Ask the Therapist – July 2021
by Glynis Sherwood MEd
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I received counseling in the past, and I’m aware that I was emotionally and verbally abused by my mother as a child and as an adult. The abuse never stopped so I had to stop contact with her a few years ago. This awareness and limited contact with “family” has helped me, but now I often wonder why my sister and half-brother and mother could never see me for who I am? They see me as the child I was. They see me as the son of an alcoholic father who abandoned my sister and I. They do not see me as the son of someone who suffered from severe combat related PTSD, who did not have the capacity to father children or support a family when he returned from Vietnam.
My mother would blame me for my sister and I for not having a father, even though my mother divorced him and remarried my half brother’s dad who tried raising us albeit very dysfunctionally. They cannot see me for my accomplishments or the person that I am, nor can they be empathetic towards me or my father who passed away a few years ago. Why are they like this? Is it because they have little emotional intelligence and are stuck in some way? I believe they are projecting a lot of their unwarranted hate of my father onto me, but I wonder why they can’t see reality as it is. Why do they cling to their own false narrative, the one that my mom has taught them?
My sister has also been a target of abuse her entire life by my mother, since we share the same father. But my sister has been close to mother her entire life, whereas I moved away after college almost 30 years ago. My mother seems to own my siblings, as if they are her property and they often act on her behalf, reciting things that my mother has programmed them to say. Unfortunately, I don’t think they have discovered who they really are individually. My half brother also lives very close to them and I remain thousands of miles away. My mother has divorced all of her three ex husbands that she had. I don’t think she was able to truly love anybody, only conditionally I suppose. My half brother seems to be the golden child. He was a trust fund kid who supports her via my mothers third husband, so he gets some love as a result.
Sometimes I wonder if this is conditional love and if it’s conditional love, is it real love? Do I need love from an outside source or is it not a human need? On occasion my sister or half brother will call me and unload a barrage of bizarre toxic comments onto me, so I’ve been forced to block all of them. After past conversations with my half brother 2 years ago, and my sister very recently, I felt shocked, confused, horrified, and traumatized all over again, as if it was my mothers voice speaking through them. It amazes me that it has come down to this. It took many years, with the help of counseling and books, for me to get this level of awareness, self-love and strength to operate outside of this dysfunctional family system. But I was weak and answered their calls. Unfortunately, I still feel a little codependency as if rescuing my sister will somehow validate me or give me more self worth. I know this is wrong and I wonder how I can work on myself to improve in this area?
In the past, I would sometimes return for the holidays only to leave in emotional pain, traumatized. It was never a pleasant experience so I stopped visiting. More recently, I told my sister what was going on regarding the hidden covert type of narcissistic abuse, but she still defends mother saying to me “I can take it”, as if she is more capable of tolerating abuse. Is she psychologically fused with the narcissist? How is this possible despite being emotionally abused herself? Why does she keep defending the narcissist parent and our half brother with a history of criminal and sociopathic behavior? She has told me stories of how our sister-in-law was being verbally abused by my mother, and once threatened to punch her if she didn’t stop. This was at a family function that I’m glad I didn’t attend. But why do I remain in contact with my sister? Why do I try to rescue her when she is so similar to my mother in her passive aggressive dysfunctional ways?
It has been difficult for me to not have contact with anyone in my family, and my sister is the last one. My mother seems to have programmed everyone’s mind with a false narrative of my father and I. This I, apparently, cannot change. I don’t think it’s worth the energy and pain to seek validation or understanding from these people. How do I get the strength to remain having no contact without feeling guilty or ostracized? I know deep down that I need to do this to grow and heal, even if my sister is where I was 20 years ago in her journey of awareness and trying to detach from an abusive parent.
