Monday, January 19, 2015

Parents who pit siblings against each other, a folly that fosters abuse

name of cartoon: "I'm Special; Compete for My Love"
image is © Lise Winne
(for questions regarding use of images contact: LilacGroveGraphics (att)

(note: There is more discussion of sibling abuse on this blog post. There is also more discussion about the dynamic of the bully golden child and narcissistic parent from this blog post (on the Karpman's Triangle). This post covers how parental favoritism helps to propagate sibling abuse. This post covers the roles that happen in dysfunctional families where a narcissist is a parent. 
This is post about competition baiting where a sibling or co-worker tries to get you "in trouble" with authorities).

Pitting family members against each other happens most often where one or more family members has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. As this article attests, there is a certain pattern to this type of family:

... when researchers realized that children raised in narcissistic families turned out very much like those children raised by abusive or substance-addicted parents, even if the children were never abused or technically mistreated. In this type of family, the interactions among family members are characterized by selfishness and competition; parents are generally more concerned about their own happiness and well being than that of their children, and will often pit siblings against each other to spur competition.

Just look at this Google search for the keywords pitting siblings against each other and you find that all of the top articles are about Narcissistic parents (and particularly Narcissistic mothers).

According to Karyl McBride, PhD, in an article about the Narcissistic family (where one parent has Narcissistic Personality Disorder), children are valued only for what they do for the parent, not for who they are in their own right. She states, Feelings are denied and not discussed. Children are not taught to embrace their emotions and process them in realistic ways. They are taught to stuff, repress, and are told their feelings don't matter ... There are few boundaries in the narcissistic family. Children's feelings are not considered important. Diaries are read, physical boundaries not kept, and emotional boundaries not respected. The right to privacy is not typically a part of the family history ... In healthy families, we encourage our children to be loving and close to each other. In narcissistic families, children are pitted against each other and taught competition. There is a constant comparison of who is doing better and who is not. Some children are favored or seen as the golden child and others become the scape-goat for the parents projected negative feelings. Siblings in narcissistic families rarely grow up feeling emotionally connected to each other.

From this Psych Central article by Cindi Lopez on Narcissistic mothers, she states:

Narcissistic mothers do not have children for the same reasons the rest of us do. They do not look forward to the birth of their child because they can’t wait to see what they look like or what type of personality they will have or who they will become. No, they have children for one reason only: More mirrors. They have children so that the children will love them unconditionally, not the other way around. They have children to do things for them. They have children to reflect their false images. They have children to use, abuse and control ...

According to another article on the Narcissistic parent from

In functional families, sibling rivalry naturally occurs and, with adequate parenting, ideally turns into respect for each other as children mature. Siblings are encouraged to be close and love each other.
   This isn't the case in a family with a narcissist as the matriarch. Children are pitted against each other and taught from very early on that if they wanted any sort of “love” or attention from their mother, they’ll have to compete for it against each other.
   Sadly, siblings with a narcissistic mother often sacrifice relationships with each other to compete for something that doesn't exist: their mother’s unconditional love. Narcissists have difficulty feeling love or empathy for anyone, leaving you and your siblings to bid for conditional, short-term attention that can be switched on and off at any minute ...
   Children are often put into shifting roles by the narcissistic mother. First, the golden child, is the hero, the mother’s other-half, or her mirror. There are pros to this role, such as getting all of the best stuff, the attention, and the ability to entertain the illusion you can do no wrong.
   Your accomplishments, no matter how minor, are celebrated to the fullest extent. However, it is not all sunshine and rainbows for the golden child.
   You may become enmeshed with your narcissistic mother and grow up without any real knowledge of boundaries or self-identity. In this spotlight, you are just the puppet of the mother, and the one of whom the other siblings are ultimately the most jealous.
   Then there’s the scapegoat. When you receive attention from your mother in this role, it’s of the negative variety. But, oh, the relief in feeling you are at last beyond her control. Of course, that feeling can be short-lived as a child because the narcissistic mother will make great effort to strip you of that control and as the adult, she often has the power to do so.
   When in the scapegoat role, you shoulder the blame, shame, and anger of the family. If something goes wrong, it’s your fault. You are labeled as the “bad” one, even if you don’t fit into that category. The silver lining of the scapegoat role is that you often have a better concept of self and independence than does the golden child, which can help you later on in life.

