The Inheritance: Growing Up In a Narcissistic Family System

The backtracking I described in my previous post, “The Onion“, led me a book that described my situation like no other: The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, published by Jossey-Bass Publishers in San Francisco.

Before I get into what I learned, I want to emphasize that I do not believe that either of my parents are textbook, diagnosable narcissists – not that I’m anything but an armchair psychologist, but the totality of their behavior does not support this. I believe them to be honest, well-meaning, and often (sometimes too often) selfless people. (I do know that one of my parents’ siblings was diagnosed as having NPD in recent years, so perhaps that parent was negatively influenced by this person, particularly in childhood.)

The general dynamics of our family smacked heavily of narcissistic patterns and influence, which is what the book describes in detail – it was a chilling read for me, in fact. As per the characteristics described in Chapter Two of the book, my family of origin fits the “covertly narcissistic” description perfectly.

Everything looked great from the outside, and even from the inside; there was really nothing I could put my finger on until just a few weeks ago that I could characterize as obviously dysfunctional. No one was being beaten, there was no alcohol or drug abuse, no debilitating mental illness, my parents didn’t fight and seemed to have a stable marriage, all us kids were bright and did very well in school. Yet something was very, very wrong. An old schoolmate, many years after graduation, remarked that both my younger brother and I had always “struggled socially”. I now wonder if he was sensing what we ourselves couldn’t see growing up in the environment that we did. You live based on what you know, after all.

The key characteristic of a narcissistic family system, according to the book’s authors, is that, “…the needs of the parents were the focus of the family, and that the children were in some way expected to meet those needs.” As such, because the children are there to meet the parents’ needs, the needs of the children are not met.

Our needs were well met physically. We always had food on the table, and clothes on our backs. But our family was an emotional wasteland, and on a few key occasions, an emotional hell. We didn’t endure yelling and screaming matches – I can’t say I really recall my parents fighting, ever – but to say we were subject to emotional repression is an understatement.

I remember my one punishment for swearing; the strap. As an adult, I look at this and cannot comprehend how the threat (and delivery) of physical punishment from two adults towards a four year old, for doing something that was just the use of words, is justifiable. Why the use of these words was wrong was never explained before or after this transgression; I was simply punished for this unwritten rule. This sort of thing happened numerous times while I was growing up; I was expected to just “know” my parents’ expectations of me.

Another example of this is when a pedophile attempted to molest me at age six. My cousin, who witnessed what was happening and rescued me, reported the incident to his parents; I did not say a word to mine. Firstly, I had never been taught about my private parts (not even about where babies came from, even though I’d been asking since age three or so), and had never been warned about strangers and such or what to do if approached by one. I was clueless. Secondly, I did not trust my parents, anyway, by this time. To further reinforce the dreaded unwritten rule, my mother came to me and scolded me for not telling her about the incident, after my aunt reported it to her!

And another early incident that left me reeling: the death of my grandfather. I was eight years old, and Grandpa and I lived in neighbouring houses on the same yard. He and Grandma looked after me while my very busy parents worked; they spent a lot more time with me than my parents did during the first eight years of my life, in fact. I was so devastated at losing him… I cried, as would be expected. Dad, however, would have none of that, and yelled at me to stop crying. (This was between Grandpa’s death and the funeral, so this was a very sad and vulnerable time.) Again, another unwritten rule about the “inappropriate” expression of emotions.

Mom was an expert in delivering criticism and decrees about “appearances”. Both my parents were chronic dieters, but Mom was far more concerned about her weight than Dad. And when I started growing more quickly, and started to greatly exceed my peers in weight (AND height, though that seemed to be a secondary consideration for Mom), she started showing her displeasure for my girth. I remember the “concerned” look she shot me after a doctor’s appointment at age nine – boy, was I a disgrace. I weighed in at one hundred and fourteen pounds. (I was five foot three and counting.) My peers probably weighed around eighty pounds, and they were a foot shorter, but I still got “the look”. I didn’t meet her standards. This sort of thing continued approaching puberty; she criticized my facial hair, which embarrassed me greatly, but would not teach me or equip me to do anything about it. I asked her if I could shave my legs at age eleven, and asked for a razor, but she would not allow that, either. It was a weird sort of bullying; make the kid feel self-conscious about things she cannot do anything about, then tie her hands when she tries to change the things she can. Interesting concept. Oh, and I think we could easily put on her tombstone one day a phrase she commonly used: “What WILL they think?”

