The Narcissistic Family

Cast of Characters and Glossary of Terms

The Narcissistic Family Playbill

The narcissistic 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 sense of shame and inadequacy by upholding his fun house illusion of perfection.

Narcissistic families have uncannily similar patterns from one to the next, 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 Narcissistic Family Cast

jack nicholson scary face from the shining
The narcissist is the family tyrant.

Narcissist This is usually a parent or parents but may be a child/sibling. The narcissist is the family tyrant, with everyone else revolving around him. There also may be a hive of narcissists as grandparents and other relatives.

A person with narcissistic personality disorder(NPD) is believed to have suffered disrupted attachment with caregivers early in life. He fails to develop a resilient identity, sufficient self-esteem, and affective (as opposed to cognitive) empathy for others, making him excessively needy while also indifferent and often hostile to others’ feelings, perspectives, and needs. To support his house of cards, he does many and/or all of the following:

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

Enabler The primary enabler is usually a spouse of the narcissist, or a parent or other family member. The enabler supports the narcissist’s larger-than-life persona, her extreme sense of entitlement, and her abusive behavior by unquestionably accepting her version of reality, cleaning up her messes, and acting as an apologist for her. The narcissist may manipulate the enabler 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 her needs. Enablers often experience trauma bonding with the narcissist, becoming emotionally and physically addicted to codependent abuse cycles.

Flying Monkeys Often one or more children in the narcissistic family, “flying monkeys” are enablers who also perpetrate the narcissist’s abuse on targeted victims. Like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, they assist in the narcissist’s dirty work and carry out abuse by proxy. The most manipulable members of the family make the best flying monkeys. Flying monkeys may be narcissistic themselves.

girl painted in gold—golden child
The golden child is trained to please.

Golden Child The golden child is the narcissist’s idealized favorite, bestowed with special status. The narcissist lavishes his chosen one with attention and praise, even if s/he has done nothing in particular to “earn” it. The narcissist often projects what he wants to believe about himself onto his idealized offspring and engulfs the child’s identity into his own. Roles and rules in the narcissistic family are fluid and changeable, and the narcissist parent may reassign the part of golden child to another if it suits his shifting moods and motives.

Scapegoat The scapegoat, usually one of the narcissist’s children, is the family’s chosen catch-all target for abuse. The scapegoat is blamed for the family’s problems and is fair game for abuse from flying monkeys too. Sometimes the narcissist scapegoats more than one child, or she may at some point select a different scapegoat. The scapegoat is often 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 Narcissistic Family Glossary of Terms

narcissist family "A Family Is a Tyranny Ruled by Its Weakest Member" George Bernard Shaw

Narcissistic Injury It is believed that most individuals with NPD are shaped by disrupted attachment in early childhood. Neglect, abuse, and/or overvaluation by primary caregivers is thought to be at the root of developing a narcissistic adaptation. An example is a child engulfed by a harshly domineering narcissistic father and enabling mother, who shame particular behaviors and praise others.

Narcissistic Rage The narcissistic personality reacts with rage if his underlying shame is triggered, or if his fabricated “perfect” self is somehow threatened. Narcissistic rage is terrifying, sometimes physically violent, and far beyond normal anger. It may be overt or cloaked in passive-aggressive behavior such as guilt-tripping or silent treatment.

The scapegoat sees things from a different angle.

Narcissistic Supply Like a parasite, the narcissistic personality depends on others for emotional 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 validation from, she is an empty husk. Anyone she can exploit—a partner, child, relative, employee, or “friend”—is a potential source of supply. If a supply pulls away, she may attempt to “hoover” them back and/or look for other sources.

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

Projecting We all project from time to time, but the narcissistic personality does so compulsively and often with no awareness. When she projects, she beams her words, actions, traits, and motives outward onto others and has them carry her painful feelings for her. 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 accountability.

Conscious or unconscious, 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 s/he perceived—white is black. A narcissist may also project her ideal beliefs about herself onto others, such as her golden child or someone else she admires. Whether projection is negative or “positive,” it distorts the truth and negates the other person’s identity and reality.

Gaslighting This is a form of psychological abuse that involves undermining another person’s mental state by gradually leading them to question their perceptions of reality. The narcissist abuser uses distortions and false information to erode victims’ 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.

Julie L. Hall is the author of The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free coming December 3, 2019, from Hachette Books. Preorder your copy now.