Narcissistic abuse can present itself in confusing ways. Have you commonly felt like you’re going crazy? Brenda Stephens, my guest on this episode of therapy chat has encountered this common tagline from individuals who have dealt with narcissistic abuse. Whether you’re navigating narcissism from friends, family, or a spouse, individuals come into trauma therapy not knowing which way is up. 

Perhaps you feel that reality is confused. When you think one way, but then a narcissistic individual tells you information that goes against the normal or natural flow, it’s nearly impossible to trust your instincts. When we hear this therapists often recognize this line of thinking as it is a potential cue that someone is experiencing narcissistic abuse. 

What is narcissistic abuse and how does it differ from emotional abuse?

Imagine this, if someone triggers something in you such as an old wound, you may lash or become emotionally abusive. We all have this capacity. Some people live in this mindset because they have been so hurt by their own experiences that they lash out and become reactive. This isn’t an excuse, but an understanding. 

The difference between emotional abuse and narcissistic abuse is the intentionality behind it. A narcissist is living with their own pain from their history. However, what they’ve learned is this kind of devious and diabolical skill. Therefore, it becomes intentional abuse. 

The goal of narcissistic abuse is to tear the victims down. A big part of this is unfortunately the use of gaslighting. This is what makes this type of abuse different from other forms. An example of gaslighting is “ I think I saw a red car yesterday”. The narcissistic individual would say “ No it was blue”. Thus making you second guess your truth. Over time, this chips away at your reality and perception of truth.

How does narcissistic abuse differ between growing up with narcissistic parents and being in a relationship with a narcissistic partner?

Let’s consider the difference between a child/adult who grows up with a narcissistic parent and an individual who doesn’t have this history but finds themself in a relationship with a narcissistic partner. Someone who grows up in a household where the caregiver is narcissistic experiences narcissistic abuse in a more severe way because their reality is being created by the narcissistic parents. So they don’t even have one of their own.

The thought of, I saw a red car yesterday, the parent says it’s blue and that equals truth. Kids don’t have the capacity to question this as the parents are the higher authority. Therefore they grow up not questioning things. These kids and adults just defer to others for confirmation. This goes back to the topics discussed in episode 312, the child doesn’t have the opportunity to explore their inner world. To sum it up, the child is essentially brainwashed by the parent.

Let’s look at brainwashing from a cult perspective for a moment 

This brings us to the influence of cults. Brenda has some clients who come into therapy after experiences with cults and this is what she knows. The cult tactics and narcissistic abuse trickle down to parents which in turn goes to the children. The cult leader is essentially the ultimate narcissist and everyone else is doing their bidding.  In other words, in the narcissistic language, the flying monkeys are so involved in this and become embedded in making the narcissistic leader feel superior. Because the leader has superior energy, these individuals are so close to feeling a sort of narcissistic energy themselves. This leads down to their children and they set unrealistic expectations. These parents are supposed to protect their children, instead, they have not only experienced narcissistic abuse but also have been abused by other members of the cult. Sometimes this also includes sexual and physical abuse as well.

Dynamics of a Narcissistic Family

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Typically in a family dynamic, there is at least one parent who is a narcissist. The other parent is often what we call the enabler. We will not go in-depth with this parent, but it can be very damaging. Unfortunately, the enabler is almost worse than the narcissist sometimes. The children and other family members can understand the narcissist and how to behave with them. They know how to be on their best behavior and what their role in the family is with the narcissist. The children often rely on the enabler to protect them. Unfortunately, the enabler isn’t able to do this. The enabler is involved in trying to keep the peace with the narcissistic parent. Sometimes they are even trying to protect themselves from the wrath of narcissistic abuse. This is where the enabler may throw the kids under the bus, or neglect to attend to them.

Within the family structure, typically you have the narcissist and the enabler. In a family with two children, you typically have a golden child and a scapegoat. If there’s only one child then that child can wear both hats. They can be the golden child one day and the scapegoat the next. In a family dynamic with more than two children, the roles are scattered. For example, there is a forgotten child. This individual tends to fly under the radar. They essentially detach from the family. The scapegoat is the one blamed for everything by the parents. Even things they have no control over. However, the narcissistic parent needs to project, so this individual is the one who gets most of the negative feelings. Then the golden child is the one who is constantly in the good graces of the narcissistic parent. 

The Golden Child Models After the Narcissistic Parent

Unfortunately, the golden child mirrors the narcissistic parent. However, this is in more subtle ways. They’re not necessarily acting out narcissistic abuse. However, the parent sees themselves in the child so they receive praise from them. The way a golden child is hindered by narcissistic abuse is that the expectations of them are so high. When they ultimately don’t reach every expectation the results are devastating to that child. If the child loses this identity and falls off the throne, they have no idea who they are.

If the scapegoat loses their role, it’s usually to bump up their placement and they might get some more praise. Therefore when the scapegoat loses their role, it’s less devastating than it is for the golden child. For the forgotten child, they just kind of float around the perimeter in order to avoid any negative attention. Additionally, the children often are pitted against each other. So there aren’t supports there built-in with the siblings. Essentially, the whole environment is toxic.

In a typical family dynamic, siblings are the first individuals you play with and socialize with. In an environment with narcissistic abuse, there is no safe space. Everyone’s goal in the situation is just to appease the narcissistic parent in order to avoid wrath.

How does narcissistic abuse impact the kid’s world?

The kid is basically in survival mode. No place feels safe. They are in school, they socialize, and unfortunately, as a young child, everyone can seem unsafe or like an enemy. This just continues throughout their life. Unfortunately, with the lack of knowledge on mental health and human growth and development, if the kid acts out, they would be blamed for reacting that way at school. So what happens instead is they are afraid to make friends and become isolated. Unfortunately, the actions of the narcissistic parent are like venom. It spreads to everyone in various areas of their life. 

Where do Flying Monkeys Come Into Play with Narcissitic Abuse?

In terms of the flying monkeys in narcissistic language, they tend to be “close friends”. Essentially, the narcissistic parent doesn’t have a real identity. Instead, they take on the identities of people they learn from and admire. These are the people the narcissistic person is more charming too. The flying monkeys are basically under the narcissistic spell of the narcissistic parent. This is because they only see the good side of this individual and not the narcissistic abuse they inflict. They may see a glimpse of a vulnerable side of the narcissistic person and believe they are truthful and they are a supportive friend. However, this is often a life rather than the truth. Rather than being truthful, narcissistic individuals will paint themselves as the ones being hurt in relationships. When in all actuality they are the ones doing the damage. 

Because the flying monkey does not see the true self of the narcissistic individual, they are more inclined to do their bidding. So for example, if you leave this person, the flying monkeys are going to call and let you know that the individual loves you and they are not a bad person. 

Can the flying monkey’s show up in a family?

Typically when it comes to flying monkeys they are more likely to be peers. However, it is not unheard of that a narcissistic person has a flying monkey within the family. For example, the golden child tends to be the flying monkey for the parent. Essentially, this child has learned to be the yes person for the parent. It is unlikely for the scapegoat or the forgotten child to become the flying monkey for the parent. 

Is narcissistic abuse diffierent in realtioships compared to family dynamics?

Becoming a victim of narcissistic abuse at the hand of a partner is nothing that you have caused. Instead, narcissistic individuals see everyone as a potential victim. What is very evident is the phase of love bombing that exists and individuals relate this to who the person actually is. They hold onto it for dear life. However, over the course of a relationship, we begin to see the abusive nature of the person.

When the Narcissistic Abuse Starts to Become Reality

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We want to believe that the first person we met is the reality of who they are. However, the mask is beginning to wear off. As a therapist, this can be challenging, because we can see where the person is struggling between what a narcissistic person presents as truth and what their reality is. You can often relate it to a form of complicated grief. Essentially, they are grieving the fantasy of what they initially thought they were getting into. Therefore, the cycle of grief is present. It can be challenging to talk to these individuals about grief because it’s not easy to wrap their heads around grieving what has happened. However, it is a necessary part of healing.

So as we compare narcissistic abuse patterns in family dynamics and relationship partners, the dynamics are significantly different. In a family dynamic, there is the golden child, the scapegoat, and the forgotten child. Whereas in a relationship, the partner receives the effects of all three. The narcissistic partner has friends, work, hobbies, but it’s too risky to expose their true nature in these environments. Therefore, the partner gets it all. The narcissistic partner understands the consequences of this behavior at work or with friends. However, with the partner, so much manipulation and mind games have been played that they can get away with this narcissistic abuse. 

The impacts of family of origin and intergenerational trauma

Often times as trauma therapists when clients come into the therapy space, we find that the issues they are experiencing are a re-enactment of the struggles that previous generations dealt with. Sometimes clients come to therapy with the hope of resolving or not repeating the past. However, they have come to this conclusion when the kids are 15 or 18 rather than a child. So it’s more of a concern that the parent could have been a narcissistic parent without knowing it and knowing they are being reflective. 

What has been found is that women are often the ones who come to narcissistic abuse therapy. It starts as an intergenerational problem as they grew up as a child in a narcissistic home. Therefore they learn how to interact with individuals from a narcissistic perspective. Unfortunately, the narcissistic individual is good at roping a person in. So if we are referring to the scapegoat, they may meet someone who makes them feel loved and accepted in what we call the love-bombing phase.  You may find that this individual rushes into a relationship and soon the honeymoon phase comes to an end.

Why do individuals working to overcome narcissistic tendencies or to break from the generation abuse come to therapy?

