Mind Games in Families: How to Keep Your Sanity

8 min read

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It’s possible to be empowered rather than victimized in relationships with manipulative characters, even family members, by recognizing predictable patterns and understanding the psychological mechanisms at play. When we know what is and isn’t happening, we can train our minds to course correct and respond from a position of strength rather than instinct.

A certain pattern unfolds in some families when distancing oneself from a parent or family member, intentionally or otherwise. Rather than express concern, curiosity, and tolerance in the service of repairing or protecting the relationship, the parent or family member becomes indignant—seeing the adult child or family member as thankless and disloyal, and maintaining conviction of their own innocence.

Behind this narrative often lies a particular toxic dynamic involving a parent or family member who is not on to themselves with a rigid, controlling, narcissistic interpersonal style and unconscious hidden agendas. There is a conspicuous absence of self-awareness and recognition that other people have their own minds and feelings (Buck et al., 2017; Waytz et al., 2010). A related lack of capacity for “mindsight” (Siegel & Hartzell, 2018), the ability to self-reflect and interpret the internal world, creates confusing interactions and relationships in which conflict, misunderstanding, and hurt are unresolvable.

When narcissistic and/or controlling dynamics are involved, the normal tension between autonomy and connection in close relationships, particularly between parents and their evolving children, spouses, and sometimes siblings, gets hijacked and becomes a platform to act out an unconscious agenda to ward off loss and separation anxiety. Then the adult child or family member is used as an object to manage the parent’s need for security and validation, forbidding normal psychological separation through psychological coercion such as blame, guilt trips, and emotional blackmail. (For more on this topic: “The Psychology of Adults Who Are Controlled by a Parent“; “The Psychology of the Guilt-Tripper).

Though anyone can get pulled into the vortex of these dysfunctional dynamics, the good news is that they play out through predictable patterns that we can learn to recognize.


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Source: Lin Shao-hua/Istockphoto

In a typical scenario, the explicit content and/or professed intention of what the manipulator says and does is at odds with the unstated emotionally driven shadow message lurking behind the scenes (often controlling, critical, or shaming). Then, in the face of a negative reaction, they accuse the recipient of attacking them—and believe it.

Oblivious to the fact that they were the instigator, the manipulator blames and shames the recipient of their message—turning the tables on what’s going on and who started it. This dynamic transmits a feeling of badness and guilt to the adult child or family member, leading them to question their own mind and interpretation of reality.

Foreseeable Triggers of Controlling Interpersonal Dynamics

1. Any unwanted separation, boundary, or failure to accommodate

  • “How come you never call me?” said Stacey’s sister in a confrontational tone. (Translation: guilt-trip, accusatory remark in the guise of a question. Self-fulfilling prophecy.)
  • “If you’re too busy to visit me, how come you can go on vacation? I’m just saying….” (Translation: intrusive and controlling. Entitled approach to relationships. The phrase “just saying” after an off-putting remark adds insult to injury, unconsciously granting the speaker a free pass to say anything while negating the appearance of any ill-intent.)

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Here, a family member’s autonomous actions and separate life evoke criticism, anger, and accusations—as if being independent were an act of abandonment.

  • “If you don’t reply to my email, I’m going to show up at your work so we can have coffee together. I do this only because I love you.” (Translation: emotional coercion/blackmail, hostility disguised as love.)

Hostility disguised as caring operates in the service of maintaining a benevolent self-perception, supporting the perpetuation of offensive behavior with impunity.

In this example, “reaction formation,” an unconscious defense against anger, disguises hostility—reversing it and turning it into superficial friendliness and niceness.

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2. Expressing a negative feeling in the relationship such as disappointment or a different point of view (highlighting separation)

Jason attempts to bond with his dad about his (Jason’s) own son, Caleb:

  • Jason: “Caleb is angry at me and says that I put too much pressure on him. I look at him and see myself at that age. I remember you were kind of hard on me like that. It’s not easy being a parent!”
  • Jason’s dad: “Oh, you think I was hard on you?! You don’t know what a hard life is. This is the thanks I get!” (Translation: rigidity, lack of responsiveness. Failure to consider, or register, his son’s experience.)


