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Recovering From Narcissistic Family Abuse


Narcissistic Family Abuse is a systemic issue resulting in the chronic maltreatment of a child / adult child, often in the form of scapegoating. Child victims and adult survivors will need to pursue individualized healing as healing the narcissistic family system is rarely possible. Adult survivors who seek to recover from this form of insidious systemic abuse can benefit from practicing the eleven guiding recovery principles covered in this article.

I’m so pleased to be able to write for my blog again after an unexpected health emergency resulted in my needing to take a 7-month medical leave of absence. I’m still on the mend but overall doing well and I am enjoying reconnecting with clients, YouTube subscribers, and all of you who have subscribed to receive my articles on family scapegoating abuse (FSA). This month I’m focusing on Narcissistic Family Abuse, which invariably includes the scapegoating of a child / adult child family member.

If you’d prefer to hear this discussion via my YouTube channel, you can watch my video on recovering from Narcissistic Family Abuse here.

In my introductory book on family scapegoating abuse (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, I distinguish between dysfunctional family systems that scapegoat versus narcissistic family scapegoating abuse. As I have repeatedly stressed in this blog (and elsewhere), family scapegoating abuse is systemic and can occur in any type of dysfunctional family system, not just a narcissistic one; however, when scapegoating is driven primarily by a narcissist – or even a malignant narcissist – the damage to the targeted child / adult child can be severe, as discussed in my article The Scapegoat Child and the Malignant Narcissist Parent.

If you have been impacted by a family system that was narcissistic in its construction (this includes covert narcissism as well as overt), it is unlikely that anyone within your family-of-origin (including extended family members) has acknowledged the various types of ‘invisible’ (psycho-emotional) abuse you were subjected to, regardless of how many times you’ve tried to explain it (read my article Recognizing Narcissistic Family Scapegoating Abuse to learn more about what makes a family system narcissistic).

Alternatively, you may just be waking up to the fact that you suffered from ‘hidden’ abuse growing up and that your nervous system has been affected – Specifically, my original FSA research revealed that many FSA adult survivors suffer from complex trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms, something I discuss at length in my book and in various articles here on my blog.

You may be wondering how you can heal from what might seem like a lifetime of gaslighting, reality distortion, and other types of maltreatment that may have been covertly or openly supported by members of your family – the same family members who today blatantly dismiss and/or ignore your distress and/or deny the ways in which they have actively contributed to it.

You’re not alone – Nearly all adult survivors of FSA who have worked with me in my private practice have initially wondered the same thing.

Below are eleven guiding principles I developed to support my FSA recovery coaching clients in their healing process from narcissistic family abuse, which you may find helpful as well:

  1. Cultivate the belief that healing from narcissistic family abuse is possible: So many clients feel completely hopeless when they first come to see me for help with their family issues. When the family dysfunction and/or abuse is severe, they will typically express that they feel shattered, broken, helpless, and afraid, while letting me know that they doubt any type of healing or recovery is possible for them. What I say to these clients is “Believe nothing; entertain possibilities.” I also let these same clients know that I will always see (and reflect) their innate wholeness while we work together until they can experience this at/one/ment within themselves. As the poet and musician Leonard Cohen once wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” This sentiment is captured perfectly in the Japanese art of Kintsugi (today’s featured blog photo), which is a process of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with urushi lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The cracks, now filled with precious metals, create a uniquely beautiful work of art, which provides a wonderful analogy for healing from family abuse and the reclamation and restoration of our true self.
  2. Don’t expect others to understand what happened to you in your family-of-origin: Most people simply will not ‘get’ the types of behaviors you’ve been subjected to within your narcissistic family system, including siblings or extended relatives you thought might possibly relate to your experiences. Remember, narcissistic family abuse is often subtle and covert. It can be difficult to pinpoint and recognize, making it an extremely challenging form of abuse to describe to others. Sadly, the response you’re most likely to get from people who don’t understand this form of abuse is, “Why can’t you just get over your childhood and move on?” (or something to that effect).
  3. Narcissistic family members will not take responsibility for their harmful behaviors – ever: When it comes to dealing with a narcissist or narcissistically-driven systemic processes, it is critical that one is clear on the type of person and dynamics they are dealing with. Narcissism is an intractable condition. The narcissistic family member(s) who behave abusively toward you, whether covertly or overtly, are not going to change. This means your family system dynamics also will not change. Narcissists do not have the ego strength to examine themselves honestly and admit when they are wrong. They rarely willingly enter individual or family therapy. Instead, they engage in behavior known as ‘DARVO’ (Dr. Jennifer Freyd), which stands for ‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender’. Learn more about DARVO and family scapegoating abuse in my article here:
  4. Healing from Narcissistic Family Abuse is a one-person job (with support from helpful outsiders): Although the journey is long and fraught with challenges, healing from the damage of narcissistic family abuse is possible, but only if you are willing to make significant changes and take the necessary steps required to recover from the various psycho-emotional injuries you’ve sustained. Having the support of a knowledgeable, trauma-informed therapist who has a good understanding of Family Systems and family roles (including the ‘scapegoat’ or ‘Identified Patient’ role) can make all the difference in your recovery progression. A support group of some kind, whether in-person or online, can also be incredibly helpful. I encourage you to check out this list of recovery resources I put together for FSA adult survivors in case something catches your interest.
  5. Awareness is the first step in the healing/recovery journey: You cannot possibly heal from something which you have no understanding of. Said differently, you cannot tend to a wound if you don’t even know where the wound is. Therefore, educating yourself and learning all you can from trustworthy sources who are knowledgeable (and ideally appropriately accredited) in the areas of narcissism, ‘invisible’ abuse, and dysfunctional / narcissistic family systems is critical. As you learn to identify behaviors associated with narcissistic family abuse, you can explore what effect these types of maltreatment have had on you and what changes you will need to make to protect yourself from further harm.
  6. Let go of the need to understand WHY: “Why does my family treat me this way?” “Why am I the scapegoat?” “Why can’t they see what they’re doing to me?” And on and on it goes. Wanting to understand the ‘why’ of narcissistic family abuse or ‘why’ narcissists behave the way they do is entirely understandable, but these sorts of ruminations will not serve you in the end and are a waste of your intrapsychic energy – energy that is better spent on thoughts, actions, and behaviors that support your healing and recovery.
  7. Open Yourself Up to Grief, Anger (aka ‘Righteous Rage’), and Radical Acceptance: I’ve discussed all three of these facets of recovery in multiple blog articles here, as well as in my book. What’s important to note is that as you begin to understand and accept what happened to you in your family (including the injustices you’ve experienced that are unlikely to ever be righted, and the losses you’ve suffered that are unlikely to ever be fully and properly recognized and acknowledged – by anyone), you will slowly come to realize that you cannot change or correct the past. You will also need to eventually accept that you cannot change your dysfunctional/narcissistic family system dynamics, which are more than likely being driven by generations of unrecognized trauma (including ancestral trauma). Such an unreserved, complete and total acceptance of reality just as it is is known as ‘radical acceptance’, and the idea (and act) of forgiveness may or may not factor into this, depending on your personal beliefs. There’s also a (trauma-informed) reason I focus on ‘radical acceptance’ versus ‘forgiveness’ when it comes to any type of abuse when working with my clients, which you can learn more about by reading my article on radical acceptance.
  8. Understand you did nothing to cause your own abuse: This should seem obvious, but clinically we know that many adult survivors of narcissistic family abuse question their reality due to having been gaslighted by one or both parents growing up (gaslighting is when the abuser intentionally distorts reality to control and/or subdue their victim). You may have had it drilled into your head that any issues you have in regard to family relationships are YOUR fault – which directly corresponds with ‘DARVO’ (mentioned earlier in this article). This is how a child is instilled with toxic shame, which in turn leads to self-doubt, low self-esteem, fear, and trauma responses like ‘fawning along with ‘submit’ behaviors. If you have a history of blaming yourself when other people treat you badly, I encourage you to explore how this may tie into your family-of-origin dynamics. Part of the tragedy of childhood abuse is that we tend to “go to what we know,” which is why many narcissistic family abuse survivors find themselves involved with abusive, narcissistic people as adults. Understanding at the deepest level that your being abused has nothing to do with your character, anything you did or did not do, and who you were or are serves as a good antidote against ending up with yet another abuser.
  9. Learn what boundaries are – and how to set them (and hold them): I once heard this saying: “Without boundaries, there is no true freedom.” This may seem paradoxical but it is an intriguing concept to think about. For example, can we be a ‘true self’, i.e., truly a ‘self’, if we are boundary-less – If you don’t know where you end and another person begins? If you feel guilty or experience a sense of shame when you set limits, you were likely conditioned since birth to be enmeshed with others and codependent and/or you may have developed the ‘fawn’ trauma response as a means of surviving your narcissistic family system – something you may wish to further investigate and explore. One thing I warn my clients about: Be prepared for the you-know-what to hit the fan when you begin to communicate your boundaries clearly with others, including family members, and even long-term friends. Your having boundaries when you formerly did not have them can be disconcerting – even shocking – to others, especially if you were a ‘fawn’ type and easy to manipulate and control. Expect to encounter resistance and expect to feel pressured to “change back” to how you once were so others can feel comfortable again – at the expense of your self-hood. And do all you can to stand your ground and not cave in.
  10. Limit or end contact with abusive people – including abusive family members: To piggy-back on the need for boundary setting: Once you have developed greater understanding and awareness regarding what happened to you in your family and how it has impacted you, you will no doubt begin to see (and eventually accept) that recovering from any type of abuse is not possible if we are still engaging with abusive people. Although ‘light’ contact is at times viewed as an option (I’ve had several clients care for elderly parents using this strategy), it isn’t easy, and a great deal of awareness is required to ensure that trauma symptoms are not being re-activated if you continue to engage with toxic/abusive family members.
  11. Pay attention to your body and your nervous system: When contemplating and practicing the preceding guiding principles, it is critical to ‘follow the wisdom of your nervous system’ and mindfully notice your body and its signals. If the guiding principles I share here seem overwhelming for you at this time, you can instead focus on developing the skill of ‘just noticing’ for now. For example, notice how you are feeling in your body when you are around certain family members. Notice any ‘health-seeking’ signals or signs of distress emanating from your body. What does your nervous system need to feel more regulated? Often what your body needs is some good, long deep breaths. If you identify as having complex trauma symptoms and/or experience anxiety, you might try this trauma-informed breathing exercise that has been empirically proven to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety symptoms. And if ‘just noticing’ and deeply breathing is all you can manage right now, that’s good enough.

“Believe nothing. Entertain possibilities”… (!)

What’s helped you to understand and recover from narcissistic family abuse? Where do you feel stuck? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Rebecca C. Mandeville | Copyright 2024 | All Rights Reserved

19 thoughts on “Recovering From Narcissistic Family Abuse”

  1. Then I like to add about Jezus. He, like Navalny, fully was aware he would be arrested going back to Jeruzalem (Moskow) to confront his opponents; the Romans and orthodox Jews (Putin and his gang). He knew he would be sentensed to death.
    Like Navalny he chose the status of ‘martyrdom’ at last. Instead of just keep spreading his views from a humble save place.
    Their inflated ego’s over ran their initial intentions. By making yourself a martyr you don’t serve anyone.

  2. Í’m reading Jackson MacKenzie’s book now; ‘Whole again’ (copyright 2019).
    He states some very important insights in this book but (more important) a lot of tips and remedies to overcome the damage of (Narcissistic/Cluster B/FSA) abuse.
    I wanted to share this. It’s very worthwhile reading this before- or after reaching the stage of ‘radical acceptance’.

  3. Since childhood I’ve learned mainly the conflict-avoiding and pleasing mode of behaviour. I believed in it. Wanted to. For most of my live I tried to behave like some kind of ‘Jezus’.
    Covering all serious conflicts up with understanding, love and forgiveness and then go on with them. Never really confronting issues I didn’t agree with at all in my soul. It has been mostly out of fear of punishment and rejection I see now.
    I’ve been a sitting duck most of my live for those abusers I see clearly now. by this attitude.
    Those people misused- and abused me to the utmost while triggering my guild-induced consiousness. But I gave them all the room to do so. I had no healthy bounderies at all.

    This has been the way I was raised/taught by a malignant narcissistic mother.
    Guild- and shame induced. Just like the Christian churches/sects ponder you with all the time. You are basically a ‘sinner’ always. It’s a disgusting opinion/mindset.
    And a secure way to get misused and abused by those who pray on your love- and understanding (i.e. assets).

    1. Realizing now since reading your blog I’ve been the designated scapegoat by my sadistic narcissist mother since early childhood when she yelled at me at age 6/7 she wisched I’d never been born and had the Devil in my eyes. Her cruelty later on during those early childhood-years will make your head spin. Her narritive/hate towards me was projected by her on my siblings all my live (till she died and beyound).

      I realize only recently I fought a uphill-battle all my life to preserve the acceptence of my siblings and other family/relatives. I did my very best. But as a designated scapegoat there’sno good you can do. All you do will be turned in the negative and translated as being ‘egoistic’. Their conviction about you cann’t be changed (at least not by you)
      Once I had been forced (by a serious car accident and other dear circumstances) to ask them for help and attention. They started to turn on me viciously instead. Like wolves on a seriously wounded sheep.
      Then they showed their true faces and narritive about me which they’ve got for so many years.

      I see now nothing can change their narrative about me. It’s a ‘believe-system’ instilled by my malignant narcissistis mother.
      They rather sacrifice me as a scapegoat then her. And I understand by now.
      I played their denial for many years also but never chose a scapegoat to bear the cross among my siblings.
      It took me many, many years to find out they did exactly this in mostly covert ways.
      Sweet talking to me when I met/visited them but essentially completely ignoring me practically (never called or visited me). I didn’t see it. It was normal to me.
      Till I found out some of them were really talking very bad about me behind my back with rightout lies to discredit me among my peers/friends.

      FSA is very incidious. It goes far beyond your siblings and other family. Your good name gets destroyed all over the place if you don’t see it in time.
      I didn’t see it in time. I made grave mistakes in the wake of getting consious.
      My main failure has probably been reacting with a lot of anger on their abuse.
      But it relieved me in a way and avoided me to fall in depression (as usual before).
      Remember yo cann’t lose something/someone you never had in the first place whatever you do. It doesn’t matter to them how you react. They just don’t care.
      So react the way that works best for you. But realize they don’t care a bit about how you react for they didn’t care a bit about you in the first place all those years.

      1. And remember they never choose an obviously weak ‘goat’ to carry their sins.
        Like in the Bible they choose the strongest, healthiest goat possible to be send to the dessert to suffer and die for their sins.
        Seeing it this way it’s a badge of honor they designated you as the family-scapegoat. You were this important to them. You scared them by your strenght and sound moral character.

        It’s like how Putin send Navalny to Siberia to suffer and die.
        Navalny made the mistake to fight Putin on his own ground by returning to Russia.
        It’s the same with FSA-victims returning to their families trying to solve the problems. They get slaughtered. It’s no use. They never cared and will never care. You are their designated enemy by default.

        See being send in to the dessert as a liberation and a badge of honor. It tells you how they feared you and looked up to you.

          1. Yes Rebecca, it’s exactly what they did to Jezus. He took the burden of sins inflicted on him and accepting dying on the cross to make his stand.
            Navalny did the same. It was- and since ever has been a stupid conviction playing into the cards of evil.
            Evil has to be fought without mercy, not by submitting to it to let you get ‘çrossed’ by them.
            This is the basic mistake of Christianity. Their dogma’s only serve the extreme egocentrics among us very well since many centuries.
            Jezus has been the ultimate scapegoat who died like Nalvany and many others. In a stupid way. They didn’t realy fight the Devil but chose to become a martyr instead. Surrendering them selfs to their Devils with their lives.
            This is not an act of strenght but an act of weakness. Giving up your live for the sake of serving ‘love’ to the Devil is your ultimate surrender to the Devil. Jezus did it and Navalny did it too, like many others.

  4. Thanks for your insightfull articals. To adress/solve a complicated problem you first have to gain rational/consious/clear insight in all the details of the problem. You’ll have to learn first in detail about all the real facts and dynamics about what has happened to lift the fog. Mostly someone further on the road has to make you see/understand.
    You do this gracefully but very clear.

    Only when you have gained detailed insight in the causes of your problems and worked them out emotionally more or less you can make a start to change your mindset and your behaviour. Then someone has to teach you this new behaviour and you have to practice. Like starting to play guiter for the first time.

    CBT and all related therapies avoid this most important first steps.
    Where classic Psychotherapy failed by mostly offering insight but no solutions, CBT mostly only offers solutions without insight.
    The two views shoud be combined imo. Clear insight in how problems occured must come first. Then the behavioral change must follow by training.

