It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Summary: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

The Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families: A Summary

The First And Great Commandment Is This:
“Be a ‘good’ person: Be blind, be quiet, be numb, be careful, keep secrets, avoid reality, avoid relationships, don’t cry, don’t trust, don’t feel, be serious, don’t talk, don’t love and above all, make everyone think you’re perfect...even if it makes you feel guilty.”

In other words, cease to exist as a separate, autonomous entity and exist as a cog in the wheel of the machine that is the dysfunctional family. Each child has one or more roles in the family, some of them assigned, others taken on by the child. These roles are rigid and, unless the child is an only, unlikely to change during the Nparent’s lifetime. The family is delicately balanced, its cohesiveness and continuation dependent upon each member playing his or her role. To attempt to change your role is to disrupt that balance and threaten the existence of the family itself.

And so you must don your role in the family like a burqa and play the role as if it were really you. And the real you must be stuffed down, silenced, and denied until she doesn’t consciously exist anymore and you become the creation of the dysfunctional parents, playing the role they need to enable their drama to continue. Your feelings are immaterial: ideally, you have none, but you must make a credible show of the feelings they allow or need you to display at any given moment.

You may not be yourself—you may not even have a “yourself.” You must selflessly be who and what they want you to be, what they need you to be, on demand…and like a good little marionette, be unobtrusive and out of sight, call no attention to yourself, make no demands, have no needs, just be ready for the next performance.


The Second Is Like Unto It:
“Since you're worthless and nobody loves you anyway (including yourself), don't try to change yourself. You're not worth the effort and you couldn't do it if you tried anyway. God won’t help you either. So get back where you belong. There’s nothing wrong anyway so what’s your problem! See, I told you that you were stupid.”

If you change yourself, you change how you work in the family dynamic, and in a dysfunctional family, that can destroy the delicate balance the parents have worked so hard to create. It is mutiny—insubordination—chaos—if you change yourself and thereby remove yourself from the role you were destroy the family.

The rulers of a dysfunctional organization do not like change they did not create. Any change must be created by them so that it will benefit them…changes they do not initiate, like you removing yourself from your assigned or accustomed role, are threatening and frightening and potentially destructive. And so once you are performing your assigned role, you must be convinced that you have no options outside this role, that you are enslaved to it and cannot ever be released because it is who you are.

And so they convince you to stay as you have always been. That change would be futile even if you were able to change—but you can’t, a leopard can’t change its spots and you will never be more or better than you are today…or were yesterday…or that long string of yesterdays leading back so far you cannot remember.

You are not a person to them, you are a thing, immutable and unchanging, without feelings or needs, occasionally balking as machines are wont to do, but always there, always accepting and discharging your role so that their lives can continue as they created them to be. And if you try, you will fail because you cannot be anything other than what you are: just another cog in their machine.

You cannot even escape if you go No Contact because your absence from them doesn’t stop them from blaming you—they do it in absentia, behind your back, without your knowledge. But at least you don’t have to listen to them anymore.

These are the rules of the Dysfunctional Family and if you wish to be a part of it, you must play by those rules, play your role, don't try to improvise or improve your place. Just do as the directors say and you can stay...and they always assume you want to stay, that you are desperate to stay...

Next: "I Can't!"

Friday, September 28, 2012

No Forgiveness: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 10

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

10. Thou shalt not forgive yourself or others.

Sample Situation: “You're always in my way, child! Why do you keep asking me to play with you? Don't you know I played with you last year? Wasn't that enough?! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Go to your room. Don't bother me.”

Lesson Learned: The only way I can be forgiven and loved is if I can earn it by being perfect. The guiltier I feel, the harder I must work to gain other's approval. If I make any mistakes, even a small one, they'll reject me or think I'm incompetent or worthless. I'm afraid I will make a mistake, I know I will, I feel so guilty. Therefore, even if I think I can do it, I won't. After all, I could make a mistake and then what would I do? Oh, I could never go back and say I'm sorry!

Motto: Since Jesus’ doesn't forgive me, I can't forgive you either.


There is an entry on the topic of forgiveness on this blog but it addressed the subject in a different way. Here we look at forgiveness from another angle: not giving it but receiving (or “earning”) it.

When we transgress, we feel bad—if we have a normal conscience, that is. In dysfunctional families, this can (and often is) used against us, to manipulate and control us. In the example above, a child’s normal need for attention and interaction are viewed by a dysfunctional parent as being excessive, leading the child to believe that her normal needs are undue, making her a burden on her parents. She is shamed for wanting more than she is being given and punished for it.

This does not change the child’s needs, but it does change her outlook on them. She will go from responding to her body’s and psyche’s cues as to her needs and take her parents’ cues: what they are willing to give her is all that she is entitled to and anything beyond that is excessive, greedy, demanding, burdensome—bad. But because her internal cues don’t change along with the child’s understanding of her parental expectations, she begins to feel bad about herself and the demands over which she no control, save to choose whether to act on them or suppress or hide them.

When my daughter was six she was stolen by my NM and taken out of state where she was eventually adopted by my childless aunt and uncle, my NM’s beloved younger brother. My sunny-natured, free-spirited child came under the thumb of an NM, a woman who had failed to pass the home study for an agency adoption and whose only hope of motherhood lay in adopting in a non-traditional way. When my mother presented them with a pair of pretty children, especially a highly intelligent, well-mannered, good-tempered little girl with long blond locks and a bright smile, they gladly took both of my kids off NM’s hands. Eight years later the children returned to me, my daughter transformed into a sneaky, manipulative child who, believing the tale told her by my NM and my aunt and uncle that I had abandoned her, considered herself a burden on me (because I did not want her based on the “fact” that I had abandoned her).

I took her to Macy’s to buy clothes—the same place I shopped for myself. I took her to the cosmetics counter for Clinique because of her teenaged-skin—I also bought my cosmetics at Macy’s. I took her to decent stores for her shoes and school supplies and everything else and heard nothing but complaints about my spending too much, that she could buy twice as much at Kmart with the same money, and that she was a burden. Nothing I said or did could convince her that she was not, just as nothing ever convinced her that I had not abandoned her. She was convinced that she had no entitlement to my care, either emotional or financial, and therefore what I gave to her was either a burden to me or, the alternative, an attempt to “buy” or manipulate her.

What I did not realize at the time was that this was a child who was begging for forgiveness for her needs. Her very survival had depended on the largesse of strangers for eight long years, first as the pawn of my NM, then as the trophy show-piece at the Yacht Club for my aunt and uncle. Her sense of true entitlement—the entitlement to love and care from her parents, to have her needs met to the best of their ability—had been so warped by her role as the GC in my aunt’s household that she could only see our interaction as a transaction and I was setting the bar too high for her with shopping at Macy’s rather than Kmart. There were many other dysfunctional dynamics in our relationship, to be sure, but this was something she spoke out about: “I am a burden here, why don’t you send me away?”

What could I have said? “Of course you are a burden, every child represents a financial burden but it is one borne with love?” Believing that I had abandoned her when she was six, would she have believed it? Certainly no more than she believed my denial. Sadly, she carried this notion of a child being a burden over to her own child who was, on the one hand was spoiled shamelessly with material goods and an almost total lack of discipline or boundaries, but on the other hand, neglected shamefully in terms of emotional content and even basic teaching of such things as manners. He was a burden who was left to shift for himself, his protests silenced with stuff.

Can a child who believes herself a burden accept “forgiveness” for being so? Can they even believe that they are not nor ever were? Can narcissists simultaneously maintain the opposing sense of being a burden and being entitled?

Feeling like you are a burden makes you feel guilty, at least in the beginning. And when you feel guilty, you try to find ways to expiate that guilt. As children, we take cues from the adults around us who, in a dysfunctional family, are all too happy to tell us our shortcomings. We seek their approval and their forgiveness by trying to surmount those shortcomings, to earn their forgiveness for not being who or what they want us to be. It is, of course, a futile effort because the real shortcoming is not in us, it is in them, in people who cannot, will not, forgive a child for being just a child.

And so we grow up burdens, feeling guilty for our normal, natural needs, turning ourselves inside out to earn forgiveness for without being forgiven, we cannot earn approval or love. And we grow up with this warped notion, which ultimately we internalize, that we are not worthy of love, that we are fundamentally flawed and therefore unlovable. And we grow up thinking that we must somehow abase ourselves, to work for ways to earn forgiveness for our fundamentally flawed selves, in order to be worthy of love.

This is how we get stuck in a cycle of abuse, either going from one abusive partner to another or repeatedly returning to an abusive partner. We take responsibility for their abuse, believing our imperfections, our flaws, our behaviours are the problem, not his (or her) choice to respond to us with abuse and even violence. We do not deserve someone who treats us with respect and love, we must earn it because we see it as a reward for our performance, not as an entitlement of our humanity...and if we feel it is given too easily, we may even disdain it. But before we can begin to earn our rewards, we must first earn forgiveness for our flaws, and that forgiveness must come from a person who holds us in the same contempt, who views us with the same scorn, we knew at the hands of our dysfunctional family.

Without knowing that we do so, we seek forgiveness for simply being. We expect to do things perfectly the first time we attempt to do them, and our failure to do so just further convinces us of our worthlessness. If we continue to associate with Ns, any attempt we may make at giving ourselves props for the parts we did get right, get squelched. In the late 1970s I drove an English sports car and my NHusband and I decided to do a “time and distance” road rally. Or, rather, he decided to do the rally, saying he would navigate so I could drive. (This way, if we won the rally, we won—but if we lost, I was the driver so it was my fault.)

