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Part II: Unraveling the Past: The First Pillar of Recovery for Scapegoat Survivors

part ii: unraveling the past: the first pillar of recovery for scapegoat survivors

Do you have the nagging feeling that nothing you do in life is correct?

Do you find it hard to experience yourself as good but all too easy to see it in others?

Are you used to relationships and friendships where you give way more than you receive yet still worry about being called ‘selfish’?

If you answered yes to any of these questions then you may feel close to an internalized narcissistic parent. If that sounds like a mouthful or unclear then I encourage you to check out last week’s post. In it, I explain how survivors of a narcissistic parent can feel compelled to stay close to an internalized version of that parent. This shows up when the survivor still lives as though the narcissistic parent is around and in charge or by treating oneself as the parent did. 

In today’s blog, I explain how the first of three Pillars of Recovery help you break free from this internal attachment. These three pillars let you learn that you will not lose everyone you need nor trigger an unsurvivable attack if you live as though you are in charge and/or treat yourself well. The first pillar: making sense of what happened helps you build a new frame of reference for what you experienced as a scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent. You can begin to question whether you deserved such abuse or not. You become able to see your parent’s problems not just the problems you were told you have. Finally, I will point you towards a resource to help you put this pillar into practice in your life.

The Scapegoat Child Must Accept the Narcissistic Parent’s Treatment as ‘Just the Way It Is’

In the author David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005 he told the parable of the old fish swimming by two young fish and asking them, ‘How’s the water?’. After the young fish swim by one turns to the other and asks, ‘What’s water?’.

The scapegoat child’s water involved devaluation, deprivation and control. The only way for the child to make sense of these cruelties was to assume they deserved them. Doing so allowed them to establish and maintain a bind to their narcissistic parent. I use the term ‘bind’ instead of ‘bond’ purposely. A bind forces two people to stick together. A bond is a mutually close relationship that results from closeness to each other.

The scapegoat child binds to their narcissistic parent and concludes that this is how things have to be. Just as the fish swims unquestioningly in water, so the scapegoat child believes they deserve the parent’s mistreatment. Believing you deserve to be mistreated leaves you with no basis to challenge your parent’s place in your mind. They are simply treating you the way everyone would treat you if they knew how wretched you are. The scapegoat child has no other frame of reference from which to know they do not deserve this abuse.

The Narcissistic Parent Has a Privileged Status in the Scapegoat Child’s Mind

There are two reasons the scapegoat child cannot question how their narcissistic parent treats them. The first reason has to do with isolation. The scapegoat child by definition does not have allies in the family. As such, they have no one to talk with about what is happening and make sense of it in a way where they are not to blame. Attempts to talk to other enabling family members can result in the child feeling even more alienated. They may be told to ‘stop complaining’ or that their narcissistic parent ‘really loves’ them.

The second reason the child cannot question the narcissistic parent has to do with the child’s cognitive abilities. Up until around the age of five years old, children tend to think egocentrically. This means that when good things happen it is because they deserve the. And when bad things happen it is also because they deserve them. The young child trying to make sense of how their narcissistic parent is devaluing them has to assume this is happening because they deserve it. The child has not yet developed the cognitive ability to take the other’s perspective. As a result they cannot attribute their parent’s mistreatment of them to something about that parent. This would be required for the child to question the narcissistic parent’s status in their mind.

All of this results in the scapegoat child giving the narcissistic parent a privileged position in the child’s mind. The parent holds the most authority out of the two of them. The child must orient their feelings, thoughts, and decisions around the parent.

The Narcissistic Parent’s Ongoing Influence in the Scapegoat Survivor’s Life

The scapegoat survivor carries the narcissistic parent with them by living as though the narcissistic parent is around and in charge or by treating oneself as the parent did. In this diagram, you can see how it is necessary for the scapegoat child to stay close to the internalized narcissistic parent.

The child finds a way to stay bound to the narcissistic parent by identifying with the parent’s cast-off worthlessness. This protects them from losing their parent’s willingness to stay connected to them. By extension the child is protected from being nobody to no one. The tradeoff is that the scapegoat child has to be a bad somebody to a superior someone.

Sarah felt bad about herself for as long as she could remember. When she was being raised by her parents she did not think there was anything different about her family. She struggled with intense social anxiety at school despite being well-liked. In her mind, she would go over interactions she had with her friends and skewer herself for saying or doing ‘the wrong thing’.

At home she knew to be very careful with what she said around her parents. Her father could start yelling at her at the drop of a hat. Her mother seemed to watch Sarah and report any supposed ‘wrongdoing’ to her father. Sarah never felt safe in her home and did not think she should. She assumed that her parents were only hostile towards her because she was such a bad kid.

