Ask the Therapist & Coach – Spring 2022
Glynis Sherwood MEd
Ask the Therapist & Coach is an education & information column only. It is not counseling nor a substitute for psychotherapy.
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In my immediate family, we had good family dynamics; in part, because my Mom was scapegoated in the family she grew up in. They are a large family, where my grandmother was narcissistic, and where there is more than one narcissist, and they seem to behave almost like a gang. They group together to shame and blame other family members, especially those who do not agree with them.
Some family members have “walked away”, who are then put down by the gang because they don’t participate in family gatherings. I had tried to return to going to family gatherings, only to find myself the target of humor masked as put downs, gossip, shame and blame, and when I refused to cave to them, I was then outcast. I am not the only one.
I have two other cousins in the same position, as well as one of my siblings. My Mom has also always been a target, but she manages within a limited contact situation with them. In some ways, it’s a bit easier, because my siblings, my parents and I have a good relationship.
In other ways, it’s challenging; because my narcissistic aunt had become good friends with my eldest brother’s ex-wife and his children. As a result, it seems that she turned my brother’s daughter against most of the rest of us; and, she now seems to display similar narcissistic characteristics.
So while our nuclear family has respectful, loving and healthy dynamics, we are surrounded by the opposite. It’s challenging, and in some ways, very complicated. I eventually embraced being outcast, but it did come with the same type of grief you have discussed in your articles.
So while it’s comforting still having the relationship that I have with my parents & siblings, the extended family situation still presents many challenges. At one point, I had gone into a depression as a result of the difficulties with them, before I began to understand what it was that I was actually dealing with.
I would love to hear your insight on this type of scenario:
- Is there any possibility of finding a peaceful co-existence with this group once you have removed yourself or been outcast?
- Why do some families have more than one narcissist? Why do they join up and become like a gang?
- How do you keep their influence from affecting your own nuclear family?
- Is the best solution, to go no contact with the entire extended family?
It’s impressive that you had such a positive nuclear family atmosphere, given the mistreatment your mother experienced at the hands of her own mother and – I’m reading between the lines here – possibly others, as you mention that collective shaming and bullying was and is the norm in your extended family. That’s a real testament to your mother’s strength of character, to put empathy for the next generation first, and wanting a better life for her family and children than she experienced.
You have a solid awareness of the ‘cancel culture’ 1 atmosphere of your extended family. Psychological studies 2 have revealed that people will do almost anything to remain part of the group they are born into or come to identify with later (eg a political party). As well as positive traits such as loyalty, dysfunctional group cohesion is usually maintained by less admirable behaviors such as dismissing the truth, lying, bullying, normalizing abuse and demonizing others whose only ‘crime’ is – usually – the capacity for critical thinking regarding family problems, and the possession of an individual personality – all viewed as sins in authoritarian families like this. Passive aggressive behavior as well as more overt aggression like shunning, are employed in narcissistic family systems. The goal is to control the behavior of family members so they comply with the – usually unstated – myth of the ‘good’ family, and submit to the will of authoritarian people in charge. Ostracization can be the price of breaking the rules by challenging the prevailing false narrative.
Sorry to hear that your aunt has chosen to influence the next generation in a most cold hearted way. It is troubling when adults lack a moral compass, empathy, or perspective, and push their own divisive agenda by inculcating hatred in younger people towards their own family. In my opinion, this behavior is harmful interference at best and child abuse at worst.
The island of your nuclear family sounds like a refuge against the backdrop of your difficult extended family. I can appreciate how this has felt deeply saddening for you, to not be able to be part of your larger clan. If it helps, I would encourage you to think of yourself more as an ‘outsider’ than an ‘outcast’, just like you might in any dysfunctional family system. To be an outsider who cleaves to civility and caring, can rightly be viewed as a badge of morality, courage and character.
Sounds like you are a sensitive and perceptive individual and, unfortunately, vulnerable like many people to having these negative family dynamics trouble you to the point of depression. That’s a high price to pay for a “they did the crime, now you are doing the time” scenario. If you haven’t done this already, I’d encourage you to dig deeper to discover the beliefs that contribute to the depressed mood you have experienced regarding your extended family. Then you can do some reality testing in order to determine whether these beliefs are true, serve you, or make you more vulnerable to having your moods negatively impacted by the weaknesses of extended family members.
Question 1: Is there any possibility of finding a peaceful co-existence with this group once you have removed yourself or been outcast?