It was my first rally, so I was learning as I went along. Two of the other cars (of a field of perhaps 25 cars) had onboard rally computers—very unusual and costly for the time. I have to give NHubby kudos for not sabotaging me with the navigation (which he easily could have) and, to my utter shock, we came in third place, right behind the two cars with the rally computers. I was thrilled! Ecstatic! Going into the rally, my goal was simply to finish it without getting lost or otherwise making a fool of myself and I placed third and got a trophy!

NHubby quickly stuck a needle-sharp criticism into my balloon of euphoria—it was only third place, he reminded me. “So,” I asked him, annoyed, “It’s our first rally! Did you expect to win it, for heaven’s sake?” His answer? “Yes.” Turns out, third place was still losing in his book, and it was one more failure to add to my list of unforgivable sins.

When we play this game with narcissistic, dysfunctional people, we allow them to set the parameters of our lives. We allow them to define for us good and bad, right and wrong, and we give them the power to hold us to their standards by seeking their forgiveness, their approval, their love. But Thomas Szasz, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York says “A child becomes an adult when he realizes that he has a right not only to be right but also to be wrong.” We have a right to be wrong!

We have a right to make mistakes, a right to make errors, to screw up, to fall short of the goal, to err, to not measure up to standard—most especially, a standard set by someone else. We have a right to live without seeking the forgiveness of unforgiving others who would keep us lapping at their heels like pet dogs, forever seeking the forgiveness for our never-ending sins, the forgiveness that could lead to approval and from there, perhaps to that most elusive of treasures, love.

We have a right to be wrong, to live with pride in what we did accomplish without being dragged down by what we didn’t. We have a right to set our own standards and goals…and to fall short of even those! We have a right to be unapologetically human and to need no forgiveness for that most quintessential of human traits, imperfection.

When we realize that we do not need their forgiveness, that we have been set up and manipulated to keep us jumping through the hoops that keep them entertained and filled to the brim with Nsupply, we find our boundaries, our separateness, our autonomy. And we finally see that there could never have been any forgiveness given because there was never anything to be forgiven for.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families: A Summary

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Be perfect: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 9

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

9. Thou shalt be perfect

Sample Situation: “Just because you got all ‘A’s on your report card doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have done better. You’re lazy. Now get to work and let’s see you get some more ‘A+s’!”

Lesson Learned: If it’s not perfect, people won’t love you. No matter how good it is, it’s never good enough...but keep trying!

Motto: You’re only as good as your performance and that’s still not good enough!


In a dysfunctional family, the standards of performance set by the parents often have no bearing on reality—or the performance of the parents, themselves, either. Narcissists are the masters of unreality—what they say is the last word, even if that last word should be “impossible.”

I recall a terrifying incident when I was somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10 in which my NM dragged me into the bathroom by my hair, slammed me against a wall, and turned on the tap full blast. She was furious with me for not completing some task I can no longer recall and she was enraged with me for attempting to excuse my failure by saying “I tried…” Screaming almost incoherently, she turned to that tap and told me that in the future I was never to “just try.” I was to do whatever it was she demanded of me, without failure. And then she pointed to the tap and said “If I tell you to tie a ribbon around that stream of water I don’t want to hear ‘I can’t’ or ‘I tried,’ I just want you to do it and no whining, do you understand me?” or something to that effect. I recall nodding my head and feeling utterly petrified, like I had stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone.

I think I remember this so clearly because this was the incident in which I became truly, viscerally afraid of her because I finally understood that she was, beyond a doubt, out of touch with reality and in my child’s mind, that made her extraordinarily dangerous. She wasn’t just mean, she was crazy and mean, too—a combination I was to often fear might become a lethal one, at least where I was concerned. We both knew what she was demanding of me was an impossibility and yet she had every expectation that I would fulfil that or any impossible task that she might set me to, or I would suffer dire consequences. To say the realization was disheartening would be to understate it by several magnitudes.

I recall that at about the age of 10 I became responsible for mopping the kitchen floor every Saturday morning. The floor was a dull brown asphalt tile, literally impossible to shine (at least with the products available in the stores in the mid 1950s), and rather like the colour of mud. To my child’s eyes, the only way you could tell the floor was dirty was if you walked over it and your shoes stuck to the floor. NM didn’t bother to show me or tell me how to properly wash that floor. There was a string mop in the laundry room and a tin bucket, and a box of Spic n Span under the kitchen sink. It was from the back of that box I got my only lessons in mopping a floor—that, and the “hard knocks” I got for everything wrong she found once I announced I was finished.

Do you really expect a 10-year-old to know you have to move all the chairs away from the table and sweep the room first? Do you really expect a 10 year old to know what constitutes a “clean” floor when the floor is the colour of dirt? I could barely wield the mop, I was so scrawny, and was hopeless at trying to wring it out…my little arms simply did not have the physical strength to do so. And, since the floor looked the same to me, dirty or clean, I couldn’t even tell if I was getting it clean or not! But NM apparently could tell and each failure, from failing to remove the chairs to failing to sweep to failing to wring out the mop sufficiently to leaving dirty marks on the skirting boards, warranted a separate physical punishment, each one accompanied by angry, impatient, screeching insults to my intelligence, eyesight, and ability to reason. Nothing short of perfection was acceptable and, perfection being an undefined, unstated goal, the goalpost moved unpredictably and often.

When I was seven I was skipped, mid-year, from second to third grade. Nobody bothered to assess what educational fundamentals I had missed and give me some make up classes—I assume everyone thought I would do just fine. But I missed multiplication and when I entered the new class, the kids were doing long division and this was way, way over my head. I was afraid to ask for help—the one time I approached my teacher with my dilemma, she suggested I might want to go back to the second grade, but that would turn my already frightening home life into a war zone, with me at the centre of it. So, instead of helping me with learning multiplication, the teacher intimidated me (I met up with her again in the 7th grade and she rather snidely asked me “so, did you ever learn to multiply?” in front of the Home Ec class she was teaching—I had to pretend I didn’t know what she was talking about) and I went away to struggle by myself.

This led to a lifelong problem with math—I became math phobic, silently weeping over homework I did not comprehend, unable to bear the humiliation of asking for help and having it thrown in my face. My grades fell…in the 4th grade I was assigned homework (not done in my school district for students below 7th grade unless they were having difficulty) and it plunged me into suicidal thoughts—if NM found out about the homework she would know I was failing math but if I didn’t do the homework, the teacher would call NM—either way, I was screwed and, at the tender age of 9, I began closing my bedtime prayers with a request to die in my sleep so I would not have to face NM when she found out. As this tender age I was brought nose-first up against my limitations and even my mortality, tragic when you consider that children this young should be looking forward to a limitless future rather than praying for deliverance through death.

Perfectionism on the part of parents puts an unwarranted burden on children, a burden that many children internalize and then grow to up put impossible pressures on themselves. If nothing less than perfect is acceptable, then the child learns to feel she is unacceptable because every day she finds evidence that she is not. This is devastating to a child’s self-esteem and just gets worse as she grows up and turns that pressure on herself. Media sets impossible standards of beauty, thinness, wittiness, coolness, setting before us role models who are genetically unlike us and who have access to unlimited resources to force themselves into conformation to the desired “norm.” If you are not thin enough, fair enough, blond enough, rich enough, blingy enough or whatever the current trend dictates, you are worthless.

At home, at school, at work, even at church, we are bombarded with messages of perfection, the barely disguised sneers for those of us who don’t measure up to standards of dress or style or grooming or knowledge or deportment; the fleeting approval when we hit the mark, only to have to do it again in an hour, the next class, the next day, the next Sunday. We are not OK just as we are, love and approval are earned, and we must earn them over and over again.

When we grow up and move out of our dysfunctional homes, we carry this message within us. We internalize it and now begin to beat up on ourselves, to relentlessly punish ourselves for our failures to achieve those impossible “norms” we have been trained to. When we cannot achieve something, it is not because it is impossible or unhealthy or beyond our grasp, it is because we are flawed. We are constantly assailed with more messages, from admonitions that pretend to be affirmations, to well meaning friends who urge us towards success, to our own inner voices who tell us “if you wanted it bad enough, you would make it happen,” whether it is realistic or not.

We learn to count ourselves by our failures, not our successes, and to judge ourselves not on what we accomplished but on what we didn’t achieve. Some of us learn to not try because if we never make an effort, we cannot fail…yes, if we don’t try, we cannot succeed, either, but if we try there is a possibility of failure and we will avoid that bitter taste at all costs. Some become compulsive, relentless, obsessed with their pursuit of success, never having enough because no matter how great the success, that brass ring eludes them…there is no love waiting at the end of each race, each merger, each buy-out, only the expectation that the next one will be bigger, better, more spectacular the last one.

Dysfunctional parents use the reward for performance concept dysfunctionally—they turn it into a carrot-and-stick affair in which the stick is constantly applied and the carrot never gained. Perfection is the key that opens the padlock holding that carrot just out of reach, but you never, ever seem to be just quite perfect enough. Internalized, you cannot love yourself, approve of yourself, feel good about yourself until you achieve that perfection and no matter how hard you try, there is always something you are not perfect about, something that makes you undeserving, something that keeps you from being worthy of love, either your own or someone else’s.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
10. Thou shalt not forgive yourself or others.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Do it yourself: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 8

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

8. Thou shalt not let anyone do anything else for you. Do it all yourself.

Sample Situation: Parents continually remind the child that no one is to be trusted. If they do something for you, they're doing it to manipulate you.