    I didn’t consiously know what I was dealing with till I read your blogs. You pin-pointed a complicated problem I wasn’t aware of clearly. Once you made it so clear to me (by your blog) I was able to see reality much better and take steps in changing my thoughts and behavior towards my family and other people. Very hard. But very relieving in ways now. By now I can even feel a kind of pity towards them who needed me as a scapegoat for so long. It’s almost a compliment comming from them now. But very sad still. I’ve lost them all in the wake for many years now. Have to accept this reality and give up the fight for acceptance.

    Guest of my comment is my doubts about CBT. The ‘technique’ focusses far too much on the ‘cognivitive/rational’ while ignoring/downplaying the ‘feelings’ which come always first.
    They simply ignore that thoughts are generated by feelings in the first place. They turn it around; feelings are generated by thoughts. This is their basic misconception.
    They are right that when once irrational thoughts have arisen out of difficult/conflicting feelings those thoughts need correction.
    But with any serious conviction (religion i.e,) you won’t get far. The feeling will be blocked by the rational out of self-defence.

    That’s why CBT won’t last. It doesn’t solve a problem but just ignores it and tries to teach you believes and techniques to cover them up and live happily ever after..
    Problem solved…

    1. I like to add that learning new behaviour is very hard to impossible without the guidance of a experienced therapist/coach to show you the way(s) to change.
      Behavior you’ve learned since childhood through FSA is very hard to un-learn.
      It takes a lot of time and practise. Even with a skilled and experienced therapist/coach.

      It’s like taking driving lessons for the first time. Completely new behaviour has to be trained under guidance of a certified instructor for an hour each week. Most people manage to master this task in half a year. Others take years to accomplisch this or keep failing their driving exams.

      Recovering from FSA is a lot harder than trying to get your driving-license. And to do it without the (weekly) guidance of a expirenced, certified therapist/coach it’s close to impossible. You can learn to drive a car by your own but it will take a lot longer and the chance for serious accidents will be manifold.

      Rebecca, your site is golden. You provide the much needed (hard) insights and links for help. I live in Holland and here there is very little- to none awareness about FSA among therapists/docters. I wasn’t aware myself for 60 years. Still I worked for 25 years as a certified psychiatric casemanager/personal guide with hundreds of ‘patients’. Dealt with their trauma’s in various cases but never clearly reqocnized the systemic family abuse that played on the background. We weren’t taught to look at that.
      Now I see in many cases this was the case actually and the main origin/cause of their problems.

      My mindset has shifted thanks to you. Now I still need to learn new behaviour. I’m trying and make some progress with (your) Internet-help.
      But it’s very hard without a (weekly) ‘instructor’ to guide and support me.
      But I’ll keep hanging on to you/your site for much needed confirmation and tips (doubt slips in all the time still..).

      Thanks Rebecca, wish you well with your health and everything.

  5. Rosalee D

    It was so great to receive your latest post. I had been thinking about you and really hoping you were doing okay. I am very glad to hear you are on the mend! Thanks for this recent post, it is so wise and insightful and extremely helpful! Take good care, sending best of wishes for your health.

  6. Sally Sue Scapegoat

    Thank you for the points! I was just thinking of you the other day, having not received the usual insightful information via email. It may be interesting to know that currently, the main mother narcissist has turned on her golden child. She is suing to not have guardianship, though she cannot handle matters. The state has intervened and her attorney is fortunately sane to the situation. It will be likely that she is remanded to an institution after an assessment. I don’t expect to be informed of anything by the other siblings, hence only becoming aware of this as mandatorily being informed by the court should I contest anything. The settling of the estate shall likely be fraught. It’s been helpful preparation to re-read the above.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      You’re very welcome. It is such a hornet’s nest, isn’t it? I hope you take good care of yourself (and your nervous system) during this part of your healing journey – These dynamics around elderly parents, estates, legal rights, etc, are especially fraught with challenges and various stressors that are very hard on FSA adult survivors.

  7. Lisa H

    I’m so glad you are doing well and most of all you’re able to send out such wonderful and informative insight about how painful and hard it is to recover from being scapegoated in a malignant narcassitic family. I agree I need to stop trying to get validated by people who never understand and or even believe. My recovery can be very lonely as a single woman in her 60s. As I’ve shared many times, I can not give up on myself until my last breath. Some days I feel so empowered and whole. Thank you Rebecca for your wisdom.

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