Do you experience your ideas to be less captivating than others’ ideas?
When you are alone, can you feel flat or lifeless?
Do you find other people to be more exciting people than you?
If you had a narcissistic parent and you answered yes to these questions then you may feel uninteresting as a person. Scapegoat children to a narcissistic parent can come to this conclusion. In today’s blog, I explain how being devalued and deprived can lead to feeling shame. Next, I describe how believing you are uninteresting actually protects you from shame. Last, I discuss how therapy can help you safely rekindle the hope that others find you interesting today.
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.
Deprivation + Devaluation = I’m uninteresting
The narcissistic parent’s inflated yet fragile self-esteem is all consuming. They have very little left over to offer to the child. A narcissistic parent believes their emotional needs are the most important and have little empathy for others’ needs. They often feel entitled to ignore their child.
Derek’s mother had her own agenda and everyone else had to follow it. When he was eight years old she forced him and his younger sister to visit antique stores with her on the weekends. She fashioned herself as an antique collector. She reacted with outrage when Derek pled to stay and play with his friends. Once he was in the car she ignored his presence. She would speak to his golden child sister, play music that he despised, and pay him no attention. If he asked for a snack or a bathroom break she would roll her eyes and tell him to “Can you just wait one second?!”
Derek’s mother wanted him to be seen but not heard on these trips. She believed that her desire to look at antiques trumped everything else. She did not see any reason to go out of her way to arrange for Derek to have a play date. His pleas were a nuisance to her as she felt no empathy for him.
The Scapegoat Child’s Hope Turns to Shame
The emotionally deprived child feels ashamed. Shame occurs when a child expects interest from someone important and instead finds indifference. So a child who tells a narcissistic parent how excited they are about their art project may be ignored. The child’s hope of finding an interested response from the parent is dashed. Instead the child feels the hot burning sensation of shame that makes them want to crawl out of their skin and be invisible.
Over time the scapegoat child associates their hope for a parent’s interested response with shame. They can spare themselves shame if they find a way not to feel such hope. I will say more about this shortly.
A narcissistic parent is vulnerable to feeling worthless when they fail to feel superior. This means they often feel worthless because superiority is such a high bar. If their child does not show utter obedience the parent can feel completely inadequate. If the child fails to show constant admiration the parent can feel shame. If the child does not always welcome the parent’s intrusions the parent can feel rejected.
The problem for the child is that the parent refuses to acknowledge these feelings. Instead the narcissistic parent denies them, projects them onto the child and coerces that child to believe they deserve to feel this way. This is the process whereby the narcissistic parent devalues the scapegoat child.
The scapegoat child’s shame at being devalued
The child will feel shame as a result of the parent’s devaluation. In this case where the child might hope to be met with kindness they instead find contempt. This mismatch of the child’s hope versus the parent’s hostility makes the child want to reject themselves. The problem in such moments is the child’s existence not something they did or did not do.
Many scapegoat survivors report only getting attention when they made a mistake. So against a backdrop of feeling deprived of their emotional needs, the child has to contend with a devaluing attack. Like trying to put out a raging inferno with a glass of water.
The result can be that the scapegoat child expects others to react with hostility towards them just for existing. Shame coats their identity.
Beliefs that Prevent Shame
The scapegoat child needs a strategy to prevent such shameful experiences from happening all the time. It is too hard to maintain a sense of normalcy with such emotionally debilitating attacks happening. They need to cope in a way that lets them live their lives to some extent.
The child’s target for shame prevention has to be themselves. They cannot appeal to the narcissistic parent to treat them better. The parent will claim the child is being too sensitive or deserves the attacks. This leaves the child’s hope of being paid attention and being heard with kindness as their only device.
I don’t deserve others’ attention
A scapegoat child may bridle their hope for attention by believing they do not deserve it. This belief spares the child shame felt when the parent is indifferent towards them. The child no longer seeks the parent’s attention because they do not feel entitled to it. Such a belief is highly effective at avoiding the danger posed by the parent’s indifference. As with all beliefs adopted to avoid such dangers, it also hinders the child’s self-worth.
I am offensive
A scapegoat child can limit their hope of finding kindness from the parent by believing they are offensive. If the child is offensive just for being who they are then they will not expect kindness from the parent. The child “knows” they deserve to be devalued at any time. The parent is doing the child a favor if they do not attack. If they do, it is only because the child is offensive.
How These Beliefs Lead to Feeling Uninteresting
The child’s beliefs that they do not deserve attention and are offensive leads to feeling uninteresting. They conclude that they have no qualities that are worth others’ attention. If they do entertain a thought or feeling to share they will rebuke themselves for it.
Joseph was the scapegoat to his narcissistic mother. She expected him to make her emotional needs his priority at all times. He could not recall a time where he expected her to listen to him. Inevitably, she would find his attention to be imperfect which likely led to her feeling the worthlessness she worked so hard to avoid. In these moments she would yell at Joseph for being “selfish” or “inconsiderate”.
Joseph had to conclude that he did not deserve her attention and that he was offensive as a person. Doing so, prevented him from seeking her attention. It also made her bouts of yelling at him to feel less disruptive. He knew it was bound to happen since he was offensive. So when it did, it was less disruptive in his life. It’s just what he had to deal with as an offensive person.
This made other settings quite difficult though. When Joseph was amongst his peers he did not often speak up. He assumed that whatever he might say would fall on uninterested ears. Then when he had something to say he would catch himself, replay it in his head and decide he was stupid for even thinking to say that. Sometimes he would catch lightning in a bottle and express himself more. In these moments the reactions of his peers tended to be quite positive. It confounded him.
Joseph’s case illustrates how these two beliefs worked to make him feel and act like an uninteresting person. If there was nothing of interest in him then he had nothing to share. If he had nothing to share then he was protected from reactions of indifference or rebuke that felt so humiliating. The cost was a tormented inner life of feeling unvalued and rejected.
How Therapy Helps
The scapegoat child and later survivor’s experience of being uninteresting is not based on fact. It is a result of having to cope with a narcissistic parent’s hurtful efforts to manage their exaggerated self-esteem needs. The parent managed themselves by ignoring the child’s needs and punishing that child if the parent felt anything but superior.
To heal from this type of chronic mistreatment it is important to find a relationship where what you went through can be understood. Therapy allows you to understand how feeling uninteresting was adaptive back then. It can also help you identify how this feeling operates in your life today. Does it show up at work, in relationships or even in the therapy?
As you discuss this with your therapist you are both creating evidence that it no longer applies. First, your therapist will be emotionally available, supportive and interested in you. The danger of feeling shame at indifference or rebuke will not – actually – occur in this setting. As a survivor, you may anticipate such reactions. These are important opportunities to learn – at a deep level – that what was once true is not true here. You will not be reacted to with indifference nor attack by your therapist when you hope they will pay attention to you.
Healing generally takes many such experiences in therapy to gain traction. The scapegoat survivor needs to re-approach their hope of finding a kind reception to their expressions. The conditions of therapy may indicate that it might be safe to do this. In collaboration with the therapist, the survivor can test out whether expecting attention and protection from the therapist results in the catastrophes it used to with the narcissistic parent. This often happens in subtle but powerful ways.
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.