Lesson Learned: Stay aloof and don't make friends with anybody. After all, if you get too close, they'll use, hurt and abuse you. And remember this: nobody does anything for anyone unless they want something from you.

Motto: Do everything yourself.


Any household in which one or both of the adults are narcissists is dysfunctional. You cannot have a narcissist at the helm of any kind of organization, domestic or otherwise, without dysfunction reigning. One of the things we can never forget about a narcissist is that they judge others by themselves. It is a type of projection kinda combined with rationalization: projection because they are projecting their own beliefs, feelings, values onto others, and rationalization because once they believe others are the same way, then they are “normal” and their beliefs, feeling and values—and the behaviours that issue from them—are okay.

Narcissists do not “get” altruism. If they do something for you, there is an ulterior motive behind it. That ulterior motive may be to gain them something (like Nsupply or even something more tangible) or it may be to disadvantage someone else…but whatever the motive is, no matter how invisible it may be to observers, it is definitely there. Narcissists consider altruism to be stupid: why put out all that effort and get nothing back for it? And they presume nobody else is truly altruistic, either…and if nobody is really altruistic, then apparently altruistic deeds are really, in their minds, some kind of manipulation they just haven’t been able to suss out (and adopt for themselves) yet.

Because narcissists view altruism in such a light, they are loathe to allow anyone to do anything for them unless they can clearly see (or create in their minds) the motive for doing so. If they cannot see or create a motive they can believe, then they will believe that the person is attempting to manipulate them, to take advantage of them somehow…because in their minds, nobody does something for nothing.

My NexH had such parents. Both were narcissistic, the mother of the “martyr” variety, the father one of those guys overstuffed with pride. In the mid 1960s, when his oldest daughter was ready for university, there was no money to pay for it, so she applied for student aid. Unfortunately for her, student aid was based on family income and her father was too proud to admit he needed some help sending his daughter to college. He refused to complete the required paperwork citing a litany of paranoid fears as the reason: nobody, including the university or the government, would loan his daughter, who was just 18 and had no credit rating, the tens of thousands necessary for a university education unless there was some kind of invisible string attached…a string that involved getting hold of his personal, private financial information. Because he couldn’t see himself lending that kind of money to an untried, unproven 18-year-old girl unless he had some kind of ulterior motive, he would not believe that anyone else would, either. Releasing that information would allow someone outside the immediate family know how tight their finances were, what a poor provider he was, and that was a humiliation he could not endure—not even to send his daughter to a fine university. The daughter went to university and she got her degree—but she had to do it herself, working and paying her own way: there was no money in the family to help her and her father, like a textbook narcissist, put his feelings ahead of her well-being...and Dee had to do it herself.

Children learn by example more than any other way. They are natural mimics but they mimic a lot more than the words you say or the body postures you display. Like little sponges, they soak up your fears and prejudices, your beliefs and values. And if you demonstrate to them that nobody can be trusted, that everybody is out to take advantage of you, that is what they will absorb and carry into their adult lives.

There is a multitude of ways to make this demonstration. Have you ever heard something like “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”? or “Do I have to do everything around here to make sure it is done right?” A perfectionistic parent can imbue a child with the sense that nobody else can do it right, a sense that in order to have something done properly, one cannot trust others. They are unforgiving of the smallest deviation from their rigid standards, not even flexing a little to allow for a learning curve or lack of experience. “If I can do it, you can do it,” is their credo, and your lack of perfection is seldom viewed sympathetically. Instead, it can be viewed as a manipulation: you screwed up in order to get out of it rather than lack of expertise or talent or time to perfect it.

Children who grow up in this kind of environment often either become rigid perfectionists themselves, beating up on themselves emotionally when they fail to achieve their own lofty—and often unattainable—standards of perfection. Or they may become underachievers, afraid to reach for their potential because they know they cannot possibly be 100% the first time and nothing less is acceptable. They cannot accept help…needing help is proof they are unable to perform to standard. “Anything worth doing is worth doing right,” my grandfather used to tell me, along with “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” My NM, on the other hand, used to say “Do it right or not at all—no half-assed measures!” The former allows for a learning curve, for repetition and improvement; the latter is irrationally perfectionistic, a set up for failure, and typically N.

A narcissist will shamelessly take advantage of anyone, even their own small children. And because they will, they firmly believe everybody else is the same. If they make friends, it is because they expect to benefit somehow from the friendship—and they believe the friends expect the same. The reason narcissists make such poor friends (and seldom can sustain long-lasting friendships) is because they take what they entered the friendship to get, but the narcissist considers herself too clever to be manipulated and taken advantage of, so when the friend needs something, the narcissist bails. “Friends” are people who want to take advantage of you, the narcissist believes, so you only make friends with people you can get something out of, and then if you are clever enough, you get out before the “friend” can get anything from you.

A good example of this is my GCBro—every autumn my Dad would cut trees from his woodlot and he and a bunch of friends would get together to cut them into logs and then split the logs into firewood. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: they all cut and split and stacked wood into the back of the pickup trucks and trailers, helping each other out. At the end of a day's work, everybody had a truck and/or trailer full of wood for the winter. My grandmother, who was in her 80s, even helped, operating a hydraulic log splitter. My GCBro showed up, everybody helped load up his truck and trailer with wood, then he went across the road to to Gramma's house where she made him a big lunch. When he was done with his lunch he said good-bye to Gramma, got in his truck and drove away without helping the rest of the people. He just took Dad's wood and the labour of his friends and went home without lifting a finger to pay them back in kind, getting what he wanted out of the association without the other guys “taking advantage” of him.

Some narcissists seem to be able to sustain long-term friendships but an examination of the friendship may turn up a dynamic that is anything but friendly. Think about a “mean girl” cluster of friends (which can occur at any age)…or, an extreme example might be gangs. Inside the group is a pecking order, one person clearly the leader, the others “minions,” and below the minions, the “wannabees” who are often targets themselves, but may serve as additional minions. This isn’t exactly what I, personally, would call “friendship,” but it serves the Ns, the leaders of these groups. If you look into the roles of the family members in dysfunctional families, you will find them replicated in these groups, with some of the roles—like the scapegoat who is responsible for all their troubles—sometimes assigned to outsiders.

Rigid rules surround the group to control their behaviour. Some groups are ruled by the strongest, most dominant personality while others, like outlaw motorcycle clubs, elect their president and officers—who are usually the strongest, most dominant personalities. But the narcissist cannot even trust the people within the group—he knows he is not trustworthy, so what would lead him to believe others are? So even if the narcissist belongs to a group and appears to have friendships within the group, s/he still remains alone because there is no one they can trust.

The inability to trust is devastating to personal relationships. Many narcissists marry—repeatedly, in some cases. But too often they project their own untrustworthiness onto their partners and become controlling, suspicious, accusative, and even violent. Only if the narcissist has chosen a co-dependent or enabling kind of person can a relationship survive the distrust. The relationship may survive, but it will inevitably be dysfunctional, producing yet another generation of children who cannot trust, who must do things themselves in order to assure they are not being manipulated or taken advantage of by others, and who must be loners in order to feel safe.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
9. Thou shalt be perfect

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hypervigilance: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 7(2)

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

7. Thou shalt be hyper-vigilant (there are actually two #7s in the original document!)

Sample Situation: A child is constantly reminded how dangerous the world is. People can't be trusted either. Therefore, stay aloof, don't get too close to anybody.

Lesson Learned: The only way to be safe in this world is to be careful and insulate yourself from others. Be careful. Always be on guard. They might hurt you. If you need help, don't ask for their help. Do it yourself.

Motto: Always be on your guard. The wise person is always over prepared and distrustful of everyone and everything.


Children are constantly reminded of how dangerous the world is and how untrustworthy people are not so much by dire warnings as by living a life in which the child constantly feels threatened and unsafe. Add being regularly and almost predictably betrayed by those who should love her most—one or both of her parents—she learns for herself that the world is a perilous place and that there are few, if any, who are safe to trust.

If you Google “hypervigilance” you get a lot of overlap with “paranoia,” an unfortunate circumstance since they are worlds apart, even though we sometimes inaccurately use the word “paranoia” to describe what is, in truth, hypervigilance. So what is the difference? Paranoia is “...a form of mental illness; the cause is thought to be internal, eg a minor variation in the balance of brain chemistry” whereas hypervigilance “is a response to an external event (violence, accident, disaster, violation, intrusion, bullying, etc) and therefore an injury.” Some people refer to it as a “psychiatric injury” like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and, indeed, Complex PTSD can be caused by the kind of dysfunctional parenting we received. PTSD, however is something that needs to be diagnosed by a competent mental health professional so if you think you may have it, your best bet is to see a therapist for a diagnosis and treatment plan. But whether your hypervigilance is caused by PTSD or not, it is good to know what it is and what it does to you.

“Those who grow up in an environment that is not safe (whether physically or emotionally) develop a heightened sense of threat. They learn to scan the environment for potential danger, and react defensively. As an adult, this can continue as a chronic sense of fear and a predisposition to overreact and take things personally, especially in intimate relationships. We carry the war with us.” This is the kind of hypervigilance that children, especially the Scapegoat children, of dysfunctional families, learn and eventually internalize—and it gives us a lot of difficulty as we grow up and move into our adult lives.

