When looking at trauma through an attachment lens, I am privy to recognize how important early relationships with caregivers and family systems are in our development of attachment. Our relationships with our caregivers are integral in developing our concept of ourselves in relation to others. In the addiction field, characteristics of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) are widely recognized. But what about the families where substance abuse is not present? A narcissistic family system can be described as an environment where the needs of the caretaker(s) are put before the needs of the child. Qualities associated with ACOA can often be synonymous to those raised in narcissistic family systems. Emotional, intellectual, and physical boundaries are frequently crossed in these family systems which can lead to an impaired sense of autonomy and damaged attachment.
Common traits of an individual raised in this family system include: isolation, approval-seeking, low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, victim perspective, and fear of authority. In “The Narcissistic Family System” by Donaldson-Pressman & Pressman the children in narcissistic family systems are identified as those that “try to earn love, attention and approval by satisfying their parent’s needs, thus never developing the ability to recognize their own needs or create strategies for them to get met.” The traits listed above are developed when the child’s needs are neglected, and their boundaries are repeatedly crossed or ignored. Often, the child develops the belief that it’s easier (or even smarter) for the child to avoid or isolate than it is to engage with others and risk getting hurt. Rokelle Lerner identifies how the child’s boundaries can be damaged in her article “Boundaries for Codependents.” In this article she refers to the family system from the viewpoint of an ACOA, however the scenarios are consistent with those present in the narcissistic family.
Intellectual boundaries are hindered when the child is taught that they cannot trust their own perception of the world around them. The rules that encourage denial and reject a child’s reality include: Appearances are everything, The good times are enshrined – the bad times are forgotten, and “You are crazy if you think something is wrong here!” It’s important to recognize that these rules may be present without malicious intent. An example could be how a parent responds when they are fighting and their child asks what’s wrong. The intention may be to shield the child from conflict by reporting that “everything is fine”, but the result is that the child doubts their ability to assess the situation and looks to others to define their experience. By rejecting a child’s interpretation, the child not only learns to distrust what they believe, but also to distrust what they feel. Emotional boundaries can be damaged via role reversal, emotional incest, shaming and humiliation, and enmeshment. Through these four examples the child of a narcissistic family learns that others’ feelings and needs are more important than their own, that they are responsible for how others feel, that they are not worthy of care (which leads them to develop walls instead of boundaries, and to distrust those that try to get to know them), and that they must feel and think the same as those around them in order to connect.
In the therapy room, individuals from narcissistic families can be identified by their difficulty identifying their feelings, as well as a lack of awareness of their wants and needs. The first step in guiding them back to trusting themselves is to affirm their reality. We as clinicians must acknowledge how they make sense of the world, and help the individual identify how their core beliefs were developed. Journal writing has also been noted as a helpful tool to pay attention to how they perceive their interactions with others. For emotional boundaries, the repair first comes from acknowledging the presence of their feelings, including shame. The individual must learn to acknowledge when their feelings present, and what those feelings are communicating to them. For example, when they feel shame it is important to make the connection that a boundary is being crossed. In treatment, the phrase “I feel ___ when ____” is commonly used in order to communicate our experience and to practice boundary setting. Affirmations are also commonly used to combat shame, and to develop a positive sense of self.
The process of identifying trauma and repairing our attachment wounds is not easy. For many, their perception of their narcissistic family system was that it was “normal.” However, when our early attachment teaches us that we are responsible for others’ feelings, and that we are not worthy of care and compassion, then there is healing work to do. Many need the assistance to reconnect to their feelings and to see them as real and reliable, and to help make sense of their experience.
Written by: Tess Taylor, MS, LPC, LCDC