The Double Bind of Narcissism

Alisa was the scapegoat.
She grew up feeling like she didn’t belong
and often wondered if she was adopted.
It was hard to grow up feeling like she was
on the outside of her family’s inner circle.

Photo by Annie Gray on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Gray on Unsplash

A few years ago her father asked her to come to work for him. Alisa was shocked he asked her. She and her father had never been very close, but Alisa saw this as a chance to impress her father. The new job went well for a couple of weeks–until her father asked Alisa to lie and cheat on some financial forms. Alisa didn’t know what to do.

For the first time in her life, her father had praised Alisa for her hard work, and she felt their relationship was better than ever. On the other hand, Alisa felt rotten to go along with the sham. Alisa felt caught in a double bind between her conscience and her desire to have her father’s love. She’s is not alone. Double binds are a common problem for narcissistic abuse survivors.

You’ve probably been in a bind yourself. Have you felt the pull to gossip or triangulate with others so you can be part of the family’s inner circle to keep the narcissist from talking about you? Have you wanted your parents to love you so much that you were willing to say things you didn’t mean or do things you regretted later? Have you tried to speak your truth only to discover it will drastically change your family dynamics? Have you struggled with going along with all the family drama to avoid getting shunned? If you’ve has any of these things happen, you’ve probably been in a double bind. It’s like asking you to play a game you can never win.

So how can we live in a world full of double binds and maintain our integrity? How can we share our stories authentically and remain in relationship with the people we love?

Keep Your Options Open

If the only reason you’d go to a family event is to keep the narc and flying monkeys from talking about you, you might wonder if it’s worth the stress? Do you enjoy spending the weekend babysitting people so they won’t backstab and lie about you? What kind of relationship would that be? Perhaps you’d like another option. Are there are people you’d like to see, under different circumstances? Maybe you can invite them to meet up with you somewhere else without the narc and flying monkeys.

Realize You Are Not the Only One With Choices

The fallacy of the double bind happens when you imagine you are the only one responsible for the results. You might feel you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but perhaps it is not you who is damned. Maybe the narc is damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

If Alisa could see the bigger picture, she might realize her father should be the one in the double bind. On the one hand, he has a devoted daughter doing a great job, who is unwilling to compromise her values even for her father’s love. Her dad might be angry because she won’t go along with him, but he loses her respect by asking her to contribute to a criminal act. Instead of forcing his daughter to follow in his footsteps, if he had any conscience at all, he might choose to respect her integrity.

Be True to Yourself

Shakespeare gave great advice on relationships when he said, “To thine own self, be true.” If we can’t be true to ourselves, we have nothing left to give to others. No matter how much we want to go along with the narcissist, we can’t. Call it karma or the natural law of sowing and reaping, but life rewards our actions. The narc won’t care because most narcs have little to no conscience. It could be your health at stake, or your sleep lost because you did something you knew was against your values.

It seems the double binds for many survivors of narcissistic abuse comes because speaking the truth threatens relationships. For those of us who grew up in enmeshed families or with emotional incest, it feels like a death. And it is a death of sorts.

The double bind comes between choosing your own life or the life of the narcissist. I had a sibling once tell me that we could never live until our parents were dead. I cried because I didn’t want them to die, but I wanted to live. Are you willing to kill your character and personality to please the narcissist? Or are you willing to let the narc be unhappy with your choices so you can live? The answer should be logical and obvious. Don’t let mixed emotions steal your power. If you have conflicted feelings, follow the logic of truth and love. If you give up your character to please others, you’ll sacrifice your own peace and happiness.

If you want to be true to yourself, then F the double bind of narcissism and speak the truth–even when your voice shakes.



  1. Hi Sandy,

    I did not coin the term emotional incest and it is also called covert incest, it is NOT about sex, but used to describe a situations where a parent projects their needs onto their child. and sometimes uses them as a surrogate spouse or gives them adult responsibilities robbing them of their own identity and the freedom of childhood. I will include a link to an article about it. If you think this might have happened to you, you might want to do some research on books about it.

    Peace and freedom to you!



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