I’m no expert, but when this is your initial schooling about life, love, boundaries, relationships, authority, your body, and your very worth, and it continues for a couple of decades until you leave the nest, you’re going to have issues. This is not to say that you, as a person, are defective or abnormal or without hope for a better life – it’s to say that your early training left something to be desired and left you inadequately prepared for the real world.

To those who say, “Janice, this shit happened so many years ago. Just get over it,” I have this to say: it’s not like flipping a switch. Your upbringing is hard core indoctrination, no matter how well or poorly it played out. Your primary caregivers influence – dictate, even – every aspect of your life from the time you are conceived until… Well, until their teachings no longer show up as turds on your emotional lawn – and what’s the chance of that ever happening? How you were raised is a permanent part of you. How you choose to participate in the world from this moment forward is yours to decide. (But as the old adage says, “Old habits die hard.”)

Some of the crappy emotional/behavioral stuff I started experiencing at a young age:

  • Chronic anxiety
  • Chronic mild depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of confidence
  • Fear of failure
  • Perfectionistic thinking (particularly with regards to myself – unrealistic standards)
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Inability to trust, or trusting the wrong people
  • Chronic self-doubt
  • Inability to process emotions
  • Chronic dieting
  • Inability/fear of protecting or sticking up for myself
  • High tolerance for abusive behavior (particularly towards me)
  • Overly compliant
  • Chronic, intense, generalized guilt and shame
  • General lack of awareness of personal boundaries
  • Chronic people-pleasing
  • Internalized anger

Quite the dirty laundry list. Other patterns that I’ve noticed:

  • I have ALWAYS been extremely protective of anyone else I’ve seen being picked on or abused. It was like I was blind to the abuse I had been enduring, but unconsciously compensated for it by being hypersensitive to the abuse of others. I tend to be the same way even today.
  • I took a self-defence class once because it seemed like a really good idea. But when I was actually in the class, I could not see the point – like I wasn’t worth protecting.
  • I am intelligent and highly skilled, but have always accepted positions below my skill level, always feeling that no one would want to hire me, anyway, so I should just take whatever job I could get and perform well.
  • I have noticed that I am particularly attracted to bold, charismatic men; the thing is, “bold” and “charismatic” do well to describe egotistical, narcissistic, and controlling men, too. My experiences with these men mirrored my family life growing up; my parents controlled me through fear, through tearing me down and keeping me down emotionally, through unwritten rules and unrealistic expectations. The jerks who entered my life later controlled me through deception, manipulation, fear of abandonment, undermining what little self-confidence I had left. Same players, different stage.

Anyway, I am sharing this with you because if you are struggling in similar ways, then maybe some of what I am saying will help you make sense of your own life. I really believe that being raised in a certain way helps determine how people will unconsciously live their lives and choose partners. What I am getting at is that once you understand how you got to where you are, and figure out how to undo some of the damage, you can change your path and learn to see yourself for your inherent value and beauty and truth.


13 comments on “The Inheritance: Growing Up In a Narcissistic Family System

  1. Thank you so, so much for posting this. I grew up in a nearly identical situation (substitute grandparents with nanny), yet have never felt that I could explain my problems in a way that allowed anyone to understand what I went through. Your words give voice to that. It gives me great comfort to know that others have experienced similar situations and that it is not unreasonable for me to experience the exact laundry list of symptoms you share above. Best wishes on your journey!

  2. Great post. I am just now initiating a divorce from a covert narcissist – a very sinister one at that. My own family background is one lots of turmoil with narc father and all-suffering mother, so there was never much need to guess where my messiness came from. Five kids in family of origin: 2 narcs, 2 empaths, and 1 aspergers.

    What struck me about your post is the “normalcy” of your childhood, which is exactly how my soon-to-be-ex husband describes his. Very stable and middle-brow in description. It was a trump card for him — he was the beacon of mental health and me – I had a lunatic family. And so he gaslighted and yet played supportive husband (only to get me to be more dependent I would learn). Played the affable, easy-going guy, but would rage at me privately, among a host of other points of crazy. Fortunately, it’s been a short marriage…

    I give my family some credit for not pretending though. Our narcs are mean, nasty people who you can spot and run from easily. The empath’s have great senses of humor (this is observable in previous generation, and with consistency) and either hook up with narcs (moi!) or have lots of cats (ma soeur!). I’ve gotten a little better over the years, but obviously…OBVIOUSLY, have not licked it. These covert types are really under radar and if you have ANY residual childhood stuff, and who doesn’t, especially the damaged, then I fear these will slip through again. The “bold” and “charismatic” are sometimes packaged as grounded, sensible men. Buckling up for one slippery divorce ahead!