One of the things hypervigilance leads us to do is to extrapolate: we take the facts available to us and project forward what might happen. I know I was doing this as young as 8 years of age because I can clearly remember an incident. NM left me and GCBro in the car while she went to consult with a lawyer—she and my father were separating…again. She said she would be gone for an hour but when the hour came and went, I began getting nervous. Although I was no longer consciously aware that she had abandoned me to the State for adoption when I was only two years old (but she kept my infant brother), on some level I retained those memories—and fears. The later it got, the more fearful I became until I was convinced she was never coming back. This made me hysterical which, eventually, led to me curling up in a ball in the corner of the car, sobbing uncontrollably. Of course, there was hell to pay when NM got back to the car—two hours late—but I had taken what I knew (she was gone longer than an hour), combined it with what I feared (being abandoned again), and extrapolated them into an abandonment scenario that completely undid me.

I didn’t “outgrow” this but I did learn to not buy into my “catastrophizing.*” Nearly fifteen years after NM died, I still fall into hypervigilance and extrapolation, particularly in times of stress, but I no longer allow it to control or paralyze me. My husband, who is diabetic, had a major seizure last year due to low blood sugar. When he collapsed, he fell into a position that blocked his airway and being unconscious, he was unable to move and allow himself to breathe…and I was unable to move him. I am ordinarily calm in medical emergencies, but I was widowed in 2000 and well I know that after 4 minutes without oxygen, the brain begins to die. I stuck my fingers into his throat and pressed down on his tongue to open his airway, frantically willing him not to die. He had had one of these crashes 18 months earlier and I knew from experience he would eventually regain consciousness (assuming I could keep his airway open) and be ok, but part of me was still extrapolating to having to make that awful call to his mother to tell her that her son had died. I control it, but it lives in my psyche like a cobra, just waiting for its moment to strike…

Another thing we deal with when we are hypervigilant is anxiety. Oh, not the hand-wringing, brow furrowing, looking over our shoulder stuff, but quiet, pervasive, persistent anxiety, like we are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. We become sceptical to the point of cynicism at much too young an age. We cease to trust implicitly and begin to look for the “catch” in even the simplest, most obvious things. When I was a little girl I remember sitting on the floor with my brother, watching TV, when my NM asked me if I would like some peanuts. As a kid who seldom got enough to eat, I eagerly accepted her offer and she handed me a small metal can with the word “Peanuts” emblazoned on the side. As I reached for the can, my brother tried to intercept it, but uncharacteristically, she waved him off. That should have warned me but, truthfully, I was soaking up the “special attention” I never got from her—she was offering me a treat and she wasn’t allowing my rude little brother to take it away before I even got it. I struggled a bit with the tight-fitting lid of the little tin, but finally it loosened up. Suddenly, the lid flew out of my hand and out of the can leapt what looked like a snake—a long tightly coiled spring covered with a reptile-printed fabric. I shrieked, dropped the can and jumped backwards, bursting into tears. NM also had tears in her eyes…from laughing so hard. GCBro was rolling on the floor clutching his sides. I stood there, immobilized with hurt and humiliation, until I was able to pull myself together enough to run to my room. Later, when NM got out the real peanuts, I wasn’t allowed to have any because I “had a stick up my ass” and I “couldn’t take a joke.” You can bet that from that day forward I looked for the catch in anything unexpectedly nice anyone ever tried to do for me.

“The hypervigilant person often has a diminished sense of self-worth, sometimes dramatically so [and] is often convinced of their worthlessness and will often deny their value to others.” People who value themselves do not spend their lives looking over their shoulders, waiting for someone to attack them; we who have lived lives of being the butt of other people’s jokes, the object of their derision, of being invisible or punching bags or both—we know that we are not valued by those closest to us, by those who should see us as priceless treasures. And if our own families find us valueless, who are we—especially as little kids—to naysay them? We assimilate and internalize the messages our dysfunctional parents fed us every day of our childhoods and by the time we are adults, we not only believe those messages, we feed them to ourselves.

Another thing we may do is engage in disbelief and denial. “...the hypervigilant person is aware of how implausible their experience sounds and often doesn't want to believe it themselves…the hypervigilant person cannot bring themselves to believe that the [abuser] cannot and will not see the effect their behaviour is having; they cling naively to the mistaken belief that the [abuser] will recognise their wrongdoing and apologise…” How many of us cling to hope that if we can just find the magic key, we can unlock the door to the heart of the dysfunctional family member(s) who torment (s) us?

This kind of denial can be deeply rooted and almost impossible to eradicate. This is not the simple choice of weighing two versions of the “truth” and choosing the one you wish to believe, this is something buried deep in your subconscious and often out of the reach of conscious thought. Many of us go NC (No Contact) with our abusive, dysfunctional parents and many who do so eventually come to the realization that these people, who are our parents in name only, never loved us because they are incapable of the selflessness that real love requires. And yet, the denial and disbelief that our own mothers, the women who carried us inside their bodies and gave us life, could not love us seems to bury itself in our being, coming to the fore on occasions like the births of our own children or grandchildren, when we realize how much and how effortlessly we love our own. The love was simply there—we made no effort, we did not summon it—it was just there, with our own children. What was wrong with us that our mothers looked into our little faces and were not overwhelmed with love for us like we were for our own children? Despite decades of abuse and therapy and consciously coming to terms with the fact that, through no fault of our own, our mothers didn’t…and never will…love us, somewhere deep in our hearts there remains a feeble flicker of hope that one day she will wake up and realize she does love us after all, and begin to act like the mother we always wanted and needed.

Many of us stay hypervigilant to her behaviour, subconsciously (even consciously) picking apart her every action, looking for evidence that maybe, just maybe, she loves us. We try to find ways to rationalize those things she does or says that are, in truth, hurtful and insensitive. Some of us even redefine things like love to incorporate her unloving and compassionless conduct. The hope, no matter how tiny, that she loves us can be so strong that our hypervigilance picks up on the smallest implication that she might care. Coupled with denial and disbelief, we can be held in thrall to our NMs simply by that faint hope that sometimes we don’t even recognize exists.

I knew from my earliest childhood that something was wrong with my mother. I didn’t know how I knew, but meeting other little girls in school and hearing (and occasionally observing) their home lives made it crystal clear to me that my mother was different, and not in a good way. I, on the other hand, was not so different from the little girls I played with, having the same hopes and desires, beliefs and values as my peers. I was satisfied that I was a normal little girl and that my mother was strange. I knew before I started school that my mother was dangerous—by the time I started school I had long ago developed the hypervigilance that kept me as safe as possible, the knowledge that staying out of sight was safer than reminding her of my existence with my presence, the knowledge that swift obedience was more likely than dallying to keep me out of trouble. I was alert to her moods, her body language, her facial expressions, her tone of voice—all of which helped me to predict what was going on with her and the safest way for me to respond. What I didn’t know until I started school was that other little girls didn’t have to do the same with their mothers—their mothers were safe to be around all of the time. There was something wrong with my mother…really, truly wrong.

And I spent years in therapy coming to terms with this fact, eradicating beliefs and habits and dysfunctional behaviours, learning to be an emotionally healthy person, even learning how to “be my own mother.” And my life improved, my relationships improved, my sense of self improved and I was even able to be in my mother’s presence without fear (although that hypervigilance was awake and quiveringly alert the whole time!).

And then she died. It was an unexpected death and I had not seen or heard from her for several years—I had become invisible again, and my daughter had become the daughter NM had apparently wanted me to be…her Mini-Me. I had felt some vague unease—and a feeling of unfairness—when my daughter made it clear that NM was in regular touch with her, that she received a five-figure cash gift from my NM so she could put a down payment on a house, and that NM was planning to disinherit me in her favour. With her every phone call, with her every visit and reporting on NM and her activities, my hypervigilance grew…something was definitely wrong here and I felt I had to be on guard.

And then NM died and the expected sense of relief enveloped me—but something else as well. The death of a hope I had not even known I was still harbouring. For the death of that poor, feeble little hope I wept—for the death of my mother, I felt only a release from the bondage of apprehension and anxiety—the other shoe had finally, irrevocably, dropped.

We develop hypervigilance as a protective mechanism. We develop it to be like an “early warning” system, a subconscious process that instantaneously assesses threats and risks and projects their likely outcome based on our past experiences and our worst fears. And for some of us, it was a useful—even essential—tool in surviving our childhoods at the hands of dysfunctional parents, but it becomes a liability in our adult lives, where we are not daily living with and under the control of dysfunctional emotional predators. Hypervigilance, misplaced and allowed to rule our lives, makes us dysfunctional. As adults, it is time to put childish ways behind us, and hypervigilance is one of those things.

* Loretta LaRoche

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
8. Thou shalt not let anyone do anything else for you. Do it all yourself.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

No boundaries: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 7(1)

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families 
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A

7. Thou shalt allow your boundaries to be violated, especially by those who “love” you.
Sample Situation: A child trying to accomplish a task continues to persist and work on it, hoping to gain a sense of accomplishment and approval. “Don't be so stubborn!” mommy says. “Just give up. There’s more important things than that to be done! Now put that stuff away and clean the house so that mommy knows you love her.”

Lesson Learned: Anything you want is not worth protecting. Only those you love can tell you what is important and what’s not. Quit thinking for yourself and just do what makes everyone else happy.

Motto: Because others are more valuable than you, you don’t have the right to maintain your own boundaries or to make decisions.


Some of us aren’t clear on what boundaries are. According to Wikipedia, “Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits. They are built out of a mix of beliefs, opinions, attitudes, past experiences and social learning.

