The Narcissistic Family Tree: It can be pretty and decaying at the same time (Karyl McBride Ph.D)

NOTE: This article is from the author’s blog on Psychology Today:

Karyl McBride, Ph.D
Karyl McBride, Ph.D

Clinical experience and research show that adult children of narcissists have a difficult time putting their finger on what is wrong, because denial is rampant in the narcissistic family system:

“The typical adult from a narcissistic family is filled with unacknowledged anger, feels like a hollow person, feels inadequate and defective, suffers from periodic anxiety and depression, and has no clue about how he or she got that way.”—Pressman and Pressman, The Narcissistic Family

It is common for adult children of narcissists to enter treatment with emotional symptoms or relationship issues, but simultaneously display a lack of awareness of the deeper etiology or cause. The narcissistic family hides profound pain. Such families tend to operate according to an unspoken set of rules. Children learn to live with those rules, but never stop being confused and pained by them, for these rules block their emotional access to their parents. They basically become invisible—neither heard, seen, or nurtured. Conversely, and tragically, this set of rules allows the parents to have no boundaries with the children and to use (or abuse) them as they see fit. The following are some common dynamics of this profoundly dysfunctional intergenerational system. (Keep in mind there are always degrees of dysfunction on a spectrum depending on the level of narcissism in the parents.)

  1. Secrets. The family secret is that the parents are not meeting the children’s emotional needs, or that they are abusive in some way. This is the norm in the narcissistic family. The message to the children: “Don’t tell the outside world—pretend everything is fine.” [Note: This is a primary concept in the monasteries and an obedience from Geronda Ephraim: “What happens in the monasteries, remains in the monasteries, it’s not for outsiders to know!” ] secrets
  2. Image. The narcissistic family is all about image. The message is: “We are bigger, better, have no problems, and must put on the face of perfection.” Children get the messages: “What would the neighbors think?” “What would the relatives think?” What would our friends think?” These are common fears in the family: “Always put a smile on that pretty little face.” [Note: This is also a big obedience from Geronda Ephraim to his abbots and abbess: “No scandals! I don’t want people talking or having reason to talk ill of the monasteries!” When a monastic gets in trouble for doing something wrong in front of lay persons, many times the first rebuke will be, “What will people say (or think)?”]

    Being yelled at and rebuked sharply is a common, sometimes daily experience for many monastics (“it’s for their benefit”).
  3. Negative Messages. Children are given spoken and unspoken messages that get internalized, typically: “You’re not good enough”; “You don’t measure up”; “You are valued for what you do rather than for who you are.” [Note: In the Patristic literature, this is considered the “therapeutic method” of humbling a subordinate or not allowing them to be puffed up].