Many people come into therapy stressed that they are repeating the cycle of their past. However, what they are actually doing is working toward breaking away from the generational trauma of generational narcissistic abuse. Now when we consider generational abuse, it does take a few generations to wash out. However, these individuals are still making huge steps. What is also important to know is that just because they have narcissistic tendencies, it doesn’t mean that they are a narcissistic person. The truth is if they were a narcissist, they wouldn’t stay in therapy long. Narcissists don’t tolerate suggestions well.  For the narcissistic individual in therapy, they are used to using these tactics and charm to get their way. In therapy, the person has a bit more insight and the narcissist does not succeed.

Individuals often go to a therapist because they believe that the therapist understands narcissism. The truth is that this individual has struggled to feel heard and seen. Unfortunately, the therapist may not understand the complexity and insidious nature of what they are dealing with. So where they intend to help, instead they end up shaming the client. So it’s important for clinicians to be very aware of narcissistic abuse and the needs of the clients. It requires training and staying up to date on research. This will help you to pick up on the subtleties that may not seem huge to you, but the client finds huge. We as trauma therapists need to be aware of the red flags in order to support clients. 

What a therapist who knows about narcissistic abuse would do differently?  

A therapist who gets and understands the damage of narcissistic abuse would be able to get down to the meaning. That means understanding the pain a comment brought to a client and asking more about it. It’s necessary to understand the message underneath what the client is saying. What we don’t want to do is invalidate the client’s message. It takes a lot of courage for them to get to where they are, to begin with.

We also have to understand what it may mean for them to be this open and honest. It may have so much more meaning than we even realized for them to walk through that therapy door or to get online and talk to their therapist. Whatever their individual case may be. Invalidation is something that happens which often adds more fuel to the fire for the client. They are already feeling out of control and we don’t want to add more damage to them. In fact, this could be a quick way to retraumatize a person. It could remind them of the narcissistic abuse they experienced at the hand of a narcissistic partner or parent. 

It’s Important for Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse to Set Boundaries

The purpose of boundary setting is for you. Not for the sake of the narcissistic individual. This individual will likely not appreciate the boundaries and they may bother you about it. In some cases, they might set their flying monkey on you, but it’s important to maintain these boundaries. Individuals may struggle to maintain the boundaries because the person they set them up for has a sense of ownership over them. This happens when you try to claim your identity. Despite the challenge, being firm is impactful and effective. 

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Things to consider

  • Be firm on no contact rules
  • Consider how important they are to your life
  • Reflect on your values and why the boundaries were set in place. 
  • Do some personal work to understand your authentic self separate from the narcissistic individual

Remember that for children who are the scapegoat, the parent is projecting themselves onto you and only sees the negative aspects of themselves. It’s like looking into a mirror of themselves. Since this is the case, the parent does not have set limitations on what they’ll expect or ask of the child. That is where, as adults, we have to be the ones to set the firm boundary. You don’t have this power as a kid, but as an adult you do. Know that you’re not the only one struggling to regain this power. Being a child means you’re going to learn about who you are and develop your identity. Unfortunately, your life has been centered around pleasing others or being worried about the judgment of others.  

Tips for Healing Through Emotional Wounds

The biggest way to work through this kind of emotional wound is to heal your inner child. This is where all the past pain is stored. Therapists may use EMDR or IFS as a way to help you work through this. Essentially, the goal is to bring insight to your younger self. The great thing about healing the inner child is that the mental health world has made improvements that allow us to be able to help people victimized by a narcissistic person. Allowing you to make some sense of what happened and heal.

Previously, it almost felt like a dead end. You could explain the why, but not how do we move forward. Now we have hope for both the narcissistic individual and the person who was victimized. There no longer needs to be black and white thinking about how to move forward. That’s not to say that you have to then repair your relationship with the narcissistic individual, that is up to you and your needs. What is important is to remember your boundaries and what they mean to you. Boundaries are necessary for every relationship, not just narcissistic abuse relationships. 

If you’re interested in learning about dealing with emotionally immature parents or becoming your authentic self and setting boundaries, check out my previous blogs that are related to this topic.

Find a Trauma Therapist Near Me & Begin Healing from Narcisstic Abuse

The difference between narcissistic abuse and emotional abuse is the intentionality behind it. If you are struggling to break free from the power of a narcissistic relationship, it’s time to get support. A trauma therapist can help you with this. If you are wondering if you are an adult child dealing with the after-effects of dealing with emotionally immature parents, or narcissistic abuse, talk to a trauma therapist. You can usually speak to them by phone before scheduling an appointment to make sure they feel qualified to help with the issue that affects you. 

The first step is understanding that your trauma is real, that it matters, and that you can feel better. Then the hard part comes – trusting a therapist to help you. I know there are many caring and skilled trauma therapists out there who want to help. Find A Trauma Therapist by clicking here.

I hope this blog gives your hope and healing. Please leave questions, comments, or check out our therapy directory.


Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

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Publish Date

March 7, 2022

About the Author

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C is an integrative trauma therapist and owner of a group practice, the Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing. She is also the host of Therapy Chat and Trauma Chat podcasts and the founder of the Trauma Therapist Network, a website for learning information about trauma and finding resources and help for trauma.

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