Has it seemed impossible to feel strong in close relationships?
Do you find problems with yourself and present them to others in order to feel connected?
Has ‘real’ connection meant having your suffering acknowledged rather than your triumphs celebrated?
Some survivors of a narcissistic parent have learned to equate love with being helped up from the ground. The child’s narcissistic parent withholds the emotional nourishment the child needs. They also visit harm on the child by making them feel the worthlessness that they themselves cannot bear. The child’s needs to feel loved and safe go chronically unmet.
Against the backdrop of such a dire situation, the child has to find a way to get just enough of what they need. They may notice how their parent becomes kind when they are in need of help. They now have an alternative to the ongoing pain of their parent’s emotional abandonment and attacks. Simply think of themselves as deficient and in need of their parent to be complete. Operating this way brings forth something that feels much better than being ignored or despised. It is just not an option for the child to feel loved and protected while being fully themselves. They have to be helped off the figurative ground to get any sense of goodwill from their narcissistic parent. Needing help can become a survival-based habit.
Today’s post addresses how the child of a narcissistic parent may learn to equate love with being helped off the ground. Next, I will examine the lasting impacts of this strategy on the survivor’s relationship with others and themselves. Third, I will describe what is needed to find it safe to feel empowered and close to others. Throughout I will provide case examples to illustrate.
When a Parent Can’t Stand Their Own Imperfection
Many pathologically narcissistic parents can only accept themselves in a state of perfection. This may have a variety of causes but today I am concerned about the impact of this perfectionism on other family members. The parent needs a way to see others as imperfect instead of themselves.
A narcissistic parent may exploit their child’s dependency on them to do this. Such parents unconsciously disavow their own imperfections and become hyper-aware of their child’s supposed ‘flaws’. They only recognize their child as someone who is deficient. By contrast the parent sees themselves as perfect. One way this transfer of imperfection takes place is by only being responsive to the child when they need the parent’s help. If the child presents themselves in need of help then the parent may feel protected from their own fear of being imperfect. It is the child who is “obviously” imperfect because they are in need of help – not the parent. With the parent’s fear quelled, they can be in a considerate even generous state of mind towards the child.
Alisha’s father always seemed occupied with something other than the people in his family. He had a neverending list of chores to do around the house. Alisha’s early efforts to get her father to play with her were dismissed harshly by him.
She remembers having to stifle her happiness around him. She couldn’t put her finger on why but she knew not to smile or get excited around him. When her father did talk to her he expected her rapt attention. So, she had to be serious, interested in him and mute about herself.
Alisha was eight years old when she sprained her ankle while playing in the backyard. She came limping into the house and her father came to her. “Are you okay he asked?”
She was startled by his caring response. “Um, no. I hurt my ankle I think.” He picked her up in his arms and put her on the couch. He gently looked took her shoe and sock off to look at her ankle. He said, “It looks like a sprain. Just lay here while I call the doctor and get you something cold to drink.”
Alisha was dumbfounded. Why was he being so nice to her? This had never happened before. She could not figure it out but she knew she wanted more of it.
When Alisha brought home an ‘A’ in school her father would ask her why it wasn’t an A+? But if she were struggling with a math problem and could ask for his help he would readily provide it. Alisha learned that Dad is nice when I’m struggling. So if she could find reasons to struggle then she might feel closer to him. This rule lessened the pain of feeling ignored by him. However, it curtailed her ability to enjoy her strengths and self-sufficiency in her own life.
The Child’s (Lack Of) Options
The child in this position has to take the blame for their parent’s offenses. The offense in this case is not being perfect. It is offensive only in the narcissistic parent’s mind. The child learns that the conditions of being recognized by their parent is that they be in need of help. Their other options are to be vindictively attacked or emotionally abandoned if they show their prowess. So, the child has to forge beliefs about themselves that facilitate their needing help.
Beliefs such as “I am defective” in one way or another can do the trick. Children who believe they are defective will have a much easier time seeking help from those who are – supposedly – effective. This belief is reinforced by the narcissistic parent’s relative kindness when they ask for help. I say ‘relative’ because the absence of attack or withdrawal can seem like kindness to the abused child.
A pseudo-harmony develops between the scapegoat child and the narcissistic parent. The parent is full of bonhomie when the child is looking up to them for assistance, wisdom, etc. Things may go really bad when the child wants to make their own decision or exercise strength. So it is a very uneasy calm that gets maintained at the cost of the child’s ability to experience themselves as formidable.
Impacts of Having to Equate Love with Help for Child
Having to be in continual need of help wreaks havoc on the child’s self-worth and independence. The child essentially learns that only one person can be upright in a relationship. And that person has to be the other person. The child finds that being self-sufficient means having no relationship to the other. As a child, having no relationship to a parent is not survivable and must be avoided at all costs. Later, the adult survivor may continue the practice of seeming in need of help in important relationships. It can feel too dangerous not to do this. Here are three ways this can show up in the adult survivor’s life:
1) Being self-critical in important relationships
Since the adult survivor learned that harmony is only possible when they are in need of the other’s help, they may feel uneasy when a friend or partner encourages their strength. A good friend who commends the survivor for an accomplishment can make the person anxious. They value the relationship to this friend yet they are being held up instead of down. That has always spelled trouble in their early experience. So the survivor may go out of their way to criticize themselves and ask for the friend’s advice for how to improve.
