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4 Reasons the Scapegoat Child Is Stronger Than Their Narcissistic Parent

4 reasons the scapegoat child is stronger than their narcissistic parent

Have you heard that the scapegoat child is often the healthiest member of the narcissistic family but never known why?

Do you find this idea hard to believe?

Do you wonder how someone can be strong while feeling weak?

To those who know scapegoat survivors and the narcissistic parent they survived it is clear that the survivor is psychologically stronger than the parent. This is often news to the scapegoated person. They have had to get used to seeing themselves as deficient and defective in relation to their parent. When, for example, a therapist tells the survivor that they were in fact stronger it can seem like hearing something they have secretly known all their lives. At the same time they may be skeptical of it. How could I have been stronger”, they may ask, “if I had to tip-toe around a parent who was calling all the shots?”. In this case the definition of strength is something one can possess even while feeling weak.

I recently saw this form of strength is in the book and TV series the Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a story of a dystopian religious state where women’s fertility rates have plummeted. Those women who are capable of bearing children – called handmaids – are forced to become slaves of ruling class families where they must conceive and bear the husband’s children under the watch of the wife. The main character is a handmaid named June who lives with a family where the wife immediately hates her for being able to bear children while she cannot. The wife goes out of her way to devalue and control June. If we understand this wife as being pathologically narcissistic then she uses June as her scapegoat. Yet, to anyone who has watched the show or read the book it is apparent that June is psychologically stronger than the wife. She was not stronger because she prevented the wife from abusing her. She demonstrated her strength in how she found a way to survive the abuse.

In today’s blog, I explain why being more powerful does not mean being stronger. Next, I offer four reasons why the scapegoat child is psychologically stronger than the narcissistic parent. This child is more psychologically flexible. They are more emotionally mature. The truth matters more to them. And they are more empathic. By the end of the post, my hope is that you have a framework with which to identify how you exhibited strength in your own upbringing.

Being More Powerful Does Not Equal Strength

A narcissistic parent often wants the scapegoat child to feel weaker than them. If the parent feels a core sense of weakness then inducing weakness in the child can relocate this troublesome feeling. By seeing the scapegoat child as the weak one, the parent feels buffered from this experience. To do this they devalue, deprive and control the child.

The scapegoat child only knows a life where their choices are not their own. They are left in a world of fear and undeservedness. They are coerced to feel less than the narcissistic parent and do.

The child in this position would be in disbelief if you told them that they were actually stronger than their parent. It is hard to believe you are stronger than the person who has a boot on your figurative neck. Here is why it is in fact true:

Just because someone is in a position of power over another does not make them stronger. A narcissistic parent is in a position of power over their scapegoat child by sheer fortune. They have not won this position by psychological merit. They simply gave birth to a child who needs them more than they need that child. As such, it is entirely possible for the person in power to be psychologically weaker than the child. In fact, their weakness may get expressed by exerting power over their child.

If psychological strength does not equal power over others then what does it mean? Here are four traits that reflect true psychological strength. I see these traits show up time and again in my clinical work with scapegoat survivors. In fact, these traits seemed to help them endure the pain of childhood and find ways to heal from it.

Strength #1: Flexibility

The scapegoat child is inherently flexible. They can take others’ perspectives. If the demands of situation call for it they can also go along with the other’s perspective.

This trait is required to stay in the narcissistic parent’s reality. The narcissistic parent’s perspective is distorted by their need to deny their own feelings of low self-worth. The scapegoat child has to psychologically stretch themselves to live in the parent’s perspective.

Flexibility often gets mistaken for not having a backbone. Scapegoat survivors may criticize themselves for supposedly “bending to the narcissistic parent’s will”. This view does not include the fact that survival meant finding a way to share in the parent’s reality. Their psychological flexibility allowed them to do this.

And not everyone possesses such flexibility. The narcissistic parent, for example, demonstrates extreme rigidity in their perspective. They must guard their inflated yet fragile self-worth so that they can only hold perspectives that conform.

A scapegoat child learns that the narcissistic parent will take everything personally. Whatever happens around the parent will be seen as a referendum on the parent’s worthiness. The narcissistic parent is unable to consider other perspectives. Their psychology has formed too rigidly to defend themselves from threatening information.

John found himself able to relate to a wide variety of people. In high school he worked at a car wash with coworkers who were 20 years older. On his basketball team he got along with his teammates. He found ways to connect with his teachers. It seemed easy to him to pay attention to someone and figure out where they were coming from. He could meet them where they figuratively stood with little effort.

