In most families, parents protect and respect their children. This protection and respect does not falter when the child needs something. Nor when the child spontaneously expresses themselves.
I like to think of human beings as having a seat in themselves that we can more or less occupy. A big factor that determines whether we can occupy our seat is the quality of our relationships. If we feel protected and respected when seated in ourselves then we do so.
In the families I’m describing The child learns to regard the seat of themselves as a throne. It is a very comfortable seat to sit in. It affords them complete dominion over themselves. They do not require dominion over anyone else. Since they are in the center of themselves they know what they want and don’t want.And they know their desires will be respected and protected. Life generally feels hopeful, exciting, and fulfilling.
Things are very different for the scapegoat child to the narcissistic parent. This child is deprived, devalued and trapped by the parent. Under such conditions, occupying the seat of the scapegoat child’s self is impossible.
When the child tries to express or be themselves they are met with hostility. This kind of repeated experience results in traumatic levels of shame for the child. Instead of the seat of themselves feeling like a throne it feels much more dangerous.
With enough abuse by the narcissistic parent, the seat of the scapegoat child’s self feels like the electric chair. That is a grim but fitting image. In this scenario it is like the child is in the room and wanting to sit down but dare not. If they do, the narcissistic parent will pull the lever that sends the emotional voltage (i.e. shame) towards the child. The child would have committed the capital offense of thinking they deserve protection and respect.
So the scapegoat child survives by learning not to inhabit the seat of themselves. In today’s blog, I’ll describe How the scapegoat child’s seat grew to feel like the electric chair. Next, I name The strategies used to stay out of that seat. Third, I explain How these strategies made it possible to survive a situation you were not meant to. And watch until the end because I will offer Three principles to help you re-occupy the seat of yourself.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse I try to offer a map that allows them to come back to the quality of life they know they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are 3 features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. My online course on Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse offers a strategy that corresponds to these 3 pillars and provides a community within which to do it via an accompanying private facebook group. You can check it out by clicking here. Today’s post falls under Pillar #2: Making sense of what happened
If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. This e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems. You can find the link to the book by clicking here. Also, you can check out my new book ‘Growing Up as the Scapegoat to a Narcissistic Parent: A Guide to Healing‘ on Amazon.
How the seat of oneself becomes the electric chair
Living from the seat of yourself comes with a measure of vulnerability. This is where needs and desires exist. Our needs and desires require someone else to respond. Knowing you want to be comforted is great when you have someone there to comfort you.
This vulnerability is a liability for the scapegoat child of the narcissistic parent. Since the narcissistic parent sees this child’s needs as inferior they will ignore or rebuke the child for expressing them. The scapegoat child who inhabits the seat of themselves experiences the agony of their needs going unmet. On top of this they have to deal with the parent’s attitude that the child does not deserve to have their needs met.
When we express a need or a desire and are met with indifference or contempt, we feel shame. Shame is an emotion that makes us want to disappear. A narcissistic parent who disregards the scapegoat child’s self-expression burns the bridge of connection for that child. The child is hoping to have an appreciative reception and is instead reacted to like a contemptible or burdensome object. It is feeling like an object instead of an understood subject that creates the feeling of shame. Being on the receiving end makes the child associate traumatic levels of shame with occupying the seat of themselves.
Shame shocks us. We just want it to be over when it arises. Thus the similarity with the scapegoat child’s self becoming an electric chair. As the child’s attempts to live from what they need or desire is met with rebuke, the child is shocked. With enough of these experiences the child learns to stay out of the seat of themselves altogether.
Chris was the scapegoat child to a narcissistic mother and father. He was in therapy to uncover and embrace his needs and desires today. He recalled his mother talking on the phone to friends for hours at a time when he was three years old. He would plead with her to pay attention to him and she would roll her eyes at him. He said that he grew demoralized at ever getting her prioritize him. In therapy we pieced together how he learned to ignore his needs for others’ attention to spare himself the shame of going ignored.