   She can also make active attempts to insure the competition is fierce. She may spend excessive time alone with one of her children, most likely the golden child, instead of including all of her children in an activity or outing.
   She may commiserate with one child about the other’s negative behavior, so that a tag-team competition is set up as well. Some narcissistic mothers intentionally block bonding and encourage competition between siblings. Other narcissistic moms create a vacuum of neglect where the kids are left to prey upon each other for the meager emotional resources that are available in the family environment ...
   The negative feelings you had toward your siblings while growing up can carry on well into your adult life. Siblings may never be close to each other due to the deep emotional scars and animosity they were programmed to feel towards each other by the narcissistic family environment. You may find one of your siblings is unable to let go of the old system and actively keeps the rivalry going. He or she will then miss the value of having a fellow survivor, their brother or sister, who understands what they endured
... --- Michele Piper, Marriage and Family Therapist, owner of

From reading forums from people who grew up with a narcissistic disordered parent and are dealing with their Golden Child siblings, it seems that bullying is how Golden Child siblings often deal with their own part in the sibling rivalry. The scapegoats of the family are often the ones to endure abuse and blaming by the golden and then get punished further by the narcissistic parent who defends the golden in any dispute between the two siblings. Even if the abuse escalates to the point of endangerment, the narcissistic parent cannot face the fact that he or she made a wrong choice in appointing the golden status to a particular child. I discuss this at length in this post. 

Bully siblings can and do accuse their brother or sister of things that they (the bully sibling) is guilty of. It is called projection and competition baiting (the links are to my posts on the subjects), and it can actually work in situations where parents do not care to investigate and research issues between their children. These kinds of parents are mainly concerned with silencing the complaining. They punish "the complainer" because the complainer is making them feel uncomfortable, and look like bad parents (a common trait of narcissistic parenting not too endearing).   

But, surely, pitting people against each other in the workplace gets results from its workers, creates an ambitious team working hard to get results, and an admirable place of employment? This answer is a resounding NO. In fact, it is detrimental in every way; it will create an environment where people do not feel impelled to work or get results. It is not any better within the family. According to this Forbes article and this article by Vivian Scott, author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies, it is not a good idea to pit workers against each other at all. Both articles say that the workers who are ahead or favored by their bosses will assert themselves more and the people behind tend to get depressed and give up. The unhealthy tactic also borders on abuse: it is a public display of humiliation and it will make it almost impossible for individuals in a team to work together. If a boss or coach allows gossip, instigates shaming, insults, plays favorites and uses sarcasm, more workers will quit, and it will further divide the rest of the remaining team. 

Not only will pitting workers against each other ensure that employees will quit in record numbers, it will create an environment where the bullies will rein supreme. As newbies arrive to take the place of the workers who went elsewhere, the bullies learn they will be rewarded by getting the confidence of their bosses through innuendos and damaging gossip. While the bullies get promoted, the business as a whole flounders, sometimes going under entirely. Having a team that can't work together to get the objectives of the company fulfilled, constant training of more employees, who in the end will not be able to work with the bullies, takes time and money. Inspiration and innovation are best in an environment where team-playing, healthy ways of relating and stability are upheld. Bullies know how to jostle competition to their favor, and get promoted, but they don't know how to co-operate to get a job done since they are only expert at giving orders, intimidating and driving their competition out through dishonest means. 

While bullies may be adept at hard work, they are the least innovative. Great ideas are the requirements of getting a business competitive with other businesses. (More on why inspiration/brilliance, requires an empathetic mind in a later post).

All of what is true for businesses is applicable to the family too: members will thrive where competition with each other is at a minimum and where they support one another. Where bullying, insults, taking sides and favoritism are allowed to flourish, members feel resentful and protect themselves from abuse by either keeping silent or at a distance. All of it splinters the family into one or more opposing sides, making succeeding in life harder as members are always dealing with wounds and hurt feelings, distancing and distrust, violated boundaries, little co-operation during hard times and emergencies, selfishness and disregard, escalations of abuse, and dealing with the family's bad reputation to outsiders. The dysfunctions can be distracting enough that members who want to do great things for society can feel held back or sabotaged.