  • Jason’s dad: “Oh, so it’s all my fault. Yeah, I was such a bad parent. That’s why I gave up my career, chauffeured you around to practice… [insert list of good deeds, a.k.a. parental responsibilities, here].” (Translation: guilt-trip, reacting as if attacked. Taking an exaggerated, masochistic stance, black-and-white thinking.)

Rejection, criticism and shaming have paradoxical psychological effects. On the one hand, relationships with these dynamics can feel oppressive and overbearing (too close)—leading to the need for space. But being rejected also creates a deep sense of isolation, loneliness and unrequited longing for connection.

Further, the opposing needs to retreat and persevere contribute to internal conflict, doubt, and guilt about whether the need for separation is the cause of one’s rejection, further enabling unrealistic expectations, self-blame, and efforts to bond that are doomed to backfire.

In this example, Jason’s hope for a relationship that never was and need to avoid the pain of loss (Stark, 2000) fuel repeated attempts to seek validation, perpetuating a self-defeating cycle of frustration and shame. (For more on this topic: “10 Ways to Stop the Spiral of Self-Destructive Behaviors.”)

The inability to register another person’s point of view, as demonstrated by Jason’s dad, operates like a learning disability in the interpersonal sphere—preventing information from the outside from being processed or learned.

Here, unlike with typical learning disabilities that are not defensively driven, the parent has an unconscious need to block out or overwrite the child’s expressions of their separate identity—precluding authentic connection and mutuality.


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Further, repair and resolution of attachment ruptures in relationships cannot occur without the ability to recognize and understand another person’s perspective, as well as take responsibility for one’s own feelings and behavior.

What Causes People to Give Up Their Power and Be Held Hostage in Relationships?

Confusion, intimidation, and self-blame set the stage for dominant people to take power, as in these examples. In mind games where emotional manipulation and distortion of the truth are disowned, and hostility is disguised as caring, it’s easy to buy into the other person’s claims. Further, the manipulators’ antics are typically unconscious and with conviction, adding to the ambiguity and the appearance of ingenuousness.

Such interactions can lead those on the receiving end to feel guilty and doubt their own perceptions. When this dynamic takes hold, people can become “confused” or swept into the other person’s projections, surrendering or subordinating their own minds, and losing track of who’s doing what to whom.

In addition, a common cause of remaining powerless is a misperception of the manipulator as overly vulnerable and the “delusional” fear that setting boundaries will be devastatingly hurtful. This misperception, confused with empathy, results from imagining another person’s internal experience based on one’s own feelings and mindset, leading to overidentification and a case of mistaken identity.

Ironically, though, the controlling person’s psychological makeup—including the prevalence of rigid, narcissistic defenses such as projection of shame and blame, commingled with “pathological certainty,” wall them off from experiencing their own and others’ vulnerability, enabling seamless self-deception and insensitivity that is the essential problem in the first place.

Turn on Internal “Notifications”

Knowing how to interpret internal cues and relationship dynamics can protect us from being blindsided so we can stay grounded, validate reality, and set limits. These tools allow necessary relationships with difficult people to be more sustainable, without requiring us to give up personal agency and control.


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Internal warnings of an intrusive boundary violation, or impingement on one’s right to be a separate person, may be experienced viscerally as anger, resistance, or disgust, and a need to fend off the other person.

If not recognized as protective signals from the authentic self in response to feeling violated, such compartmentalized feelings can seem unjustified and become incorporated into guilt and self-doubt, rather than embraced and heeded.

But these reactions are adaptive, forcing the reflex to instinctively take space from the offending person in the interest of “self”preservation even if otherwise obstructed from doing so.

Steps to Protect Yourself

  • Recognize and flag “emotional flashbacks” and childhood feelings (e.g. fear of abandonment, punishment and intimidation) as distinct from your present-day adult self. Ground yourself, then notice these states without engaging or judging by zooming out.
  • Remind yourself that you are no longer dependent on your parents for emotional survival and can protect yourself better now.
  • Work on developing the courage to let go of the unrealistic hope of being validated.
  • Establish and internalize a realistic view of other people and their limited capacities. Orient yourself and come back to this when you get caught in wishful thinking, guilt, and other predictable patterns.
  • Permit yourself to set limits, have boundaries, and have your own life.

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