Even in this day and age of generational shifts in parenting and shared parental responsibilities, the father is still viewed by many as a collateral caregiver whose primary function is to mete out discipline and pay the bills. However, the father is so much more than just an authority figure and a material provider. In fact, the love and engagement of a father with their offspring is an invaluable catalyst for social and emotional development.
The ‘father effect,’ a term used to address the positive impact fathering has across families from all ethnic backgrounds, is vast. As studies suggest, the father-child attachment is vitally important, and although mothering dominates studies concerned with attachment and parenting, it’s clear that absent fathers wreak havoc on a child’s development.
Chart from Daddilife
Being a trauma therapist specializing in the form of relational trauma rooted in narcissistic abuse and given the significance of the father role, I’m intent on examining the impact on sons whose fathers fall within the range of disordered or malignant narcissism. Unquestionably, this is a particularly charged concern for the men who seek me out for complex trauma treatment.
Since narcissism exists on a spectrum there is variability across a continuous range. Accordingly, some narcissistic fathers will present as more adaptive and relationally capable than those who evidence more malignant pathological states. The further along on the narcissistic continuum, the more the narcissistic father’s capacity for love diminishes and the greater the proclivity for domination.
It is here we begin to see rigid personality traits, an absence of empathy, an intense need for aggrandizing, attention, and admiration, and exploitive entitled ways of operating. What’s more, the disordered father harbors extreme expectations of their sons, reinforced by a deluded sense of entitlement and ‘specialness’.
The scapegoat role imprints relational dynamics of servitude in which approval-seeking becomes a driving force. Alternatively, the favored son may identify with his paternal aggressor, defiantly and defensively emulating aggressive posturing so as to ward off the threat of victimization.
While the scapegoat is a dumping ground for blame and contempt, the golden son must embody a perfect reflection for the father to bask in and fulfill the father’s delusional projection of a flawless self. Being assigned to this role makes the son vulnerable to becoming a narcissist by proxy, meaning he may come to replicate and collude in egregious ways of behaving. Capitalizing on victimization, exploitation, lying, egotism, gaslighting, and outbursts of rage creeps in and occupies the son’s psyche. With coercion and grooming the favored son can indeed morph into a caricature of their narcissistic father.
Typically I encounter a combination of both servile approval-seeking and defensive aggression in the sons of paternal narcissists who are seeking treatment for complex trauma. As is the case with my client Adam, both of these traumatic relational imprints can intrapsychically co-exist.
Trapped in an identity of both enslavement and unrelenting ambition, Adam enacts the traumatic programming administered by his father. Consequently, he grapples with vacillating between subjugation and the ruthless assertion of power. Conditioned to confuse respect with obedience and to measure worth through ruthless one-upmanship, Adam like many sons of narcissistic fathers perennially feels like a slave driven to attain liberation and redemption through his accomplishments.
This quest to prove oneself is steeped in futility as the narcissistic father can never be satisfied. Nor can the son’s excruciating emptiness be assuaged, as the acceptance of the true self, hidden behind bravado and scorn, will never be recovered while stuck in this pattern.
Like Sisyphus who was condemned to eternally push a boulder up a mountain, the son of the paternal narcissist is on a vain quest to seek redemption from his paternal tormentor. Authoritarian, cold, invalidating, neglectful and abusive, whether grandiose or covert, the paternal narcissist is always expressing disdain and displeasure. He goads his son into overcompensating and over-succeeding to prove his worth, just to set him up to be derided and torn down.
Under these circumstances the son continuously finds himself embroiled in trying to please his father. He plays the sport the father approves of, goes for the job or the career that reflects well on the father, and says and does only what the father deems acceptable. Yet regardless of how hard he tries, the paternal narcissist makes it clear to his son that he can never measure up. Whatever iota of positive regard is proffered by the paternal narcissist is always conditional and is always fleeting.
Furthermore, no matter how the son succeeds and conforms to his father’s wishes he must not transcend him. It is understood that the father always knows more and always knows best. He makes all the decisions and takes full credit for any of the son’s achievements. Unlike the personification of the mature, ethical masculine seen in the archetypal King, the paternal narcissist will never hand over the throne to his son or bestow upon him the legacy of his dominion.
In the novel The Great Santini, author Pat Conroy portrays his personal struggles with his abusive father through the relationship between Marine fighter pilot Lieutenant Colonel “Bull” Meechum and his eldest son Ben. When Ben, a high school basketball star beats his narcissistic father in a game of basketball, Bull repeatedly bounces the ball off his son’s head while taunting him with emasculating overtures.
