The family myth is generally an extension of the one or both parents’ narcissism. It is a kind of propaganda that is repeated over and over so that it prevents members from thinking objectively about their family’s functioning or growing.
The family myth can be simple or complex. One or both parents become the creators of the family myth, indoctrinating others with the ideology on which the myth is based. The myth can be spoken or unspoken—usually unspoken. Actual words or glances of disapproval can mark the unspoken rules of the myth.
The myth sets out rules about what can and cannot be said, how the parents must be viewed and how members should be viewed. The myth also sets out the roles of each member in the family, and the hierarchy of power in the family. One parent (or sometimes one child) acts as the leader of the family and sets the rule and the roles. Below are five Common family myths.
1. HAPPY FAMILY. One of the most common myths is the myth of the happy family. “We are a happy family and thus we are better than other families,” goes the standard myth. This myth prevents children and the parents from looking objectively at the family.
When a child from such a family grows uy, the family myth can become one of the chief resistances to therapy or to self-objectivity, for the child may unconsciously feel it is forbidden for him or her to look at the family in a realistic way. “Yes, there were problems, but all in all we were a happy family,” they repeated say. They are not allowed to see anything but the happiness.
When they realize their “happy” dysfunctional family left them damaged, unable to hold a job, unable to have a relationship, without self-respect or self-efficacy, they seek out therapy. But because they have been, figuratively, sworn to the family myth, they feel guilty when they talk about their family, and in particular if they find fault with the ruling parent. The resistance is bolstered by mottos such as “Don’t blame the parents.”
2. SUPERIOR FAMILY. Sometimes a family is indoctrinated with a sense of superiority over other families. That superiority can be based on wealth, attractiveness, or other factors. Sometimes many factors contribute to the feelings of superiority. Such a family may talk about their wealth or the prestigious schools the parents or children go to or the organic diets they eat.
At the same time they look down on other families who are not wealthy, do not go to prestigious schools, or do not eat organic food. One family felt superior because their children went to a private secondary school where kids were discouraged from looking at television or using computers or cell phones. They were taught to feel superior to children from other schools who watched television and had computers. They had names for such children, mocking them as “lower-classed” and “hackers.”
Meanwhile these children from “superior families” grow up to have difficulties at college and work because of their elitist attitudes (family narcissism). In one instance a young woman from this kind of family had trouble with all her male professors because her mother had set up a myth where only she (the mother) should set up rules (and by extension only women should set up rules); when her daughter had a male professor and he set up classroom rules, she would be in conflict with him and resist his rules because of the family myth which said in an unspoken way that males shouldn’t set up rules.
3. INTELLIGENT FAMILY. On occasion one finds families that are convinced they are more intelligent than other families. Parents in such families might read books to their children while they are still in the womb, and continue to inundate them with knowledge from the time they are born. The unspoken myth is “we are smarter than other families.” Even if members of the family do not fare better than children of other families, the intelligent family rationalizes that teachers favor the other children and are jealous of their children for being smart.
Often when families imbue their children with this intelligence myth the children actually do become smart and achieve high marks in school, but they don’t have emotional intelligence. They aren’t able to get along with others and don’t know how to adjust to their own feelings and other people’s feelings. Hence they have developmental problems that cause them to not get along well in life even though they are smart.
4. ENMESHED FAMILY. One of my clients was the youngest in an enmeshed family. The myth was “Nobody outside the family can understand you like you family can because we are a close, loving family.” This was drilled into all members of the family. Although she was infantilized by all her older siblings as well as her parents, she also got a lot of attention from them. Hence it was hard for her to individuate and find herself. Whenever she had a problem with a relationship, she’d go back to her family and they would give her lots of comfort and advice. At the same time, they would keep her dependent and prevent her growing up.
On one occasion, when she was in group therapy, she seemed to have a breakthrough. She was talking about her family and broke into tears, but stopped suddenly and said, “I don’t want to talk about my family.” She became angry at the group for “forcing” her to talk about her family. The next week when she was asked about the experience of the previous session she had forgotten about it. “I talked to my Mom about it and she explained how I was always a crier and when I got into that mood everything looked dark.” Her mother had explained it away and that was the end of it.
5. POLITICAL FAMILY. A family may have a myth that their political values (sometimes religious values) are higher than those of other families. Members pride themselves for being “more liberal than thou,” or “holier than thou,” and derive a sense of well-being through a group consensus that confirms the validity of their ideas. The consensus may extend beyond the family to entire political movement or religion. But become more than right; they become self-righteous.
At the same time they look down on other families and other groups for having ideas that are not only inferior but dangerous. They therefore feel justified in punishing those who have inferior or dangerous values or ideas by calling them names, persecuting them or going after their careers. The children often suffer from a kind of political narcissism that renders them closed to all ideas except those of their family or group, and unable to function successfully and peacefully in society.
The resistance to therapy caused by the indoctrination of a child to the family myth is one of the strongest resistances to therapy. Often clients feel they are betraying their family if they talk about them at all. Ironically, it is a resistance that impedes them in not only in therapy but in their lives.
Photos by simon.tk.lo,