“Personal boundaries define you as an individual, outlining your likes and dislikes, and setting the distances you allow others to approach. They include physical, mental, psychological and spiritual boundaries, involving beliefs, emotions, intuitions and self-esteem.”

If you are the child of a Narcissist and/or grew up in a dysfunctional family, you have been raised to have no boundaries. Nothing you own is yours, not even your body, certainly not your thoughts and beliefs. If you have any boundaries at all, they are in your head and you keep them to yourself because letting your NParent know about them guarantees they will be immediately disregarded, trampled, forbidden. You are not an individual, separate person to your NParent, you are an extension of him, her, or them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change when you grow up.

“Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Boundaries impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances— Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions— Emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others—”

“…boundaries are a healthy, normal, and necessary part of life. Boundaries are a way to manage one’s life and one’s interpersonal relationships—a way to set limits.”

I spent most of my childhood waiting to be 18. I really didn’t have any plans for my life after that, I was simply focussed on turning 18 because, I believed, once I was 18 I could move out of my mother’s house and she would not be able to hurt me any more. Somehow I expected that when I turned 18, not only would I have boundaries, but NM would be obligated to respect them.

I was wrong.

I had never thought of myself as being an extension of my mother until I learned about boundaries: the better your boundaries, the more autonomous you are…and I was not allowed to be autonomous, nor was I allowed to have boundaries. To even hint at having them was to invite a retaliatory rage; to give away the slightest feeling of dismay or displeasure at having my boundaries violated risked indignance, aroused suspicions, and punishment. Not only did I have to tolerate the constant and unrelenting violation of my boundaries, I had to pretend that it was ok with me, that it was no big deal, that I had no rights and that was fine with me.

Just what are we talking about here? Well, when I was a kid, NM would come into my room and “clean out” my closet, my dresser, my room…usually when I was not home. At the end of one her forays, I would be missing clothes, books, toys, cards from my grandmothers and drawings I did (“worthless trash” in NM’s estimation), and even pets. I had no voice in the matter, things just disappeared when I was not there. And I was expected not to object.

I was not allowed to have physical boundaries: if she wanted me to sit on the lap of a smelly old man who happened to be the producer of a movie she wanted me to have a part in, I was expected to do so (and I faced severe punishment when I refused). When punishing me, she would make me lay across a bed with my bare buttocks and thighs exposed. She had a thin leather strap, once a dog leash but with the metal clip removed, with which she would “spank” me. These were no spankings, they were whippings in the truest sense of the word, because The Strap left the same thin, raised red welts across my tender flesh that a whip would leave. I was not allowed to move during the whipping—if I so much as rolled to one side in my agony, I was given more lashes for attempting to get away—“defiance,” she called it. She could hit, slap, pinch, whip, push, trip, beat me and even pull my hair, but I was not allowed to even look like I wanted to protest. When I had boils (which I did during childhood—lots of them), I was not allowed to object or protest or even cry out in pain when she sat on me (to hold me still, she said) and squeezed them. I had no dominion over my own body whatsoever—any physical boundaries I might try to set were trampled with hob-nailed boots.

When I was an adolescent, she ransacked my dresser and my closet, searched my school books, coat pockets, handbag, even turned my bed out, looking for stuff. Nothing of mine was sacred, anything could—and did—disappear if she either disapproved of it or fancied it for herself. I cannot begin to count the sweaters, skirts, and tops she “borrowed” without asking and subsequently stained, stretched out of shape, or simply never returned. She snooped in everything, demanded explanations for doodles in my school notebooks, even beat the stuffing out of me one afternoon when she found some money in something of mine—I wasn’t allowed to have money until I got a job in high school, and then, only as much as she allowed me to have for bus fare and school lunches. Nothing was private, nothing was sacrosanct, and if I wanted something that she didn’t find necessary in her life (like a can of hair spray), I had to submit a justification for buying it. I could not wait to get out of there and have some privacy and autonomy!

I actually did rebel and set a boundary when I was about 16… We lived about a block from the beach and every afternoon I went down there with a towel, my books, and the dog, and did my homework while working on my tan. I came home one afternoon to find my two-piece bathing suits missing (they were bikinis by the standard of the day, but covered a great deal more than modern bikinis). Outraged—I knew exactly where they were and who took them—I went to NM’s room and searched her drawers and closet as she must have done mine to find my swimsuits. I found them, hidden under some of her lingerie, retrieved them, put one on and went down to the beach. When I got back, she was home and she was livid. How dare I go into her room without permission and go through her things? She had a yardstick in her hand and she smacked me on the bare thigh with it and I—very unexpectedly—went ballistic.

It was like I had split in two, one person standing on the sidelines watching, horrified, as the other put herself in deep, deep trouble. The other, seized by rage and indignation, snatched the yardstick out of NM’s hand and broke it in half, then put her hands on NM’s chest and pushed her, with short, sharp shoves, right out of the bedroom and slammed the door in her face. All the while this was going on, she was screaming her outrage, “Stay out of my room! Stay out of my things! And I’m too old for spanking—don’t you ever hit me again where the marks will show in my gym shorts!”

How pathetic is that? So brainwashed, so lacking in real boundaries or sense of personal power, that I couldn’t tell her not to ever hit me again, just to limit her beatings where I would not be humiliated in front of my peers with the evidence of her brutality. Not only did I not want to reveal to my peers that she still treated my like a little kid, I had come to recognize that those bruises were not badges of my mother’s brutality, they confirmed my culpability…I had gone unbelieved for so long, I no longer expected people to believe me, I just wanted to stop showing them marks on my skin that proclaimed me at fault for my mother’s volatility.

I was careful to keep my thoughts to myself, my opinions and my beliefs. Since my beliefs and values and convictions were pretty much always different from those she expressed, and knowing that she took disagreement as a challenge that she had to win at all costs, I forestalled confrontation with her by simply not informing her of what went on in my head. If she knew what my private thoughts were, she would have done her level best to change or eradicate them.

Before I reached that magical 18th birthday, I got pregnant and married and out of her house. And I expected that would be the end of her predations. She had told me that when times got tough, not to run to her for help—a boundary she set down and I never attempted to cross. And I fully expected her to respect my boundaries after I was on my own. But it didn’t work out that way. As much as she was an ignoring NM, there were times that she decided to visit me—always unannounced—for reasons known only to her. “I was in the neighbourhood” was as false an excuse as one could make, considering that she lived down by the beach and I lived a good 20 miles inland. During those visits she made it clear that even as an adult living on my own, I was not allowed to make decisions for myself without hearing her opinions on where I was wrong. I was supposed to live my life according to her dictates, even though I was on my own and a mother in my own right.

One of the problems with a dysfunctional family and boundaries is that we aren’t allowed to set our own. Someone else sets them for us and they tend to be pretty one-way: they get to set boundaries that keep you out of their business but you are not allowed to do the same. Your boundaries exist only insofar as you are admonished to keep silent about the goings-on inside the family. The problem with growing up this way is that when you reach adulthood, you don’t change: you don’t really know how to set and enforce boundaries and anybody who presumes him/herself your superior will set up the same kind of dynamic with you: your boundaries may be violated at will while you must respect the boundaries of those who have assumed a position of authority over you, be it a boss, a boyfriend, or even another family member like your sister or daughter.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family that tramples all over your boundaries sets you up for two distinct problems in adulthood: 1) an inability to set and enforce boundaries in adulthood and 2) guilt about boundary setting, viewing it as “rejection.”

Learning to set boundaries and enforce boundaries can be tough. We don’t know what is too strict a boundary, what is too lax; we are conditioned to permit any kind of intrusion into our privacy, any kind of control, and sometimes it is difficult for us to even recognize these incursions. After a 13 year marriage to a paranoid malignant narcissist I took a two year hiatus from men and just worked on healing and becoming a healthier person so I would attract healthier men. When I resumed dating I went out with a guy I’ll call Bill who, on the surface, seemed nice enough but I couldn’t quite pin down my unease. One day Bill and I were in a video rental shop and I asked to open an account. The clerk was asking questions and writing down the answers…the problem was, Bill wasn’t letting me answer, he was just taking it over. Finally I interrupted him and said “Bill, who is opening this account, you or me?” He looked puzzled and said “Well, you, of course,” to which I replied “Then kindly allow me to answer the questions, since they are about me, after all.” He sulked all the way back to my place. On another occasion, Bill and I took a car trip down to LA (we lived in Silicon Valley). On the way back, I got food poisoning at lunch and by the time we came into this quaint and romantic little inn he had booked us for the night, I was desperately ill. He was very unhappy with me that I wouldn’t “set it aside” and be romantic and sexual with him…he even complained about how much he paid for the suite and how much trouble he went to in booking just the right room…I was sick and was up and down to the bathroom all night while he sulked. My expectation that he would respect my feeling ill was stomped all over—he moaned and complained all night and in the morning assumed I was well and ready to be frisky when, in fact, I felt like death warmed over. We parted shortly after that trip, for I had seen that nothing, not even my being sick with food poisoning, put a dent in his sense of entitlement.

My brief relationship with Bill taught me a lot about boundaries—setting and maintaining them—and reinforced my resolve to kick to the kerb any man who could not or would not respect them. The next couple of boyfriends didn’t even last as long as Bill because not only was I noticing their boundary violations, I wasn’t sticking around long enough to let them stomp on my sensibilities. Eventually I found a lovely man who understood and respected boundaries and I married him.