Always remember the children ... 
even the ones not yet born who might receive the family legacy ...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

triangulation, karpman's triangle, scapegoat triangle and abuse triangles

In this blog post, I talk about different kinds of triangles that exist in describing relationships. At the end of the post, I show my own contributions to dysfunctional triangular relationships. 

(Please note: this is a general post about triangulation, triangles in relationships, and karpmans triangle. For more on abusive narcissist's triangulations (particularly concerning the family, go here)

In topics about relationships in psychology and social work literature, triangles seem to abound. Most triangles in the early days of psychology theory started out by describing toxic relationships, but then ways to heal relationships started taking on the triangular shape as well.

Then there is the word triangulation.The definition of triangulation is about talking about one person to another person to keep from directly communicating to the person you are talking about. "Usually this communication is an expressed dissatisfaction with the main party" (Wikipedia quote). 

Abusers love triangulation and use it often. I found this blog to explain best how an abuser uses triangulating in order to control information and people, smear a scapegoat's or victim's reputation and sway others against someone:

Triangulation depends on one person sitting in the middle controlling information flow between others. The person in the middle is the arbiter of information: she tells people what she wants them to hear and often does her level best to prevent the others from talking to each other and comparing notes. She channels information between parties, removing stuff she doesn’t like, twisting—or even outright fabricating—information that will tend to cause her “correspondents” either take the bait and form opinions that mirror her own or be kept in the dark as to what is really going on ... 

... In the dysfunctional family, particularly a family driven by a narcissist, the deduction based on how normal people think and feel will be largely inaccurate, simply because the narcissist does things the rest of us would never do—like damage Uncle Bob’s reputation out of spite or as an exercise in the narcissist’s power. You think all of those people saying bad things about Uncle Bob cannot be wrong? Actually, they can—it takes only one narcissist feeding ugly misinformation and accusations about Bob to a lot of people over an extended period of time for people, especially those who do not see Bob often, to become indoctrinated to the idea that Bob is bad news. Those who have no frame of reference will uncritically accept the information they receive as truth because, after all, why would anyone lie about this stuff? ~Violet 

But triangles also abound in other ways too.
This is the most well known one:

The typical Karpman Triangle
(taken from this page where there is also a good explanation for how it works):

The Wikipedia article on the Karpman triangle is here.

Here is a variation on how the Karpman Triangle (with emotions identified in all three roles):

(taken from this page with explanations about how each party
uses negative emotions in an unsatisfying way, creating a situation with no resolution, 
catch-22s, switching roles and a thankless, pointless nonsensical cycle)

I thought this triangle (from this post by a minister) described it pretty well by putting in a boundary:

This triangle (from this post by Rhoda Mills Sommer, LCSW, ACSW) shows how to get out of the Karpman's triangle:

She goes into detail about how it can work in her post. Basically, there is an agreement between all three people to stop trying to manipulate and blame each other. Each party has to be willing to agree that the status of the unhappy relationship takes two people and the only way to resolve it is to recognize your own part in the conflict. 

Persecutors have to be right at all cost; it is all-or-nothing, even if their style is hurting others and they use lying and manipulation to get their way. They send the message that it is "their way or the highway". They use anger and intimidation to get their way. In addition, guilt and shame are used as whips and chains to ensure compliance. 

Writers of the Karpman's triangle state that victims can operate on the premise that "you have no integrity; I have the integrity." They are often too committed to pleasing others, can have poor boundaries, can be too eager to forgive and be self effacing, and try to control their own negative emotions (like anger) to always appear perfect, without reproach. They expect to be loved based on their integrity alone. Many analysts of the Karpman's triangle state that victims often use tears to get their way (victims are usually the least manipulative, but in the Karpman's triangle the point is that the 3 people can be, and often are, in interchangable roles: with the victim acting like a perpetrator to get the original perpetrator to change his rigid manipulative stances). 

In the Karpman's triangle, both persecutor and victim are said to be childish in their agendas and thoughts. Meanwhile The Rescuer tries to get the two people to make up, or to see each other's perspectives, or manipulate both of them for his own agenda, depending on intentions. Many rescuers, even those with the best of intentions, get swallowed into the drama instead, and sometimes they choose sides and perspectives that aren't to the best benefit of the individuals. The Rescuer then becomes blamed by one or both parties, the victim seeing the rescuer as another persecutor perhaps, and the persecutor seeing the rescuer playing another victim, because the rescuer failed to fix the situation between the persecutor and the victim. This keeps the persecutor and victim locked into a perpetual drama of blaming each other because it is the rescuers fault for not having produced the fix that both parties were looking for. The victim looks to the persecutor to stop persecuting and hurting him, and the persecutor looks to the victim to stop being recalcitrant and do exactly as the persecutor wants and demands.

