcissist Family Cast

jack nicholson scary face from the shining

The narcissist uses terror to control and punish.

Narcissist This is Mom or Dad, or both parents, and/or stepparents. The narcissist is the family tyrant, with everyone else revolving around her.

A person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is believed to have suffered an emotionally mortal wounding (narcissist injury) early in life that she is continually overcompensating for with a constructed grandiose self and reactive rage. She is incapable of empathizing with others, including recognizing their perspective, needs, or independence. To support her house of cards, she does many and/or all of the following:

  • criticizes
  • competes
  • violates boundaries
  • manipulates
  • terrorizes
  • lies
  • blames
  • shames
  • belittles
  • denies
  • projects
  • gaslights

Enabler This is usually a spouse of the narcissist. The enabler supports the narcissist’s larger-than-life persona, his extreme sense of entitlement, and his attitude and behavior toward others. The narcissist manipulates the enabler to do his bidding typically through alternating abuse and special treatment. The enabler is always avoiding attack while also seeking rewards such as affection, praise, or money. The enabler is often under the delusion that s/he is the only one who can truly understand the narcissist and meet his needs.

Flying Monkeys These are a type of enabler, often one or more children in the narcissist family. Like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, they mindlessly assist in the narcissist’s dirty work. The most manipulable members of the family make the best flying monkeys.

girl painted in gold—golden child

The golden child is trained to please.

Golden Child The golden child is the narcissist’s can-do-no-wrong favorite, bestowed with special status. The narcissist lavishes her chosen one with attention, praise, and approval, even if s/he has done nothing in particular to “earn” it. The narcissist often projects what she wants to believe about herself onto her idealized offspring. If it suits the narcissist, she may shift her tactics and select a different one of her children for the golden child role.

Roles and rules in the narcissist family are fluid and changeable depending on the narcissist’s motives at any given time.

Scapegoat The scapegoat, usually one of the narcissist’s children, is the narcissist’s chosen catch-all target for abuse. The scapegoat is to blame for the family’s problems and is fair game for abuse from the enabler and flying monkeys too. Sometimes the narcissist scapegoats more than one child, or he may at some point select a different scapegoat.

The scapegoat is typically the strongest, most outspoken child, the one who stands up to the narcissist and questions the family system. Unlike the golden child, the scapegoat is least invested in supporting the family system because s/he benefits least from it.

The Narcissist Family Glossary of Terms

narcissist family "A Family Is a Tyranny Ruled by Its Weakest Member" George Bernard ShawNarcissistic Injury Individuals with NPD are shaped by an acute emotional injury during their very early “narcissistic” developmental phase (ages two to three or four years old). A traumatic experience such as loss, deprivation, or shame involving the primary caregiver (usually the mother) is thought to be at the root of narcissistic injury. An example could be a child whose mother dies during his birth and father abandons him and who comes to experience terrible guilt and insecurity. In response, he develops a grandiose overcompensation for foundational feelings of worthlessness.

Narcissistic Rage The narcissistic personality reacts with rage if the painful feelings from his original injury are triggered, or if his fabricated “perfect” self is somehow threatened. Narcissistic rage is terrifying, sometimes physically violent, and far beyond normal anger. Narcissist rage nearly always follows from narcissistic injury.

goat

The scapegoat sees things from a different angle.

Narcissistic Supply Like a parasite, the narcissist depends on others for life blood. She nourishes her false self at the expense of others by asserting her superiority over them and/or by manipulating them into serving her needs. Without others to use and draw energy from, she is a dry empty husk. Anyone she can manipulate—a partner, child or relative, employee, or “friend”—is a potential source of supply. If a source of supply pulls away, she may attempt to “hoover” them back, and/or she will look for other sources.

Hoovering Since narcissists are by nature pathologically self-centered and often stunningly cruel, they ultimately make those around them miserable and eventually drive many people away. If a source of “supply” pulls away or tries to go “no contact,” the narcissist typically attempts to hoover (as in vacuum-suck) them back within his realm of control.

Projecting The narcissist has a big bag of tricks. One of her go-to abuses is projection, whereby she beams her words, actions, traits, and motives back onto others. If she lied, you are the liar; if she is childish, you are immature; if she insulted you, you are critical; if she demanded reassurance, you are insecure; if she ate food off your plate, you are a selfish piggy. Through projection, the narcissist blames the victim and denies all accountability.

Projection is an insidious form of lying that is especially traumatic for children, who internalize the belief that they are victimizing the person who is actually abusing them. This false reality produces a cognitive dissonance in which the child is told that what happened is the opposite of what she perceived—white is black. Politicians create cognitive dissonance all the time. A narcissist may also project her ideal beliefs about herself onto others, such as her golden child or someone she admires.

It is up for debate as to whether narcissists project consciously or unconsciously, but they do it with impeccable aim.

Gaslighting This is a form of psychological abuse in which the narcissist undermines another person’s mental state by gradually leading them to question their perceptions of reality. Through diabolically methodical means, the narcissist uses lies and false information to erode his victim’s belief in their own judgment and, ultimately, their sanity. The term comes from the 1944 Hollywood film Gaslight, a classic depiction of this kind of brainwashing.

Julia L. Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir Carry You about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissist family. Read excerpts. Her articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post.

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Goat image courtesy of Eva Rinaldi and kkirugi, CC.