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The Challenge of Creativity for Scapegoat Survivors of Narcissistic Parents

the challenge of creativity for scapegoat survivors of narcissistic parents

Do you want to express yourself creatively but find it hard to actually do so?

Do you grow anxious and fearful when you try to create?

Do you criticize your creative work so much that it makes you not want to continue?

To be creative is to access the core of who we are. Creating comes from within. It can feel like putting your stamp on the world saying, “this is something original that came from me.” For some the need to create can feel like a demand that must be met to be at peace.

Scapegoat children to a narcissistic parent are often forbidden from being creative. This child has to identify as the devalued person their narcissistic parent will only recognize. They must deny the creative impulses that could lead to a demonstration of worth in the world. The scapegoat child does not do this consciously. They are convinced that they have nothing of value to creatively express.

Denying the value of their creativity solves the scapegoat child’s problem of staying in relationship to their narcissistic parent but creates other problems. In today’s post, I explain how the scapegoat child and survivor learns to associate being creative with three punishments. The first punishment is their parent’s vindictive attack for “showing off”. The second punishment is feeling like nobody to no one. The third punishment is feeling psychologically lost because creativity does not seem like a real part of their identity. To recover, the scapegoat survivor needs to turn inward towards their creative impulses. They also need to be in relationships that support them. Last, I will explain how therapy can offer such a relationship and how scapegoat survivors can make use of it to restore their creativity.

The Dilemma of the Creative Scapegoat Survivor

Someone with a desire to create can feel like a part of them is missing if they cannot do so. A creative person relates to the world as a canvas that they want to populate with their creations. To be prevented from doing this is to feel stifled from realizing an essential part of oneself.

The creative scapegoat child and survivor have to live in this stifled way. Their narcissistic parent insists that they operate as though they have no value. This arrangement allows the parent to relocate their own lack of value into the child. Relocating their own worthlessness into the child makes the parent feel less endangered by these feelings. The scapegoat child must comply by identifying as worthless. Being creative demonstrates worth and this severely strains their relationship to the parent.

Alina loved visual art for as long as she could remember. Her eye would naturally wonder to pictures in her environment. These pictures would swim in her mind as she would modify them in the ways she wanted. Once she had the perfect picture in her mind she had to draw it.

Alina’s father seemed to stand in her way no matter what she did. If he saw her doing something that felt meaningful to her he would interfere. He saw the world through the lens of asking how he could turn a situation to his advantage. One way he felt advantaged was to see others frustrated or defeated while he did not feel these ways. This made him feel superior and was very gratifying to him. Alina’s father’s opinion seemed to be the only one that mattered in their home. Her mother tip-toe’d around him and did not show much interest in Alina.

His approach to life tragically extended to Alina’s drawing. If she was drawing and her father came into the room he would pull the paper from her, look at it and sneer.

“What is this supposed to look like?” he’d bellow.

“A frog sitting on a lilipad,” Alisha might say.

“Hmph. If you say so,” as he would drop the paper to Alina and walk out of the room.

Alina felt like her energy had dissipated. She felt weighed down and still. It seemed impossible to move to do anything, let alone continue drawing. After a few minutes of this freeze response she came to. Her desire to draw was absent, though. She just felt like going to her room and trying to fall asleep.

In this episode Alina’s zeal in drawing seemed to threaten her father. Her fulfillment could have evoked his envy or punctured his ability to see her as inferior. As episodes like this continued in her childhood she eventually stopped drawing. She would still have the pictures come to her mind. She would tolerate and try to numb the pain of not being able to get these pictures onto paper as she wanted. Over time, the pain of not drawing lessened but so did her ability to feel much at all.

3 Punishments for the Scapegoat Child’s Creativity

The scapegoat child faces three punishments if they demonstrate their creativity.

1) Getting Attacked: The child’s passion for their creative pursuits may remind the narcissistic parent of their own lack of passion. This can trigger envy of the child. The parent can solve this painful state by spoiling the child’s passion to create. They may humiliate the child for attempting to be creative. As the child grows deflated the parent is spared further envy. Now the child no longer seems to have what the parent lacks.

Another basis for attack can be the threat posed by the scapegoat child showing their worth. This is a threat to the narcissistic parent because this child must seem worthless for the parent to feel good. If the child deviates from seeming like the worthless one in the family then the parent may have no one to relocate their own poor self-esteem into. Now the parent may attack and blame the child as a means to the end of getting the child back to feeling worthless. Either way the child learns that expressing their creativity results in getting attacked.

2) Being Nobody to No One: The only identity available to the scapegoat child is one of being defective and undeserving. Being creative does not go along with this identity. The child can feel at grave psychological risk if they deviate from the way their parent knows them. This is true even when the parent knows them in a way that is false and devaluing. It is always better to be a devalued somebody to a superior someone than nobody to no one.

3) Getting Lost: A scapegoat child did not have their creative attributes noticed and affirmed by their parent. As such, they may feel fraudulent and like an impostor to themselves when they try to be creative.