The roles can stay fixed forever. However, the Karpman's triangle is about roles not being fixed, of being interchangable where the victim can act like a persecutor, and where the persecutor can act like a victim, and where the rescuer can act like a perpetrator in defending the perpetrator's actions, and another victim to defend the victim's actions.   

In Rhoda's triangle, the two people resolve to give up "dodging, deflecting and blaming" to "honestly face painful situations" and "take responsibility" and "negotiate". These are the basic rules of the healthy triangle she made:

Honesty: Say what you mean, mean what you say. There is greater soul in honestly facing painful situations. Look fearlessly within. The people you love the most are the ones to risk more honesty with.

Respect for Self & Others: Balance both. Take Responsibility. Learn boundaries. Have empathy and self-protection. Do not be either too self effacing or too narcissistic.

Make Agreements That Work: Negotiation/middle ground leads to possibilities. More able to handle complexity. There has to be room for both people’s wants and agendas. Solve problems together.

This triangle might seem like a simple alternative, it is not. This triangle requires risk taking, vulnerability and authenticity. This triangle is about developing greater self awareness about your own dark side instead of hiding out in blaming others. This triangle is about being open to dialogue instead of self protective monologues. This triangle is about the courage to work hard at relationships instead of being dramatic to get your way.  -- 
Rhoda Mills Sommer, LCSW, ACSW

This takes a lot of emotional enlightenment, especially if the triangle has been happening between, say, a mother and daughter for several decades or more. If the persecutor mother refuses to give up the role of persecutor if the daughter does not do exactly as she is told (even if the daughter is an adult), then as the daughter becomes more independent (which is the natural progression of all children, sooner or later), the relationship between the two becomes more and more locked in a toxic, strained and distant relationship with no resolution. The blaming between the two parties remain fixed and locked as well. Sometimes mother and daughter remain in this toxic bitter struggle until both die very old women. 

As the persecutor parent blames the victim child for not doing what she is expected and told to do, and escalates the anger and rage to get her way, the victim blames the mother for holding her back (infantilizing; i.e. not respecting that the daughter is an adult with her own way of doing things which may be separate from the mother). The persecutor is blamed by the victim for not loving her enough to stop hurting her, and the victim is blamed by the persecutor for not loving her enough to capitulate to all of the persecutor's demands. Triangulation is typical in alcoholic and narcissistic families.

My own perspective on blame is that it is rarely a simple one-way deal and is healthiest when it is shared among all parties. 

I'll use Shakespeare's plays to demonstrate:

King Lear: Who is at fault for King Lear dying of exposure in a storm? Cordelia for not pleasing her father? Goneril and Regan for lying to their father about their feelings and intentions? King Lear for expecting the flattery of his daughters to ensure his happiness and care in old age? Everyone has a part, but can any one person be blamed for the unfolding of events?

MacBeth: Who is at fault for the tragedy here? MacBeth, the witches, Lady MacBeth, Banquo or the murderers? It seems like there are a lot of people who contribute to the tragedy; one person would be hard-pressed to do it all alone.

Romeo and Juliet: Who is at fault for the lovers double suicide? Mercutio, Tybalt, Lady Capulet who insists that Juliet marry Paris, the prince of Verona who banishes Romeo, the nurse who insists that Juliet forget all about Romeo and do what her parents desire by marrying Paris, Friar Lawrence for giving Juliet a fake vial of poison, the reluctant Apothecary who gives Romeo some real poison, the entire families of Capulets and Montagues, or Romeo and Juliet themselves? 

In alcoholic and narcissistic families sometimes an authority figure decides who is to blame for everything that goes wrong in a family: a scapegoat. In King Lear, for instance, Cordelia would be blamed for everything that went wrong. So, to keep with a scapegoating agenda, the play would have to be rewritten so that Shakespeare and all of the characters he created would all blame Cordelia. What she was blamed for would not stop at not flattering her father, the king, but would grow by leaps and bounds. Perhaps Cordelia would be blamed for too much honesty, and through default for inspiring her sisters to lie. Cordelia would be termed ungrateful for choosing honesty over dishonest flattery as her two evil sisters had done. The sisters would have been seen as doing what is best by casting Lear out into a storm. Cordelia would somehow be blamed for her father being in the storm and exposed to the elements, perhaps because she was also cast out and thereby should have magically found her father and taken responsibility for him. Cordelia would also be blamed for Lear's death, of course. Anything else that might have implicated another character in the play would be Cordelia's fault as well. The writer would desperately grasp at anything that would always make Cordelia responsible for the events in her family, while making everyone else innocent. A glance, rolling eyes, a feeling by Cordelia would be blackened by the narrator to make her motives seem sinister. She would be villianized and tortured for all of it. It might not have been enough that she was merely banished. The rack and the screw might have been used too. Meanwhile Goneril and Regan would have been exonerated, held in the highest regard. This is typical alcoholic, narcissistic dysfunctional family thinking. 

Shakespeare is smarter than this: he knew that there are nuances that go into the making of a family tragedy: everyone has a part that contributes to the ultimate ending of the story.

… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. --William Shakespeare

As Rhoda Mills Sommer, LCSW, ACSW states in another post

Relationships require disagreements in order to remain authentic. People who are black and white in their thinking need to be right and never want to be questioned which is a very defensive position. This impairs any possibility of longevity. Relationships by their nature, require dialogue, instead of one person caving into the other’s long monologue.

Anyway, I made triangles to explain the scapegoat dynamic, which is one of the most simplistic of family tragedies. Issues are not resolved. Instead, one person in the family is picked by the other family members to serve as a scapegoat. Every issue that comes up which is embarrassing, heated, causes pain, is uncomfortable, shows lack of integrity, makes someone look bad, is the scapegoat's fault:

What the Alcoholic Family Triangle is saying:

As long as blame is fixed and unchanged with the enabler(s) and alcoholic, with the scapegoat doing all of the work at trying to find a creative solution to the problems, the alcoholic family disease of scapegoating stays fixed as well. Once one scapegoat has left the family and gone "no contact", another family scapegoat usually is adopted from whomever is left within the family.

It is rare for alcoholic families to change this dynamic on their own. Only through counseling does the situation seem to change for the better, even for the alcoholic. Otherwise, alcoholic families are generally very splintered, with one or more members who no longer associate with the family. Some even dissolve entirely.   

What the Narcissistic Family triangle is saying:

Usually during episodes of sibling rivalry, parents try to break up fights and try to discipline with an even hand. In narcissistic parenting, the parent manipulates the children to get what he or she wants out of them. Narcissists are addicted to flattery, praise, and power and control over others and will do just about anything to get it. Unlike normal parents, narcissists like to pit children against each other to ensure that the children compete for parental love and reward. This makes it likely that one child will try to get the upper hand and the source of his competition out of the way, the competition usually being another sibling. The parent eventually becomes focused on and rewarding one child, while punishing and rejecting the other child. The likelihood of bullying is almost a given in a situation like this. When the bullied child complains to the narcissistic parent that he is being hurt by his sibling, the narcissist looks at it as infuriatingly unflattering. Narcissists cannot stand to feel criticized and will severely punish anyone who dares to even come close to suggesting the narcissist is less than a perfect parent, in all situations, all of the time. In addition, these kinds of parents are extremely defensive if they are ever confronted, and will deny conversations and situations to appear perfect. The narcissist will act as though they are deeply wounded and that the criticism deserves nothing but an all-out lengthy soul-destroying retaliation. 

