Hidden In Plain Sight: How Destructive Families Damage Us Undetected In The Name Of Love

By Sally Davis, guest writer

What to Look For To Identify a Damaging Influence

I had heard the term ‘hiding in plain sight’, and I knew what it meant, but never knew where it came from. When I looked it up, it turns out that it is a military term dating back to the 1600s, of being able to approach an enemy without being seen and the term later was used for camouflage. Camouflage that is expertly crafted or camouflage in the natural world amongst the animal kingdom are some of the most highly intelligent and creative forms of deception. But one would rarely think of a chameleon or a leaf-tailed gecko or a tree frog as deceptive (the amphibians and reptiles are particularly good at this – ironically enough, I’ll explain why). And yet, there they are if you can see them and if you know what to look for. 

Narcissism is More Common Than You Think 

In my experience, the cold-blooded signs of narcissism are very deceptive as it is a self-obsession that goes unaddressed and often unnoticed, only the damaging effects are felt. Narcissistic traits hide in plain sight but you can see them if you know where to look and what you are looking for. But also the nature of narcissism is not warm-blooded emotionally and spiritually as it lacks empathy, compassion, care, love, and the warmth of a kindled human spirit. With narcissism, ‘hiding in plain sight’ obviously doesn’t mean blending into the brown hues of tree bark, it means ‘where you might not expect it’, it means close to home, it means inside your own front door. 

Narcissism is Common

Whilst the statistics for people with a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is quite low, in the US about 1 in 200, the traits that makeup narcissism are more widely prevalent. As Wendy Boring-Bray highlights in Psychology Today, narcissism is a spectrum and there is a difference between the disorder, NPD and the traits of someone with an overinflated sense of self. People behave in narcissistic ways because they feel a deficiency in their own self-worth and look to others for their own emotional, mental and spiritual fulfilment and often at their expense. For more on narcissism and narcissistic feeding, you can check out the other post I wrote on the Lighthouse International Blog, Why We Have to Learn How to Deal with Narcissism and Narcissistic Feeding.

Through research conducted over 18 years working with people at Lighthouse international, it was found that people receive the most challenge, opposition and the most psychological, mental, emotional and spiritual damage from 5 main human destructive influences: parents, siblings, families, spouses, friends and work colleagues. This really surprised me at first – these are the people who are supposed to have your back the most and who you are always told you can count on the most – how can they be the source of the most damage to us and the biggest reason that we struggle to build the value we want in our lives? Well, I began to see that this idea in itself is deceptive as if we don’t question it, it doesn’t allow us to fully question the healthiness of the people around us. After all, you didn’t choose your family based on their principle centeredness, their character, their deep appreciation and respect, their ability to be responsible with their own emotions and to support you with maturity and wisdom. 

Statistically, Your Biggest Threat to You is Someone You Know

In a story by Sky News, it found that women were most likely to be killed by their partner or ex-partner whilst men were more likely to be killed by a friend or acquaintance. And for both genders, the place they were most likely to be killed was in or around their own home according to an ONS Homicide Report, 2018. If those are the statistics for homicide, why would traits like manipulation, coercion, gaslighting, deception, intimidating, guilt-tripping, marginalising, be any further away from home? So often we don’t see these traits because we don’t know where to look or what to look for. 

The idea that parents, siblings and spouses are always going to be loving and supportive and healthy for us is a fallacy. Unhealthiness begets unhealthiness. 

Toxic Families Are Like Immunodeficiency Viruses, Like HIV

But surely the destructive influences in the deeply unhealthy families, narcissistic families and dominant families will be easy to spot? Well, in principle, why should they be? Are deadly things easy to spot? The best analogy that I have heard which helped me to understand this was that of toxic families (parents, siblings, spouses) being like the virus HIV in terms of how the virus operates in principle. The HIV virus enters into the body by mimicking a friendly or harmless cell. It then looks for red and white cells within which to live, appearing like a friend, hiding from our natural defences. The virus then kills that cell from the inside, before moving onto another cell. Slowly slowly, the body is completely immunocompromised – which is the stage of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS – as a result of the annihilation of the white blood cells within the body. This means that a person can die of a simple common cold or treatable disease because they no longer have the defence systems inside themselves to ward off what could be lethal to them. 

