Closeness Without Confinement After Narcissistic Abuse

closeness without confinement after narcissistic abuse

Does it feel impossible to live life without orienting to external demands?

Do you find it difficult to know what you want for yourself?

Do you wonder what the outcome of recovery from narcissistic abuse should look and feel like?

The scapegoat child’s most pressing issue is to feel like their parent is willing to be there for them. It is a fulltime job to convince themselves of this. This job requires a lot of denial and effort to be who that parent needs them to be. In exchange the child gets temporary relief from the gnawing reality that their narcissistic parent is incapable of being there for them.

The scapegoat child learned that having someone there meant being emotional nourishment for the other. Relationships where two people are equally important offer something different. Now each person is responsible for nourishing themselves but nobody is alone. It is a process and sometimes a challenge to get used to this.

In today’s blog, I explain how scapegoat survivors can move from closeness feeling coercive to empowering. There are two components to this healing process. First is structuring one’s environment to prevent further harm. Second is switching from the life purpose of avoiding catastrophic isolation to pursuing what you need and want. This means discovering an entirely new way of being close to others. A way that does not require sacrifice of yourself but offers mutual benefit. You get to take the other’s willingness to be there for granted. This allows you to remain in contact with yourself while being with them. I will describe the process of making this switch and use an anonymized case example to illustrate.

2 Components That Lead to Empowered Closeness

The first component is to restructure your environment to prevent further harm. As the saying goes: “Safety First”. In the simplest terms this restructuring is necessary to undo prior learning. The scapegoat child learned that catastrophic aloneness occurs when they do not meet their narcisistic parent’s coercive demands. The scapegoat child who – rightfully – expects their parent to meet their needs faces this kind of aloneness. So, the child learns that a really bad outcome happens if they expect to be treated well. They also learn they can prevent that bad outcome by expecting nothing and giving everything to their narcissistic parent.

The scapegoat survivor must restructure their environment to remove situations and people that reinforce the old learning. They must also populate their environment with people and experiences that allow for new learning. 

This first component is what the three Pillars of Recovery are all about. The first pillar of making sense of what happened allows you to become more aware of the old learning.The second pillar offers tactics to move away from those who reinforce the old learning and towards those who do not. And the third pillar – living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules – facilitates experiences of adequacy and deservedness without losing the goodwill of important others in their life. (Make this show up as a list, please Bernadette)

After the first component for recovery is in place the second is to live for fulfillment. This means switching the goal of life from avoiding catastrophic aloneness to being fully yourself. To do so, the scapegoat survivor must be convinced their most important relationships will not be threatened. They can take others’ goodwill towards them for granted and pursue what brings them fulfillment.

Sonja grew up with a narcissistic mother who intruded into most aspects of her life. When Sonja was at home her mother would inevitably barge into her room and demand she finish her chores. These chores made up an exhaustive list that seemed impossible to Sonja to ever be done. She also preserved a vestige of her own identity by passively not doing the entire list. This allowed her to know she existed for reasons beyond just doing her mother’s bidding.

Sonja’s adolescence was marred by getting berated at home then having to serve out long sentences of being grounded. Her friendships and relationships at school suffered because she could not socialize outside of school. She found herself feeling like her time was not her own. She would make schedules for herself that detailed what she was going to do and accomplish in her ‘free’ time. Earmarking time to study and exercise gave her a semblance of feeling like her time was her own. She could only schedule activities that kept her at home or she would have been a target for her mother’s attack.

Sonja moved away to go to college. In her first year she took an abnormal psychology class and had to do a report on narcissistic personality disorder. As she was doing research she stumbled upon the reddit thread ‘raisedbynarcissists’. She saw the first heading: “Did your Nparent yell at you about chores?” and went on to read about someone describing something that was almost exactly what she suffered. She found more and more points in common on this thread. She felt like a new portal in the world had opened. One where she might not be the problem. Her mind could only get glimpses of this portal. It upended too much of what she had taken as fact for so long.

This moment led her to find and consume as much information as she could about narcissistic abuse. She learned that a narcissistic person often acts intrusively in relationships. She saw in her mother the sense of entitlement that led to treating Sonja like her property.

It all made so much sense. But Sonja still struggled with feeling constricted and worth less than others. She knew that she needed help and decided to go to her university’s counseling center. She told her therapist about her discovery from reddit and worried that she would be found to be the problem. Instead this woman showed genuine interest in what Sonja’s upbringing had been like. Sonja got to tell her story to another human being for the first time in her life. It felt strange, anxiety-provoking, and somewhat relieving.