The narcissistic parent rewards the bullying by punishing and ostracizing the bullied child for speaking out. Eventually, the bullied child learns to keep quiet about the abuse, often dealing with feelings in silence and secrecy. The bully then has free rein to do anything to his sibling. Since the hurt child can't express what his feelings are about, it gives the narcissist an excuse: the child is insane and cries over nothing, abandons situations over nothing, runs away over nothing, and so on. No one has to figure anything out; he gets the convenient label of difficult child, otherwise all else is a perfect family doing well. The label is hauled out to garner sympathy from others: "I feel for you having to deal with such a difficult child!" This reinforces the narcissist being right and flattered by the attention of others. The bullied eventually becomes the scapegoat for all that goes wrong in the family, for every family blemish, and is treated with disdain, called names, belittled, shamed and shunned and hated at every turn, and for any act of disobedience or rebellion even when an adult, while the bully golden child is touted as the child who can do no wrong, is continually rewarded, gains favor and keeps in good standing by flattering the parent and gaining the parent's confidence. All the while he is continually ensuring the scapegoat's reputation is down in the family honor system by lying about his sibling to the parent, as well as keeping his sibling on eggshells with threats and bullying. If the SG is gaining in prestige and stature, taking attention or favor from the parent that the golden child feels entitled to receive, he simply escalates. 

The more the scapegoat tries to rise out of his role, the more the family tries to bound him to his role: the dysfunctions of bullying, name-calling, hyper-criticizing and ostracizing are unleashed with a vengeance if the role is not entirely accepted. Everything is done to keep the scapegoat tightly contained. This is so the scapegoat can conveniently be abused and used over and over again by the family as the dumping ground for all that is embarrassing and dishonorable within the family system. 

Scapegoats usually leave their families as they become more and more educated and enlightened, usually during periods when they are ostracized. Since narcissists cannot hear complaining inside the family, scapegoats take their complaints outside the family. The SGs grow weary of being emotionally abused and rejected by their families and at some point it is easier to live without the family. This presents a dilemma. Since the golden child wants to remain on top, and the parent wants children competing for love and reward, a scapegoat is always needed. The parent who only has a golden child left can feel that the power concentrated into one child is not safe for the parent, especially since it becomes clear at some point that the golden child may be as narcissistic and manipulative as the parent. If the scapegoat can't be hoovered back into the family, a replacement scapegoat needs to fill the void. Replacement scapegoats have been talked about all over the web. There are some links and references about that from my earlier post here. If no new scapegoat can fill the void, and the golden child is the only one left, the parent will alternately scapegoat and reward the GC. Eventually, even the golden child gets worn down by the constant ups, downs, co-dependence and enmeshment of his parent. Going from being rewarded consistently to alternating between scapegoating and all-out love bombing (i.e. wild swings and walking on eggshells) can be shocking to a golden since they have spent their lives with only unconditional love and admiration, plus feeling entitled to absolutely everything the parent had to offer. 

Sometimes, another parent, particularly a parent who is divorced from the narcissistic parent, can help change a scapegoat's situation for the better. The other parent becomes protection and refuge from the emotional pain, suffering and living in fear. Sharing similar stories and getting distance from the N parent allow for healing. The child also experiences not being a scapegoat. This gives a lot of new perspectives and a chance to feel love without conditions. Interests and ambitions flourish. In turn, the narcissistic parent has a harder time keeping the scapegoat down, i.e. tightly controlled, unsuccessful, living in an impoverished state of wanting, disturbed and unhappy, with a shattered self esteem. Sometimes the N parent feels unfavored, which escalates more rejecting and abuse than before, though they quickly realize this is driving the scapegoat away for good, and towards sympathy, understanding, backing and success -- all through an ex they have been slandering to all of their friends. Can't have that! An N knows that a hankering for parental approval is the only way a scapegoat can remain a scapegoat, so the ostracisms have a planned obsolescence. Sometimes the narcissistic parent tries to win back the scapegoat from the former spouse with rewards which won't catapult the scapegoat into success, but will allow the scapegoat just enough comfort and approval so that the narcissist doesn't lose their precious source for blame altogether. They may try to convince the scapegoat, by acting concerned, that the scapegoat needs the N parent. The help is in the guise of generosities and advice designed to get through the pitfalls of life via helping a scapegoat decipher good intentions vs bad intentions of others (since narcissists are notorious for using gaslighting, so that their victims feel insane and can't decipher what is the truth and not the truth), decipher abusive suitors (since narcissists have an almost psychic perception about types of people who prey upon others), but the real intention is to get the scapegoat back in role again, punishing criticisms and emotional outbursts and rewarding flattery. The N parent is also known for rewarding failures and discouraging success, dreams and ambitions in scapegoats.       

My full length post about scapegoating in alcoholic families and narcissistic families (where I provide a lot of sources and links) can be found here