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FSA and Malignant Narcissism: Impact and Recovery Strategies

malignant narcissist and family scapegoat

Introduction: Surviving Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) can leave lasting scars on individuals, impacting their mental and emotional well-being for years to come. At the heart of certain (not all) FSA dynamics lies the phenomenon of malignant narcissism, a complex personality disorder not included in the DSM-5. Malignant narcissism is characterized by a toxic blend of narcissistic, antisocial, and (at time) sadistic traits. This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of malignant narcissism, its effects on victims of FSA, and strategies for healing and recovery.

Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) Education With Rebecca is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Defining Malignant Narcissism

In 1964, Erich Fromm, a social psychologist, coined the term “malignant narcissist.” Austrian psychoanalyst and Professor Otto Kernberg expanded on the different aspects of malignant narcissism twenty four years later. Decades after this, self-described malignant narcissist Sam Vaknin popularized the term internationally via his free internet offerings (articles, books, and videos).

Malignant narcissism is an informally recognized psychological disorder associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) with additional antisocial features. It is not, however, a medical diagnosis and its status as a potential diagnosis remains controversial.

This does not mean that malignant narcissism is not real. Many maladaptive and/or harmful behaviors and traits are not medically recognized diagnoses but can still affect the person who has them, as well as negatively impacting the people around them.

Some people describe malignant narcissism as a form of psychopathy, which is also unrecognized in the DSM-5. Psychopathy is an unofficial term for people exhibiting antisocial traits.

Malignant narcissism (to those clinicians who acknowledge it) represents an extreme form of NPD. Individuals with malignant narcissism exhibit grandiosity, a pervasive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. However, what sets malignant narcissism apart from the diagnostic criteria associated with NPD is pronounced antisocial behaviors such as sadism, manipulativeness, and a propensity for aggression, both overt and covert.

Similar to someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), the malignant narcissist may also experience paranoia and exhibit a lack of empathy toward others, resulting in their being aggressive, manipulative, and abusive without remorse.

Recognizing Malignant Narcissism as Related to FSA

In families where scapegoating occurs, the malignant narcissist often assumes the role of the dominant, controlling figure. They manipulate and exploit other family members to maintain their sense of superiority and power.

The family member in the ‘scapegoat’ role (typically one of the children) often becomes the target of the malignant narcissist’s relentless criticism, blame, and emotional abuse. Gaslighting, invalidation, and emotional neglect are common tactics employed by the malignant narcissist to maintain their control (whether overtly or covertly) and undermine the scapegoat’s sense of self.

At times, however, the malignant narcissist’s presentation can be much more covert and is not always so obvious. For example, a covert malignant narcissist parent might consciously and intentionally sabotage a project in subtle ways via insidious comments designed to destroy their child’s confidence. Another example is when such a parent stages a scene during an important event such as their adult child’s wedding, ruining their child’s special day while refusing to take responsibility for their destructive, self-centered behavior.

Case Study – The Impact of a Malignant Narcissist Parent on the Scapegoat Child

Background: Lynette, a 48-year-old woman, sought therapy for feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and chronic anxiety. She described a tumultuous relationship with her mother, Margaret, who (based on Lynette’s reports to me) appeared to exhibit traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Lynette was the youngest of four siblings, and throughout her childhood, she felt singled out and criticized by her mother while her siblings were favored. This pattern persisted into adulthood, leaving Lynette with deep emotional scars and difficulty forming healthy relationships.

Family Dynamics: In Lynette’s family, Margaret was the dominant figure, overtly controlling, demanding, and manipulative with her husband and children. She expected constant admiration and became enraged when challenged or contradicted. Margaret’s father, while not as overtly abusive, passively enabled Margaret’s behavior, often siding with her to avoid conflict.

Lynette’s older siblings learned to adapt to Margaret’s demands, either by complying with her wishes or distancing themselves emotionally. As the youngest child, Lynette became the ‘family scapegoat’, bearing the brunt of Margaret’s rage and criticism.

For example, Lynette shared with me that as a young adult she would bring men she was dating home to meet her family and Margaret would shamelessly flirt with them while listing Lynette’s supposed defects and flaws, stressing how “difficult” and “demanding” her daughter was (which suggested to me that her mother was projecting her own narcissistic behaviors onto her daughter).

