Healing a Shame-Based Identity for Scapegoat Survivors

healing a shame-based identity for scapegoat survivors

Do you live on top of a feeling that there is something very wrong and bad about you?

Does it seem impossible to relieve this feeling?

Do you manage this feeling by living in ways that let you feel temporarily less bad?

A narcissistic parent acts in ways that are selfish, exploitative and cruel. If they are aware of how badly such behavior reflects upon them they need a way to deny this. They can hide this fact from themselves by treating their scapegoat child as if they are selfish, exploitative and cruel. Since the child depends on the parent for care they have no choice but to identify as the bad one.

The scapegoat child suffers immensely from this treatment. Everywhere they turn they face convincing accusations of their bad character. They live in a world where they are recoiled from. They learn to recoil from themselves.

It makes no difference that these accusations are about the child are false. The narcissistic parent gets to define what is true for themselves and the child. Accuracy takes a back seat to the narcissistic parent’s need to seem flawless.

For the child to find relief from this shame they would need their parent to own what they have disowned. But the parent has no reason to do this. Narcissistic parents can lack empathy so their scapegoat child’s feelings do not matter.

In today’s video I explain how a narcissistic parent hides their own bad character in the scapegoat child. Next, I describe how this results in the child having to live from a constant sense of shame about who they are. Such shame can turn into an identity when they lose hope of ever being seen as good by their parent. Watch until the end because I will describe how to excavate this ground level shame.

Hiding the Narcissistic Parent’s Sins in the Scapegoat Child

A narcissistic parent insists on their superiority to combat a core sense of inferiority. Part of being superior involves feeling entitled for others to reflect this back to them. This can happen in a lot of ways, including:

  • Acting in controlling ways and expecting the others to submit
  • Intruding into others’ lives and expecting gratitude
  • Vindictive retaliation for anything that results in them feeling envious

The common thread is the assumption that the narcissistic parent’s needs are more important than everyone else’s. This assumption needs to stay hidden, though. If it were made plain that the parent thought they were better than others this could reflect poorly. Such a reflection could lead the parent back to the inferiority they are working so hard to escape.

The narcissistic parent hides their superiority by accusing the scapegoat child of being this way. They react to the child as if they are selfish, entitled, and exploitative. The child and other family members have difficulty disagreeing. They all assume that the parent would not react this way if the child were not so bad. With everyone’s scrutiny on the scapegoat child’s – supposed – bad character the narcissistic parent gets excused. In this way the scapegoat child is made to pay dearly for the narcissistic parent’s ‘sins’.

Ed was the scapegoat child to a narcissistic mother who was always accusing him of being a bad guy. He was either selfish, inconsiderate, taking advantage, irresponsible or immature according to her. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he assumed all of this was true. No one else in the family took up for him when his mother yelled these things at him.

He could not know what was really leading to these accusations in his mother. If he could here is what he might have seen:

Ed’s mother, Sylvia, was a schoolteacher. She cultivated the impression of caring deeply about her students. She felt very little however. Her inner life seemed devoid of meaning. The only times she found relief was when she felt like she was in charge of someone else. She got a surge of power that she cherished instead of

Cracks in her caring facade began to show at work. One of the parents of her students complained that she had been too harsh with their son. Sylvia had been incessantly criticizing and undermining the child. The student’s parent’s had called the principal who then disciplined her for this behavior.

Sylvia’s son was different. He seemed to genuinely want to help others. He did not have to make others feel bad for him to feel good like she did. This made her feel inferior and she hated him for it.

That night when Sylvia got home, Ed excitedly told her that he was going to volunteer for an organization that rehabilitated homes for families in need. He asked her if she would drive him to the construction site that coming Saturday morning. She wanted to explode at being ‘shown up’ once again by him.

Instead of encouraging his spiritual generosity she distorted it. With a scowl she snarled, “Oh give it up, Ed. Just stop trying to deceive everyone. You parade around here acting like a do-gooder who cares about everyone. Meanwhile you won’t do the first thing I ask you to do around the house. I come home and your room is a mess. You can’t even show the minimum amount of respect to me and this family but you want to be seen as a volunteer in the community? No. You’re grounded this weekend and you’re gonna think about this.”

Ed felt like his heart had been hogtied with these accusations. He went from feeling a sense of dignity and usefulness to pure shame. Instead of being received with the warmth and pride he reasonably hoped for from his mother she said this.

Sylvia buried her own sin of deceptiveness into Ed in this way. She construed his otherwise clean desire to help others by volunteering into an act of deception. Now, Ed was the deceptive one instead of her. This washed away some of the humilation she felt from her principal’s earlier admonishment. Ed paid the cost of having to invert his virtue into something to be ashamed of.

