Did you live in fear that your next mistake would lead to your parent’s outrage, punishment and derision?
Do your imperfections seem to cancel out your strengths?
Is it extremely hard to give yourself credit?
The scapegoat child grows to believe that their fallibility cancels out their strengths. In contrast, their narcissistic parent’s fallibility does not. The parent gets to see themselves as perfect and deny their fallibility consciously. The narcissistic parent may refuse to relate to the child under other conditions.
Life for parent and child can feel like a delicate and fraught balancing act. The parent always has to insist on their perfection. The child always has to be convinced of their shameful defectiveness. It is a balancing act because it is unrealistic – something purely psychological. The scapegoat child is not hopelessly flawed nor is the parent so superior. But this is the only version of a reality the narcissistic parent can tolerate.
Today’s blog shows how the scapegoat child believes their human fallibility makes them defective. This self-perception allows the narcissistic parent to deny their imperfections. Now the scapegoat child has a – painful – way of staying connected to their parent. The scapegoat survivor can heal by applying the three Pillars of Recovery to know they are valuable and fallible. Being fallible can live alongside being valuable.
My name is Jay Reid and I am a licensed psychotherapist in California. I specialize in recovery from narcissistic abuse. In my professional and personal experience I have worked to identify the fundamentals to the process of recovery. This has led me to what I call the three Pillars of Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened
Pillar # 2 Gaining distance from narcissistic abusers and closeness with safe people
Pillar # 3: Living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. I have seen and experienced large improvements in quality of life after applying these pillars. This blog falls under Pillar # 3.
The Scapegoat Child’s Imperfections Cancel Out Their Strengths
A narcissistic parent worships at the church of perfection. Any sign of their imperfection can result in intolerable states of worthlessness. Such parents may cope by seeing the scapegoat child as imperfect instead of themselves. This turns abusive because being imperfect means being worthless. The parent sets the child up to identify with these feelings of worthlessness.
The scapegoat child has to adapt to a parent who cannot accept nor love themselves as they are. They cannot do this for the scapegoat child either. Instead, the parent limits their awareness to what they will accept – being perfect. They cast out their imperfections onto the scapegoat child. The child has to live as an unacceptable person to the narcissistic parent. Painful, it affords a reality to share with the parent. This is always better than being no one to a parent.
The scapegoat child has to adopt the narcissistic parent’s pathological calculus that to err is vile rather than human. Now anytime the parent accuses the child of an error, the child feels worthless and even vile. By finding the scapegoat child as the imperfect and vile one, the narcissistic parent gets to feel perfect. This calculus goes unchallenged while the hot potato of imperfection is passed to the child. The scapegoat child cannot pass the potato to anyone else. It is as if the family closes the child’s hands on the potato so it scalds and remains with the child and only the child.
Roger recalled how excruciating family dinners were for him as an adolescent. The nightly ritual would be for his narcissistic parents and colluding sister to pick on his table manners. He recalled an uneasy tension between his parents at the start of dinner. His mother might gush over something his sister did or said that day. Then the tense silence would return. If Roger tried to chime in about his day he was a second-class citizen.
“I scored two touchdowns in football during recess today….it was awesome!”
His father would say, “Roger, get your elbows off the table!”.
Then his mother would pile on, “I don’t know how you’re going to function in life if you can’t learn table manners. I hope you don’t eat like that at school.”
“He always chews with his mouth open too,” his sister submitted.
Roger felt the burning crestfall of shame at being rebuked in the moment he hoped for praise. He was also furious. Something excruciatingly unfair was happening to him. But he had no recourse. They all seemed bonded together and as though they were inherently better than him. “How could table manners make me so bad and them so good?”, he wondered to himself. It was no use though. Such questions – perceptive as they were – had no good answers at this dinner table.
Roger’s experience shows how a narcissistic family magnifies the scapegoat child’s imperfections. His imperfect table manners – something most adolescents have not perfected – became cause for a systematic takedown of his character. Roger was treated like he was different than the rest of the family, worse than them, and deserved to be rebuked. In contrast this left his narcissistic parents feeling flawless relative to him.
What also got lost in these dinner table attacks was the display of competence Roger had expressed. The fact that he played really well in the recess football game was entirely ignored. As if what he did well was cancelled out by his “awful” table manners. As this abusive treatment wore on, Roger stopped taking pride in what he did well. He had to adopt the identity of how his family treated him. As someone who always ruined others’ attempts to enjoy life by being so defective. Whatever he did well in life was just a smokescreen to his “real” vile nature.
The Scapegoat Child’s Inner & Outer Worlds
The ways we relate to and are related to by our caregivers stay with us. Psychoanalysts theorize that we carry internalized representations of ourselves and others based on such experiences. A useful way to think about this is a self-other diagram. These diagrams identify the self and the other. The self has a role to the other as does the other to the self. These roles happen at the conscious level and at the unconscious level. Next, an emotion characterizes the self’s stance towards the other and the other’s towards the self.
Here is how this self-other diagram looks for the scapegoat child and their narcissistic parent.
The scapegoat child’s self is met with digust and contempt by the narcissistic parent. In reaction, the child’s stance towards the parent is one of shame and inadequacy. With repeated interactions of this tenor the child plays the conscious role of being defective. The child must also relegate what is good about them to their unconscious. The scapegoat child’s role as a capable and loveable person is now out of their awareness.
Meanwhile the other person as represented by the narcissistic parent gets to be consciously perfect. In reverse to the scapegoat child this other relegates their imperfections to their unconscious. Being imperfect is equivalent to being defective for the narcissistically organized person.
The scapegoat child learns that their fallibility negates their value. None of us are perfect. The scapegoat child’s imperfections do not live alongside their strengths. Imperfection negates the child’s strengths and worth.
The scapegoat child is saddled with the mandate to be perfect if they want to feel worth while the family sees them as hopelessly imperfect. It is a no-win situation. Just ask Roger in his experience at his childhood dinner table.
The Impacts on the Scapegoat Survivor
The scapegoat child adopts the belief that their imperfection makes them defective. Doing so cancels out their strengths. How can a defective person have good qualities? No matter how effective the child is, their imperfections rob them of the credit they deserve.
Denial of the truth is often something we do to avoid knowing something bad about ourselves. In the case of the scapegoat child they must avoid knowing what is good about themselves. Either way, living at odds with the facts of one’s existence creates dis-ease in our souls.
Along with this baseline sense of dis-ease, the survivor can feel inadequate to others as a rule. Their judgment is ill-informed compared to others. They are less responsible than others. They are not as intelligent as others. They fail more than others. These conclusions are treated as facts. It may feel impossible to argue oneself out of these claims.
The path to healing the scapegoat survivor’s belief that their imperfections make them defective is non-linear. If such a belief could be debunked in one fell swoop it would have already happened. The conditions under which this belief was forged need intervention. When this happens the survivor can learn it is no longer necessary to equate imperfection with defectiveness. Here is where the three pillars to recovery come in. This approach heals by targeting the conditions that led to the survivor’s painful belief in the first place.
How the 3 Pillars of Recovery Let You Feel Valuable and Fallible
An important phase of recovery from narcissistic abuse is accepting oneself as-is. The scapegoat survivor is unaccustomed to such acceptance. Here is how the three pillars of recovery help survivors break the link between fallibility and self-worth.
The first pillar, making sense of what happened can help survivors see through the ways they were treated. The survivor learns that a narcissistic person finds their own fallibility intolerable. Further the narcissist will deny such feelings and relocate them into the scapegoat child. That itself is not enough. To more fully evacuate these feelings the narcissist acts in ways to get the child to think about themselves as worthless.
This is what happened to Roger at the dinner table. His parents trumped up an offense – putting his elbows on the table – that warranted their devaluation and derision towards him. He grew to think of himself as defective for having such “terrible” manners.
As the scapegoat survivor learns about these pathological dynamics they can question their conclusions about why there were treated this way growing up. While serving as the Scapegoat they had to believe they deserved to be treated so badly. Now they can look at it as a product of their parent’s psychological problems.
As the calculus of fallibility equaling defectiveness falls away, a new reality emerges. A narcissistic parent may have attacked you from the victim position. Your – supposed – offense is what is causing them to attack your character. It is extremely confusing for the child. This pillar of recovery arms the survivor with facts that such accusations were never true. The survivor may feel a relenting within themselves as they shed the burden of having to be perfect to have any worth. Reality can seem unfamiliar – even disorienting at first – when it’s not organized by the premise that you are defective. Over time, this unfamiliarity can yield to a sense of freedom and compassion for oneself.
The second pillar of recovery, gaining distance from narcissistic abusers creates safety. As I’ve stated before in reference to the polyvagal theory, our nervous systems know when we are in danger. Being in close emotional and psychological proximity to a narcissistic abuser is dangerous. When in danger, our prefrontal lobes become less activated. As a result, it is harder to learn new information. We are too focused on survival and act from our more primitive brain areas. This is where the trauma responses are at the ready: fight, flee, freeze and submit.
Associating your own imperfection with defectiveness may help you avoid further danger with someone who is narcissistic. A narcissistic abuser will react with more intense coercion if the survivor does not comply. At the dinner table, Roger learned that if he asked why his parents did not pick on his sister for her manners, they would ratchet up their attacks. If he told them they were being unfair then they would accuse him of “whining”. This only made Roger feel ineffectually furious. As he stopped protesting the bouts of attack would be shorter. Still painful but somewhat less so.
To learn that it is now safe to question whether imperfection means defectiveness you need distance from the source of danger. It can be important to reframe distance as an act of self-care rather than punishment of someone else. In fact, such distance can also be an act of protection for yourself. Protection was hard to come by as the scapegoat child.
Distance protects the survivor from the dangers that would have ensued if they did not comply with being defective. The conditions can now be set where accepting oneself as fallible yet valuable is not a threat. There is no hot potato of defectiveness to be held anymore. So it is a lot safer to consider otherwise.
The third pillar of recovery, living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules provides data that supports your value as a fallible person. Now the scapegoat survivor can permit themselves to not be a perfect friend, partner or worker. Are they rejected or accepted when they do this? If they are with generally safe people then acceptance is likely to be the rule. This does not mean that you will not feel some anxiety or dread at defying this rule. This rule has been too important for your survival to be easily given up. But with repeated exposure to others’ acceptance of your imperfections that anxiety will decrease over time.
If you would like to learn firsthand how to apply these pillars in your own process of recovery then I encourage you to check out my online course. In it I go into great depth on each pillar and offer an accompanying private facebook group where course takers can connect with fellow survivors. The benefits of this group are that you get to know that you are not alone in going through this. You also get to receive and offer support for each other’s efforts to reclaim a better quality of life.
When these three pillars of recovery are put into practice the scapegoat survivor has a new way to think about themselves and others.
First, there is a lot more in conscious awareness than unconscious awareness. The survivor’s self and others are seen as fallible and valuable. Instead of relegating their strengths into their unconscious, the survivor now uses their unconscious for other functions. Things like death anxiety can now reside in the unconscious. The unconscious gets to keep existential facts that would make it hard to function out of our awareness.
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.