Scapegoat survivors of narcissistic parents often feel different than their peers. They experience themselves to have less authority than other adults. They may feel much younger than their chronological age. They may feel less knowledgeable, less powerful, and less worthy of admiration.
It can be tempting to label this experience as ‘low self-esteem’ and keep moving. I think there is something much different happening. The scapegoat child learns that their existence depends on being less powerful than their narcissistic parent. So they must actively thwart, deny and avoid their own power. Growing up inherently means becoming more powerful. To protect themselves the child may develop a distrust, fear and suspiciousness of their development and hence, power. Doing so keeps them in relationship to the narcissistic parent in the only way that parent allows.
In today’s post, I show how the scapegoat child has to seem powerless to their domineering narcissistic parent. Next, I discuss the costs to the scapegoat child of having to survive in this way. Last, I explain how the scapegoat survivor’s drive to be their full and empowered selves never stops. To survive, they may have had to put this drive in psychological storage. Survivors remain motivated to find new relationships where they get to gradually reclaim their power from storage.
The Narcissistic Parent’s Need to Domineer Their Child
A narcissistic parent often domineers the people they have the most authority over. Children become frequent victims. To domineer is to ‘assert one’s will over another in an arrogant way’.
The narcissistic parent benefits from domineering by feeling powerful. It is an artificial and unearned sense of power but that is of little consequence. Their need to always ‘be on top’ may reflect their own core sense of powerlessness. Instead of acknowledging these feelings they unconsciously deny them. Next, the narcissistic parent psychologically relocates these feelings into someone else. It is not enough to just see someone else as powerless – they must influence that person to adopt these powerless feelings as their own.
A narcissistic parent easily gets their scapegoat child to identify as the powerless one. Limiting the child’s freedoms in a ‘because I said so’ kind of way leaves the child in an amoral and powerless world. The child learns that their wishes have no standing with their parent. The child’s ability to do what they want to do rests on the whim of their parent. And the parent’s whims are always at odds with the child’s desire to feel in charge of themselves. In this way the child lives in a dictatorship as a forced subject.
Ira’s father treated him like he was a servant from an early age. He never asked Ira to do a task. He issued commands. “Take these trays to the trash can,” he would order Ira as they finished up their lunch at Burger King. “Set the table for dinner.” “Get my shoes.”
Ira recalled balking a few times when his father did this. He felt bossed around and it was enfuriating. He also knew he had to be careful of his father’s temper. It was not OK to say ‘No’ to this man. Ira knew he could face a wrath that he was not prepared for. Instead Ira would try to eke out some say in the matter by trying to do things on his timeline. He tried, “OK, give me five minutes.” This was not enough submission for his domineering father. He barked, “What did you say? You’re going to do something when I tell you to do it. Not later. NOW!” Ira recalled how it was one thing to be told this and another to see the heartless contempt in his father’s eyes towards him. Ira felt an intolerable mix of rage at this injustice and shame at being so emotionally estranged from his parent. No child could navigate such feelings on their own so he would do what was necessary to make them go away. He would do what his father ordered.
Why Being Domineered Is the Only Option for the Scapegoat Child
The scapegoat child’s ability to tolerate seeming powerless helps them survive. The narcissistic parent threatens the child in three ways. First, they dictate the terms under which they will recognize the child as being their child. If the child determines they only get to be their narcissistic parent’s child by being powerless then so be it. It is far better than going unrecognized by their parent. Second, the child’s expressions of power can draw even more abuse from the parent.Third, the child’s pain of being emotionally abandoned gets temporarily relieved by living as their parent needs them to.
The narcissistic parent only recognizes the scapegoat child as someone at their mercy. For the child, getting recognized by their parent is mandatory. If the child were to insist on their freedoms they would risk being someone the parent cannot tolerate to be close to. This can result in the unsurvivable state of being nobody to no one for the child.
A narcissistic parent will enforce the scapegoat child’s powerlessness via threat and coercion. The narcissistic parent can only feel powerful when the scapegoat child seems powerless. If the child does not go along with this then the parent is at risk of feeling their own feelings of powerlessness. That is unacceptable to a narcissistic parent. If or when the child attempts to recover their own sense of power the parent will undermine the child all the more. Many scapegoat survivors recall the worst emotional and physical attacks happened when they were seen as questioning their parent’s authority.
In the midst of all of this psychological manipulation and exploitation, the child’s actual self is abandoned. This is incredibly painful and unrelenting. The child learns that complying with their parent’s insistence on being all-powerful yields some relief from this pain. If or when the child loses hope of their parent ever granting them a measure of respect they can cope by living as though the parent’s needs are the child’s. Now if the parent seems content then the child can too. This strategy requires the child to dissociate from their own experience. Doing so, affords the child relief from how bad they feel from not getting to matter to their parent in a real way.
All of this is to explain why the child has to go along with the narcissistic parent’s domineering treatment of them.