It was not until she found herself in therapy in her late twenties that she learned she had been mistreated. Sarah was telling her therapist about her worries that she will say or do the wrong thing around people.

Her therapist asked, “Do you recall feeling this way when you were young? Like around other family members?”

Sarah immediately said, “Well, yeah! I mean I was always getting in trouble for speaking disrespectfully to my Dad.”

“Really? What sort of disrespectful things would you say?” her therapist asked.

“Well, it was more like my tone of voice. He would tell me that I was speaking to him in a snide and disrespectful tone.”

Sarah went on to give example after example of the molehills that her father made into mountains as justification for his devaluation of her.

Her therapist eventually said, “Sarah, it sounds like your father had inflated expectatons of what he deserved. It also sounds like he hurt you if you did not meet these inflated expectations. And further it seems like he and your mother treated you as if you were the reason for all of the family’s problems. And none of this seems to be an accurate reflection of who you are based on my experience with you.”

Sarah was blown away. It was so strange to think that things were not what they seemed in her upbringing. This was the first step in what was to be long but incredibly important journey.

How Pillar #1 Helps Scapegoat Survivors Build a New Frame of Reference

The first pillar of recovery is to make sense of what happened in the narcissistic abuse to realize it was not your fault. This pillar involves learning about pathological narcissism and its effects on others. It may take the form of watching youtube videos, reading books, blogs and/or academic papers. There are two features to this pillar:

1) Redefining the Problem

The scapegoat child had to see themselves as the main problem in their lives. They were too needy, lazy, unlikeable etc. to deserve their narcissistic parent’s love. Or they were not enough of some trait to deserve that love.

As the scapegoat survivor absorbs information about pathological narcissists they learn how common it is for their children to feel like they are the problem. The scapegoat survivor learns how the narcissistic parent relocates their own sense of worthlessness into the scapegoat child. They begin to make sense of their lifelong feelings of defectiveness as a result of their parent’s psychological problem rather than their own.

As a result of redefining the problem, the scapegoat survivor begins to question their narcissistic parent’s privileged status in their mind. The scapegoat child has been required to see the parent as superior to themselves. Their parent would not recognize them as anything but inferior. If the child did not do this then they risked being nobody to no one. The information learned in this step makes it much more difficult to see the parent as superior. The survivor grows to see the parent’s insistence on their superiority as a product of pathological narcissism.

Putting It Into Practice

My new course called Empowerment Blueprint for Adult Scapegoat Survivors offers eight what I call ‘Life Moves’ to help you build an environment for yourself today that where you feel safe and encouraged to defy the narcissist’s rules. The first of these Life Moves (show thumbnail) shows you how to redefine the problem in your own life. You get to understand the psychological processes through which the narcissistic parent convinces the scapegoat child that they are defective and undeserving. The assignment in this life move asks you to apply this understanding in how your narcissistic parent treated you. You will separate your real and honorable qualities from the artificially negative qualities your narcissistic parent may have accused you of having.

2) Consider New Understandings of Then and Now

As the scapegoat survivor questions the narcissistic parent’s superiority new understanding becomes available. This is particularly true about the survivor’s understanding of their past. Many scapegoat survivors see themselves as being in need of redemption. When they look back at themselves all they can see is the supposed error of their ways. Similar to the belief that one is defective this perception makes it very difficult to respect and like who they were in their past. The scapegoat survivor who makes sense of what happened grows to call this understanding of themselves into question.

These new understandings point you in the direction of compassion towards yourself. Instead of feeling a shudder of shame when you think of yourself, you grow more curious about the forces that you had to contend with that may have led to these past choices or actions. Over time you get to be on your own side as you reflect on yourself.

Putting It Into Practice

The second Life Move(show thumbnail) in this same course empowers course takers to see why and how they have had to see their past selves as in need of redemption. The assignment for this life move asks you to collect objective information from safe others to challenge the idea that you were defective in the past. This part of the course helps you make sense of what happened where you are not the problem.

Thinking About – Instead of Acting From – the Internalized Narcissistic Parent

Thinking About – Instead of Acting From – the Internalized Narcissistic Parent

This pillar helps you begin to notice the water you are swimming in. You go from seeing the world through the lens of having to be defective and undeserving to thinking about how you see yourself. 

As you can see in this picture, the transition from acting from to thinking about creates space between you and the internalized narcissistic parent. Instead of unquestioningly seeing yourself as defective and undeserving you begin to see these perceptions as a result of having to be close to someone who had to see you this way because of their own psychological problems. It is a powerful shift that lets you claim more of your real self from the narcissistic parent’s claims.

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. I offer an introduction online course on the nature and impacts of narcissistic abuse. I also offer an advanced online course offering 8 powerful strategies for scapegoat survivors to reclaim the quality of life they deserve.

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