“In general, the more dysfunctional the family the more inappropriate their response to disclosure. Never expect a sane response from an insane system.”
― Renee Fredrickson, Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse
Referred to as the dramatic, emotional, and erratic cluster, the four Cluster-B personality disorders are antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic. Often I encounter men and women seeking treatment for the mental disorders they incurred from years of psychological, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by their Cluster-B personality- disordered parents. Typically these men and women committed to their recovery and growth are insightful and courageous. As they heal and dismantle the wreckage of their past they begin to unravel the complexity of the abuse they endured at the hands of their caregivers. They also begin to expose the pernicious nature of their parents and the ruinous damage brought about by years of parental violation and neglect.
Comparable to the sociopathic Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White, these PD parents lack empathy, are egomaniacal, manipulative, and fixated on status and personae. Through shattering illusions and de-mythologizing, the victim awakens to the myriad strategies employed by the abusive parent to maintain power and control. They come to know that the abuser, incapable of empathy and thus indifferent to another’s pain, is intolerant of any lapses in attention, and impervious to truth and reason. S/he perpetrates smear campaigns against his/her child, vilifies and scapegoats, gaslights, willfully manipulates and physically, emotionally, and psychologically abuses with no moral compunction. The abuser skillfully plays the victim while vilifying their victimized children, and engages gullible others to target the scapegoated family member.
As adult children of PD abusers stabilize, they typically recognize the need to create distance from their familial perpetrators. The degree of pathology evidenced in the disordered parent, largely determines whether reconciliation or indeterminate estrangement will prevail. The adult survivor of child abuse has to consider if further involvement with the PD parent will open them up to more abuse and harm. If the PD abuser lacks the capacity for insight and positive change, it is likely they will persist with predation, denying their perfidious motives and evidencing an absence of sincere remorse. On the malignant end of the PD continuum, the PD parent will perceive reconciliation as an opportunity to further manipulate, control, punish, and extort narcissistic supply from their prey. To re-engage with this degree of pathology puts the adult victim at risk for regressing into dysfunctional interpersonal patterns, succumbing to guilt and cognitive dissonance, getting mired in confused roles, and being flooded by abandonment panic. Essentially it is an act of self-sabotage, which results in chaos and corroded self-esteem.
While the malignant PD parent intentionally maneuvers to inflict pain, perpetrators with PD traits as opposed to the full-blown PD, may have the capacity to insightfully examine how their abuse of power has harmed others. Under these conditions it may be tenable for adult children of parents with PD traits to tentatively engage in a healing process of reconciliation. In order for such a process to unfold the adult child needs to be sufficiently healed and appropriately boundaried. At the same time, adult children of PD abusers must be adequately prepared for the possibility of a disappointing outcome, in which the PD parent denies their actions and hence withholds apology. For many this constitutes a deal-breaker, which results in finality. For others, sufficient healing and realistic expectations may encourage a willingness to tolerate a relationship with PD parents who have the capacity to modify objectionable behavior, with the full understanding that there will be enforced repercussions for inappropriate words and actions. This scenario necessitates an ability to accept a dynamic with a disordered parent who is at the very best able to have a modicum of decency. In the most successful, yet rare cases, true repentance is demonstrated and with that the establishment of a healthier renewed sense of familial connection.
Author C. JoyBell C. wrote, “The only person who can pull me down is myself, and I’m not going to let myself pull me down anymore”. Whatever the outcome, for many adult children subjected to years of abuse by their PD parents, simply confronting the abuse and standing in their truth is a powerfully cathartic act offering redemption from victimization and the sense of empowerment resulting from confronting years of injustice. It is reclamation of one’s dignity, allowing for transformation and inner peace. It is an emphatic refusal to be pulled down.