John also had a wrathful narcissistic father who cast all of John’s traits in a negative light. When John got home from work and was sharing a good experience he had with his coworkers, his father’s response was often something like: “Boy, you know just what to say to get people to like you, don’t you? I bet they don’t even realize what you’re doing to them.”

John felt a surge of shame as he suddenly found himself feeling like a bad and manipulative guy. His father must be seeing something that was plain as day. John could not even trust himself to realize how ‘bad and deceitful’ he was.

In this example, John’s strength of flexibility seemed to threaten his narcissistic father. To nullify the threat his father distorted John’s strength into a supposed character defect.

Strength #2: Emotional Maturity

The scapegoat child demonstrates significantly more emotional maturity than the narcissistic parent. They have the ability to be informed by not dominated by their emotions. I suggest that they are able to do this because of their unusually high capacity to introspect.

The scapegoat child is on their own to navigate their feelings. The narcissistic parent casts this child as an adversary to them and the family. This leaves them without someone to express and regulate their strong emotions. This is typically how a child learns to modulate their emotions. Yet, somehow, the child figures this out on their own.

The scapegoat survivors that I have had the privilege to work with are phenomenally introspective and use this to manage their feelings on their own. The scapegoat child may be endowed with an unusually high capacity for introspection. Introspection – or looking within – requires the ability to be curious about what one is feeling. The child who engages in introspection is trying to figure out what their feelings and others’ feelings mean in the current context. They take their feelings as suggestions rather than facts about what is going on around them.

It is probably obvious that a narcissistic parent is emotionally immature. They are dominated by their emotions. They see their feelings as facts and navigate the world accordingly. For example, let us say that the scapegoat child demonstrates an ability that the parent covets which leads to the parent feeling envy-based shame. The parent feels pain in relation to this child therefore the child must be bad. They do not have the capacity to introspect and wonder why they feel such intense shame in observing their child’s abilities.

John mostly kept a level head in his life. When his friends lost their temper on the basketball court he was the one who would step in and get them to calm down. He was selected by his school counselor to be part of a student leadership committee.

His father could not stand to see John’s emotional stability. Whenever he was in a full rage and John was speaking to him calmly he grew even more furious. He hated the John was in control of himself and he was not. He would take away John’s freedoms until he got to one that John really cared about. At that point, John would pound his fist on the counter or sink to his knees in despair. Then his father would exclaim, “Look who’s throwing a tantrum!”.

John possessed a great deal of emotional maturity. However his father’s efforts to flood John with despair then accuse him of being immature confused him. He wondered how he could be so calm and collected at school but have such “tantrums” at home. It did not occur to him at the time that his father was goading him. He had to conclude that he was really the emotionally immature person his father claimed he was and his calmness at school was just an act.

Strength #3: Driven Towards the Truth

The truth matters a great deal to the scapegoat child and survivor. Though they have had to go along with their parent’s distorted reality they are bothered at a deep level that it is not true. The scapegoat child’s psychology is oriented to knowing what is real. They are bothered by living in denial.

During childhood, survival demands they suppress their need to know what is true. Once enough distance has been obtained from their narcissistically abusive parent they can safely seek truth. This means prizing information that is accurate regardless of how it makes one feel. Knowing what is true scratches a fundamental itch for the scapegoat survivor. Even if the truth brings challenges, the survivor prefers it over an easy existence full of falsities.

I see this propensity towards the truth everyday in my practice. Scapegoat survivors are motivated to come to therapy to be able to live in unison with the truth. They have been pained by having to live at odds with it to keep their narcissistic parent gratified.

The truth they have survived is too overwhelming to know on their own. To paraphrase an important psychoanalytic theorist, named Wilfred Bion: we cannot think some thoughts without another person. The thought that a parent cannot offer the love that was needed fits this category for the scapegoat child. And yet, the scapegoat survivors I work with are driven to know what actually happened in their childhood. Therapy affords the other person needed to think and know what happened. The reward is they get to satisfy their drive to know the truth. The drive towards truth may explain why scapegoat survivors come to therapy so much more than pathological narcissists.

In contrast to the scapegoat survivor, the narcissistic parent can live in denial of who they actually are and what they actually did in the scapegoat survivor’s childhood. They may be incapable of tolerating the shame they would feel if they sought the truth. They prioritize feeling good over knowing reality. They do not possess the psychological strength to do otherwise.