The Scapegoat Child’s Resulting Shame-Based Identity

The scapegoat child’s resulting idea of who they are leaves them in a state of shame. To feel shame the child needs to first hope to be received by their parent in an attuned and supportive way. Instead the child is seen as a contemptible bad person. This break in what the child gets versus what they hoped for breaks their sense of connection to the parent. The child is flooded with embarrassment and self-loathing that makes them want to disappear.

To repair such an experience of shame the child needs to restore connection to the parent. Unfortunately for the scapegoat child their narcissistic parent does not want to restore their connection. The parent needs the child to see themselves the unseemly ways the parent is being. To relent on the claims that the child is bad would deny the cover the parent needs.

In the face of being denied hope of restored connection the child has to find a way to manage their shame. Tragically the scapegoat child cannot find true exoneration for their supposed ‘bad character’. The shame they feel does not go anywhere. The child has to find a way to function around it. They may conclude that they are the bad person their parent accuses them of being. Now they just have to tolerate the resulting feelings of shame and find a way to live in spite of them.

The scapegoat child who has to make this concession is denied pride in themselves. They may seek experiences that afford sensory experiences of pleasure. However these are only rest stops along the highway of shame they are forced to travel.

As Ed entered his teenage years he felt like his life was getting darker and smaller. He could not know it at the time but his mother’s transfer of her own malevolence into him was taking a profound toll. He did not like to think about himself anymore. Doing so, would only make him shudder with disgust. Now he no longer had a reason to dislike himself. He would do so as easily as he would breathe.

Ed coped with this unrepaired sense of shame he felt due to his mother’s abuse by narrowing his focus in life. He no longer volunteered nor pursued friendships that he enjoyed. He limited his goals to things he could achieve. This meant burrowing into his schoolwork to get the best grades he possibly could. He stopped seeking social connections with his peers. He always felt like he had not done enough to get the grades he wanted. Under this sense of inadequacy he would force himself to study on nights and weekends.

Ed’s strategy did result in getting good grades but he could feel no pride in this. He felt a surge of elation when he got his report card that quickly gave way to the ongoing sense of badness he had to contend with.

Ed’s approach to his studies reflected a way he would cope with the shame his mother transferred onto him. He would push everything else in his life aside to pursue a goal that he could imagine being important to him. This gave him a sense of purpose that the ongoing shame threatened to dissolve. Nonetheless, he could not escape overarching conviction that his character was shamefully flawed.

Excavating the Shame from the Scapegoat Survivor’s Identity

The way to exhume the scapegoat survivor’s shame is to restore connection to important others. A great place to start is psychotherapy. Here is where scapegoat survivors can talk about and make sense of why they feel so ashamed to begin with. The therapist’s job is to know when the client attempts to do what used to lead to shame and offer a different response.

A scapegoat survivor can use therapy to re-encode the earlier experiences that led to a shame-based identity. By recalling ways they were treated as though they were bad they and their therapist can critically assess what happened. Now the survivor and therapist can consider what may have been happening in the world of the parent. In so doing, the child is no longer the only one accountable for their actions. The parent gets to be held accountable. The scapegoat survivor may initially feel shame as they recount these moments. If they persist, however, and feel understood by their therapist the shame can lift. Now the survivor can look back at memories where they were accused of bad character and see it as a reflection of the accuser instead of themselves.

Ed came to therapy in his mid-twenties because he felt like his life just was not working. He had friends, a career, hobbies and a partner but did not like himself. Every day came with an inner sense of dis-ease that he felt for as long as he could remember.

He liked his therapist. The man was warm, easy-going, smart and seemed to really like Ed too. Initially, Ed did not see a connection to his current struggles and how his mother treated him. His therapist emphasized how easily his mother would distort Ed’s personal qualities. This led to Ed feeling safer in bringing up some of the more painful ways he had been led to conclude he was a bad person.

He told his therapist about the time his mother claimed he was pretending to be a good person by volunteering. As he did, he felt the familiar sense of shame come up. His therapist looked at him with compassion and encouraged him to continue.

Ed said, “When she said that I was a fraud like that I believed her. I even feel it now.”

His therapist asked, “Tell me what you’re feeling.”

He said, “I feel like I’m dissolving inside. Right here in my solar plexus. I feel like a bad person and that there’s no hope for me nor will there ever be.”

His therapist reflected, “You’re in the neverending state of shame that your mother’s distortion of you created. You reasonably hoped to be helped in your efforts to volunteer by getting a ride from her. Instead you were met with her contempt and claim that what you thought was a good thing about you was “really” sinister. You went through something that was emotionally brutal and wholly undeserved.”

Ed still felt the shame. But he registered what his therapist said. As they continued to talk he noticed that the sense of inner dissolution had given way to a solidity. He got his energy back too. He said, “I feel like I just went through a tunnel but now I’m on the other side.”

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.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *