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Family Dysfunction: Boundary’s Enemy?

As stated in the previous article, we will continue the boundary conversation but this time, we will be exploring how dysfunctional family systems shape (or misshape) our understanding of boundaries. In the last article, we touched on how boundaries look in the life of an emotionally secure person and how that person utilizes boundaries to healthily interact with the world around them. Much of that derives from a secure, healthy family system. But there is an important aspect to this that is a must for the healthy development of a child—narcissism.

Yes, you heard it right: Narcissism. This is integral to the child accepting themselves, to move seamlessly in this normal part of the developmental stage (narcissistic phase), and to develop healthy boundaries. Narcissism has gotten a lot of negative press and attention. We use the term to label someone who is uber-self-centered (we will get to that soon!). However, there are distinguishable differences when we reference to healthy or mature narcissism compared to unhealthy narcissism. We first see this phase typically around the “terrible two’s”. The “I’s”, “Mine”, and “No’s” are frequently used by the child discovering autonomy. The child operates as if they are the center of the universe and the reality of their parents, siblings, or other people having needs is not in their immediate thought. That is when teachable moments are made for the child by the parent. Through the daily instruction and experiences that exposes the child to other people’s needs, emotions and viewpoints, that self-centeredness eventually fades (Psychology Today website; September 26, 2016).

Marion F. Solomon, author of Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in the Age of Confusion, carefully explains how narcissism “is not in itself an illness, but an aspect of relatedness in which the principal focus is on the self and its pressing needs” (Solomon, Narcissism and Intimacy, p. 43). Solomon sheds light on the fact that when we operate in mature narcissism, we see evidence of it in our romantic relationships, parenting, mentoring, and other significant relationships (Solomon, p. 43). However, healthy narcissism changes to unhealthy when dysfunction (such as neglect, abuse, abandonment) in a child’s family of origin occurs. Dysfunction in the family begins to inform the child that their basic needs has little to no importance to be met. For the child living in a dysfunctional family, they are absorbing every role and action in the home and within the family; this is their relationship blueprint. This creates, what Solomon coins, narcissistic injury early on in childhood development which cultivates the following:

· Extreme sensitivity to trauma/psychic injury

· Anxiety

· Defense/Coping Mechanisms

· Hypervigilance to possibilities of embarrassment, humiliation, or getting hurt by another

These reactions begin the framework of being boundary-less for the developing child and then ultimately into their adulthood. What will be seen is:

- Someone feeling their self-worth not being valuable enough to notice or to celebrate.

- Someone not having the room or allowance to express their own needs due to the demands of the parent/sibling/family system/family problem to have the center stage for attention.

- Someone feeling illegitimate guilt and shame for any attention given to them outside the family system for feeling undeserved of any praise, attention, or help.

- Someone carrying guilt and an increased sense of responsibility for fixing other’s problems—seeing other’s neediness and putting their own on the backburner and believing they have more power to change others and their problemed situations.

- Someone feeling powerless and ineffectual to things happening to them personally.

- Someone who cannot discern what are appropriate or inappropriate behaviors—from others and even from themselves.

- Someone who has a distorted view of the world (if no professional help is given to assist in correcting it).

- Someone not having access to people who truly care for them.

- Someone without a sense of identity or self.

- Someone who has difficulty making decisions of their own but will be a relationship chameleon—doing what others want despite themselves not wanting to do it.

- Someone willing to accept less from others, however demanding perfection from themselves.

- Someone who feels unsafe and anticipates threat where there is none.

Narcissistic injury creates that hunger for getting specific responses from others because of the history of their basic needs not being addressed or nurtured. The idea of incurring another unmet need becomes overwhelming. This gives birth to anxious, avoidant or disorganized attachment styles, co-dependency, socialization issues, and being positioned for abuse, victimization, and mistreatment from others. If not addressed and cared for in those early years of the child’s development, it becomes a part of the child’s identity and possibly throughout their life as an adult. This is the evidence of what a life can look and function like without boundaries and guidelines to maintain a healthy relationship.

We will press on deeper into this series by delving into the differing abuse categories that one may succumb to when boundaries are absent.

Written by:

Tammy Miller, LSW, MATS

Therapist at HBH



Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion by Marian F. Solomon, W.W. Norton & Company; New York.

Psychology Today website, “What is Healthy Narcissism?”, by Susan Kolod, PhD; September 26, 2016.

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