John sought therapy in his mid twenties and begun to tell his therapist about his upbringing. His therapist told him that his father’s behavior towards him was abusive. This confirmed something John always knew. He thought back to all the times he would argue with his father that he was being unfair to John to no avail. John thought the truth was he should not be grounded for a month for leaving a piece of clothing on his bedroom floor. Yet his father refused to acknowledge any basis for what John claimed was the truth.

After six months of therapy John returned home for a holiday. He was brimming with excitement to tell his father how devalued he felt as his son. He was ready to recount his father’s abusive treatment and expected to be met with a sincere apology. Instead he was shocked to find that his father flatly denied all of John’s memories. He told him: “Boy, you really know how to bend the truth to your advantage, don’t you? Get out of here with these lies, John. I raised you right and if you think different then that’s your problem not mine.”

John’s concern with setting the record straight about the past with his father reflected his drive towards the truth. His father showed his willingness to deny the truth to avoid feeling bad by dismissing John’s claims.

Strength #4: Empathy

The scapegoat child has the ability to perceive and care about the feelings of others. This is so despite receiving very little of the same from their narcissistic parent.

Similar to flexibility, a scapegoat survivor may wonder why empathy is a strength. They may see their empathy for the narcissistic parent as what led to being so exploited. I think this view loses sight of the fact that the child’s survival depended on meeting the narcissistic parent’s emotional demands. The scapegoat child who could empathically understand their narcissistic parent’s vulnerability to feeling worthless stood a better chance at surviving. This understanding allowed the child to avoid actions that would be perceived as offensive by their parent.

Outside of the context of the narcissistic parent empathy is also a strength. Being able to attune to and care about the feelings of someone else leads to healthy relationships. Healthy people are drawn to being understood and having their feelings matter to someone else. The scapegoat child and survivor’s capacity for this often leads to being quite popular outside the family.

The narcissistic parent is bereft of this strength. Their lack of empathy may be what makes it possible to abuse their child without concern for the child’s wellbeing. They navigate life by seeing who can add to or subtract from their exaggerated self-worth. There is a glaring incapacity to care about the inner worlds of those others. As a result, pathologically narcissistic people are unable to sustain reciprocal relationships. This can lead to a pattern of broken and/or unsatisfying relationships.

John was acutely aware of his father’s feelings in any given moment. He could predict what types of circumstances would lead to his father feeling slighted and therefore hostile. He would use his empathic awareness of his father’s feelings to try to prevent explosions of rage as much as he could.

For example, John knew that his father would feel like he did not matter if John asked for permission to join his friends at a party. So, John would be sure to tell his father how much he appreciated him in the days leading up to the party. Then on the day of, John would nonchalantly say that someone had invited him to a party and he did not really want to go but he did not want to disappoint his friend. Then he would ask his father what he thought. Often his father might say, “Go to the party, what do I care?”

John was able to employ his empathy to keep himself safe as much as possible from his father’s temper and find a way to get moments of freedom where possible. He bought himself experiences of socialization that were so important for his development. Knowing that he had a way to get his father’s permission to see his friends also gave him hope that sustained him through his adolescence.

Once John had moved away from his family he was surprised to find how empathic people found him. His girlfriend at one point told him that she really appreciates how he listens to her and easily understands how she is feeling. John expected her to see this as something he was “up to” or that he was “just saying the right thing” like his Dad would accuse him of so often. But she meant this in a wholly positive way about John.

As John continued in therapy he got to see how his ability to empathize with others was highly valued by them.

Give Yourself the Credit You Are Due

There is a particularly unfair aspect to the narcissistic parent’s treatment of the scapegoat child. The parent is only able to offload their own sense of worthlessness onto the child because the child is psychologically strong enough to bear it. So the parent profits from the child’s strength yet will not credit the child in any way.

This is exquisitely unfair to the scapegoat child because such credit might give them something they could rightfully value in themselves. They could see and know themselves as psychologically strong. In essence, they are deprived of the kind of speech George Clooney gives to his son in the movie “Michael Clayton”:

As unfair as the omission of credit for your strength was in childhood it is not too late to grant it to yourself. I think that this can be one of the important outcomes from therapy. By working with someone who can see your strengths they get to be something you know exists in the world.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation. I offer an introduction online course on the nature and impacts of narcissistic abuse. I also offer an advanced online course offering 8 powerful strategies for scapegoat survivors to reclaim the quality of life they deserve.

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