What it Feels Like to be Lost in a Narcissistic Family


Many of us have seen the tragic effects of blatant childhood abuse and trauma.  Frequently, the impact can be felt through generations, whether it be through repeating the abusive patterns, re-victimization, or the transmission of emotional pain and suffering through some form.  The resulting psychological blueprint is understandable: fear, anxiety, anger, depression, distressed relationships.

But how does this blueprint seem to appear in families with no overt abuse or trauma? The narcissistic family is a system that may not present with traditional, overt dysfunction, yet can be injurious in its own right.  The narcissistic family typically revolves around the needs of a parent(s), which take precedence over the needs of the child.  Furthermore, the child becomes responsible for the fulfillment of the needs of the parents; inadvertently resulting in the failure of the child’s own needs being met.  At times, in this narcissistic family, to make matters worse, the child’s needs are judged, oppressed, and invalidated. What does that look like?  And what does that do to a child?  For example, it is the high anxiety mother who needs her child to uphold her own image, and when the child fails, he/she is met with anger and manipulation.  Think Mommie Dearest or for those of you millennials, perhaps August: Osage County.

Within this environment over time, the child can’t help but then develop his/her own sense of rage based on his/her conscious or unconscious neglect and feelings of being unseen. The chronic invalidation of one’s needs and one’s experiences within the narcissistic family may foster a deep sense of shame. The message to the child in the narcissistic family is that of “Your feelings are worthless, unreal, and depraved.”  What then does a child grow up to believe?  “I don’t know what I feel because even if I knew, it wouldn’t matter.”  This can only serve to create sadness, despair, and loneliness. The child, and eventually the adult, becomes lost in the phenomenon of the narcissistic family.

The pain, emptiness, and confusion of the lost self can be debilitating and intolerable. It is not, however, a hopeless loss. The adult child of the narcissistic family can be found, or perhaps rediscovered, through the trajectory of a life of healing experiences. Through therapy, caring relationships, spiritual reflection, or any form of reparative growth, with deep effort, care, and self-compassion, one can flourish.

By Dina Zaki