Ira recalled feeling different from his friends from an early age. He felt like he was headed towards somewhere dark in his future. Other boys his age seemed to revel in their newfound strengths or abilities. Ira could sit back and support those friends but could not feel this way about himself.
In the seventh grade, he was deathly afraid of his father finding out that he was becoming interested in girls. This felt like an embarassing secret he had to keep. He also had to make sure his father did not know too much about certain friends. The ones that acted with freedom and liked to get into mischief appealed to Ira. But if his father knew that he was keeping company with such free spirits then he would make up a reason for why Ira was not allowed to see them.
Ira’s attempts to live as the adolescent he was were rebuked by his father. Such efforts would have resulted in Ira getting to feel appropriately empowered. His father could not stand this because he needed Ira to be powerless relative to him. Ira knew this at a deep level. The sense of a dark future reflected this. He knew that he faced something terrible within if he grew up. That ‘something terrible’ was becoming someone that his father would not and could not recognize. Becoming no one to nobody.
The Threat of Growing up to the Narcissistic Parent
The narcissistic parent’s supposed right to domineer the scapegoat child is built on flimsy evidence. Usually, it is something like “I’m the parent.” Since the parent is older and grown up they have a right to control the younger and less developed child.
This weak foundation of dominance is severely threatened by the child’s increasing age and maturity. Now both parties are at risk of not recognizing each other. The child has had to get used to being domineered to feel like they are somebody to someone. The parent has staved off their own powerlessness for so long in this arrangement that they can feel terrified at losing the child’s status as less powerful. In order to keep being someone to the parent and to protect that parent from feeling their own powerlessness the child can develop beliefs that find fault with how they are growing up.
The Scapegoat Child’s Beliefs That Interfere With Growing Up
The scapegoat child of a domineering narcissistic parent may have to deny their entrance into the adult world. The threats of being nobody to no one, attack from the narcissistic parent and/or the pain of emotional abandonment demand this. Here are two beliefs that serve to cripple the scapegoat survivor’s sense of being a full-fledged adult.
“I don’t deserve to be loved when I leave childhood.”
A domineering narcissistic parent may be nurturing when the child is very young. Younger children obviously need their parents for help more than teenagers. This dynamic may have yielded a sense of power in the narcissistic parent.
Good parents express love to teenagers in a different way than they do young children. They offer interest, respect, support and boundaries as needed to their teenager. If the teenager feels safe enough they may not always show much appreciation for these offerings. Good parents do not take these moments too personally and remain available to their teenager. Love is not defined as doing for the teenager but in taking a step back and watching what the teenager can do for themselves.
This transition can be impossible for a domineering narcissistic parent. Their child may pick up on this. They may blame themselves for not being able to stay the way their parent can – seemingly – love them. If their parent grows cold, indifferent and contemptuous towards the adolescent this belief explains why. The adolescent then adult cannot expect anything from their parent because they are no longer loveable to that parent. The parent stays preserved as good in the person’s mind.
“The world is a dangerous and untrustworthy place.”
As kids grow they become more interested in the world outside of their family. They want to establish friendships and explore activities that bring them fulfillment. These healthy strivings would threaten the domineering narcissistic parent’s fragile psychology.
The growing kid of such a parent may adopt this belief to thwart the actions that would threaten their parent. If the world is dangerous and people are untrustworthy then why leave home? Spoiling the growing kid’s incentive to expand their worlds can leave the narcissistic parent free to keep domineering the kid. The kid is then spared the parent’s attack and abandonment.
When he was fifteen, Ira felt a surge of self-loathing. He hated the way he looked. He thought he was terrible at the sports he played. He was disinterested in school. He would work at a local coffee shop after school some days. Life felt like a slog to be gotten through.
All the while, Ira’s home life felt like being under totalitarian rule. He relished the times before his father got home from work. Ira could lose himself in video games or movies. But when his father arrived Ira had to be on full alert. He felt like he owed his father something. He was not sure why but he had to make it up to him nonetheless. He would pay great attention to what his father said or found interesting. So long as he did this, his father would not attack him.
All the while, no adult showed interest or concern in Ira’s own life. His internal tumult was completely hidden. The presence of adults felt threatening to him. He had to make himself small to placate them and hope that they would eventually leave him alone.
By his senior year in high school, Ira felt behind the other kids in his grade. They had been dating, getting involved in extracurricular activities, and having adventures with each other outside of school. Ira had withdrawn socially as he knew that his father would not let him enjoy a rich social life. It was easier to not tantalize himself with relationships that his father would not let him participate in.
Ira was trying to prevent that dark future of growing up from happening at this stage. He had to sacrifice an incredible amount of what he was entitled to. Friendships, intimacy, prowess in activities he cared about. These things were implicitly forbidden under his father’s watch.
Recovery Involves Picking Up Your Adult Self From Storage
The spirit of scapegoat survivors never ceases to amaze me. Despite having been met with cruelty where they hoped to find love they maintain a drive to find and live the quality of life they deserve. It is as if they had to find a situation that made this safe first. Being the adult they are and feeling deserving of love for being that person was always the mission. It may get delayed but not denied.