We often find boundaries difficult to deal with because we equate them with rejection and we are conditioned to put the feelings of others before our own…and we therefore fear that setting a boundary with someone will be perceived as a rejection. “Dysfunctional families are often dysfunctional in large part because they don't set healthy boundaries. As a result, during their crucial years of development, the children of…dysfunctional parents very frequently are rejected by their loved ones. Children from dysfunctional families commonly develop a hypersensitivity to rejection as a result.” Because setting boundaries is alien to us and because we, unlike our dysfunctional parents, retain our compassion and empathy, setting a boundary may feel like a rejection to us. We feel like we are rejecting the person (or people) who would be most affected by our boundary and we feel guilty for it despite the fact that boundary setting is actually healthy for us and for the people we expect to respect it.

Even though we intellectually recognize the difference between reinforcing boundaries and rejection it does not mean that our emotional perceptions follow suit. This make it difficult to set boundaries for dates such that we end up being promiscuous not because we are lusty, sexual women but because we cannot say “No.” We have been conditioned since the cradle to let someone else be our boss and we know the sting of rejection…and we also know the crush of guilt. We say “yes” to spare the guy what we perceive as rejection and ourselves the guilt that comes from saying “No.”

This carries over into our marriages and our mothering. We agree, we permit, when we don’t want to in order to spare our husband or child the feeling of rejection that we would have felt—and to spare ourselves the guilt that comes along to haunt us when we hurt someone. It is neither good for our marital relationship, as it breeds resentment that our husbands can’t read our minds and just know we wouldn’t like something nor is it good for our children when we cannot set limits for them because we don’t want to bear the irrational guilt our psyches will visit upon us when we violate one of the old boundaries set down by our dysfunctional parents when we were helpless children.

So, for a myriad of reasons, it is important for us to close the door on people violating our boundaries and to learn to set and enforce boundaries in our own lives. It is the only way we can ever gain respect and maintain respect from those around us and teach it to our children.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
7 (2). Thou shalt be hyper-vigilant (there are actually two #7s in the original document!)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thou shalt not feel: The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 6

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families 
         by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

6. Thou shalt not feel.

Sample Situation: A child cries because her best friend is moving away. “You shouldn’t feel like that. Stop crying!” yells her mother angrily.

Application: Since any display of emotion might betray the family secrets that all is not perfect, all emotions must be repressed and numbed. After all, we’re a normal family. We’re not like other people who get angry, sad, or afraid.

Motto: Be respectable. After all, respectable people never show their emotions or pain.


In a dysfunctional family, everything must be controlled lest information leak out and besmirch the family’s image. It is important to recognize up front that the image the dysfunctional parents hold in their minds of the family is not necessarily the image that observers hold…and it is the image in the minds of the parents that is the important one—any others can be discounted, minimized, or ignored.

The heads of dysfunctional families tend to be control freaks and they expect each member of the household to be able to control not just their thoughts and actions, but their feelings—both emotional and physical.

I think one of the reasons I was selected for the Scapegoat crown was that I was stubbornly independent and asked the wrong questions…NM tagged me with the “defiant” label when I was very little—I cannot recall a time that she did not describe me as “defiant” and having an “over-active imagination.” I, of course, saw it much differently…I didn’t see things her way and I had the temerity to doggedly cling to my own views and opinions.

“Oh, that doesn’t hurt!” she would say, her voice dripping contempt and disdain, “stop your blubbering!”

How the hell would she know if it hurt or not? I would think to myself resentfully. She’s not in my skin…maybe getting sat on by a person twice her size and having a swollen, tender, exquisitely painful boil squeezed like a toothpaste tube didn’t hurt her, but it damn sure hurt me!

When she took The Strap to me, the same control issues ruled. I had to take my pants down and present my bare behind and legs, then lay across the bed. I was not allowed to move, no matter how long or how hard she whipped me…if I wriggled or even looked like I was trying to get away, she would redouble her efforts, whipping me longer and harder. My vocal reactions were also controlled by her…and they were based on her whim of the moment. I always gritted my teeth and was silent in the beginning because once I started crying, it was almost impossible to stop. If she wanted to hear me screaming she would view my silence as further defiance and she would say something like “Think you can take it, do you? Well, we’ll see about that…I can keep this up until you have to holler!” If I started out crying, she would invariably demand that I stop, often telling me that I was “over-reacting,” that she wasn’t hitting me that hard to warrant those screams, but she could, if I really wanted a reason to scream bloody murder. As an adult I hear people sometimes remark on my stoicism and high threshold of pain—wonder where it came from…

The heads of dysfunctional families must be in control of everything. This can cause a lot of friction between the adults if one of them doesn’t like being controlled to the degree his/her partner demands. And there is no trust in such a family: if there was trust, there would be no need for the extreme control. The adults do not trust each other or the children—even the Golden Child must abide by the rules of not feeling.

“But my GC Sister was a screaming drama queen!” you object. OK…was that real emotion you were seeing? Or a manipulative display of rage designed to get her what she wanted? Narcissists use emotions like tools, which means they must be able to control them. This was one of the more frightening aspects of my NM, in fact. I can recall numbly enduring one of her Nrages, carefully schooling my face into exactly the right expression—a combination of attentiveness slightly tinged with fear—watching her bloody-red lips move, covering and revealing, covering and revealing those crooked, yellow, nicotine- and coffee-stained teeth to the accompaniment of her shrieks of outrage and bellows of wrath—and suddenly hearing the telephone ring. The terrifying thing was not her over-the-top display of bombast and fury but its sudden cessation and seamless segue into a cheery, breezy “Hello?” when she picked up the phone, followed by an equally serene conversation with her caller. It was terrifying to watch, a person’s emotions abruptly toggled on and off like a light switch…it meant that I could never relax, never feel safe, because she could go from quietly reading a book to a terrorizing rage in literally the blink of an eye…she could control it, but I couldn’t predict it with any hope of accuracy.

But emotions are not necessarily forbidden in the dysfunctional family—it is control of them that counts. You must control them according to the wishes of those who control the family, which is usually one or both of the parents. So, maybe your GCSister was a screaming drama queen—and maybe that is what your parents fostered. “Oh, Lily is so high strung, poor darling. She is a very picky eater and normal fabrics just break her poor skin out so we have to buy her silk underwear and nighties, and even her toys…” Then again, as long as your GCSister did what your parents wanted her to do, perhaps she was free to do what she wanted and if that included having raging tantrums when you got one more piece of candy than she did, they were okay with that—they key here being that she must do what they want and in exchange, she can do what she wants.

This can backfire. My GC Bro was pretty much a little terror, and pretty much allowed to do what he wanted by NM. Things got a bit out of hand, however, when it was time for him to start kindergarten…he didn’t want to start school and none of his pleading, tantrums or rages moved our mother to change her mind. So, he took it in his own hands and tried to burn the school down!

The school was a rickety relic of WW2 military dependent housing. Hastily built of now-tinder dry wood, one of the buildings, the Quonset-shaped auditorium, had already been condemned as a fire hazard. All of the buildings were built with a crawlspace beneath them and a raised wooden “boardwalk” connected the buildings together. One of my friends saw my brother go under the auditorium with some matches in his hand, and she ran to tell me. It must have been a weekend because my father was home and it was he who crawled under the building to drag my brother out and it was he who punished him. I am pretty sure that if it has been up to NM, she would not have punished him. Why? Because she punished me for being a tattletale!

My brother, who was accustomed to getting what he wanted, had tried to burn the school down so that he wouldn’t have to go to school. Believing himself entitled to have what he wanted and unwilling to take “no” for an answer, since he couldn’t sway our parents to give him what he wanted, he decided to take out the school: they couldn’t make him go to a school that wasn’t there. I can only imagine the possible repercussions had he succeeded: it was the immediate post-War years and schools were in double sessions (one group of kids attending classes from 6 am to noon, a second group in the same classrooms from noon to 6 pm) due to a shortage of classrooms… He might have been the Golden Child and enjoyed entitlements and preferential treatment, but he wasn’t allowed to express his feelings, if they contravened what NM wanted, any more than I was, so he resorted to sneaky, passive-aggressive behaviours guaranteed to get him his way—and it would probably have worked if he hadn’t been spotted and I hadn’t tattled.

In a dysfunctional family we can express only “approved” feelings. I hated the “singing career” my mother was trying to carve out for me but if you asked me, I would smile and tell you how much I loved singing and performing…it was the approved feeling and everything else not only had to be kept to myself, it had to be kept to myself in such a way that NM would not have to address or acknowledge the truth of my feelings. I think most of us find it too stressful to keep up the ruse and ultimately cease to feel anything except that which we are permitted to feel. I know that I eventually became completely numb to all feelings but despair and hopelessness—although I could access rage at times—and it was a long and painful road back, full of bumps and obstacles as I came up against the taboos against telling the truth, the prohibitions against feeling outraged or even angry at unjust treatment. I was to be the family “problem child,” I was to take on the fault for everything and I was to do so without complaint. “Like it or lump it,” NM used to say to me when she saw protest forming on my face. “My way or the highway.”

It takes a lot of pain to teach a child not to feel, to become numb to not only his own emotions but to those of others. Some of us are left only with rage, others are so broken that even the empowerment of rage escapes us. I can remember being so depressed that I would lay on the bed on my back, eyes unfocussed, mind a blank, almost not breathing, feeling nothing…almost serene in my extreme withdrawal and near immobility. It was almost too much of an effort to get out of bed to go to the bathroom…sometimes I would get half way there—10 feet at most—and just collapse down the wall, unable to walk any further. I was married to an N, a paranoid, controlling man, and I had finally succeeded in feeling nothing except the vast yawning chasm of emptiness that seemed to have overtaken my body.

