Fawn McNeil-HaberNarcissismTrauma

The Narcissistic Family, Encanto and Holding Two Truths (*spoilers*)

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Encanto has truly taken the country by storm. Kids and adults are singing the songs. In many households, the movie has been on repeat for weeks. The film has inspired many conversations among friends, family, and community members, both online and otherwise. Discussions often center around the tragedy of Abuela’s life experience and the abuse the later generations suffer as a result of her behaviors. The themes of Encanto were such a painful trigger for some viewers that sitting through it even once was barely tolerable. 


Let’s take a quick look at some of the Encanto family.


Luisa is beset with carrying the burdens of the family. The family expects her to always be strong, show no weakness, and handle whatever life throws at her.  Because the family system depends on her, questioning the burden she carries is not acceptable.  As a result, she suffers greatly with the question of whether she is truly worth anything if she cannot do this.  Unworthiness sears under the surface for her at all times mingling with her own fears of if others found out.


There is Isabella “la perfecta”, who the family holds on a pedestal.  She believes she must be perfect and attempts to avoid making any mistakes.  Ultimately, we are all flawed, imperfect human beings.  The process of growth in adolescence and onwards should be full of messy attempts at reaching one’s potential, not perfection.  Perfectionism is a failing task mingled with constant fears that others will find out you are not perfect.  AND it requires your true self, your imperfect humanity to be hidden, disregarded, and repressed, frequently generating feelings of worthlessness.  Indeed, no one cares for who you really are.


Image of three sets of hands overlapping with a cutout of a white house in the middle of them. Narcissistic abuse can affect people of all ages. That is why we offer EMDR therapy for kids in Scotch Plains, NJ 07076.

Throughout the story we see Pepa struggling with a storm of emotions.  She is constantly being told to get control of herself and not show her emotions.  Her difficult feelings need to be calmed, suppressed, and hidden away as they are disruptive to the family.  She, too, is not allowed to feel.


Tenacious Maribel struggles throughout the story to understand her place in the family.  She “has no gift.”  She constantly receives the message that she is not as worthy as the others.  This comes from both her Abuela and other characters in the story.  What is mirrored to her is she is not good enough.


Let’s talk about Bruno.  Bruno is the ultimate truth-teller. Unfortunately, the family system relies on the truth being hidden. It can only function if everyone sacrifices their true nature for the “greater family good”.  Bruno’s worth is not only disregarded but entirely thrown away.  He is erased from the family and leaves to keep the system intact.


The Narcissistic Family

Narcissistic abuse within a narcissistic family is fundamentally one where the needs of the parent system take precedence over the needs of the child system.  Indeed, the children must suppress who they are, what they feel, and interrupt their growth and development to accommodate the emotional needs of the parent system. The child has to bury their true self to meet the family’s needs.  The child has to respond to the needs of the parent in order to be accepted and have a meaningful place in the family.  They internalize the experience that they are not good enough or worthwhile in their authentic self. 

This is an immensely painful experience.  Their emotions, needs, and wants had to be suppressed and disconnected to belong.  The child learns that they have to be a people pleaser.  They do not know how to have boundaries because they could never say no.  The child is cast aside and only useful for what they can do.  The threat of being erased from the family looms.  

What we see in this family are survivors of narcissistic abuse.   Like we see in the Madrigal Clan, everything can look good on the outside while everyone is profoundly suffering on the inside.  In the narcissistic family the emotional needs of the parent take precedence over the needs of the child.  This is different from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Indeed, a parent doesn’t have to have NPD to create dynamics that can lead to a Narcissistic Family.  


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Holding Two Truths

Where many have struggled in the powerful conversations that this movie has inspired is the holding of two truths. One reality is that Abuela had a difficult life full of trauma, pain, and struggle.  At the same time, we must acknowledge that she subjected the Madrigal children to a lot of emotional pain as well. Holding these two truths is hard because of the profound pain of each truth.  It can be hard to accept both these truths without feeling that the other truth is somehow diminished.   These are two truths that can be very difficult for survivors to carry with them. They are also very difficult for those who find themselves to be the perpetrators of narcissistic abuse to ever acknowledge. In fact, many people struggle to hold these two truths.

In therapy, we often create containers to hold hard things. Containers allow us to put things away, out of our minds, and take them back out when we are ready to deal with them. Since we have two conflicting realities that we need to carry, we need to use two different containers. Now we can better hold these two truths, both are in our possession but separate from each other.  They help us to understand how these truths can coexist. And so here we will open the first box, set the lid next to us, and delve into our first truth.


