In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Speaking as the child of narcissist parents, I have to differ with Tolstoy on that latter point. When it comes to narcissistic families, our unhappiness is remarkably consistent from one family to another. When you look at the "N" family as a system, the parts are pretty much the same, and the unique suffering you thought you were experiencing is almost so common within this sad subculture as to be clichéd.
If you grew up with one or more N parents/stepparents, as I did, you probably felt different from other people, like an outsider. Even with thorough analysis and understanding, you are still an outsider with the "normies," those who didn't grow up in the grip of narcissism and who generally have no a clue what it's like. But although being from an N family can be painfully isolating, the commonalities among those of us can be a bonding thing. That's why books, articles, chat groups, websites, and Facebook community support pages for adult children of narcissists (ACoNs) are so popular. We ACoNs speak the same language, even if we haven't learned the lexicon. We instinctively know which parent or parents were the "narcissists," who were the "enablers" and "flying monkeys," who was the "golden child," and who was the "scapegoat" (probably you the reader, since the scapegoat is the person most invested in deconstructing and thereby becoming free of the N family dynamic). We are intimately familiar with "narcissistic supply," "narcissistic rage," and "projection," as well as the classics "gaslighting" and "hoovering."
For those new to the workings of the narcissistic family system and the vocabulary around it, here is very basically how it works. Take my family. (No, really take my family, please.)
My father was a full-on narcissistic personality disorder case with a hearty dose of malignant narcissism. He scaffolded a gaping internal void and sense of worthlessness with a fragile architecture of superiority, grandiosity, ceaseless competitive one-upmanship, ambushes, shaming, ridicule, and violent rage. He was clever and at times charmingly attentive, and he used that to ensnare and exploit family, friends, and colleagues. He made his cherished son the family golden child, engulfing him as a brilliant, can-do-no-wrong extension of himself. He made his daughter the family scapegoat. I served as the target of blame for his son's accidents and forgetfulness and for his own projections of ridicule and rage. When I questioned or disagreed with my father, say when he attacked my younger stepsisters, he regularly gaslighted me by claiming that I was the person in the family who was angry and unfair.
My stepmother enabled my father by enduring his abuse, failing to protect her daughters from him, and abetting the maintenance of my brother's role as golden child and mine as scapegoat. Although she and my brother resented and disliked each other she never questioned his princelike status and never hesitated to use me as a deflective target to avoid my father's line of fire on herself and her daughters. She helped my father do his dirty work, like the Wizard of Oz flying monkeys helped the witch, by criticizing and punishing me arbitrarily. I played my assigned role by internalizing family blame and shame and seeking love and approval that was alternately withheld or offered like a carrot to feed my father's narcissistic needs for control and attention (narcissistic supply).
When I became a savvy adult and a protective mother, I shielded my daughter with a fortress of loyalty and positive public relations. I was no longer an easy target. Since my brother at times criticized his son and did not shield him from my father's attacks, the eye of Sauron looked elsewhere and my nephew became a more convenient family scapegoat.
My father still tries to hoover (as in vacuum suck) me back in with the promise of financial help and underhanded threats that it will be withdrawn unless I comply with his terms.
See yourself here? If so, I'm truly sorry. But you are not alone. There are many of us out here. We are doing internal work to understand what happened to us and end the cycle. We are learning to take care of ourselves. We are trying to be good parents and often succeeding admirably, against the odds. The scapegoat's redemption is breaking free.
Julia Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Carry You, about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissistic family. Read her blog The Narcissist Family Files on her website.