“Come on, Momma’s boy, let’s see you cry…Come on, little girl, cry!”
This sort of taunting from a tyrannical patriarch is common. As therapy clients have disclosed, their narcissistic fathers were notorious for depreciating their masculinity.
This insidious ordeal was regularly processed in a men’s group I facilitated. Any inference of artistic proclivities, even the desire to play guitar or indulge in basic self-care such as taking a satisfying shower, was subject to absurd hyper-masculine declarations of effeminate, ‘flaming sissy’ behavior. All the men affirmed that any deviation from a Spartan characterization of manhood was a source of relentless belittling from their fathers.
Touched by how his peers opened their hearts to him, David, a homosexual man from an orthodox religious home who was diagnosed with HIV, shared how his father perpetrated relentless beatings and constant slurs about his medical condition and his sexuality. This incited fellow group members to revisit frightening memories of abuse inflicted by their dads.
Camaraderie and comfort from the men encouraged David to work through a recurring dream in which he repeatedly tried to shoot his violent father with blanks. Conscious of the symbolic impotence revealed in the dream, they all cheered the day he announced that he finally dreamed he possessed a gun with actual bullets. Indeed, the task of taking back the power and virility their fathers usurped was a mutual struggle for all the men in the group.
Accompanying the pain of never winning the father’s approval and being scorned for not fulfilling the father’s demands for perfection, the son of a paternal narcissist is also chastised for loving his mother. Instructed to fault, disobey and disrespect the mother, as well as being weaponized to punish the mother, sons of paternal narcissists are raised to believe that objectification, infidelity, and expecting sexual gratification on demand are reasonable ways of engaging with women.
Naturally, the strength of the mother is critical in determining how the son survives and what values he aligns with. However, in order to sustain for the outside world a farce of normalcy while chaos prevails behind closed doors, the narcissist must assert dominion over their spouse. Accordingly, the marital dyad between a malignant narcissist and their spouse subsists on collusion. Since the mother is likely (but not always) a compliant, obedient enabler her ability to provide protection to her son is minimal. As a result, many sons of narcissistic fathers grow up with misogynistic values, viewing women as weak and unworthy.
In fact, a recent study by clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Kent State University, Scott Keiller suggests that the transmission of the male ethos ideology (i.e.- institutionalized sexism) by paternal narcissists to their sons is inevitable. Keiller’s study concluded that narcissistic men hold overtly hostile, adversarial ideas about women.
As Keiller conveyed, “This is likely to be due to women’s unparalleled potential for gratifying, or frustrating, men’s narcissism. They are crucial players and even gatekeepers in men’s quests for sexual pleasure, patriarchal power and status.”
These findings are consistent with the promiscuity, infidelity, objectification, and porn addiction evidenced in the men I treat for complex trauma incurred from paternal narcissistic abuse. While the desperate need to assuage inner pain can enslave these men to the sexual pursuit, it can also result in complete avoidance (sexual anorexia).
Underlying these intimacy disorders are profound loneliness, traumatic betrayal, and the deep shame of harboring dependency needs that were incessantly scorned and denied.
Across the board, my clients who are sons of narcissistic fathers ponder in disbelief how aspirations and opportunities were deliberately derailed by their fathers. They use adjectives like ruthlessly competitive, arrogant, self-centered, and even evil and psychopathic to describe their fathers. Subsequently, they are ravaged by complex trauma, sex addictions, insecurities, workaholism, and self-sabotage.
There is Leo whose father destroyed his bohemian wardrobe. Javier whose artistic and musical pursuits were repeatedly ridiculed and subverted. Robert whose father either attained vicarious gratification through his athletic feats or never showed up for games. Then there is John whose psychopathic father beat him mercilessly and sexually violated his sisters along with countless other women.
Yet with time and effort, pernicious patterns of self-destruction are dismantled when sons of paternal narcissists find the courage within to face that they were hated, dehumanized, and envied by their own fathers. By facing this brutal truth the grueling task of healing and rebuilding can ensue and integrity can be reclaimed.
The ultimate triumph is attained when these sons, no longer shackled to their father’s tyranny, heed these words of wisdom from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
In realizing these words, sons who have survived paternal narcissism can finally reclaim their right to embody the men they were born to be.
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a NYC psychotherapist, freelance writer/author, and an interfaith minister in private practice specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome, and addictive disorders. Learn more about Sheri at www.sheritherapist.com.