‘family exceptionalism’: a family system based on a bottomless need for validation

July 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

I finally wrote down my memory of the story Brother1 recounted about the day our tree planting crummy lost its brakes. I did not send it, though. After I finished writing it I thought about the impulse that drove my brother to write the story and embellish it to portray his part as heroic. I realized how fragile my brother’s mental health is, despite his robust appearance. For the first time I was able to see how his narcissistic drive for attention indicates a bottomless need for validation.

As I thought about other members of my family, I was able to see them all suffering from the same condition, this bottomless drive for validation. It is probably my single greatest frustration in my attempts to have authentic relationships with family members. I see how this bottomless need for validation manifests as one-sided conversations, where topics are defined and controlled by my family interlocutors. This is why I feel so frustrated. I am welcome to join the conversation, as long as it is about topics and narratives that sustain the image of heroism or exceptionalism constructed by my family.

Family exceptionalism. Ha. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but that is what I would call it now. The condition is signalled by an obsessive interest in one’s own, or one’s family, as the subjects of narratives of exploits and accomplishments. One of the taboo topics in the narcissistic family is any mention of weakness, vulnerability, or humility. It is fine to make jokes at one’s own and others’ expense, as long as they don’t cross the line into authentic expressions of vulnerability or feeling.

The moment I identified the condition of a bottomless need for validation I felt the tightness in my chest ease, I felt my neck and back muscles relax. I realized I could not make a dent in that condition, no matter what I tried. I also realized how much I have suffered as the one family member who is expected to provide the validation. I have never been an exceptional performer and I have never had the drive to sacrifice myself and members of my family in pursuit of validation. That has left me sidelined in the family, because there isn’t anyone who will get off the stage and join me for a quiet conversation. It is all about larger than life performances, all the time. I just find it exhausting.

My sister recently described my father’s latest building project, “the Taj Mahal of sheds”. My father is a craftsman, and he does make some interesting things. But I could never properly enjoy his work because there was a needling sense of incongruence as I beheld his handiwork. Now I can see that it was this disconnect between the man who would abandon and betray my interests, not once, but whenever he has a chance, and the man that would carve a door frame with decorative celtic knot designs.

I have to say I am feeling some real relief today, and I think my term, ‘family exceptionalism’ encapsulates the condition of a family system structured on narcissism.

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