Abuela Alma’s Container

Let’s look at Abuela Alma’s traumatic past. It is a story of heartbreak and hurt. Alma, as a young mom, was forced to leave her home and homeland due to violence and armed conflict.   The trauma of being forced to flee one’s home as a result of war cannot be understated.  In order to protect the family, her husband (the love of her life and father of her children) loses his life. 

Abuela poured all of her pain, fear, and devastation into making sure there would always be a stable home (as seen in her mind) for the children. This also means she must deny anything that she saw as a possible threat to the family system. Abuela had to bottle up that pain in order to raise her children. Creating a stable home and homeland was paramount.  And she forced future generations to devote themselves to keep her fears at bay and to keep the home alive. Abuela Alma’s story is one of tragedy. Her story is one of pain.  When we are able to just look at her, we can understand how this all unfolded.

Now we’re going to neatly tuck Abuela‘s story away in this first box. Her box contains her experiences, her pain, and her own trauma.

Next, let’s pull out a different box.  This box holds the experiences of the Encanto grandchildren, including the emotional abuse they suffered.  


The Truth About the Encanto Grandchildren

Children believe that they must be the cause of the neglect they experience.  The message they receive is that they must be damaged and fundamentally flawed to have their self disregarded like this. Indeed, this is far easier than believing that the very people that are responsible for their survival might also be responsible for their harm. Children must believe that their parents are in the right, even at the cost of their own sense of self and self-worth.  This provides them with the idea that they might have some control to change their circumstance.  These children continue to try to contort themself into what the parent needs to gain approval. Creating a situation (intentional or not) where children must conform in this way is emotional abuse.

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This kind of emotional abuse, narcissistic abuse, takes years to unravel and unprogram.  The very denial of the abuse and their true self that allows the child to survive their childhood, they must release to truly live in adulthood.

This second box holds an equally valid reality to the first box. The parent did not meet the child’s needs and ultimately the child suffered devastating effects. It is possible to hold this in one box, while also accepting the truth that the grandmother went through her own pain and struggles. The pain stored in each box is equally valid, the contents of each box are equally true.  Once we are able to create these two boxes and put these truths in the boxes, it makes it a little easier to separately delve into them without having to deny the other. 


Breaking the Family Cycle

And this is the true horror of this story.  With true Disney fantasy, Encanto reinforces the idea that if the child just tries hard enough they can eventually get through to the parent to get the love that they deserve.  As stated before, children do not have the power to change the parent system no matter how they contort themselves to try.  Sufferers of narcissistic abuse frequently find that there is never an apology, never a change of heart, and rare insight into the damage that the parent has done. 

Survivors of narcissistic abuse do not have to disregard their abuse because of the suffering of their parents.  It is the parents’ responsibility to take care of the child.  Survivors do not have to take responsibility for the outcome of that abuse simply because putting that responsibility on their parents is too painful. But rather they can acknowledge that yes their parents had a difficult life AND ALSO, they experienced fundamentally damaging experiences in childhood that they now must heal.  Healing and growing is a heavy burden. For survivors of narcissistic abuse, it can take many years to come to terms with what has happened.  They are now responsible for undoing the patterns previous generations created and not putting them on the next one. Acceptance that these two truths can co-exist without needing to justify or minimize is many times the first step.


Start Therapy to Overcome Family Abuse in Scotch Plains, NJ and Branchburg, NJ

Processing emotional trauma caused by a narcissistic family member(s) can be difficult. That’s why the skilled therapists at our Scotch Plains, NJ office and our Branchburg office offer EMDR therapy for children, teens, and adults. With EMDR therapy or telehealth counseling, we can help you process your own trauma.  If you want to stop the cycle of the narcissistic family and heal your trauma follow these simple steps:

  1. Reach out to Brave Minds Psychological Services
  2. Meet with an understanding counselor 
  3. Break the cycle and heal from your emotional trauma


Brave Minds Psychological Services Other Counseling Options

EMDR Therapy isn’t the only service that our skilled therapists offer at Brave Minds Psychological Services. For adults, we provide trauma therapy, food allergy therapy, and couples counseling. We offer counseling for parents along with postpartum counseling, and birth trauma therapy. Supporting teens and children is also important to us. This is why we offer teen anxiety treatment, social phobia therapy for teens, child sexual abuse therapy, child anxiety treatment, and more. If you are wanting to connect with peers going through similar struggles we offer several options for group therapy. Our services are offered in person at our Scotch Plains, NJ office and through telehealth counseling in New Jersey.

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