After our last conversation with my sister I am convinced that whether or not my sister grows emotionally and recovers, I will remain in peril and in harm’s way if I maintain contact. I don’t think the sister I always wanted will suddenly appear one day. Am I right? I think she will always defend herself and mother, and see me and my late father as the scapegoats to her problems, even making reference to my fathers genetics. It is really sad that they are so delusional. It seems to be normal behavior for them to have dysfunctional relationships and they call to try to pull me back in. How do I get to the point where I feel more comfortable without a family? I truly believe that having no family is better than having an abusive one.
So very tough that you were singled out by your family to be mistreated for, what sounds like, the ‘sin’ of unprocessed trauma. This pain that resided within your father’s difficult history and, possibly, that of your mother, and certainly their dysfunctional marriage. The hallmark of scapegoating families is ‘blame shifting’ 1, in other words, projecting onto the scapegoat the disavowed family problems that remain undealt with, at least in a healthy – ie reality based – way. Blame shifting as a protective though delusional tactic preserves the image of the family as good, intact and functional, at the expense of truth, unity and the reality that the scapegoat is a person, and not some evil archetype. In this respect, the family scapegoat carries the heaviest, and most insidious burden, as they are not only being blamed for family difficulties they are usually not responsible for, but also being stereotyped as irredeemably bad.
Your mother seems to have a tenuous grip on the fact that she alone is responsible for ending her marriage to your father. To protect herself from acknowledging the impact of her decision, and any difficulties this created for you and your sister, she employs the defense of projection onto her innocent children. Parents who engage in abusive projection of this sort are often afflicted by Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), meaning they abdicate responsibility for their behavior, and falsely attribute blame to the scapegoated child, which also underscores the absence of empathy that is at the heart of this disorder. NPD parents also lack a natural curiosity or interest in who their children are as human beings, which speaks to your experience of never being seen for who you really are. Ongoing interest in one’s children is a precursor to empathy, a faculty that is deeply deficient in NPD parents.
Siblings who are raised in this kind of pathologically dishonest and uncaring family atmosphere are taught that they have to compete amongst each other for the scarce resource of conditional parental affection and approval. So siblings who side against the scapegoat are aligning with the abusive parent to protect their relationship status as a favored child. Sometimes the sibling becomes the Golden Child, who is put on a pedestal but who, on closer inspection, also has a tenuous relationship with the narcissistic parent as their preferred status is only as secure as their ability to appease the parent. From my observation, the Golden Child is almost always narcissistic themselves. NPD is a psychological disorder that, due to underlying grandiosity, props up the myth of the good family, which in truth is nothing more than a fantasy. This false narrative – aka programming or brain washing – is reinforced repeatedly by mentally disturbed parent(s). Any child brave enough to oppose this false narrative is at great risk of rejection by the narcissistic parent. Fear of losing the already tenuous approval of a parent causes tremendous abandonment anxiety, especially in younger children, which can lead to aligning with the parent against the scapegoat to curry favor.
So to say that family members who engage in scapegoating lack emotional intelligence is highly accurate. In truth though, the absence of emotional intelligence is likely more of a symptom of narcissism, with its profound empathy deficits. I suspect that your family can’t see who you truly are because of systemic narcissistic conditioning, aka brainwashing, which ‘disables’ them from engaging with reality. NPD folks, to varying degrees, live in a fantasy world of infantile arrested development, characterized by grandiosity, entitlement and blame shifting/projection. This blame shifting quite simply can be expressed as:
“I feel bad/unhappy, therefore someone has to take the blame for not making me feel good, which I am owed. I can’t possibly be expected to be accountable as it’s the job of others to make me feel good. If this does not happen, then I am your / the world’s victim”.
This is the mentality of a self absorbed two year old who never made it to the next, more pro-social, developmental stage.
Your mother does not want to admit to herself the consequences of her actions and feelings towards your father, and the losses to your family life, so she has made you the problem. This is an immature – arrested developmental – defence against reality. You’ve likely observed that NPD folks lack insight and are not in the habit of reflection. It could be that many of their actions are unconscious or walled off. Instead NPDs react defensively, abdicate responsibility, and become punitive towards family members who do not cater to their misplaced sense of entitlement and omnipotence. This is akin to the thinking of a child in the throes of the “terrible twos”, a normal developmental stage for two year olds, but a nightmare in a full grown adult.
Parents who victimize their own children through scapegoating are forcing the child into role reversal, where the ‘Parentified’ child 2 is expected to caretake the parent’s unmet emotional needs under threat of rejection or abandonment if they do not or cannot. This is a complete double bind and a deep emotional threat for a child who requires nurturance and support from their parent in order to grow into a secure adult. Abandonment anxiety is usually very high in children who are unable to successfully comply with this impossible task that s/he are completely unequipped for.
Sounds like your sister is playing a ‘no win’ game of denial with your mother. By attempting to stay close and win your mother’s approval, while simultaneously being abused, your sister is living a hurtful fantasy, also known as Trauma Bonding 3. Your sister longs for the carrot but gets the stick, IE she needs love but receives hurt. She clings to the fantasy of being loved, while denying the reality of abuse at her own expense. Narcissistic parents do tend to view their children as extensions of themselves, with added Public Relations duties to make the parent look good. So as long as the child is compliantly focused on propping up the image of their parent, they can secure some semblance of acceptance by that parent. That acceptance though is entirely conditional, and subject to the whims of the parent, making it hard to predict how to keep the parent happy enough to avoid punishment or rejection which is usually inevitable should the child ‘slip up’ unintentionally or due to exasperation. It’s a walking on eggshells existence at best, which is the opposite of true closeness. Closeness is based on trust, respect, understanding and healthy interdependence, none of which are present in a relationship with a NPD parent.
Conditional love is not real love. And yes, love is a deep, intrinsic need present in all human beings. Love is a proactive investment in the psychological well being of another and fostering a healthy connection with that person. Conditional love is a bargaining chip in an ongoing power play where the narcissistic parent is essentially implying: ‘Do what I want, and I may throw you some crumbs of fake love – ie approval, acceptance, flattery, status, power, money or other privileges, which can be revoked if you do not satisfy my demands’. A conditional relationship with a parent creates anxiety and insecurity in the child. There is no place for ongoing fear, worry, hurt and betrayal in relationships that are founded on true love.
I don’t know that you were weak to ‘answer the calls’ of your family. It is a normal human need to want to engage in mutual support and care in your family. We all want to feel part of the family we are born into, and that we matter to our kin. We have innate psychological and biological needs for connection. It’s hard to not be influenced by deep seated family programming that pushes you to support your sister as a route to feeling like you matter and belong. Unfortunately, your impulse to help your sister is a product of the tenuous nature of the family bonds you describe, as it’s neither unconditional nor reciprocal. Good on you for recognizing your vulnerability to the codependent behavior you were conditioned to engage in. Codependent behavior tends to be motivated by both healthy and unhealthy intentions. If you focus on trying to help others, while your own needs for caring remain unmet, all the while hoping you can motivate others to care more about you if you can just be ‘enough’, you fall victim to a vicious circle, where you avoid advocating for the fulfillment of your legitimate need for true love and connection.
I would encourage you to practice what I call ‘enlightened selfishness’, whereby you focus on your own needs as your starting place. Figure out what you truly want – what’s best for you. Identify your bottom line needs. Ask yourself how or if your sibling relationship(s) fit with that. Do a deep dive to understand your intentions in either reaching out or distancing from family members. Choose what serves your psychological well being. You will be role modeling healthier boundaries to yourself and treating yourself like you matter, whether family can appreciate that or not. NPD family members lack impulse control which leads to hurtful or boundary violating behavior. You have the absolute right to prioritize acceptance by yourself and family, over conditionality or manipulation to fit into an NPD world.