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Jay. I am of the opinion that these types of dysfunctional family dynamics are far from rare, and I have gotten quite a few messages from people who have said their stories are nearly identical.

      I’m sorry to hear you ended up with someone so disordered. I’m also seriously considering divorcing my non-narcissistic husband now for other behaviours that kind of slipped through the radar. (We empaths are usually WAY too tolerant and often open-minded, which can make for all kinds of interesting shite.) If you haven’t read any of Sandra L. Brown’s books, particularly “Women Who Love Psychopaths”, she emphasizes that people who are “chosen” by seriously dysfunctional men are typically far from slouches in their own right.

      My husband most likely has an addition to masturbation and bondage porn. I knew he liked bondage porn fairly early in the relationship, but because our sex life seemed totally normal for the first year we were together (we married after one year) it didn’t concern me much. But as soon as we got married, three and half years ago now, the sex basically stopped. It has happened maybe about ten times per year since then. I dragged him to therapy after one year of marriage about this specifically, but the so-called professional totally ignored what I had to say and sent us off to “fix” everything else in the relationship (combining finances, my job situation (I worked out of town 9 days out of 14), etc.). Yet the sex issue remained.

      I had enough last fall, and told him to get to a sex therapist or else. That’s when it came out in therapy that despite the lack of sex I was getting, he was spending half an hour daily in front of his computer jerking off to bondage porn. Also, all he likes is bondage porn, the only thing that will get him off is some form of bondage play, so he most likely is paraphilic. Great. But the worst thing that came up in therapy is that he has never been attracted to me, sexually or otherwise.

      I’m not sure he set out deliberately to exploit me – I don’t believe that’s really the case. But certainly, he had to have some reason for marrying me in the back of his mind. I’m leaning towards financial reasons, and possibly so that I would do some of his “adult functioning” for him. He thinks he loves me, and in every other respect treats me well, but I gave up some pretty important aspects of my life (sex, for one) that don’t think I’m ever getting back. He also comes from an insanely dysfunctional family, and he doesn’t stand up for me against his cousin (I used to date his cousin before I met him, and his cousin behaves like a textbook sociopath – I had to start enforcing No Contact with his cousin when things came to a head a couple of years ago, but hubby doesn’t have the balls to have my back and tell the guy to keep his distance and stop sniffing around for a way back into our lives). Sigh. I don’t want to hate men, but I certainly hate the men that I apparently attract.

  3. You just described my life. I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. If she was unhappy, my father would accuse me of saying something to upset her. I was never able to be myself. I had to try to be the daughter my mother wanted but that was not who I was – my mother and I were very different people. I was not a confident teenager, always afraid of being a failure in my mother’s eyes. My father just tried to keep my mother happy. Of course I ended up marrying a narcissist, who was the son of a narcissist. He was emotionally unavailable and blamed me for his failings in his life. He left because he “owed it to himself to find his soulmate.” I am finally discovering why I am the way I am but finally I am free to be me!

  4. Wow, it’s like you took the words right out my mouth. See below a review I wrote about the same book you mentioned. The abuse is in the details- like when you talked about them criticizing you about your flaws but not helping you with them- and you described them perfectly- described my family life perfectly. Thank you. This was refreshing and encouraging to read. For anyone who says get over it- abuse doesn’t stop once you grow up. The dynamics continue albeit in a less obvious way. I myself am estranged from my narcissistic family (one year) and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I have self esteem and freedom for the first time. Though on days it can be hard because I’m bitter and relive some of the pain and negative memories. Keep talking out about this stuff and don’t let anyone silence you. People like me and many others have identical stories and understand and support you. The best anecdote to narcissism on any level, whether that’s personal, familial or societal is exposure. Don’t stay and try to “convince” the narcissist. Prove to others with logic and FACTS which contradict the narcissists’ lies and warped view of the world.


