Tell Me About It: We have tried family therapy but she feels we are ganging up on her. What can we do?
PROBLEM: I am my wits’ end as to how to handle a family crisis. I believe my mother is a narcissist – she has all the character traits and falls out with anyone who doesn’t pander to her needs.
This includes one of my siblings, who has now been ostracised by her. This has caused major destruction to our family. However, she classifies herself as a victim and it is extremely difficult to get through to her. She manages to manipulate others so no one else except my siblings and I know what she’s really like.
Any advice I have read is that you should distance yourself from a narcissist. However, my concern is that I have a young brother with special needs, who lives with my mother. My dad is elderly and also needs care, so it is imperative that my siblings and I remain involved.
We have tried family therapy in the past, but she makes it all about her and feels we are ganging up on her.
Any advice on how we can deal with this?
ADVICE: You sound very trapped in a pattern where your mother makes everything about her and yet is never appreciative or self-aware. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that any time change is attempted it never goes far enough and so the old pattern re-establishes itself and everyone slots into the familiar roles.
Your mother makes you believe that there is nothing you can do, that you can’t leave her and so her methods of keeping everyone connected to her works, in that she is never abandoned. You already know that she lives in fear – her sense of victimisation confirms this, and she needs to bend everyone to her will in order for her to feel worthwhile. Given all this, the first step is for you to free yourself from the trap and this is not done by physical distance but by challenging the family heritage and focusing on your own worth and value.
You want to love and support your Dad and sibling so do so with intention and willingness. Do not be overtaken by resentment
You are mirroring your mother’s sense of victimisation in that you feel powerless in the face of her self-centred behaviour – this is something you can do something about without any need for her behaviour to change. If you were to write down what upsets you in terms of your mother’s characteristics, you might write “selfish, manipulative, cruel, uncaring, incapable of empathy and totally lacking confidence”.
What is going on for this type of person and what do they need? They can only hold on to close connections through control and fear, and that is a very sad way to live. You need to choose your own principles to live by, and I doubt you would want any from your mother’s list, but there is no doubt you have been trained at the feet of an expert so you will need to be careful not to return your mother’s exact characteristics to her. Stop seeing her as threatening and powerful. See her as she is: a woman who cannot be loved for herself. This does not mean you try to fix or change her, but it might allow you to be less captivated by her every move and ultimately it might allow some compassion. This will free you up to have more options in your response to her.
The minute we withdraw our need for the powerful person to change or acknowledge us, their influence ebbs away. Put your energy into what you want to grow in your life. You want to love and support your Dad and sibling so do so with intention and willingness. Do not be overtaken by resentment, as this will create great suffering for you and simply maintain a family pattern that goes back at least a generation.
Your whole family have given enormous power to your mother to enforce such influence over you all. Is it not time to break this pattern?
The second step is to revisit why the family gave up on family therapy – many people quit just as the level of discomfort or hopelessness is exposed. Most of us work to keep the status quo in the family as we fear its dissolution, and sometimes this is unconscious. We often have a “problem” member, as it keeps everyone focused or worried but ultimately united in their need to keep in contact about this person. It is worth really looking at this, as often these patterns seep into the next generation – look at how focused you are on your mother. It doesn’t matter that it is negative as the attention is huge and consuming and you would find it difficult not to measure everything against her judgment or comment. That one of your siblings is ostracised is another sign of the intensity of the relationships created by your mother.
It takes enormous effort and deliberate work to ostracise someone – think of any time you have sulked, and the constant reminding yourself not to relax and talk to the person you want punished. Your whole family have given enormous power to your mother to enforce such influence over you all. Is it not time to break this pattern?
If you and the rest of your family want to bring to light the consequences of growing up with a mother like this and to challenge this negative legacy, you and your siblings might consider returning to family therapy, initially without your mother.