The short and simple answer to the title question is “yes.” Narcissism often runs in families, as it is considered a disorder that has both genetic roots and environmental origins, but check out this post for some general information on how narcissism develops.
If you investigate the family tree of the narcissist in your life, you will often find that they have at least one narcissistic parent and potentially narcissistic siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Just as addiction is considered a “family disease,” so is narcissism often found to run through families for generations.
Even if it isn’t triggered by genetics, narcissism is learned behavior. And some families, unfortunately, learn those lessons well.
Read further to understand the various ways in which narcissism manifests itself within the family unit.
Conditional Acceptance and Required Submission
In narcissistic families, acceptance of others and validation of feelings are always conditional. The love that is supposed to flow without restriction from a parent to a child is disrupted by the parent’s obsessive need for attention, control, and egotistical demands. The child then adopts this behavior as they grow up and form attachments outside the family.
There are also lots of calls for submission within the narcissistic family. The children must submit to the parents’ unreasonable demands; the younger children must submit to the older children’s demands, and so on. There may also be a dominating matriarch (grandma) or patriarch (grandpa) who organizes the whole dysfunctional pecking order.
Mandatory Scapegoat and Forbidden Vulnerability
Because of all these conditions on love and mandatory submission, one or two individuals within the family unit will emerge as the scapegoats. Narcissists are not adept at admitting accountability for any of their destructive behavior, so someone has to be at fault. This role usually falls to the youngest and/or the most vulnerable family member. The scapegoat may be the only non-narcissist in the family.
The need for a scapegoat is also the result of the inability for anyone to express vulnerability. When you display vulnerability within a household of narcissists, that weakness is wholly exploited in order to satisfy the demands of those higher up the chain. The family member unfortunate enough to express vulnerability will often be shamed by others for years.
Obligatory Alliances and Persistent Disrespect
Another feature of the narcissistic family is that there are constantly shifting and ever-present alliances among different family members. This is the method by which two narcissists can gang up on the scapegoat in order to get what they want. Or, this is how the passive-aggressive narcissist in the family gets her way, by pitting family members against one another.
In addition, all of this deceptive and manipulative behavior leads to a complete lack of respect between family members. Children begin to lose esteem for their parents after being made to feel inferior, or various family members openly disrespect each other after being subject to multiple manipulations and psychological attacks.
Hidden Feelings and Constant Competition
It’s also not safe, within the narcissistic family, to reveal any genuine feelings. This is just another form of vulnerability for which you can be exploited by others. Because narcissists are careful to hide their true selves and their real feelings, they are the only ones allowed to show any emotion at all. And these are usually negative ones, such as frustration and anger.
The family is in constant competition with each other, as well, trying to outdo each other’s maneuvers and meltdowns. Since everyone wants to be the center of attention, there is a continual fight to stay at the top. In a narcissistic family, there is no unity, no sense of cooperation. It’s every narcissist for themselves.
Rampant Rage and Pervasive Denial
Another feature of the narcissistic family is the regular explosion of rage or engagement in passive-aggressive behaviors. Because everyone is so conditioned to expect these outbursts, the use of anger to intimidate other family members is normalized. If there are addictive patterns in the family, in addition, this rage is frequently violent and dangerous.
Denial is also the rule of thumb within the narcissistic family. Whoever holds the dominant role will need total control, and total deniability, in order to keep the dysfunctional machine running in their favor. Abuse and neglect will be ignored, while the pervasive atmosphere of fear within the household is simply left unmentioned.
One of the truly tragic hallmarks of the narcissistic family is that there is no such thing as a safe space. This is especially harmful for children, because they grow up in fear and dread, never knowing when someone might explode, make irrational demands, or psychologically berate them. When all family members work against each other, the household becomes tantamount to a war zone.
This lack of security ensures that the cycle of narcissism will continue. Without unconditional love and stability, the children within a narcissistic family will almost certainly develop at least some narcissistic tendencies. Frequently, they aren’t able to develop a clear sense of self-worth amid the chaos and, thus, perpetuate the environment in which they were raised.
Narcissism runs in families both because there may be some genetic component to the disorder that is inherited and because a narcissistic atmosphere creates the conditions by which children develop narcissistic traits. A narcissistic upbringing increases the likelihood of an adult diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, which will then be passed along to the next generation.
While there may be hope for some family members in this environment, it will take early and determined intervention to be able to counteract the entrenched family dynamics. A lack of security and stability within a narcissistic household impacts all family members to their detriment.
If you’re uncertain whether or not one or more of your parents is a narcissist, this article gives you some insight into the signs of vulnerable narcissism in your mother.
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