  4. Lack of Parental Hierarchy. In healthy families, there is a strong parental hierarchy in which the parents are in charge and shining love, light, guidance, and direction down to the children. In narcissistic families, this hierarchy is non-existent; the children are there to serve parental needs. [Note: In the monasteries, though there is a spiritual Father and a hierarchal order, monastics have essentially signed up for “voluntary imprisonment” and “slavery”, according to the Patristic writings. Some ex-monastics from Geronda Ephraim’s “family” have related that the monastery felt more like a slave labor camp than a spiritual paradise].  Narc child blog header
  5. Lack of Emotional Tune-In. Narcissistic parents lack the ability to emotionally tune in to their kids. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental. [Note: This is called “detachment” or “dispassion” in the Patristic writings. Though a spiritual Father/Mother will have a “spiritual love” for their subordinates, it differs from biological paternal love “according to the flesh.” The criticism and judgements are said to be inspired out of love to help the individual also reach dispassion]. truth-veronica-maria-jarski
  6. Lack of Effective Communication. The most common means of communication in narcissistic families is triangulation. Information is not direct. It is told through one party about another in hopes it will get back to the other party. Family members talk about each other to other members of the family, but don’t confront each other directly. This creates passive-aggressive behavior, tension, and mistrust. When communication is direct, it is often in the form of anger or rage. [Note: This passive-aggressive phenomenon is almost the norm in most monasteries. Though many times the abbot or abbess will be direct and center out the individual with rebukes, many times they will tell another monastic “so and so saddened me,” or will give a homily about an individual behind their back. This will be relayed to that individual in either direct or indirect language. There is a lot of back biting and gossip in the monasteries among the monastics: both about other monastics and lay people. Though in theory Geronda Ephraim is against cliques and the formation of cliques within his monasteries, they form anyways].
  7. Unclear Boundaries. There are few boundaries in the narcissistic family. Children’s feelings are not considered important. Private diaries are read, physical boundaries are not kept, and emotional boundaries are not respected. The right to privacy is not typically a part of the family history. [Note: In the monasteries, nothing is private or sacred. The abbot or abbess can reveal the innermost details of a disciple’s confession to the fraternity either in front of the said individual or in their absence. An abbot/abbess can do cell searches at any point, or send other monastics to do it if they do not have the time. No journals or diaries are “private” as a disciple is not to keep anything hidden from their superior, thus the abbot/abbess can read their diaries, incoming and outgoing letters, etc. Phone calls are monitored either directly or with another monastic present while an individual speaks on the phone for their “protection” and “benefit”].         9ac68d3b19bd184e911d6d6f954dfbbc
  8. One Parent Narcissistic, the Other Orbiting. If one parent is narcissistic, it is common for the other parent to have to revolve around the narcissist to keep the marriage intact. Often, this other parent has redeeming qualities to offer the children, but is tied up meeting the needs of the narcissistic spouse, leaving the children’s needs unmet. Who is there for them? [Note: This dynamic does exist in certain monasteries where the second in command will also have the role of revolving around the narcissist superior in order to help keep the monastery intact].
  9. Siblings Not Encouraged to Be Close. In healthy families, we encourage our children to be loving and close to each other. In narcissistic families, children are pitted against each other and taught competition. There is a constant comparison of who is doing better and who is not. Some are favored or seen as “the golden child,” and others become the scapegoat for a parent’s projected negative feelings. Siblings in narcissistic families rarely grow up feeling emotionally connected to each other. [Note: In monasteries there are “spiritual bonds” or ‘spiritual love” but affection and touching is discouraged. Though in some cases hugging is allowed–or even forced– after a mutual prostration asking for forgiveness of a wrong doing. Many times scenarios are created by the superior that can pit one against the other, though this is said to be done to help the individuals see what passions they suffer from so they can correct them. Every monastery has it’s “golden child” of complete blind obedience, and it’s scapegoat for the abbot/abbess to yell at, humble, and abuse–for the individual monastic’s benefit, of course, because it “gives them opportunities to gain more crowns.” Emotionally connected isn’t an option for monastics who are suppose to be dead to the world and dispassionate. Spiritual connections are an option, though].
  10. Feelings. Feelings are denied and not discussed. Children are not taught to embrace their emotions and process them in realistic ways. They are taught to stuff and repress them, and are told their feelings don’t matter. Narcissistic parents are typically not in touch with their own feelings and therefore project them onto others. This causes a lack of accountability and honesty, not to mention other psychological disorders. If we don’t process feelings, they do leak out in other unhealthy ways. [Note: In the monasteries, feelings are not really discussed. All negative emotions and thoughts are to be “pushed away” and “ignored” as demonic. Unfortunately, many times the monastic is essentially repressing these things rather than dealing with them or actually pushing them away. After years of doing this, these suppressed emotions start manifesting themselves as various psychological illnesses and neuroses for the monastic, who is then told it is their fault for not having blind obedience. This becomes very evident behind closed doors with the monastics who have been in the monastery 15 years or more]. npd-elizabeth-bowen
  11. “Not Good Enough” Messages. These messages come across loud and clear in the narcissistic family. Some parents actually speak this message in various ways; others just model it to the children. Even if they display arrogant and boastful behavior, under the veneer of a narcissist is a self-loathing psyche—that gets passed to the child. [Note: After obedience, Geronda Ephraim’s other favorite topic is the virtue of humility. This entails, as he states in numerous homilies, for the monk to believe wholeheartedly that he is nothing, a zero, worthless, useless, etc. Monastics are required to “reproach themselves” in this manner repeatedly throughout the day, especially if they start having prideful thoughts. Many quotes from the Scriptures are used to validate this spiritual exercise].
  12. Dysfunction—Obvious or Covert. In narcissist families, the dynamics can be seen or disguised. The dysfunction displayed in violent and abusive homes is usually obvious, but emotional and psychological abuse, as well as neglectful parenting, are often hidden. While the drama is not displayed as openly to the outside world, it is just as, if not, more damaging to the children. [Note: All abuse is hidden to the outside world. In some cases, if it is a lay person who is close to the monastery, or may have been scandalized by a monastic, the abbot/abbess will sharply rebuke or humiliate the monastic in front of the lay person. Or the monastic will be sent to the Lity where their shame is seen by all the pilgrims at the monastery. More often, these things are done in private, behind closed doors].


Reviewing these dynamics, one can see how this kind of family can look pretty but be decaying at the same time. If you recognize your family in this description, know that there is hope and recovery. We can’t change the past, but we can take control of the now. We do not have to be defined by the wounds in our family systems. As Mark Twain defines the optimist, I see the recovering adult child: “A person who travels on nothing from nowhere to happiness.”


We can create new life that will flow through us to the future and stop the legacy of distorted love learned in the narcissistic family. If we choose recovery, we can defy inter-generational statistics.

scapegoat narcissism

Further reading: