One of the grave impacts of being scapegoated by a narcissistic parent is the sense that at your core you are not real. Survivors often feel this way from early in life and have found a way to live with it. This can be a terrifying feeling that is often not discussed with friends, partners, therapists, or even oneself. It may be secretly ‘beared with’ as life unfolds under its auspices.
In this blog post, I want to discuss how kids typically develop a sense of being uniquely real in the world, the roles of accurate mirroring from and idealization of ‘good enough’ parents, how this process goes awry in scapegoated forms of narcissistic abuse, and how therapy can help the survivor recover a sense of being real.
Recognition contributes to feeling real
The problem of feeling real – in my opinion – traces back to how accurately recognized – or not – we felt during our upbringing. Each of us has a unique set of attributes or ways of being that correspond to who we are in the world. When one of those attributes or ways gets noticed by someone else we feel more real in the world. Particularly if that someone else matters to us.
How it’s supposed to work
Think about why it feels good to hear “OK, I see you!”. Let’s say Sharone is an 8th grader in her social studies class. In her social studies class, Sharone’s favorite teacher, Mr. Turner, is having a discussion on the civil rights’ movements during the 1950’s and 60’s in the U.S. Sharone raises her hand and says, “It seems like today’s BLM protests are using similar tactics to Gandhi and MLK’s nonviolent protests. Both are and were trying to turn the hearts of the onlookers to see the injustice.” Mr. Turner pauses and says, “OK, Sharone, I see you. That is a great point. Class what are some of the overlapping features of today’s protests and the philosophy of nonviolent protest developed by Gandhi then MLK?”. Sharone feels very ‘real’ in this moment. She made a contribution to the class that was all her own. Someone whom she admires recognized and valued that contribution. Sharone had the sense that she is more at home in her own skin, proud to be who she is, and like her voice matters. In short, she felt real.
When we are recognized for who we uniquely are, the moment from being passive to active in the world transitions seamlessly. Sharone took a risk by actively sharing something of herself. She could not predict with 100% certainty that Mr. Turner would respond the way he did. She knew him well enough to expect him to do so, and that predictability made it feel way less risky to raise her hand. This ‘good enough’ predictability of how she will be responded to affords a sense of continuity of oneself and others. Sharone walked around with the general belief that others appreciate and respect her opinion. She grew to expect to feel pride when she spoke up in the world.
How it’s not supposed to work
Luis was born to a narcissistic mother. His mother worked as a social worker and curated an image of a selfless caregiver to their community. In relationship to Luis, however, she incessantly criticized him for almost anything he did or said. One typical episode occurred when Luis was 5 years old. He was on the playground and his mother saw another mother that she was friends with. She started talking to this woman and Luis remembers feeling like she was talking about him to this woman. She then called for Luis to come to her and asked him to say hello to this woman. Luis remembers feeling nervous because he did not understand what his mother was up to. When he got nervous he would pick his nose – and he quickly picked his nose after saying hello to this woman and ran back to the swingset. On the car ride home, Luis was in the backseat and remembered the black eyes of his mother peering at him in the rearview mirror. She was staring at him intermittently and finally said, “Luis, you really embarassed me by picking your nose like that in front of that woman. I did not know what to say to her. After you left I could tell that she was completely disgusted by you. You better stop doing that!”. Luis recalled feeling a hot flush of shame and wanting to fall through the car seat, through the paved road and somewhere he could never be found.
Luis’s template for what to expect when he is met in the world was very different than Sharone’s. He learned to expect derision, humiliation and rebuke for being ‘seen’ in the world. Luis, was a smart, dignified, and kindhearted person. So, the reception he got from his mother was not only cruel but also inaccurate to who he really was. Thus, when she would respond in such critical ways towards him, he would feel profoundly unreal. She was blaming him for being ways that were simply not true about him. At such a young age, he could not discern this fact. He trusted his mother’s authority and assumed that she saw something in him that he did not. The truth was that his mother was engaged in a gross act of projecting her own sense of worthlessness onto him. It was not until therapy in adulthood that he grew wise to this.
The role of mirroring and idealization in the healthy family
A sense of realness in the world really speaks to the question of how intact one’s Self feels. Children require certain patterns of responses from certain figures to consolidate their sense of Self. In fact, eventual narcissists are thought to experience deficits in this kind of needed responsiveness.
One psychoanalytic theorist who has a lot of useful points to make on the process of becoming real to oneself is Heinz Kohut. He posits that kids have two critical ongoing needs for being recognized by their parents. First, the child’s original expressions of himself must be acknowledged and credited to who that child uniquely is. Kohut referred to this as ’empathic mirroring’. Imagine a 3 year-old named Zion who tests very high in the sensorimotor and muscle coordination tests for his age. While he is in the living room on a lazy Saturday afternoon, he crawls across the carpet to get a ball he wants to play with. As he’s crawling, his Dad bellows, “Fast Zion!” and Zion feels the charge of getting noticed for who he really is. He may not have language yet but he knows deeply that when he acts from the center of himself he usually is recognized and affirmed.
The second critical need is to have someone to look up to and admire who also sees the kid as special. Kohut referred to this ‘idealization’. In short, the kid needs someone whom he genuinely wants to be a “chip off of the old block”. The adult has to be able to offer qualities that are important to the child and for the child to take delight in being associated with that adult. It is particularly important that the adult genuinely possess these qualities. Otherwise, the kid may have to lie to himself to find someone to fit this critical role for him or her.When a ‘good enough’ parent can offer enough mirroring and warrants the child’s idealization then – over time – the child internalizes these experiences to have a sense of unique realness within.
What happens in a narcissistic family?
So that’s how a child normally develops a sense of who he really is. Now let’s look at what can happen when a child is born into a narcissistic family. In such cases, the child’s need for mirroring and idealization get subverted in ways that leave him in a chronic state of dishonesty and feeling unrecognized to himself.
A refresher on the narcissistic parent’s psychology
As I’ve described in greater depth, elsewhere, the narcissistic parent’s psychology is a pastiche of fragile defensive solutions to a deeply felt core sense of worthlessness. Readers of these blogs have pointedly questioned whether such people actually feel worthless or enjoy the superiority they exude. Those questions make tremendous sense, given how self-certain most narcissists can seem. However, the sense of superiority is too fragile, in my opinion, to be a product of genuine self-worth. Small slights can evoke huge bouts of rage and/or smear campaigns at the ‘offender’. Such reactions can only occur when the ‘slight’ poses a very grave threat. And only a person who is sensitive to feeling worthless could experience such minor slights as grave threats.
To combat this sense of worthlessness, the narcissist artificially inflates his own importance to himself. He meets his feelings of worthlessness with denial and insistence of the opposite. This is known as ‘grandiosity’. He further bulwarks himself against the worthlessness by acting in ways that coerce others to comply with his grandiosity. He surrounds himself with people to whom he can exert coercive pressure to exult him. This is known as ‘entitlement’. He feels entitled to others admiration, dependence, and/or gratitude just for being his grandiose self.
Finally, these two solutions are inherently selfish and manipulative. Two qualities that the narcissist’s grandiose sense of self could not bear to acknowledge. As a result he will relocate those qualities in other convenient targets around him and work to convince others about the target. He builds up a wall of lies where what is bad inside him is believed to exist in someone else – usually the scapegoated child.
Now, let’s see how the narcissistic parent’s grandiosity, entitlement, and strategies of relocation can pollute the child’s needs to be accurately mirrored and to idealize someone who deserves it.
The ‘black mirror’ for the child of the narcissist
I feel like what I am about to write is akin to slowing down the moments before a car crash and chronicling the moments that ensue. The goal here is not to forensically lament the psychological damage faced by a child of a narcissist. My hope is that it can lay out how profound the emotional wounds are for a developing child and how remarkable it is that the child found a way to survive and reach adulthood with the quest for a real self still intact.
I am going to write mainly from the standpoint of the scapegoated child. As discussed before, the scapegoated child becomes the receptacle for the narcissistic parent to relocate their own selfishness, unreliability, and lack of integrity. In contrast, the child is looking for a parent to accurately recognize her and affirm her unique ways of being. They are at complete odds with one another.
When the narcissistic parent’s need to relocate competes with the child’s need to be mirrored, power will always break the tie. And the narcissistic parent ultimately holds all the power and authority. The child is forced to sacrifice her needs to be mirrored and pretend the ‘false mirroring’ from the parent’s relocation of his own selfishness is who the child actually is.
Many survivors of narcissistic parents recall being told they did not ‘care about their own family’ when they wanted to spend time with their friends in adolescence. Gus, grew up with an altruistic narcissistic father who curated an image as a self-sacrificing patriarch. Gus was naturally funny, affable, and drew people to him. His father would relentlessly scapegoat Gus at home for being ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, and more interested in being popular than helping out around the house. Gus had a strong sense of integrity and felt humiliated when his father accused him of being a social climber without regard for his family. At age 14, Gus remembered being invited to play street hockey with some older friends from high school. He was excited but tried not to show this to his father because that could make his father say, “No” all the more. As usual, Gus was given a long list of cleaning chores to do and he did them. When he was about to go to the game, his father said, “Wait! I have to inspect how well you cleaned.” Gus clenched up inside. This was not good. His father lifted the toilet seat and claimed to see an area that Gus did not clean. He slammed the seat down and began screaming at Gus for “being more interested in going out to have fun than to do what his family needed him to do.” Needless to say, Gus was forbidden from going to the game.
Gus’s actual qualities of being sociable, athletic, and charismatic were absolutely not mirrored by his father. Instead his father fed Gus a completely distorted view of himself as selfish and inconsiderate. The implication was that his father “really knew” what Gus was like and if his friends knew the same information they would react in the same way. This confused Gus from figuring out what was real about him. Was he the likable guy his friends treated him as? Or was he the self-absorbed jerk his father insisted he was?
A scapegoated child who possesses actual good qualities must then bear this burden of being received in a way that is not aligned with how he actually is inside. Like Luis in the example above, his instincts skewed towards kindness, protection, and care. And yet he lived in a world where his narcissistic mother claimed to experience him as self-absorbed, disgusting, and ill-mannered. It is not hard to see how Luis might have a hard time experiencing himself as real. He has to act like he is who he’s being told he is yet he knows at his core that this does not fit him. It is a remarkable feat that children like Luis find a way to endure such a private ongoing hell. These kinds of stories can and do have good endings. Once they are out of this environment, people can be found who accurately see them for who they are and therapy can help untangle the false mirroring messages they received. A sense of realness can be achieved – if a bit delayed.
Having to falsely idealize a narcissistic parent
Now let’s look at the predicament for the child who has to idealize a narcissistic parent. It is easy to see how gratifying this could be for such a parent. A child who looks admiringly up at the parent and is willing to do whatever he tells her. The parent’s grandiosity and entitlement are well met when the kid is idealizing him. The problem can occur when the kid moves away from the idealizing stance towards the parent. When she expresses a will of her own or pays attention to herself more than the parent. In these cases, the parent’s sense of entitlement feels grossly violated and severe punishment can ensue.
Mario survived a sadistic and malignantly narcissistic father. In the first 5 years of his life, Mario remembers being treated like his father’s ‘special little friend’. He looked up to his father and his father seemed to look fondly upon and after Mario. In therapy, we determined that something changed profoundly when Mario started to develop into his own person. His father would seek out opportunities to put Mario in scary situations. Mario disturbingly recalls his father telling him – at age 6 – that they were locked out of the house. He told Mario to squeeze into a crawl space in order to unlock the cellar door from the inside. That crawl space was spoken of to contain rats and bats. Mario was naturally terrified. As he later reflected on those incidents he realized that his father could have just opened the cellar doors through another entrance. Mario saw that his father was seeking to put him in a terrifying situation out of sheer cruelty.
The child of a narcissistic parent who breaks the idealizing stance can encounter the terror of the parent’s resulting rage. The parent will often feel entitled to the child’s idealization of him. The child moving his attention from the parent to himself is failing to provide what the parents expects. When the parent’s entitlement is not complied with, there’s a breakdown in this tactic for staving off his core sense of worthlessness. As illustrated with Mario’s father, the narcissist will take swift and cruel action to punish the non-compliant ‘offender’ and restore the other’s compliance. The narcissist must do this to keep avoiding how worthless he feels.
It is important to appreciate the danger the child is put in when he stops authentically idealizing the narcissistic parent. Rage or worse is likely to ensue. In order to survive such upbringings, a kid can wisely conclude to keep idealizing the narcissistic parent. He may learn to avoid feelings, perceptions, or ways of being that encourage him to see the parent plainly. That is, he may structure his life so that he feels convinced of the correctness in continuing to idealize the dangerous parent. The result can be a core feeling that one is being dishonest with themselves. It is indeed dishonest, but not out of weak character. Rather, being dishonest about the falsely idealized narcissistic parent is the only way the kid survives their parenting.
In essence, the child’s natural need to idealize a strong caregiver gets hijacked to minimize the damage done by the narcissistic parent. The child of the narcissistic parent is forced to use his inner and outer real estate to feed the narcissitic parent’s grandiosity and entitlement – or else. His own need to idealize can make this process feel less enslaving. He can feel as though he is getting something in return by continuing to see the parent as worthy of idealization. The hope this offers the child can be integral to having the will to keep on going. Once the danger of childhood has passed, the opportunity presents itself to undo the lies fueled by the forced idealization of the narcissistic parent.
The impact of falsely idealizing the narcissistic parent contributes to the child’s difficulty feeling real. His need to idealize a parent who is deserving and non-possessive about the kid’s need goes unmet. Instead he creates an artificial drama in his mind that imbues someone woefully short of idealizable qualities with a surplus of them. He can end up feeling like there is nothing solid within or without to look up to. He may lose the sense of hope that good qualities exist in himself and others. All of these experiences contribute to the feeling of being unreal.
Becoming real after the ordeal
This blog is an effort to explain how the forced adaptations to survive narcissistic abuse can lead to feeling unreal to oneself. I believe that gaining an understanding of the psychological dynamics at play is a critical part of recovery. It is important to be able to begin to helpfully explain what is happening within oneself to oneself. In fact, paying attention to one’s inner experience is a step in the right direction itself. Such attention to oneself is exactly what had to be directed elsewhere under the parent’s reign.
A lot has been written about the process of becoming real after an upbringing of narcissistic abuse. I would encourage anyone who believes they have endured such abuse to seek therapy by someone who is knowledgeable about this phenomenon. I believe that therapy can help survivors begin to shed the false mirroring and idealizations they had to receive and provide, respectively. It can also offer a more accurate mirroring of who you are by someone who is worthy of your genuine trust.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.