Sonja would work with this therapist for the rest of her time as an undergraduate. They developed a new frame of reference for what Sonja could and should expect from others. Sonja found her feelings of hurt and resentment at one particular friend’s dismissiveness validated by her therapist. Instead of seeing herself as too sensitive Sonja located the issue in her friend’s lack of emotional generosity. Sonja began moving away from such people in her life. She also found herself moving towards people who seemed to like her and want to be around her. In Sonja’s senior year she began to question her practice of schedule making. She grew curious how her days might go if she did not so rigorously control her time. When she noticed the impulse to create a schedule she shifted her attention to something else. Over time she shared with her therapist how she felt more free as a result.

Sonja put the three pillars of recovery into action in her life. She made sense of what happened in a way that located the problem in her mother’s psychopathology instead of her bad character. She moved away from her mother’s narcissistic abuse and her dismissive friend. She moved towards her therapist and friends who readily liked her. And she defied her mother’s narcissistic rule that her time was not her own by living without a schedule.

Overcoming What Closeness Used to Mean

In order for the scapegoat child to feel like their narcissistic parent was there they had to sacrifice themselves. This meant being who the parent required them to be. The parent required the child to seem however would boost the parent’s inflated yet fragile self-worth. Typically this meant the child adopting the belief that they are defective and/or undeserving. Doing so allowed the narcissistic parent to relocate their own intolerable sense of worthlessness into the child. The scapegoat child learns that taking on their narcissistic parent’s bad feelings maximized the parent’s viability as a caretaker. The narcissistic parent with a stabilized self-worth can parent much better than one who is drowning in their own emotional pain.

This form of closeness is based on coercion. Neither the parent nor the child has any faith that the other will be there for them of their own accord. The parent’s fearfulness of not having the fuel they need to keep them propped up leads to them forcing the child into the role of fuel. The child’s fear of not having a parent leads them to coerce themselves into being their parent’s fuel. As this mode of closeness gets practiced over and over it can be confused with connection. Freely chosen closeness does not have a place in this world. No one gets to feel like they are close because they have something in themselves that is genuinely valued by another.

What Closeness Can Mean Now

To make the switch to empowered closeness you must have faith that important others are doing the same. Yes you are your own fuel for your life and so are they for their lives. In this world, each person is responsible for filling and using their own gas tank but no one is alone.

Though focused on their own fulfillment they are also present for one another. This form of presence is and feels very different from the coercive presence of a narcissistic parent. In this world, no one is forced to be there for someone else. Part of being free to choose and pursue your own fulfillment allows you to notice and act on your desires to give and receive support.

This freedom allows you to conclude that the other person is there because they want to be. And if someone else is choosing to show up for you then it must be because there is something in you that is very valuable. This conclusion sets one up for a very sturdy and mobile basis for self-worth. No matter how hard you push in your own direction you know you are not alone because there is something inside you that important people are drawn to. You are not forgotten.

Sonja had continued her trajectory after college. She took a job in city far from her hometown. She continued to experiment with exercising her personal freedom. She nurtured the friendships where she was treated well and avoided those where she was not.

At her job she found herself drawn to a coworker named Matt. She found it very easy to talk to him and she noticed she felt relaxed around him. He seemed interested in what she had to say and got her wry sense of humor. One day Matt asked if she would like to get a coffee and she agreed.

Sonja found herself sharing more with Matt than she ever had in a relationship. She also wanted to know as much as she could about him. Sonja was caught offguard by Matt finding whatever was important to her important to him. He would show her that he thought about her during their time apart by telling her a followup thought about something they had discussed in her life.

Sonja found herself indulging in long submerged interests. She had always enjoyed drawing and began to do so after work. She half-expected Matt to lament her taking up ‘yet another’ hobby and be resentful. He continued to helpfully disconfirm these expectations by being excited that she had found a new interest.

All the while, Matt was contentedly pursuing his own aims in his life. He found purpose in his job and liked to talk about what he was working on. He prioritized his close friends and carved out time to spend with them. He enjoyed woodworking and would spend time after dinner on various projects.

Sonja found herself interested in what Matt found interesting in his own life, too. She liked to check in on him in his woodworking and see what he was creating. They would discuss his projects at dinner sometimes.

As Matt and Sonja built a life together they did so with very different bricks and mortar than what Sonja was used to. Their relationship was built on their mutual and ongoing willingness to be there for themselves and each other. They knew that taking care of themselves did not take away from the other person. And they got to have faith in the other’s continued goodwill as they pursued what they found fulfilling.

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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