Seeing the Hidden Picture: Narcissistic Families in 3D

Do you remember those old-school 3D puzzle pictures that used to be printed in the comics section of the newspaper? (Remember physical newspapers?) They looked like a bunch of squiggly lines, or a frozen kaleidoscope at first. There was a trick to seeing the image within the squiggles – you had to let your eyes drift out of focus slightly until…there! The image within the image pops out. And once you saw that hidden picture, you saw it every time you looked at the image. What was seen could not be unseen.


I used to hate those puzzles until I figured out how to see the hidden picture. What seemed to come easily to others was a source of frustration to me, until one day – it clicked. Now I was part of that special group, Those Who Could See. For a nerdy tween, this was heady stuff! Once I knew the trick, it was easy to find the hidden image.


Recently, we explored what it’s like to be One Who Can See among those who cannot, and some of the difficulties that can present. Today I want to revisit that status of being sighted among blind, but from a different angle. Today, we’re going to talk about the ups and downs of Seeing What Cannot be Unseen.


Rosy glasses knocked askew


How about another trip down memory lane. When did you begin to question whether your rosy view of your personal history was fully accurate? What made you tilt your head, squint your eyes, and begin to wonder if the picture in front of you was all there was to see?


Many times, an adult child of a narcissist has grown up with a narrative that their family was loving, close, supportive, and above all – “normal” (whatever that is). Narcissistic families have a lot to lose by letting go of that narrative too soon, so they tend to be fiercely protective of it. The first cracks in the frame come when someone begins to question why their felt experience doesn’t quite line up with what they’ve been told. At that moment, the rosy colored glasses begin to slip, and there is an opportunity to see the picture differently.


Narcissistic parents can provide mountains of evidence of what wonderful parents they were. They do not understand (or do not accept) that the trips to Disney World and outward shows of love do not cancel out the emotional abuse or neglect. Or, if you have a martyr-type narcissistic parent, they will dissolve into guilt-inducing tears at the possibility that they could have been less than perfect. For them to feel ok with themselves, they need to maintain their own personal narrative that they did well. A child’s incongruent experience has no place in their world.


Time for a new prescription


The moment when those rosy glasses slip is a watershed moment. If you take them all the way off and look more closely, you risk crossing an invisible line: the line of Those Who See. Because once you see the dysfunction, the emotional neglect, the distorted version of love that narcissistic families live in, you can’t unsee it. And when you see what can’t be unseen, going back to the way things were before is no longer an option.


This moment is important, life-changing, and potentially devastating for all involved. For the adult child of a narcissist, seeing the hidden picture within the surface image means re-evaluating everything you thought you knew about your own life. Once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it, and you have to make adjustments in your thinking about what that image represents. Letting go of a particular image of your family can be a loss. Learning new terms like enmeshment, emotional proxy, and parentification may be a piece of knowledge you’d rather not take on. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it.


For a narcissistic parent whose child begins to question their version of reality, the moment of Seeing can be panic-inducing, infuriating, or confusing. In their revisionist world, they created a great life for their family. To have that questioned or denied brings up a host of questions they’d probably rather not explore. Unfortunately, this often means either lashing out or giving a cold shoulder to the child who does not fall in with the party line. Or, failing that, the parent may dispatch flying monkeys to convince the adult child to return to the fold.


For both adult children and narcissistic parents, seeing in 3D changes everything. The relationship will inevitably be affected by how both sides handle their respective responses to this shift in focus.


What if your prescription is mismatched?


Sometimes a client comes to me with an old and very clear awareness that one of their parents is narcissistic or abusive. The other, they are quite sure, was the better parent. That other parent was also a victim, and couldn’t be blamed for not protecting their child. That other parent may be immature in their own way, or perhaps distant, or unwilling to take on the narcissist, but they weren’t as bad. Because at least one of those lenses had to have a rosy tint, or the world is just too dark to tolerate.


Walking around with one clear and one rosy lens means you are probably still only seeing part of the image. And there may be parts of you that absolutely rebel against the idea of really seeing the whole thing clearly. Because what if you let your focus change, and what you thought was a hidden picture of a unicorn turns out to be a chimaera? A friendly dog becomes a wolf? A smile becomes a vacant stare? There could be a lot to lose in seeing the whole picture. Because once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And then you have to decide what to do next.


The ups and downs of seeing the hidden picture


Seeing clearly with both eyes presents options and potential conundrums. Once you see what is really happening below the surface, it’s harder to tell yourself it’s just Mom’s anxiety making her so controlling. Or you have to decide what to do when Dad starts pressuring you to get involved in a dispute that shouldn’t involve you. You have to ask questions and make decisions you may never have had to make in the past. You’ll have to weigh out the potential consequences of each choice and decide which fork in the road you can handle today.


But with those questions comes an awareness. You are still in uncharted space, but now you know there are black holes and supernovae about. You are less likely to be pulled off-course when you know there is something or someone waiting to do so. Sight is a double-edged sword, but at least one of those edges works in your favor. Knowing the danger zones allows you to better prepare to respond to or avoid them.


What’s there is there


Ultimately, whether you want to see the hidden image or not, one fact remains: the hidden picture is there. It exists, even if you don’t want it to. Even if you could go back to being ignorant, it wouldn’t make the narcissistic dynamics go away. Seeing What Cannot be Unseen may be hard, but it is less a creation of difficulty than an awareness of what was always there but not always visible.


Take heart in knowing this this. Seeing the hidden picture gives you an opportunity that the rosy glasses folks don’t have – the opportunity to change a pattern. Seeing the whole picture gives you the chance to rewrite a legacy that may have hurt many generations of your family. There is pain in facing an ugly truth – unquestionably. And there are no guarantees that your vision will be celebrated or validated. But in it lies the hope for change. And you are the bearer of that hope.


And that is no small thing.


See clearly, my brave ones.