  5. P.S Brilliant article on 24 attributes of narcissistic mothers which I think you might enjoy!


  6. OMG Thanks a lot for opening my eyes, for feeling me connected with myself and reality, out of brainwashing. Currently I am living with my N mother and N father whose major goal is to keep me with them as in prison, not having a relationship and independence. They gave us conditional love and they want it back as long they are alive. I am financially dependent right now, but I am working out on my education and plans, but I am afraid that if on any way I show that I am aware of their plans or that I have plans to leave them, that would make them very angry. Currently they are gas-lighting me cause I am financially dependent by counting my bites of food. Yes I am willing to lose them for sake of my future, but that is going to be a major turn emotional around and pain, but since they have slowly discarded me, I feel that leaving them means no way of turning back. Ultimately, I accept that, cause on the other way, they will never acknowledge my needs for independence, and they will never change. They use infantilization.
    This is going to be very tough.
    Thanks again!

  7. I’m tremendously sorry that your parents were so inadequate. I, too, am struggling to come to terms with my narcissistic family (my father is unquestionably NPD.) You’re in my thoughts and I wish you well. And, thank you for being brave enough to post this, it’s nice to accidentally bump into someone who gets it.

  8. NFOO is about the most toxic environment you can grow up in as it gets. Maybe your parents don’t snort crack in front of you but the damage is in the same league. I was cast in the role of golden child by my obnoxious, horrible N father and enabler mother. It did not matter how much my arsehole of N pseudo-father terrorised us with his constant rages, it was no problem for mum whose entire life evolved around this moster. So codependent is she that even after he shamelessly cheated and abused her for 45 years she is still caught up,drawn to this freak’s “magnetism”. My family was definitely a cult of the N father to great detriment of both my sister and I. Paradoxically while I was cast in the sick golden child role it was me who suffered most damage characterized by chronic, lifelong depression and constant suicidal thoughts. My sister was spared the damage of being trained to identify with abuser and unlike me fought back. I was caught up in Stockholm Syndrome not realising I am pathologically attached to a couple of abusers who damaged me for life. But on the positive side while 38 is rather an advanced age to learn one’s needs actually matter for the first time awareness is the first step. I cut off any contact from both of them, as they are of course in full denial – ” but we loved you very much”. Yeah right, when I was I psychiatric care I never even got a penny to pay for therapy while they were always eager to collect from me.since age 14 i never got a penny, a straight a student, and had to work to buy basic necessities while these c@&£s travelled the world. I don’t have much relationship with my sis either, having constantly been pitched against each other and competing for the “favours” of my loser parents. The relationship with N / enabler parents is a sick inverted family where it is the confused and terrorised kids who are supposed to cater to their sicko parents needs. I told these pricks that they get as much care from me in the old age as I got from them when I was a child – they did not even bother to wash my clothes until a school nurse picked up on how filthy they were. To say they did bare minimum, just barely enough to keep us alive is almost to give them too much credit. When you wake up from the N family nightmare it may take years to even realize how abused you were because Stockholm syndrome is common. In my case nothing short of full cutoff of contact will work. I wish all of you victims of N daddies or mummies and their orbiting spouses happiness. Don’t blame yourself if you can’t forgive. What they did to you, when you were at your most vulnerable, is criminal. Thankfully enlightened countries are starting to outlaw emotional abuse and I hope future kids will not get damaged like I did.

  9. […] The Inheritance: Growing Up In a Narcissistic Family System. […]

  10. Just starting to take a closer look at this particular dynamic- both parents are gone now & siblings don’t (& never really did) get along. I’ve always been confused about that – and sad since there were 5 of us… I’m so enlightened & validated by the information I’ve read re the dysfunction of narcissistic famy system! Thanks for the post!

  11. Excellent article!! Describes my family very well. I especially can relate to the chronic dieting of the parents and the judgment of weight gain. My mother at age 80 is still obsessed with how things may look to complete strangers, such as if the waitress brings her a large meal instead of the half that she ordered (literally started to tear up at the tragedy of it all). I, like you, started gaining weight as a child, was criticized for it but all of the junk food remained within my easy grasp. As adults, my three siblings and I have all been overweight and judged (most often via triangulation – they’ll talk to me about how fat my siblings are and I’m sure the reverse is true). After dating a narcissist on and off for a year, I have proceeded to regain 50 pounds I’d lost plus an additional 25 and I know it’s from that perfectionist feeling of never being good enough. I would love to hear more from you about the weight/judgment aspect.