When the young men would depart, Margaret would yell at Lynette, saying, “What did you tell them about me?” She would then berate Lynette for her supposedly disrespectful behavior and then criticize her appearance, saying “You’ll never keep him, he’s obviously too good for you.”

Issues Lynette Presented With Upon Initiating Therapy

  1. Low Self-Esteem: Constant criticism and emotional abuse from the narcissistic parent had eroded Lynette’s self-esteem. She grew up believing she was inherently flawed and unworthy of love or validation. She also exhibited clear markers of what I call ‘toxic shame’ as well as betrayal trauma, as described in my introductory book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed.
  2. Identity Confusion: Being labeled as the problem child within the family can lead to confusion and self-doubt. Lynette struggled to separate her true identity from the negative, distorted narrative (what I call the ‘scapegoat narrative’) imposed on her by her mother.
  3. Difficulty Establishing Boundaries: Scapegoated children and FSA adult survivors often struggle to establish healthy boundaries in relationships, as they are conditioned to tolerate mistreatment and accept blame for problems that are not their fault. Lynette found herself in toxic relationships, mirroring the dynamics of her family.
  4. Emotional Distress: The constant invalidation and gaslighting from the narcissistic parent can result in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, including Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms. Because of this, Lynette experienced frequent panic attacks and struggled to regulate her emotions. Although she had been diagnosed in the past with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), during our work together I assessed her for C-PTSD using the International Trauma Questionnaire (ITQ) and she did meet the criteria and in my clinical opinion did not have BPD, although she did benefit from Dialectical Behavioral Treatment (DBT) to help regulate her emotions while she learned how to take care of her over-activated nervous system when triggered.
  5. Impaired Relationships: Scapegoated children and FSA adult survivors may have difficulty trusting others and forming close bonds due to their past experiences of betrayal and manipulation. Lynette’s romantic relationships were often fraught with conflict and insecurity due to betrayal trauma and traumatic invalidation experienced in her family-of-origin.

Therapeutic Intervention: In therapy, Lynette explored the impact of her upbringing on her current struggles. Through somatic trauma therapy techniques and psychodynamic therapy that included Family Systems education and awareness, she learned how to manage complex trauma systems such as hyper and hypo-arousal; transform negative thought patterns by challenging beliefs about herself that her mother had instilled in her from an early age; and develop self-nurturing and self-compassion practices.

Lynette also worked on setting boundaries with her mother (which included extended times of limited or no contact) and establishing healthier relationships outside of her family. Joining a supportive online community for adult survivors of child abuse suffering from C-PTSD symptoms also provided validation and support from others who had similar experiences, helping Lynette feel less alone in her journey toward healing. Lynette did eventually end contact with her mother due to continued abuse.

Case Conclusion: The case of Lynette highlights the profound and enduring effects of growing up with a malignant narcissist parent. The scapegoated child often bears the brunt of emotional abuse and manipulation, leading to long-term psychological, emotional – and even physical – consequences. However, with therapy and support, individuals like Lynette can begin to reclaim their sense of self-worth and forge healthier relationships moving forward.

Effects of Malignant Narcissism on Adult Survivors

As was the case with Lynette, adult survivors of FSA often carry deep emotional wounds as a result of their experiences with malignant narcissism. They may struggle with low self-esteem, feelings of shame and guilt, traumatic invalidation, and difficulties in forming healthy relationships. They may doubt their perception and sense of reality due to having been gaslighted for much of their life by their malignant narcissist parent.

Chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and even Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms are common psychological consequences of prolonged exposure to this form of narcissistic abuse (something I discuss at length in Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed).

Healing and Recovery

Recovering from the trauma of FSA and malignant narcissism is a challenging journey, but it is possible with the right support and resources. Here are some strategies that adult survivors can employ:

  1. Seeking Therapy: Working with a qualified therapist who specializes in trauma and narcissistic abuse can provide invaluable support and guidance on the path to healing.
  2. Setting Boundaries: Learning to assert healthy boundaries is crucial for protecting oneself from further abuse and reclaiming personal autonomy. In respect to establishing boundaries with a malignant narcissist family member, ending contact may be the boundary that is required. This is because respecting boundaries is not something a malignant narcissist cares about. What they care about is controlling, manipulating, and de-powering you. To learn more about why setting boundaries with dysfunctional or abusive family members in an attempt to improve relationships and remain in contact can backfire, watch my video on ‘toxic’ family systems and boundary setting.
  3. Self-Care Practices: Engaging in self-care activities such as mindfulness, journaling, and exercise can help survivors manage stress and cultivate self-compassion. To learn more, read my article 10 Self Care Tips to Support Family Scapegoat Healing.
  4. Building Support Networks: Surrounding oneself with understanding and empathetic individuals can provide validation and a sense of belonging, counteracting the isolation often experienced by survivors of FSA. This is one of the reasons I recently started a Substack FSA Education Community site as a means of offering a more private place for adult survivors of this type of abuse to connect and share with each other in a supportive online environment.
  5. Educating Oneself: Learning about narcissistic abuse, family scapegoating abuse (FSA), trauma recovery, and healthy relationship dynamics can empower survivors to break free from the cycle of abuse and regain control over their lives. You can check out several years of my articles on FSA for free by accessing my archives from my Scapegoat Recovery website.

Although FSA can occur in ANY type of dysfunctional family system – not just a narcissistic one – malignant narcissism at times lies at the heart of this form of systemic psycho-emotional abuse, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

Adult survivors of FSA often grapple with the lasting effects of narcissistic abuse, but with dedication and support, they can embark on a journey of healing and recovery. By understanding the dynamics of malignant narcissism and implementing strategies for self-care and empowerment, survivors can reclaim their lives and move forward with hope and resilience, confident that recovering from the impact of FSA and malignant narcissistic abuse is possible.


Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) Education With Rebecca is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber on my Substack site.

6 thoughts on “FSA and Malignant Narcissism: Impact and Recovery Strategies”

  1. Catherine RC

    Hi Rebecca,
    I’m a monthly channel member and have been receiving emails about Substack, which I’ve joined.
    Do I need to pay an additional membership fee to access the chat etc?
    Thank you so much,
    Catherine Carrick

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      Hi Catherine, good to see you here. You may join my Substack for free and as a free subscriber you will be emailed all of my articles and can access these article posts – and the archives – as a free member. To access community features like ‘Chat’ you need to be a paid subscriber. If you paid and are not able to access the Chat for some reason on the main menu of the home page at https://familyscapegoathealing.substack.com/, please do let me know. Include the email address you used to sign up to my Substack in the form here again as I deleted it the one you used to post this comment here. Hope that helps!

  2. Lynne F

    My late husband’s mom scapegoated him and me to his entire extended family that believed her and cut us and our only child out completely. His mentally ill child from his first marriage was blamed on me even though I hadn’t met her when her mental illness showed up. The family taught her she was not to blame for her actions during psychotic breaks or while in a mental boycott 6 years as a teen. Today at 60+ years old she’s been abandoned by everyone and since she was told not to bother seeking a therapist, she’s still actively psychotic. Thanks to Rebecca’s work I have at last gone No Contact with her. Her illness was never my fault.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      It certainly was not your fault, Lynne. I’m glad my work on FSA helped you realize this. As they say in the 12-Step Al-Anon program: “I didn’t cause it; I can’t control it; I can’t cure it!”

  3. Denise

    I’m generally blunt and to the point. If you don’t like my stuff I totally get it.
    I can tell you that after 66 years of torment (sheer hell) from my completely worthless mother, malignant narcissist sister, and her cult of 2 flying monkeys (my mindless sisters) there is only one thing that will finish my healing process once and for all…..their passing. Sorry if that offends anyone but after my life experiences with these creatures nothing will ever be forgiven. Please don’t tell me I have to forgive in order to heal. It’s not going to happen.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      Hi Denise, this is why trauma-informed therapists do not promote or push the idea of forgiveness. In my practice, I introduce the idea of ‘radical acceptance’ instead. In this article I discuss I am linking you to here, I discuss the differences between the two, and why the latter is considered trauma-informed. Thanks for taking the time to comment. https://www.scapegoatrecovery.com/2023/11/05/radical-acceptance-and-scapegoat-recovery-the-power-of-accepting-what-is/

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