Do you worry about other finding out what is ‘wrong with you’?
Do you find yourself diagnosing yourself in problematic ways when you read about narcissism?
Does it feel hazardous for someone to really know you?
Scapegoat survivors of a narcissistic parent learn that nothing good happens when they are known. The scapegoat child is met with hostility at so many turns. To protect themselves they often have to create a public versus a private self. The public self can suffer many slings and arrows from the narcissistic abuser. Their private self is much more sacred and therefore vulnerable. They stow away their private self inside where they cannot be hurt.
Everyone has a different private versus public self. The contrast between these selves can seem more extreme for the scapegoat survivor. People without this kind of a traumatic history may have experienced certain relationships where it felt safe for their private self to be known. As a result, the difference between their private versus public self may be minimal.
So the scapegoat survivor was forced to keep their private self hidden to survive their parent’s abuse. Later the survivor may feel like there is something wrong with them for protecting themselves like this. Why am I so ‘closed off’ to others? Why can’t I let my guard down? These questions can feel alienating. The survivor feels blamed for doing what they had to do to survive undeserved hostility.
In today’s post I will explain why the scapegoat survivor’s fear of persecution is well-founded. I hope to create a compassionate lens to view this adaptation to a narcissistic parent. Next, I discuss a common dilemma faced by scapegoat survivors. Being known has meant persecution and being known now is the path to healing. I will describe how therapy can offer a way to resolve this dilemma.
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How the Scapegoat Child Gets Persecuted
A narcissistic parent needs to find the scapegoat child as worthless. Doing so allows the parent to deny their own intolerable feelings of worthlessness. The parent unconsciously projects these feelings into the child and gets the child to assume ownership of them. This results in the child thinking about themselves as though they are worthless. Now the narcissistic parent feels more protected from their own worthlessness at the child’s expense.
The scapegoat child faces persecution just by being close to their narcissistic parent. The child learns that the person whom they hope to be compassionate towards them is instead hostile. The more the child expresses themselves the more ammunition the parent has to attack them with. The child has to create a public self that cannot be punctured and a private self that stays hidden from the narcissistic parent. This helps the child survive the abuse but deprives them of genuine connection to others.
Jeff’s memories of his family were adversarial from the start. His mother always seemed to have it out for him. He felt like everytime he walked into the room she was in she would find a reason to criticize him. ‘Why was he slouching?’ ‘Did he clean up his room like she asked him to?’ ‘Why was he mumbling?’
His father would gruffly concur with his wife’s attitude towards Jeff. He largely ignored Jeff and would only pay him attention when he had left a mess.
Jeff’s childhood was too busy fending off these painful attacks on his character to safely share who he was with them. If this is how they hurt him when he is not even showing himself what sort of damage would they do if he did? Jeff found some solace in time he could spend alone. He felt relief from the threat of being hurt but painfully alone. Jeff learned to construct a public self that could weather the devaluation from his parents without feeling too hurt. His private self was under lock and key and allowed him a place to go in himself that others could not attack.
Scapegoat children like Jeff can learn they are at risk of persecution when around others. The only time they are safe is when they are alone.
How the Scapegoat Survivor Protects from Further Persecution
Scapegoat survivors may avoid letting others get to know them. The process of being known can be associated with persecution. They may caveat their relationships and friendships to convince themselves they are not really close. They may tell themselves that their friends only accept them because they hide what is despicable about themselves.
Survivors may also fear being labelled as pathological by people in the mental health field. Of course this is not entirely without basis, unfortunately. However the scapegoat survivor may find it inevitable someone else will condemn them as mentally ill if they reveal themselves. After all, they have been in an environment where other people were always finding something wrong with them. Why would a mental health professional be any different?
Jeff started therapy in his mid-twenties and was prepared to be told that he was a narcissist. He told his therapist that he finds it hard to think about others’ feelings. He said that he was very self-centered. His therapist held off on agreeing with Jeff’s ideas about himself. As a more trusting relationship was built between them they understood why Jeff was so adamant that he was narcissistic at the start of treatment. He thought it was only a matter of time that the therapist would state what is wrong with him so he might as well beat him to the punch.
The good news is that many therapists seek to be allies with their clients. Their goal is for the client to feel like they are on their side. This may seem understandably doubtful for scapegoat survivors but worth discovering.
The Dilemma of Healing
The scapegoat survivor faces a profound dilemma as they start to heal. The source of healing will ultimately reside in finding it safe to know and be known by someone else. And being known is precisely what led to persecution in early important relationships.
In my professional and personal experience the solution is for the scapegoat survivor to allow themselves to be known on their own terms and timeline. That is, they are not being open because they must but because they want to. In order for this to happen they need to participate in a relationship where the other person displays patience and acceptance. The survivor needs to know that they do not have to rush themselves for the sake of someone else. They also need to know that the other’s acceptance of them does not hinge on sharing more of themselves. They are already accepted.
With this acceptance in place the scapegoat survivor can consider what they want for themselves. If they are safe in the relationship either way, then opening up may take on a new meaning. The scapegoat survivor may consider it plausible that allowing themselves to be known could help them. If the other’s presence is truly a kind and accepting one then this becomes possible.
Jeff continued in therapy for several years. His therapist was consistent in his positive regard towards Jeff. He was also undemanding. Jeff was free to talk about or not talk about whatever he wanted. His therapist’s interest in him did not waver either way.
It took Jeff a long time to get used to this calm in a relationship. He was so used to the other shoe dropping where he would be attacked. Over time, Jeff’s nervous system began to relax more around the therapist. He felt less of a ball in his stomach telling him to flee or tense up for protection.
Jeff’s initial efforts to consider that his therapist felt safe led to him feeling like he must submit. Jeff’s only experience with kindness from his mother was when she had a use for him. Initially, for him to let his therapist’s kindness in he assumed he had to become however the therapist wanted. Jeff described feeling a loss of agency and ability to choose inside. He explained, “When I feel like things are going well between us in here I feel like I have to be your servant.” It was important for Jeff to notice and say this in the treatment. Over the course of a year, he found it safer to see the therapist as a kind person without handing over his independence.
The process of noticing what is happening as feelings of closeness arose in the treatment was part of what proved helpful to Jeff. He could express his conflict of wanting to feel close without feeling oppressed and be understood. The therapist would not shift his stance of positive regard towards him. With many repetitions of this, scapegoat survivors are able to find it safe to assume the other person could be happy for them not because of 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.