We first learn not to express any feelings except those permitted by our dysfunctional families in order to protect the family; we later learn to feel nothing in order to protect ourselves from the family. Ironic, because the family does not deserve our protection and we, when we master numbness, harm rather than protect ourselves.

It is of critical importance for the dysfunctional family to look “respectable,” at least in the eyes of the adults. Anything that does not fit the head of the family’s definition of “respectable” becomes forbidden. People take on crippling debt loads in order to create and maintain that “respectable” façade, buying cars and homes and furniture and clothes, jewellery and wine and other things they cannot afford…whatever they perceive is necessary to erect and maintain that façade of respectability. Everything family members have, wear, do, eat, or say affects that façade. Your wishes, desires, opinions and feelings are unimportant unless they contribute to shoring up and maintaining the façade. And if you are the scapegoat child, your contribution is to be the silent, acceding receptacle for blame, the one who generates sympathy for the rest of your family with your (real or imagined) disappointing behaviour. Your feelings cannot be allowed to matter—indeed, their very existence are not even acknowledged.

Anything that gets in the way of keeping up the façade of a perfect and respectable family is frowned upon, and that includes emotions. You cannot be compassionate to anyone, lest you feel compassion for those whom you manipulate and exploit, you cannot permit the least display of a disallowed emotion in a public setting, be it a restaurant or park, school or church or work, lest those emotions get loose inappropriately. To prevent those emotions from coming to the fore, they must be ruthlessly stomped down, stuffed, eradicated, both in the adults and the children. That those feelings may emerge in other ways like alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, self-harm and depression are not acknowledged.

Emotions can be dangerous, unpredictable things and in a dysfunctional family they are best managed by eradication, the earlier, the better. If, by the time your kids start school you have succeeded in having them stuff their feelings, you don’t have to worry about something being revealed that could damage the family image that you hold dear.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
7. Thou shalt allow your boundaries to be violated, especially by those who “love” you.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Protect family secrets: The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 5

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
5. Thou shalt protect family secrets.

Sample Situation: A member of the family commits suicide. Since this is not acceptable to discuss even in the family, all pictures, memorabilia, and anything else which would indicate that this family member had ever lived here must be discarded. After all, no one in our family would commit suicide, would they???

Application: Our family doesn't have any problems, does it? Even if we did, we don't have to discuss or deal with them. After all, they're not that important. We can simply deny their existence so that we don't have to deal with the grief.

Motto: Life's too painful to have to deal with the pain and the problems. Just ignore them, they'll go away.


This may sound a lot like Commandment 4, but there is a subtly significant difference: Commandment 4 is primarily aimed at keeping secrets about individuals: you can’t tell anybody that you are a scapegoat or that Daddy is an alcoholic or that Mum takes drugs or that sister is promiscuous; Commandment 5 focuses on keeping secrets—denial—inside the family, lying to ourselves to protect the image of the family not only to outsiders but to ourselves as well.

Off the top of my head I can think of several instances of this in my family—no effort required. From my early adulthood onwards I was aware that I had lived with my maternal grandparents from about the age of 2 to almost 4. I didn’t know why and there was an unspoken disapproval about asking. Nobody talked about it. In the family photo albums there were no pictures of me or my younger brother during that period. It was just a big hole in the continuum of my life. It was not until someone on my father’s side of the family brought it up that the story of my being abandoned by my mother for adoption at the age of 2—while she kept my infant brother—came out. But still, nobody was forthcoming with any details and over time I had to piece together what I know of the story from random remarks made by family members, which had the odd effect of opening a few doors into long forgotten memories.

I wasn’t allowed to talk about it nor was I allowed to ask questions. When I did, my stepmother took me aside and hissed that talking about “those times” made my father sad, so I was not to bring the subject up, ever. My mother, of course, denied it ever happened and her parents would only say that I lived with them until I was almost four years old, but never why. And so now my mother and father are dead, my stepmother and my grandmother also gone, and I never learned the whole truth. This was one family secret that pretty much stayed a secret: nobody alive today knows all of what really happened back then.

Another secret is still being actively kept a secret and I have only been able to glean the barest of details. My brother’s son apparently has been in prison…more than once, according to some sources…but this is “not discussed.” Furthermore, I heard from one source that the son has essentially been spurned by his father as a result, although other family members keep in contact. Given that this brother was the GC in our family, it does not surprise me that he behaves towards his only child the way NM behaved towards me...if your kids do something you don’t like or disagree with, abandon them. So, my nephew is presently the central figure in another Family Secret that must be kept quiet not only to the neighbours, but to the rest of the family as well. It reflects poorly on my brother that his son is a felon, and we are never, ever allowed to reflect poorly on the Ns in our lives without paying a heavy penalty.

When my oldest son was 21, he was mugged in a parking lot and left for dead. While he was in a coma, his sister flew to Boston to take the role as “next of kin” (why I didn’t do it is a whole other dysfunctional family saga). When she arrived she met my son’s girlfriend who was heavily pregnant. She advised this young woman to abandon my son and when her baby was born, list the father on the child’s birth certificate as “unknown.” I know this happened because my daughter told me what she did, and the girl took her advice.

When he came out of his coma and went through rehab and was able to function again (although he has permanent damage to the right side of his body), he wanted to see his child. I am not proud of the fact that I did not tell him the truth right away—I fully expected the girl to reconsider and when that didn’t happen, I expected my daughter to own up to what she did, re-contact the girl and re-advise her. I kept expecting my daughter to “do the right thing” by her brother and fix that which she had broken, but it became of those Family Secrets—only my daughter and I and the child’s mother knew the truth and they weren’t talking. Eventually I came out and told my son the truth…now I am a “liar” and am “trying to stir up trouble” because nobody will admit the truth.

When my NM died, she divided her estate between my GC bro and my daughter, NM’s Mini-Me. I did not attend the reading of the will, by my GCBro, who was executor of the estate, read to me the portion of the Will pertaining to me over the telephone. NM specifically named me and my two sons and GCBro’s son saying we were disinherited for reasons we already knew (which was bullshit in the case of at least two of the specifically disinherited individuals). Did my daughter, who inherited a six figure sum, tell her brothers the truth? No, she told them that NM had left half of the estate to her and her brothers but she was to be the administrator of the funds.

Since I believed she was going to share the money, I let her lie stand. No point in stirring up trouble where it’s not necessary, right? And so my NM’s perfidy became another Family Secret, my brother, daughter and I all aware of the terms of NM’s will, but my sons and other family members kept in the dark. Why did she do this? I assumed at first that she wished to continue to fiction of my grandmother’s virtuousness in counterpoint to my revelations of the truth about her but I realized sometime later that this gave her a stranglehold on her brothers and cemented their loyalty to her. But still, she planned to share, I decided to keep my mouth shut.

My oldest son, the one with the brain injury, approached his sister a year or two later and asked for enough money to buy himself a new car, his old one having become highly unreliable. It was with great indignation that he phoned me, demanding that I call her and reprimand her for spending “his” money on her brand new McMansion. It was then—and from me—that he learned the truth. So another Family Secret bit the dust and there went another nail in my coffin...I was again a “liar.”

When I was a girl, illegitimate pregnancies where considered shameful events that often became Family Secrets. The offending daughter would be shipped off to a home for unwed mothers, her baby taken from her and given to strangers to adopt, and when she resumed her place in the family, nothing more was to be said about it. Alternatively, the girl married and had her baby and people counted on their fingers and whispered behind their hands, but this became an “open secret,” where many people knew but no one acknowledged.

It was no surprise, then, when I turned up pregnant and 17 and unmarried, that NM wanted me to either abort my pregnancy (illegal in all 50 states at that time) or go to a maternity home and come home without the baby. My adamant refusal was a shock to her, as I had never stood up to her before. NM was doing her best to create another Family Secret, a fiction in which my child never existed, that only a select few family members knew I had been pregnant and NM’s image remained unsullied (as this reflected poorly on the parents of the pregnant girl—they shared her shame). She failed…I got married to a man who was not the baby’s father and that became the Family Secret—she refused to acknowledge that I did not meet the man until I was four months pregnant and even made up stories that I went off to his apartment when I was supposed to be at the movies with a boy from my high school class (she even told me this in a letter, saying she followed me to such places which, of course, never happened because, among other things, I had not yet met him and he didn’t have an apartment, he lived aboard a US Navy ship!)

This Family Secret continues to be believed by my daughter even though I have been able to present her with at least three witnesses—including my first husband—to corroborate what I had to say. Ironically, that baby my mother tried to force me to abort in Mexico (another Family Secret that was not believed when I told), that same child she tried to force me to give up for adoption, is my daughter. That baby I fought so hard to keep alive in utero and whom I adamantly refused to give up for adoption, became NM’s Mini-Me, believed all of NM’s lies, inherited half of NM’s estate and took up the mantle of the N-Queen in the family when NM died.

Every family has skeletons in the closet but dysfunctional families create them…and they hide them so well, you may not even be aware that they exist. If you live in an N family, you may be so blindered, as I was, that you do not even suspect the existence of a dark little secret even in the face of clues like nobody talks about a certain time frame, no pictures in the family album, the subject is changed when you bring something up.

Keeping family secrets is damaging to everybody involved. Those who must keep the secrets must deny reality and truth to do so; those who are not privy to the truth operate under deceit without even being aware; those who insist on making and keeping the secret avoid rightful consequences. Honesty and transparency are always the best policies, but in the dysfunctional family, they are anathema: secrets that protect the image of the family--or certain family members--from the stain of an unpleasant truth are the order of the day.

If you come from a dysfunctional family—and all families that have a narcissistic parent are dysfunctional—you are probably helping to keep a Family Secret or two…or there may be Secrets being kept from you. Uncle Bob who died a hero in Desert Storm? He committed suicide; Cousin Alice, that quiet, withdrawn little mouse of a woman who follows your overbearing aunt like a shadow? She hasn’t always been quiet and withdrawn…she was forced to have an abortion when she was in her teens and her mother has been punishing her every day for it since…more than ten years. Your brother Zach whom everybody thinks is in Africa bringing Jesus to the heathens…he’s gay, and after your father threw him out for being a “goddamned faggot,” he moved to San Francisco. Your sister Katie is in a psychiatric hospital because she quit taking her meds for her bipolar disorder, not working her way around the world like your parents told you. Relatives with mental illness, criminal behaviour, converts to religions or adherents of lifestyles your family disapproves of, suicide, interracial marriages…all of these and more are fodder for the Family Secrets machine.

So what do you do about it? You think very, very carefully if you think you want to reveal a truth. Consider what the consequences are likely to be…and there will be consequences…and whether or not revealing the truth you have to speak is worth the penalty you will have to pay. Don’t assume that just because someone instrumental in keeping the secret has died that there will be nobody to defend it…there will be and you will be called a liar and worse. Weigh the pros and cons carefully before you decide to open your mouth and even then, expect that nobody will be willing to believe you. Family Secrets often outlive those who needed and created them…and few people, if any, will appreciate a Secret being spilled.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
6. Thou shalt not feel.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Keeping Secrets: The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 4

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

4. Thou shalt keep secrets from others.

Sample Situation: Daddy has a “secret” that only he and his little girl know. Of course, she can’t tell Mommy. If she does, Daddy will hurt you and Mommy might leave and never come back.

Application: A child’s most important duty is to protect the image of their parents and family in the community. Watch what you say and be careful not to act funny around other people either. After all, as family we have to protect each other. If you stay quiet, you’re loyal. If you can't, we won’t love you.

Motto: To really love someone is to show loyalty by protecting their “secrets” at all costs.


This is the “don’t air our dirty linen/laundry in public” rule taken a step further. And while the example here clearly alludes to sexual abuse of a little girl by her father, it has much wider implications.

First of all, this is the genesis of the DoNM’s feeling of guilt when she feels like sticking up for herself, when she feels ill-used, when she has even the most fleeting fantasy of vengeance or pay-back. When her natural self-preservation instincts come to the fore, she smothers them with guilt, thereby proving her loyalty and love to the family. And they show their love for her in return by not abandoning her.

Of course, there may never have been a conversation about this with her parents, no bargain struck. Over time and through making mistakes, listening to conversations about others, observing the treatment of others, and being given subtle but clear indications of what is expected…and what is at stake…children learn what is acceptable in their household and what is not. In the dysfunctional family, preserving the family’s external image by keeping the internal chaos under wraps is the primary job of each family member. She who will tell the truth—even to other family members—risks not only the wrath of the dysfunctional parent(s) but rejection and emotional abandonment, a terrifying prospect to a child.

There are, of course, children who speak up. I was one of those kids…my NM had already abandoned me, physically, when I was around two years old. I lived with my grandparents (her parents) for nearly two years until a reconciliation between my estranged parents was engineered, and then I was back to her. I was emotionally bonded to my grandparents and to my father, and for my brutal and ignoring mother I had nothing but fear. Whether it was inculcated in me by those who loved me or whether it was something inherent in my character I will never know, but I was passionately aware of and dedicated to “fairness” from my earliest memories, and indignant that my own mother so blatantly treated me so unfairly. It was not an environment calculated to instill a sense of loyalty in me…quite the opposite, in fact, because I was acutely aware that being rejected and abandoned by my NM was entirely possible—she had done it before—and that someone would rescue me as my grandparents had done. No, fear of being abandoned by my NM, fear of rejection, fear of losing her love—I don’t think any of those really informed my behaviour and feelings as a youngster because they were already a part of my life: she had abandoned me, she had rejected me, and it was clear to me that she loved my brother but not me. I knew this when I was five.

I went back and forth between protecting the secrets and revealing them. With the natural narcissism of extreme youth, my primary motivation was self-interest. I wanted to get away from my mother. I don’t remember wanting her to change, I suppose because I was unable to trust her and therefore unable to trust a change to be real. I simply wanted to be away from her. When she abused me I didn’t tell my father because she threatened me with further abuse if I did…after time, she didn’t have to threaten because I knew the penalty: if my father confronted her for abusing me, she would assume I had “tattled,” and the minute he was out of the house, there would be hell to pay.

But I did tell others, sometimes in plain language, sometimes in less obvious terms. In Sunday School, for example, I asked if the Commandment to honour your father and mother applied if they hurt you…an astute, interested adult would have picked up on the veiled reference in my question—nobody did. I quit telling when it became obvious that the response was almost always some variation of “What did you do to provoke your mother?” and nobody believed me when I said “nothing.”

Dysfunctional families have lots of secrets and sometimes the secrets extend outside the nuclear family and are even multigenerational. The secrets can be “open secrets,” like someone in the family is a raging alcoholic but nobody speaks of it or acknowledges it; or it can be a “closed secret” which is held by only a few family members…like sexual abuse in the family or physical abuse or illegal activities. Any secret that might make the family or anyone in it look bad must never be revealed to outsiders.

One of the secrets that virtually all dysfunctional families keep is the secret of the scapegoat. Nobody outside the family is to know that one child has been singled out as the receptacle for blame. If outsiders deduce for themselves or believe the scapegoat’s tale of mistreatment, the family rallies round and rationalizes whatever the outsider observed, often blaming the scapegoat further by calling her a liar, saying she has a “vivid” or “overactive” imagination, or creating a rationalization for the treatment that blames the scapegoat. A dysfunctional family will not even admit to itself that a scapegoat exists in its midst for that would be admitting unjust treatment of one of the members. They cannot acknowledge that one of the family members is a scapegoat, but if one member is treated differently from…more harshly than…the others, that is justified by the behaviour of the individual in question.

The fact of designating one (or more) of the children as a scapegoat plus keeping such a fact secret impacts not only the scapegoat child but the Golden Child as well. The Golden Child not only learns that it is acceptable to blame (and even punish) another for his transgressions and abuse, he learns that his victim should protect him from the consequences of his behaviour by keeping it secret. He further learns that his victim should remain loyal to him in spite of his mistreatment and that he can ensure his victim’s loyalty by threatening abandonment. Not only is this the world in which the Golden Child lives, it is his model for future relationships. But, insidiously, the Golden Child—who, at least in the beginning is just a child—also learns another lesson through this: Golden Child you may be, but blab the family secrets and you will be no better off than your scapegoat sibling. All support and love, privileges and entitlements will be withdrawn. Keep the family secrets or else!

In retrospect, I suspect this is what so firmly turned my brother against me when we were children: when my parents separated and my father asked who we would like to live with, I unhesitatingly chose him. I can still recall how indignant my brother was, like it was totally unthinkable that I would choose our father over our mother. But we were just children and my choice was based on a single very simple fact: she hit me every damned day and he didn’t. My brother behaved as if I had betrayed him, whereas I felt his preference for the person to abused me daily was betraying me. We became adversaries that day, and we have been estranged ever since. I can see my daughter in this as well—she has taken great umbrage at my blog for the very reason that it reveals those ugly secrets, and she has done exactly what Ns do in such circumstances: she has rejected me just as my NM did, calling me a liar and cutting all contact.

In a dysfunctional family, secrets abound. There are individual secrets, the ones kept from other members of the family, like drug use or promiscuity, affairs, destructive habits like gambling or shopping addictions; and there are family secrets, secrets the family conspires—and sometimes the conspiracy is tacit rather than acknowledged—to be kept from those outside the family or, perhaps, a faction of the family that isn’t privy to the truth behind the secrets. Protecting the secrets protects the family in that the silence keeps away those who might take action on some of those secrets, which would change the delicate balance of roles that allows the family to function. To allow an outsider to see the dysfunction is to risk destroying the family, changing it into something different, even forcing some members of the family to change their comfortable, well-known and beneficial roles.

Dysfunctional families exist in that form for a reason: somebody gets something out of it: at least one, but often both of the parents, although one or more of the children may benefit from the dysfunctional structure as well. To let the secrets out risks causing the dynamic of the family to change, which would mean a loss of benefit to those who gain from the dysfunction. That such a change would benefit the scapegoat child is immaterial—the scapegoat “…is the family member who bears the burden of being the cause of all the family problems. Instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, parents place blame on the scapegoat child. The scapegoat function is to distract from the central issue. Focus is shifted from the parents’ issues that are creating conflict to the scapegoat’s bad behavior and actions as the problem source.”  It does not benefit the family to do something that could benefit the scapegoat and it changes—harms, in their view—the family to let the secrets out that let the scapegoat off the hook and brings focus to what it really going on behind those closed doors.

The secrets must be kept—it demonstrates your loyalty to the parents and the family and ensures that they will continue to care for you, even at the cost of the truth and your own sense of self. In the scheme of things, those don’t matter: maintaining the family façade is everything.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
5. Thou shalt protect family secrets.