by Kanta Bosniak
By now, most of us are familiar with the term malignant narcissism, from news stories and articles by therapists, and simple observation. We realize that behind the mask of a fragile ego, lives a person of low self-esteem who must project his sense of shame and self-loathing on “the other.”
But what about when a person like that is a parent? How does the child respond to over-control, manipulation, gaslighting, criticism, and emotional and/or physical abuse? What happens when that child is singled out among other siblings to bear the brunt of the abuse, in effect being “orphaned?” And how might this emotional abandonment, as initially painful as it may be, serve the personal and spiritual development of “orphaned” children? How might it motivate them to grow from muted hostages to cultural activists and healers?
Dr. Claudia Black is a recovery icon, author, and internationally known expert in the issues of dysfunctional family systems, such as addictions, co-dependency, relational problems, emotional trauma, PTSD, all of which can be symptoms of growing up with an abusive, narcissistic parent. She’s also the Clinical Architect of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center and Senior Fellow at The Meadows Treatment Center. Dr. Black provides us with a powerful statement.
“To free yourself from the past you must break the rules of silence and compliance.”
While no child emerges unscathed from such a family, the recipient of the most abuse may be the one to most fully and truly emerge. Ultimately, these designated scapegoats are more likely than their siblings to exhibit signs of the harm that is inflicted upon them, thus opening them up to being painted as problem children. This keeps the family dysfunction hidden and the child gets to carry it.
They are also the most likely, to “break the rules of silence and compliance.” They get into recovery, or therapy. They begin to live ever more authentic lives, refuse to continue playing the scapegoat role, find their voice, and create healthier alliances. They’re also more likely to break cultural taboos about having to maintain contact with the parental narcissist and become fully or at least partially estranged from abusive family members as adults. When they become able to walk away and create saner and healthier lives, they do.
But the process of healing begins in childhood, when they withdraw into a self-healing cocoon. With no reliable moral compass to draw on from the authority figures who fail to create safety for them or even recognize them as worthy to be called human, they begin the slow, arduous process of orienting themselves, establishing a sanctuary of the heart and mind to which they can always return, and discovering their gifts. And it is in childhood when they develop some of the qualities that later lead them to become participants in changing the cultural paradigm.
While others in the environment may seem to have it easier, they also have less motivation to make a clean enough break from the dysfunctional system to heal from gaslighting. To stay enmeshed in that level of dysfunction requires a level of attachment to the narcissistic parent and a buying into the scapegoating itself. So, it encourages the more highly favored children to adopt the parent’s lies as truth, rather than using their own observation of evident reality. In other words, from childhood on, scapegoats are less apt to believe “fake news” and they’re able to get enough distance to accurately see what is.
As Carolyn Myss, best-selling author, teacher, and Founder of CMED (Carolyn Myss Education) beautifully expresses it, “Because orphans are not allowed into the family circle, they have to develop independence early on. The absence of family influences, attitudes, and traditions inspires or compels the Orphan Child to construct an inner reality based on personal judgment and experience.”
So, they experience, reflect, and learn. They may have endured childhood wounds in the areas of boundaries, self-esteem, and attachment, but they are self-motivated healers. Over time, they learn healthier habits in these areas. Because they are highly empathetic and principled people, as they become stronger and find their voices, they will continue to speak out. Just as they spoke out about injustices done to them in their family of origin, so do they reach a tipping point at which they will speak out against social injustice that occurs in the human family.
They’re unimpressed by the arsenal of Misters Malicious, because for them, it’s been there; done that. They see through gaslighting and deflection when it occurs in group dynamics (such calculated lies and incendiary messages delivered to rile up or distract an audience). They’re unsusceptible to derisive language, because they learned along the way that it’s always about the bully. He’s projecting what he most fears about himself. Call them snowflakes, and they will remind you, in case you haven’t heard it quite enough times, that winter is coming.
But most of all, their superpower is that they are the opposite of malignant narcissists, who hate and are driven. They care because they love, genuinely wish the best for others, and because for them, there are no “others.” For them, it is not, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” It is, “There go I.”
They care, but their fierceness is balanced by compassion, which is a higher and more peaceful sort of love. They understand the difference between real love and enabling. They learned through trying to heal their parents and fix the wounded people that came into their lives that they cannot fix or force the healing process. That is something people decide to do for themselves. Most people don’t do that on our desired time frame, or even in a lifetime, especially if they are Misters Malicious.
As Clinical Psychologist, Harvard Medical School lecturer and author of Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin said, “If the person seems to have zero empathy at all times, then you’re dealing with extreme psychopathy and likely malignant narcissism and the chances are very little of change.”
Unlike Drs. Malkin and Black, I’m not a psychologist. I’m a mind/body/spirit writer. Over a period of several years, I researched the phenomenon of a certain archetype I call “Mr. Malicious,” a character who roughly relates to the term some therapists use: “malignant narcissist.” As part of my research, I interviewed many women who once were abused by their significant others. For some of them, their first “Misters Malicious,” were their parents. And some of them were scapegoated. So, as you may have surmised, was I. I am communicating as a writer, researcher, and someone who shares what she has come to know in her own life experience.
Recovered black sheep know this. They have healed the anxious need for attachment that once tempted them to overlook red flags and override intuition in exchange for false promises of worthiness and redemption from the despair of abandonment. These maladies of the soul no longer own them, but remain close enough in memory to have inspired a commitment to do their part to protect the vulnerable. As well, their empathy even extends to recognizing the humanity with the Mr. Malicious who can neither feel his own humanity nor recognize it in others.
Former scapegoats know the hell of being called “pathetic” and “loser” and can hear the scream of pain behind the derision of the one who says these words. They understand that he who wishes to exile feels like an exile, he who is insatiably greedy feels hollow, and he who demeans does so out of a desperate need to make himself feel better.
However, they also understand that abuse of power must be stopped. They apply the same concept stated by Dr. Black to shape-shifting our culture. As it is in the microcosm, so it is in the macrocosm. “To free ourselves from the past we must break the rules of silence and compliance.” So, they take their part in the fellowship of those men and women working toward that end and toward the goal of building a culture which recognizes the inherent worth of all.
“Everybody counts, or nobody counts.”
About the author:
Kanta Bosniak is an artist, writer, and minister. Her numerous mind/body/spirit publications include her most recent book, Bye, Bye, Mr. Malicious!: How to Get Your Happy Back and Be Done with Narcissists and Sociopaths. For more information, visit KantaBosniak.com.