2) Only sharing what is going wrong with important others
The survivor can learn that they can only safely share what is going wrong in life. Sharing their triumphs has resulted in attack or withdrawal in the past. This can become so practiced that the survivor may only be aware themselves of what is going wrong. It can feel too dangerous to even privately acknowledge what is going right in their lives.
3) Feeling less effective than friends and partners
All of these maneuvers imply that the scapegoat survivor is less together than the other person. Of course, that is by design given the early demands of their narcissistic parent. The scapegoat survivor may feel inherently less capable than their friend or partner. This creates a disparity in worth that feels necessary but humiliating for the scapegoat survivor.
These three phenomena may lead to relationships with people who are gratified by the survivor’s needs for help. When the survivor finds themselves with such people their belief of being defective can make it easy to get along. The scapegoat survivor may find it more challenging with people who treat them well. Now they have to go out of their way seem more defective than the other person.
Alisha got into therapy in her early thirties because she experienced anxiety most of the time. She felt particularly anxious at her job and in with her friends or partner. I asked why and she explained, “I’m always worried that I’m going to say the wrong thing. I try to listen to them and ask questions but I never feel like I do a good enough job.”
In the third month of therapy, I asked Alisha what made her particularly anxious at her job. She said, “Well, it’s similar to with my friends, I’m always worried I’m going to say the wrong thing or not listen closely enough to them.” Alisha would find herself asking her manager questions even about tasks she knew how to do. When her manager answered she felt some of her anxiety go down.
By this time I had a sense of who Alisha was and how others experienced her. She was very perceptive, intelligent, strategic and articulate. It was hard to imagine others taking offense at her speaking up. It was clear that this worry of hers functioned to stifle her and put her in a state of needing answers she – supposedly – did not have. I shared this with Alisha and she found it hard to believe at first. I asked if she had any idea why it might feel dangerous to speak up to share what she knew?
“She said, “I don’t know. I would think that they would see me as rubbing their faces in what I knew that they didn’t. Or I might think I know something and they would tell me how wrong I am. It feels really scary to do.”
Alisha experienced anxiety from going along with her belief that she was defective. This belief was painful for her but had allowed her to eke out a relationship with her narcissistic father. She now got anxious when she was on the verge of showing her self-sufficiency. The anxiety would thwart her by disrupting her thinking and leave her in a state of ‘not knowing’. This would allow others to occupy the status of teacher and her the student.
Moving from needing to exchanging help
If you had to habitually get on the ground to be helped up by a narcissistic parent then you may wonder what other options exist. As you leave the confines of this hierarchical relationship you can pursue reciprocal connections.
In a reciprocal friendship or romantic relationship neither person has to always be on the ground. Sometimes a person may be challenged and need support. At other times they may be succeeding and need to be celebrated. And so on. In these sorts of healthy and rich arrangements you do not feel mandated to stay in one state. Each person can trade positions as the need arises. One day you may need compassion from your friend for the loss of a beloved pet.
The next your friend may need compassion for how they were mistreated at work. Help is exchanged between you and the other. This exchange creates mutual respect and prevents either party from feeling more powerful than the other. This is easier said than done for the survivor of narcissistic abuse. The narcissistic parent did not allow the child to expect reciprocity and mutual respect.
The parent was – supposedly – the only one who deserved respect. If the child entertained such expectations for themselves they risked being someone the parent could not recognize. They risked being nobody to no one. To enter into a healthy relationship where you get to exchange respect is to practice what used to be very dangerous. As a result, you can experience some of the fear and anxiety that used to accompany such practices. These painful feelings may arise in a post-traumatic fashion. That is, the danger today is objectively less than what it was in the past yet your subjective reality says otherwise.
To grow convinced that you are safe to expect reciprocity in relationships you need repeated experience of the sort. Therapy and support groups are important first steps to find this kind of experience. In both contexts you are encouraged to express yourself while not getting pathologized. Your therapist and fellow group members do not require you to be in need of their help for them to feel OK about themselves. In group, especially, you see and hear others expressing themselves in similar fashion. In therapy you may feel understood why deviating from the position of needing help in relationships feels so scary. Feeling understood generally leads to feeling less alone which often leads to feeling less scared.
In the third year of therapy, Alisha got into a relationship with a man who was very interested in her. He told her how much he admired her in various ways. This did not make Alisha as anxious as it may have before she got into therapy. When she felt uncomfortable with her boyfriend’s positive attention she told herself not to run from him or her feelings. She reminded herself that her sense of dis-ease was from what she had to do to avoid the danger of having no relationship with her father earlier in life. These responses to herself helped her persevere. As time wore on she even grew to enjoy her boyfriend’s admiration.
In her therapy session she said, “It is so different now. I don’t feel like I have to compromise myself to be close to someone. Being close before always felt so tense. I didn’t feel like the other person would be there for me unless I made them feel good about themselves. But my boyfriend doesn’t seem to need that from me. He seems pretty happy with himself and seems pretty happy with me.”
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.