    • Hello lightningmo21! I don’t spend a lot of time on my blog anymore, obviously, but I do read the comments and do intend to respond to each one eventually. My life has taken a turn for the better in the last couple of years, in several different respects, so the need to get things off my chest has lessened.
      I might as well get into some of those changes, and their catalysts, at least specific to the body shaming issues.
      Many times over the years, I wondered if some of the nasty comments from my mother were in my head. That perhaps I’d made up elaborate stories to justify how horribly I felt about myself. But at a family reunion about two years ago, I was sitting with my mother and younger brother, and she commented to us about a cousin’s eldest son, who was born with Down Syndrome. “I wonder why she went on to have more children, after the first one was born that way,” she said. My brother and I glanced at each other in shock and disbelief at what we heard. That was, however, confirmation of some of the workings going on in Mom’s head.
      Specific to the body shaming, a few months later, I was sitting with my mom at my aunt’s funeral. “Well, you know, your aunt Betsy was always kind of big,” she said of her deceased sister in law. “At the wedding, in July, she looked just about right. Now she’s just too thin.” I kid you not. She was body shaming a corpse right at the funeral! My aunt had just died after a long battle with cancer.
      This was a major turning point for me. Now there was no doubt that all that I had been through at her hands as a kid had very much been real, the veiled criticisms, the “looks”, the private dishing out of shame to me and perhaps my siblings. This was really where I felt I’d finally separated from her emotionally, where I saw her as a person and not as my mother, and could see the extent of her disordered mind. The things she had said all along reflected far much more about who she was than about who I was.
      Other things were changing about that time. I left my ex husband right before that family reunion. (He and I remain good friends, but we are both much happier no longer being married to each other!) Being out of a toxic marriage, on its own, lifted a huge burden from me.
      My daily environment changed, too. I chose to no longer have cable television, and went with internet only, mostly watching Netflix. Gone were most of the ads I would normally have been exposed to. I also started to get more into Twitter and other social media, where I had choices about what I was exposed to, in terms of content, advertising, and discussion. I started following activists who supported body positivity, and following businesses that made beautiful clothes for people who looked like me. I really believe that the changes in my exposure to the media made the biggest change to my outlook on life.
      I read or watched something recently that summed it up nicely – that all advertising, everything in the media, really, is nothing more than propaganda. Propaganda is, by design, intended to influence your thoughts, and consequently, actions, in a certain direction. So when you constantly see a very narrow certain “type” of people in advertisements (heavily photoshopped models with “perfect” hair, “perfect” skin, the “perfect” wardrobe, the “perfect” car, the “perfect” life), and then you look at your own “average” existence, you start to feel incongruent with what you’ve been brainwashed to believe is “acceptable”. And guess what? Insecurity sells, and insecure people are vulnerable and controllable in so many ways. Some people are only compelled to consumption, others take it towards the other extreme and internalize the messages so much that they attempt to denigrate others who do not fit their narrow definition of what is acceptable – for example, your garden variety body shaming internet troll, or my mother. And it’s not just advertising, but you can see the same patterns in social groups, religious/faith organizations, corporations… Constant messaging that supports only a very narrow definition of what is an acceptable way to be human, to be good, to be healthy, to be successful, to be loved, sets up an artificial dichotomy of “us” versus “them”, and some people strive to be associated with the group that, in their minds, has the more desirable image.
      By changing the messaging – eliminating or limiting exposure to those things that were designed to tear me down, and allowing in influences that countered that – I began to see myself as having value, beauty, and worth. I’m not saying everything is perfect now, but “shutting off” the media went hand in hand with shutting off that internalized “critical mother’s” voice in my head. There is little to no negative self talk going on anymore, and I never thought I’d see the day.
      As for my weight – it’s almost a non-issue. It’s stable. I did find a lifestyle that works beautifully for me (LCHF, if you care to look it up), and I am at a size where I find it really easy to find clothes I feel good in. I’ve come to accept that at my height and build, to strive to match the arbitrary mainstream ideal of what is considered “attractive” is insanity, not to mention physically impossible. As for my mother? She’s still struggling with her self image, and I bear no ill will towards her, but she is going to have to figure things out on her own.
      I don’t know where you are at these days, but I can only share what has worked for me, mostly by trial and error and accident. I hope sharing my own experience can help lift you up a little. Life is too short to live under the shadow of other people’s negativity and lies about who we are.

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