This is what it is like with families, just think of your white blood cells as a metaphor for parts of your emotional, spiritual and mental well being – your self-esteem, your spirit, your trust, your confidence, your security, your emotional regulation, your ability to control your thoughts and feelings rather than them running you. Toxic families, like HIV, does with white blood cells, kill off these crucial and vital parts of you and leave you compromised when trying to fend for yourself. And the whole time, you thought they were your friend and on your team. 

Foes Can Be Well-Meaning But If It Isn’t Responsible, It Isn’t loving

This isn’t aimed to be a total condemnation of parents and parenting. But rather this example and the awareness around unhealthy traits is aimed at helping us to understand the intergenerational nightmare – the little habits, traits, behaviours that are passed down from generation to generation to generation. Parents don’t give their children what they need because they didn’t get what they needed, and their parents didn’t get what they needed either and so on. Every child who goes on to become an adult thinking “when I have children, I won’t make them go through what I went through” so overcompensates by doing the opposite, which is sometimes just as or more damaging than what they suffered. 

Dr Susan Forward tells us in her book Toxic Parents, “Instead of promoting healthy development, they (parents) unconsciously undermine it, often with the belief that they are acting in their child’s best interest”. Every parent, unless seriously psychologically challenged, want the best for their child, but the issue lies in where they do not seek the wisdom, the guidance and the counselling they need to be able to take on their roles as mothers and fathers with responsibility and a commitment to reality. And sometimes, as parents, we might have to face that we have done things wrong or that we are damaging, or realise that what our parents did to us was damaging. Unsurprisingly, no one wants to hear that, and sometimes people can’t bear to hear that so much that they attempt to extinguish any possibility that they might be at fault or that their parents were at fault. But the question to ask here is, and this is a question that I wish I had asked many toxic people in my own family: if you indeed are being toxic and destructive, wouldn’t you want to know so that you can fix it? Because if someone doesn’t want to know and doesn’t want to fix it, how is that love? Isn’t that just damage and unhealthiness pretending to be love, like a false friend, or an immunodeficiency virus?

A Destructive Family Can Destroy Your Ability To Reach Your Potential

If this all seems like self-help nonsense and unnecessary, to look at your parenting or at the parenting you received more closely, you may not know the impact that toxic parenting can have to the prospects of your children.

A 2020 study conducted at a school in Kenya was studying the correlation between academic achievement and levels of toxic parenting in the home of that student. Unsurprisingly, the students who were exposed to high levels of toxic parenting scored lower academically than the students who were exposed to lower levels of toxic parenting. The bad influences of parenting can leave a lasting damaging effect on children’s ability to reach their potential and succeed through all of their lives, even if their parents are convinced that all they want is the best for them. 

All the good intentions and words of love in the world cannot make up for the genuine love and care shown through proactive development and transformation, especially in areas that have hurt our children or where we are hurting other people. If your parents are in denial of their responsibility because they are not seeking out to find all that hidden damage and make it right, they are hiding in plain sight behind the word love but causing damage to you in the process.

Getting Treatment

Like the HIV virus, a master of disguise, that which is most damaging to us can be the hardest to see. For me, it took me 25 years before I could start to understand what narcissism was and how it was not just prevalent but rife in my family, and for more examples of some of the ways in which this happened, again I would direct you to the blog I mentioned earlier and another blog about How Money Can Be A Tool For Narcissistic Control. I have still not identified all the ways in which my emotional and spiritual immune system has been compromised by my family and all the toxic behaviour that damaged me in the name of love and care, but like with immune compromising viruses, they do not get better untreated, they only get worse. If we want to be building healthy things in our lives, building value, serving others, living a life filled with righteousness and conscientiousness, we need to remove the biggest obstacles that are destroying us – those hiding in plain sight.  

If you or anyone you know would like to learn more about how to manage the negative and destructive influences in our lives just contact us below. One of our experienced mentors and counsellors would be happy to help.

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