In order for us to feel like our traits are real we need them to be seen as real by people closest to us. The merit of the scapegoat child’s creative talent is wholly denied. Instead they are forced to wear the costume of being to blame for all the family’s problems. If the child’s creativity is not recognized as a true quality by the parent then how can it seem real to the child? What does get recognized in the family are the child’s – supposed – flaws and mistakes.

Scapegoat children and survivors may feel a wordless dread about proceeding with their creative gifts. Some of this danger may reflect the person venturing into psychological territoty that has not been recognized as a part of who they are. Leaving who you know yourself to be – even if it is a suffering-filled identity – can feel like a psychological death.

Alina willed herself away from creative outlets in her life. She did not sign up for art classes to avoid her father’s derision. She poured herself into the subjects he did not have qualms with: math and science. As a scientist by profession, himself, he regarded this type of work as worthwhile. Alina did not genuinely find this subject as compelling as drawing but forced herself to study it.

She majored in accounting in college and took a job at such a firm upon graduating. Deep inside she still felt stifled and as though she was not allowed to live the way she wanted. She had moved to a different town after college and saw her father only on holidays now. One night after work she heard an ad on a podcast for therapy that got her thinking,

“Maybe I should go talk to someone. I don’t feel good, I know that. Maybe counseling could help.”

One of the questions on the forms she had to fill out for the therapist asked her how satisfied she was in her current occupation. She surprised herself with her honesty and selected ‘not at all’. In the first session, her therapist inquired:

“I saw that you’re not satisfied with your current work as an accountant. Can you tell me a little more?”

Alina said, “Yeah, well I just don’t get any joy from accounting.”

Her therapist asked, “Why do you do it then?”

Alina said, “Well, it feels like I’m not supposed to enjoy what I do. Like the way I know I’m doing legitimate work is if I don’t enjoy it.”

“I see,” said her therapist. “If this rule were not in place and legitimate work could be anything what do you think you’d choose to do?”

“Drawing – no question” Alina blurted out. She felt a surge of relief and terror as she said this.

From this moment on, Alina and her therapist would focus on what it was like for her re-engage in drawing as a part of her life. Alina wanted to devote 30 minutes per night to drawing. As she tried to do this she registered feeling scared. She was not sure why but she knew that the fear grew the more she drew. The only way to relieve it was to distract herself from drawing.

If she strung together three nights of successfully drawing something else would sweep over her. She would feel a vague but powerful block from drawing a fourth night in a row. She would question whether she really liked drawing as much as she thought she did. But she also felt like these thoughts were a means towards the end of getting her stop her momentum.

When Alina finished a drawing she often would not know what to do with herself. None of her friends or coworkers knew that she liked to draw. She and her therapist grew to understand why she kept this part of herself secret. She never saw herself as an artist. To be creating art like she was while having no sense that this was part of her identity felt disconcerting. She knew herself to be someone who struggled in life. Doing what she loved and finding fulfillment in it did not fit into what she knew. Alina would feel lost as she reintroduced drawing into her life and self-concept.

How Scapegoat Survivors Can Find it Safe to Be Creative

The scapegoat child had to turn down the volume on their creative impulses and turn up the volume on their parent’s messages that they were defective. In order to find it safe to be creative the scapegoat survivor needs to first rediscover those creative impulses. This process involves turning away from their parent’s loud harmful messages. Next they must turn inward towards their own creative voice. Turning inward used to mean risking the three punishments I described earlier. As the survivor discovers that these punishments no longer occur they can feel safer to turn up the volume on their creative impulses.

The process of turning inward can feel fraught. The scapegoat survivor has had to deny that they possess value internally for so long. The result can be a belief that they are empty inside. And it may even feel this way upon first turning towards oneself.

Here is where therapy can be helpful. In an ongoing therapy you get the experience of someone being there when you pay attention to yourself. Not just a warm body but an empathic mind that is interested and supportive of you feeling connected to what is within. This type of presence counters the three punishments experienced with a narcissistic parent. You get to see that you are not attacked, you are recognized and your creativity is positively responded to.

Over a few years in therapy Alina made more room for creativity in her life and identity. First, by talking with her therapist about her desire to draw they were acknowledging this as a valid aspect of her. Now the problem was not that her creative impulses arose. It was that the three feared punishments interfered with her embracing them.

Her therapist’s continued benign interest in what mattered to Alina helped counter the fear of attack. Alina learned gradually that she did not have to hide her creativity to prevent her therapist from attacking her. This helped Alina feel less anxious when she sat down to draw.

Alina was able to take in her therapist’s view of her, too. She knew that her therapist saw her as a decent, creative, and resilient person. This was evident in the ways her therapist treated her and responded to her. Now, when Alina exercised her creativity she could still feel like she was someone to somebody.

Alina made use of her therapist’s affirmation of her creative expressions to be able to feel more real when she created. Her passion for drawing felt – over time – like an activity that helped her feel more – instead of less – like her self. She no longer felt lost when she was creative.

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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