As the question you are asking is both broad and very personal, I am responding to your concerns by posing some additional questions that, hopefully, will help you get closer to clarifying where you need to position yourself in relation to your extended family.
You’ve had a lot of experience with these folks over an extended period of time. How do you define ‘peaceful co-existence’? What does your gut tell you is possible between you? What’s not possible and. possibly, a deal breaker as you contemplate whether to stay connected/invested in extended family? It sounds like whatever decision you arrive at will be made on your own, and not about collaboration, which in of itself is very revealing about what your family has to offer you. What can you live with? What’s your bottom line? Get clear about this and stick to it.
Question 2: Why do some families have more than one narcissist? Why do they join up and become like a gang?
A bit of backgrounder first, that may be familiar to you: Narcissistic family dynamics exert a negative force as both a psychological contagion and form of conditioning. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is driven by unmet emotional and attachment needs in the afflicted, leading to a lack of empathy and projection of negative, disavowed character traits on to the target. Often these ‘motivators’ are unconscious in narcissistic people, as their attachment needs were not met at a critical pre-conscious memory time in very early childhood – IE before age 4.
Children in narcissistic family systems are emotionally deprived, yet dependent on people they can’t rely on. In the resulting double bind, kids of narcissistic parents continue to pursue the approval of the parent(s) who withholds nurturance and support, imagining they are at fault for not receiving the parent’s love. These ‘failed bids for connection’ serve to undermine the self worth of the scapegoated child in particular, who comes to the false conclusion, often unconsciously, that they are the problem. In essence the scapegoated child internalizes the projections of the narcissistic parent that they are defective, leading to scapegoating of the self.
Narcissistic family members engage in fear based Group Think 2. They desire inclusiveness and approval, and avoid the pain of ostracization by supporting the family system, no matter how toxic. As narcissism begets narcissism, there is often more than one narcissistic child in a NPD family system. Often, one or both parents have NPD traits, or ‘complimentary pathologies’ such as codependence. The Scapegoat is often the only psychological healthy family member, though occasionally, the Scapegoat can also have narcissistic traits.
Question 3: How do you keep their influence from affecting your own nuclear family?
The simple answer here seems to be about establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries, physically and emotionally, and challenging false narratives with reality. Being in touch with your bottom line is essential here. If you must have some contact with narcissistic family members, then it can be helpful to debrief these situations with a supportive adult, and to protect children from negative influences by strictly limiting the duration and type of contact. Children can be guided to understand these dynamics in age appropriate ways. For example, ‘Grandfather has been mean to me, so I have decided to not spend a lot of time with him.’ These can be teachable moments, where children learn more about civil family dynamics, empathy, accountability and the human right to be treated with respect.
Question 4: Is the best solution, to go no contact with the entire extended family?
This is a question that only you can answer, as I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution for all people or narcissistic family configurations. As a general principle though, you may need to either reduce or eliminate contact with some family members. Sometimes, scapegoated people can find allies within the extended family. The key though is to go very slowly and carefully here, to make sure you are not dealing with a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ dynamic. Test the waters. Reveal very small / neutral things first and observe the reaction of the listener. If they seem to be making an effort to understand, it might be a green light to go a bit deeper in building trust with them. However, you need to observe their behavior, not their words, for real signs of sincerity.
Sometimes things are not clear cut regarding contact. For example, you may feel you need more distance but also want to stay in touch with younger family members, or feel a responsibility towards taking care of an aging parent. Having a strategy and game plan, and sticking with it, can be key. EG You commit to dropping off a meal to an aging narcissistic parent, but decide and declare ahead of time that you can only stay for 15 minutes. Again, you will notice that clarifying and standing up for your bottom line needs and boundaries with yourself is essential. Being guided by these principles will likely give you more confidence as you navigate the difficult dynamics of your extended family system.
Photo by Tony Detroit – Unsplash
Notes / References
- Cancel Culture – Mass ostracization, often facilitated by social media and social justice theory. See more details here: Psychology Today
- GroupThink – Term was coined by Dr Irving Janis 1971. Go HERE for a detailed elaboration. I would add personality disorders, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, under the “Causes” section of the article.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, International Association of Psychology and Counseling, specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Narcissistic Abuse, Low Self Esteem, Chronic Anxiety, Estrangement Grief and Relationship Addiction.
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