In my therapeutic work with survivors much of it centers around knowing it is safe to be their adult selves. It was not safe to openly mature when they were younger. Nothing can change that tragedy. What can be healed is a survivor’s right to be who they are now – developmentally speaking – in their lives.
Being an adult in this sense means being entitled to the same amount of respect, goodwill and dignity as any other adult. It also means that no adult’s well being is more important than any other’s. Nor is any one adult’s opinion or thoughts worth more less than any other adult.
Finding it safe to be this kind of adult is to encounter continued care and support when being this way. The scapegoat survivor has had to learn that being fully upright is dangerous. That used to blow up their narcissistic parent’s willingness to be their parent. What seemed like kindness was the parent’s gratification at feeling more powerful than the child. The scapegoat survivor may gradually find it safe to expect love without sacrificing their power. It is a different kind of calculus in this kind of love. Here the other person really wants you to feel as empowered and good about yourself as possible. Compared to what was known with the narcissistic parent it is far more about you.
This kind of genuine concern for you can feel extremely unfamiliar at first. Scapegoat survivors may even have a hard time feeling it. What has been unsatisfying and hurtful has also been the most familiar in close relationships. What feels good and satisfying is new and takes repetition to make this feel real. Therapy can offer such repetition. Clients get to see over time that the two beliefs they had to adopt earlier do not have to apply in this setting.
Ira came to therapy in his late twenties. He was a successful professional but felt very isolated and anxious when he was not at work. He could think through the problems he had to solve when working alone. In larger meetings, however, he found it difficult to hold onto his own thoughts. He felt overwhelmed, small and resentful in these situations. As though what he had to say was not worthy of others’ respect.
In privacy, Ira had a chance of feeling like his ideas and opinions mattered. But when he had an audience that seemed impossible. He felt like what he had to say was faulty and going to be regarded as stupid or inconsequential.
One of Ira’s stated goals at the start of treatment was to have more confidence speaking up in his life. His therapist worked to understand Ira’s traumatic experiences at the hands of his father. Between this understanding and his experience of Ira in session, he inferred that Ira survived his domineering father by limiting the scope of his life. He suspected that Ira had to believe the world was dangerous and untrustworthy. He also wondered if on a deeper level, Ira believed he deserved rejection if he took his place as a grown up in the world.
Treatment lasted for several years. It took time in this new therapeutic relationship for Ira to feel safe enough to begin testing these beliefs. Ira had always been interested in psychology. He was well-read on the impact of childhood maltreatment and psychological suffering. In the third year of treatment this session occurred.
Ira told his therapist, “I was reading about trauma over the weekend and wondered something. It seems like my experience in meetings starts in my body. Like I “know” I’m nobody to be listened to before I even think about it. This book I was reading said that trauma get’s stored in the body. I’m probably not analyzing it right. But I wondered what you think about it? I’m definitely not the expert here.”
His therapist paused. A lot seemed to be going on in this moment. Ira had a good and cogent insight into his experience. However he was packaging it to his therapist almost as an apology. As if he might risk offending the therapist by presuming to know more. His therapist felt fairly certain that this was not a reflection of his attitude and behavior towards Ira. He regarded Ira as a very competent, strong, dignified, compassionate and earnest person. Maybe Ira was trying to test his belief that he deserved rejection if he took his place amongst grown ups. Ira may have seen psychological insight as the therapist’s dominion. By bringing up his own insights, Ira was presenting his therapist with an opportunity to respond in a way that disconfirmed his belief.
His therapist said, “You came up with a formidable insight about your current and past experience. And I was struck by your emphasis on me being the expert here. As though your contributions to this work are less valuable. Does that resonate with you at all?”
Ira said, “Well yeah. I actually feel this searing fear right now. Like I’m coming into your territory and trying to show you up. What right do I have to think I know something that you spend your whole career studying?”
“Right. You have known such expressions of your own competence to be extremely dangerous in the past. What sort of reaction from me might be most harmful?”
“Well, you could think I’m some kind of jerk for trying to put you down. Then you would have to put me in my place and that would mean a lot of humiliation for me. Plus, it would feel like our relationship is gone forever.”
“Those would be devastating consequences.”
“Yeah…well, that is what it feels like right now. But when I really think about it, I’m not trying to offend you. I’m trying to help myself here and bring in something that is important.”
“Yes you are.”
“So why should you actually try to destroy me for that? That used to happen all the time with my father, sure. I guess there is a part of me – sure it’s small – that thinks this may not apply to you.”
In this example, Ira’s therapist did not respond to him as the one with the expert opinion that was most important. He inquired why Ira was diminishing the importance of his own opinion. This may have helped Ira feel safer to question the belief that he would be rejected if he expected respect from another adult. These kinds of interactions would happen over and over in the course of Ira’s therapy. Over time, he grew to feel convinced of the value of his perspective and abilities. He even began to draw energy from these inner resources instead of feeling endangered by them.
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.