Later as Chris grew older, his mother would fix her gaze at him and find a reason to react with disgust towards him. If he cleared his throat she would exclaim how “disgusting a habit that was!” to everyone in earshot. If she saw him standing she would say he has terrible posture. If he answered the phone she would criticize his greeting. He grew to feel like whatever came out of him would disgust others. In therapy, we understood how Chris would stay away from the seat of himself because he expected others to recoil if was himself.
How the scapegoat child stays out of their seat
The scapegoat child cannot stay in the seat of themselves under such conditions. They need a strategy to limit the damage of the shame that threatens them.
One strategy is to turn away from one’s seat. To live through the eyes of the narcissistic parent instead of the child’s own eyes. Doing so affords the child protection from such trauma because they are not acting from the seat of themselves.
When the parent criticizes the scapegoat child there is now a buffer. The child does not feel real so the parent’s attacks seem less devastating. As if the child does not know who the parent is devaluing and depriving.
Staying out of the seat of yourself takes a lot of psychological energy. The child must be occupied with people and tasks that are seem separate from themselves. Life can feel like a bunch of episodes filled with anxiety that must be “gotten through” rather than experienced. “Did I say the right thing to that person?”, “Where am I with that project at work?”, “If I don’t say the right thing to my partner they are going to hate me!” And so it goes. The child’s inner experience gets suffused with mini-emergencies. They require all of the child’s attention. This functions to keep the child’s attention away from themselves and out of their seat.
Chris remembered in high school realizing that he could not stop himself from caring more about what others thought than himself. This pained him. He felt like he had lost his integrity as a person. At the time, he had no idea that he was being abused and neglected by his narcissistic mother. His father offered him no protection so he had to forge his own. He spared himself the pain of her attacks by seeing himself through her eyes. He could now anticipate what would set her off and try to prevent it.
The cost was feeling like he was not living his life through his own eyes. He also had to “see” himself as defective and undeserving as his mother did. This led to very low self-worth. He had the ongoing experience of feeling fraudulent as a person. Were his acts of kindness real? He doubted it. He could not discover a feeling of integrity in himself and his life.
The hardest times for Chris were when he had free time. Since he was out of the seat of himself he did not know what he wanted. Desires and needs takeover when we are free to choose our direction. He had to repel such experience within so free time meant a vague but terrible feeling of directionlessness.
Re-occupying the seat of yourself
Scapegoat survivors never leave the room of the seat of themselves. They may have to distract themselves to an amazing degree but they are still near their seat. Why? I believe This reflects the survivor’s tenacity to find and reclaim the seat of themselves. Survivors know that something is amiss internally. I am constantly amazed at how hard they fight and endure to set things right inside.
As you start your recovery, you can recognize that your seat became electrified by the narcissistic parent. The shame you felt and may still feel when you occupy this seat does not actually reflect who you are.
There was an impostor in your seat the whole time
The narcissistic parent projects their own sense of worthlessness onto the scapegoat child. Next they treat the child as worthless so that the child mistakes these feelings as their own. This is a process I’ve described as Pathological projective identification. The result is the child can see a disgusting, defective, and worthless version of themselves in the seat. So when the child goes to live from the seat of themselves they can feel like they are being this worthless person.
As recovery progresses you get to discover that the version of yourself you thought occupied this seat was never really you. That version of you was a disguise that your narcissistic parent wore to get their unwanted feelings into you.
Surround yourself with safe people
This type of discovery is best done in the context of a new safe relationship. You are giving up a longheld – albeit painful – way of knowing who you are. As you kick the projected version of you out of the seat of yourself you will need to know that you have other people who care about you. You will need to know that the vulnerability of living from the seat of yourself will be respected and protected by the people in your life.
Give yourself time
This is a big undertaking. You are working to discover that occupying the seat of yourself will not end in disaster. The rewards are great but historic danger has been greater. This process tends to be long-term and incremental. The more compassion and patience you can offer yourself along the way – the better.
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.