Do you find your moment to moment experience to hinge on what thought you’re thinking right now?
Do you carry around a feeling of inner pain, malaise, or otherwise suffering?
Do you find that the more you learn about and think about narcissistic abuse, the less free from it you feel?
Do you find yourself having to operate more like a human doing than a human being?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these then I hope today’s video is helpful. I want to discuss the difference between being and (doing or thinking) as it applies to the scapegoat survivor of narcissistic abuse. I’m going to describe how and why human doing mode is a ‘thought-of’ way of living that can honestly come about in the course of narcissistic abuse for the scapegoat. I’ll contrast this with what living in the present moment can offer. And finally, if you read to the end I’ll offer a way to notice when you’re moving away from being in this moment into thinking or doing, so that you can get reacquainted with yourself as you Are rather than as you think of yourself.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA specializing in understanding and helping people who have survived narcissistic abuse by a parent or a partner. Particularly those thrust into the role of scapegoat by the narcissistic abuser. So, in therapy and through my online course we work gain clarity on what happened, promote distance from the narcissistic abuser, and generate support for living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules for living.
Today’s topic is kind of subtle but hopefully will resonate with your inner experience. There’s always much more happening right now in this moment versus what we can think or say about what is happening. People have noticed this for ages: from the Buddhists, to philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and more recently Eckart Tolle. They have found that human suffering or disordered consciousness can come about when tail of what we think about our experience wags the dog of what our experience actually is in this particular moment. Sartre calls this ‘Bad Faith’, Eckhart Tolle would call it moving away from our Present being. In short, if we are Being then thought is a portion of our experience but not the dictator of it. When we are trapped in thought, then our experience of being is – temporarily in each moment – sought to be conquered by thought.
Why is the scapegoat survivor of narcissistic abuse tempted and often pressured to think more than be?
In order to be, one has to be oriented to discover in each unfolding moment ‘what is’ in their immediate experience. To do this, it has to be OK – enough – to discover what is there. So, a child who’s got a good-enough parent can take a wait-and-see approach to his inner life. He doesn’t have to tell himself via thought what is happening, what happened, and what is going to happen. He can notice what he’s experience and spontaneously express himself as what’s inside moves him to communicate it outwardly. He can trust that his parent will generally be available, curious, and intact if and when they are needed.
Now contrast this with a child who’s often blamed for his narcissistic parent’s frustrations. Let’s say a child falls down and scrapes her knee and her narcissistic mother is angry at the child’s need for care in this moment because she had intended to go meet her friend. She may yell at and accuse the child of not being careful and selfish along with expressing disdain and exasperation at having to attend to the child. After this episode if the child pays attention to her inner experience in a wait-and-see kind of way, then she could experience all kinds of agonies over how she does not have someone she can depend upon nor who seems to care about her safety. And if she did this, there would be nobody to comfort her. What the child may have to do to adapt to this situation is move away from her experience in that present moment and into her thought-based experience. Maybe she forcefully tells herself, “You’re so bad! Mommy loves you and you just have to mess everything up for her”. She then has to keep telling herself thoughts along these lines because as soon as she stops thinking these stops, that other agonizing experience creeps up again. So, she has to think and think and think in ways that claim she’s bad and learn to identify herself with these thoughts. Eventually her identity can be a ‘thought-of’ identity as opposed to a source of self that begins in the present moment like the child in the former example.
What happens when scapegoated children have to move towards their ‘thought of’ identity?
It’s fragile by nature. It exists via thinking so if we’re not thinking then it can feel like we don’t exist. The rabbit hole can grow deeper when we feel as though we only exist when thinking certain thoughts. So inner life can feel like a continual effort to produce and think the ‘right’ thoughts as a matter of existential necessity. This can be why learning and thinking so much about narcissistic abuse can result in feeling stuck nonetheless. It can function in a way that reinforces our attachment to this thought-based identity.
So, the thought-of experience is artificial in nature and yet it can be necessary to identify with while experiencing narcissistic abuse. A thought-of self is threatened by gaps in it. But gaps in thinking are a part of life. So it can require an exhausting – but necessary – continual output of thought to achieve a sense of continuity in this form of having an identity. Tragically for the scapegoated child the more identified we are with it, the more pain we are doomed to experience. It’s sort of like, I don’t want to float off into oblivion (losing my identity) so I’m going to cling to this life-preserver thrown to me (thought-of identity) but that life-preserver has spikes on it that hurt all the time yet one still fears letting go and sinking into the oblivion.
Recovery involves taking the risk of letting go of the life preserver and discovering that one is standing on solid ground now. Each person can only make this discovery for him or herself. It can’t be done in thought. It’s based in experience.
Why the scapegoat often is over-identified with his ego
The narcissist has to find the scapegoat as the worthless one in the relationship and pressures the scapegoat to think & act as such. This is a fiction that can only be maintained by the scapegoat by going away from one’s being and towards one’s thought processes. Here’s why: The SG knows s/he is not as bad as the Narc insists but s/he can’t know himself any other way if s/he is going to stay in relationship to the narc. This requires a LOT of investment in one’s ‘thought of’ identity over one’s present moment experience that’s best termed ‘being’. The investment is initially made to prevent the catastrophic loss of the narc parent when that is all one has. As the investment goes on, the SG can feel internally identified with this ego or ‘thought of’ identity so that s/he fears that losing it will mean losing their Self. There’s always something ill-fitting about this kind of pseudo-identity but there’s so much felt pressure to persist it b/c the absence of it can feel like too much to bear. So it’s like a painful purgatory.
In the case of narcissistic abuse by a parent a very terrible sequence can get imposed:
The child is not seen or loved for his or her Being in the world. The child is only seen or recognized when he’s merged with his mind – just like the narcissistic parent is.
For example, a narcissistic parent who is merged with his thought-based experience may be trying to actualize the thought-of identity that he is supremely important to himself and others. The child must then merge with thoughts he has that echo his parent’s thoughts…”Oh wow, look how important Dad is. I could never measure up to him. He’s the best.” The child has to move away from any of his present experience that diverges from this thought-state…such as experience of his own power and effectiveness. When this happens enough, and the child’s only option for an identity is such thought-based activity, then it can feel very fragile to go out in the world. Life’s daily goings-on can make such a fragile inner arrangement feel very painful and arduous.
This can result in the child actually seeking reunion with the narcissistic parent b/c at least there’s some reinforcement of the child’s thought-based or ego-based identity. This temporary restitution of this identity staves off the loss of the identity that is felt to be unsurvivable while being abused but ultimately leaves the sufferer feeling empty and in need of constant replenishment.
Examples of a scapegoat survivor having to choose the thought-based ego over his present moment of being:
John* remembered in therapy how in first grade he took particular pride in learning to write cursive. He focused and concentrated fully on the task of writing new letters and words. On Fridays he and his 2nd-grade classmates would take a cursive writing test that he always tried his best at. At the same time, John was getting more pressured to think of himself the way his narcissistically abusive mother was treating him. She would constantly find fault in what he did or did not do around the house. He grew to feel that his thought-of identity must be someone who is rotten and who can’t do anything right is the only identity he had. From there, the only moments he had to look forward to were ones of sensory gratification (e.g. like eating his favorite food) or looking ahead in time – in thought – to a moment he could thinkingly convince himself would bring him happiness. Later in therapy, John recalled a critical moment when he went away from his being in the present moment and towards his thought-of identity: his grandparents were in town and they were celebrating Xmas that Friday after school. He knew that he was going to get a transformer called ‘Shockwave’. As he was writing his cursive homework, he felt his mind transport him to what it was going to be like to play with Shockwave and it made his present moment feel less worthwhile than what it would feel like when he got the toy. So…he stopped efforting to write his cursive test well and scribbled the rest of it then sat back in his chair and reveled over what it would be like to play with the toy. He knew that something very sacred within him was getting compromised but he also knew there was no other choice at that point in time for him.
This example illustrates how John as the scapegoat to his narcissistic mother had to abandon his present moment experience to comply with the ways she was pressuring him to think of himself…to adopt the identity that was based on her distorted thinking rather than who he is in his being. To have continued writing his cursive test in earnestness would have resulted in losing the thought-of identity he had as someone who was lazy or no-good, and that felt scarier than the hit to his self-worth in not being able to try his hardest at something he cared about – writing in cursive.
How to begin to dis-identify with the ego and increase connection to your Being
If you were scapegoated by a narcissistic parent, I can’t stress enough the importance of achieving emotional, psychological and maybe physical distance from this person so that the old ego-based tactics are not reinforced as still required today.
The process involves noticing – taken from Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now – what you are thinking, without trying to change the thoughts and work to notice yourself as the ‘noticer’ or ‘watcher’. It is the part of you that is watching that is the part that is being.
When we are living fully identified with our ego it is very difficult to observe how we are doing so. So much of our energy goes towards thoughts about the past – often in a regretful or incriminating of others or ourselves – and towards the future – often with a bargain that if we just trudge through this current moment – or reach a future goal – we’ll be delivered into a paradise of a future.
Again, it’s important to approach these processes with patience and compassion towards oneself b/c they were often necessary to survive the abuse by the narcissist. In fact, I have another video that talks about looking ahead to survive such abuse.
With that attitude in place, the process would be to notice when our thoughts are going to the past or to the future and just be aware of this. Eckhart Tolle explains that in noticing these thoughts they get transformed from facts that we’re operating from to phenomena that we’re noticing and thereby have some distance from.
Speaking of surviving narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat. If you haven’t done so, already I’ve created a free eBook on this subject. Just enter your email address below:
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.