If you are motivated by false guilt or shame, pull back. Ask yourself if you deserve to believe any of this, or if these feelings are reflections of how you have been conditioned by family to see yourself as ‘bad’ if you are not giving yourself away, aka abandoning yourself. Psychotherapy can be very helpful for challenging negative false beliefs that control and undermine you.
You were brave to level with your sister about your mother’s narcissistic behavior. Unfortunately it sounds like it was far from worth it. How do you feel about your sister defending being abused by your mother? I suspect not so great. Your insight in this matter is solid, your sister does appear to be emotionally fused with your mother as, per my earlier comments, narcissistic parents demand that from their children upon threat of rejection or abandonment should they not comply. Your sister has Trauma Bonded with your mother. Trauma bonding refers to the fusion of love and abuse, normalizing this unhealthy relationship dynamic. You mention your confusion around remaining in contact with your sister, especially since she is so similar to your mother. We humans tend to gravitate towards that which is familiar in relationships, for better or for worse. Your mother has drawn you in to caretaking her unmet psychological needs by making you the scapegoat, so she doesn’t have to feel responsible for her choices. You feel drawn to take care of your sister. It’s a similar dynamic, and one you have been conditioned to fulfill. It takes effort and practice to see and treat family relationships according to a more functional and healthier narrative. It starts with a commitment to stop choosing ‘The Devil You Know’. It may take considerable dedication and willpower to break free from this programming. Be explicitly clear with yourself regarding why you need to do this and what you stand to gain, as it will likely feel wrong at first because it is so deeply ingrained.
No Contact can be challenging to navigate. It’s good that you are no longer wasting your time looking to family for validation or understanding – support they will likely never give you. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that your desire for love and connection with family is completely legitimate and normal. As you pull back to protect yourself emotionally, it’s important to figure out what you can control, IE false guilt, vs what you can’t control, IE being ostracized. Challenge the narrative of false guilt. Is it true? Have you done anything to feel guilty about, or are your feelings a reflection of having been manipulated by family? What is really true here, from your perspective. Write it down. It’s a reality anchor you need at your fingertips if you find yourself feeling drawn back towards the family that was never there for you. Take care of the wounded child inside of you – that part of you that needed unconditional love and acceptance. It’s your turn to be compassionate and kind to that child who lives in all of us.
Trust yourself. I understand completely how you have arrived at the tough decision to go No or Low Contact. I believe it’s unlikely that your sister will see the light after decades of enmeshment with your mother, lacking insight and, possibly, possessing narcissistic traits herself.
Going No Contact is a process of psychological adjustment to loss of family you never had and will likely never have. Most people experience grief and mourning while letting go of false hope. Give yourself time to acclimate, detangle from conditioning and reclaim your time and energy from dysfunctional family dynamics. Focus on nurturing more supportive relationships. In spite of these losses, you may discover that you begin to feel better than you imagined breaking away from toxic family relationships, as many of my clients have.
All the best on your healing journey!
Photo by Khameko Vilaysin – Unsplash
Notes / References
- Narcissitic Projection aka Blame Shifting – A form of narcissistic defense whereby the NPD individual seeks to protect idealized aspects of the self by projecting disavowed qualities onto another. See also Psychological Projection, Wikipedia, and Narcissists, Controllers, and the Art of Blame-Shifting, Peg Streep, Psychology Today, June 2020
- Parentified Child – “Parentification is the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent or sibling. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life…” Wikipedia, Parentification, 2021
- Trauma Bonding – Relationship attachment trauma that occurs when love and abuse become fused in childhood. Trauma bonds become normalized and feel exciting – ie anxiety provoking, and can lead the individual to be drawn to abusive relationships across their lifespan. Psychobiology of Attachment and Trauma—Some General Remarks From a Clinical Perspective, Frontiers in Psychiatry, December 12, 2019; Traumatic Bonding: Wikipedia
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Narcissistic Abuse, Low Self Esteem, Chronic Anxiety, Estrangement Grief and Relationship Addiction.
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