Do you have difficult feelings inside that seem impossible to do anything about?
Have you felt adversarial towards these feelings because they are so disruptive?
Is it much easier to offer compassion to others than yourself?
The scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent has two conflicting goals. First, they must maintain the parent’s willingness to care for them. Second, they must cope with the pain of their needs for protection and love going unmet. Survival dictates that the first goal has to take priority.
Scapegoat children find themselves being devalued, deprived and trapped by their narcissistic parent. And they must attach to that parent anyway. To do this, they must find a way to not let their painful feelings get in the way.
There is a form of therapy called Internal Family Systems, or IFS, developed by a man named Richard Schwartz that offers a helpful understanding for how the scapegoat child does this. In the IFS model everyone is understood to have multiple parts to themselves. Instead of there being a single identity we have multiple part-identities. Healing is not about getting rid of troubling self-states. Instead it is defined as increasing the understanding of – and the dialogues between – each part.
In today’s post, I explain how the scapegoat child split their inner experience up to survive narcissistic abuse. The child had to send the part of themselves that felt devalued, deprived and trapped into exile. They had to ally with the part of themselves that still saw – or hoped to see – their parent as good. I describe how all of this reflected the compassion-less world they lived in – not themselves. Last, I describe how hope can re-emerge towards the parts of oneself that feel pain. With that hope comes patience and faith in oneself.
The scapegoat child’s reality: Having to get in where they don’t fit in
The scapegoat child to the narcissistic parent finds hostility where kindness is expected. This parent offloads their own feelings of worthlessness onto this child. They then coercively influence the child to identify with these feelings. A hostile attitude towards the child usually does the trick. These maneuvers allow the parent to keep their inflated – yet fragile – self-esteem intact. When any feeling of worthlessness they experience is the child’s fault the parent feels temporarily spared from it.
Children need to share a reality with their parent in order to know their existence matters and they are not alone. The scapegoat child is only recognized as an adversary by the person they need on their side. In order to share in this forced upon reality they have to find their place in it. That is, they must see themselves the way they are being seen.
How the scapegoat child uses their parts to fit in
We all have different parts or recurring states that serve different purposes. When we need to feel close to someone we become gentle and affectionate. When we want to assert ourselves we become energized. When we want to play with others we seek what surprises and delights. All of these different parts map to the different motivational systems that make up our personality.
When a child is in a good-enough family each of these parts gets to serve a purpose that furthers the child’s growth. The child’s care about the feelings of others helps them develop friendships. The child’s natural assertiveness is channeled towards playing sports. The child’s parents tend to notice, appreciate and support these different parts. The child develops a similar inner attitude towards these parts.
The scapegoat child must burden their parts with fitting into the narcissistic parent’s reality. The child’s natural empathy cannot be used to further the child’s growth. It must be commandeered into being alert to and meeting the emotional needs of their parent. The child’s assertive part contradicts the lower status conferred upon them by the narcissistic parent. This part has to be redirected back at the child. The child’s assertive part morphs into an inner critic. Now there is a place for this assertive energy to go. Now the child can still share in the parent’s reality as someone who thinks of themselves as flawed.
Frank never felt loved by his narcissistic mother. She would insist on telling him she loved him all the time and expected him to say it back to her. However, she reacted to any expression of what Frank needed with eye-rolling exasperation. She showed outright favoritism towards his sister. Seemingly demonstrating her ability to love her but not him. In her rageful attacks on him she would “offend from the victim position”. He had done or not done something so horrendous that she had no choice but to yell at him.
Later in his twenties, Frank had difficulty recalling his experience in childhood. I grew to understand that he had to force himself into his mother’s reality. The only way he could do this and still retain a semblance of his authentic self was to split into different parts. He described an inner world that felt chaotic and sometimes incoherent:
At work I feel like my head has to be on a swivel. My boss or a coworker is going to come along at any moment and tell me I’m doing something wrong. I’m always trying to guess what it is and make sure I do things right. I get good performance reviews but I feel drained and empty at the end of every day. I usually just go home and watch TV with a drink in my hand. There’s a real empty and lonely feeling that tends to set in as I’m trying to get to sleep. I don’t know what to do with it so I just force myself to go to sleep so I won’t have to keep feeling it. Then I get up the next day and do it all over again.
Frank was at a loss for how to manage these disparate states. They seemed to take him over depending on his situation. At work he had to always manage others’ expectations of him. At home the only soothing he could find was through the numbing effects of alcohol and television. Before bed he was visited by a seeming intractable emptiness and aloneness.
An IFS Map of Frank’s Inner World
Frank’s inner experience corresponded to how he had to adapt to his loveless childhood. He always knew that nobody in his family could offer him comfort. That was not part of the reality he could share with his narcissistic parent. He felt abandoned and worthless but these feelings became a liability. Expressing the pain he felt to those inflicting it upon him did not help. Frank developed a part that held this pain. Then he could exile this part into his unconscious. I will call this part the “hurt truth-teller”.
With the hurt truth teller in exile, the “solver” part gained much more influence. This part knew the dire situation Frank faced. With endless energy this part was always looking around for signs of trouble. Trouble could mean the slightest indication of dissatisfaction by his narcissistic parent. When detected he would spring into action to smooth out the situation. The solver part helped Frank share in his parent’s reality too. This part did not question what Frank was responsible for or not. When the solver was told of – or accused of being – a problem he went to work.
A third part afforded Frank some momentary relief from the rigors of his life. This part that I called the “soother” would find ways to escape by numbing his senses. When he was younger the soother would emerge as Frank lost himself in video games alone in his room. Today the soother used television and alcohol to give him an oasis of rest from all of his inner tumult. When the soother was in charge the hurt truthteller seemed light-years away. And the solver could be deactivated because Frank was too numb to worry about signs of trouble.
Distinguishing the Parts from Their Burdens
One of the essential processes in healing from an IFS perspective is making compassionate contact with one’s parts. An important principle in this compassion is that the parts are not their burdens. Frank’s parts had been burdened with holding pain for which there was no solution, solving problems that were not his own, and dosing himself with enough relief that he could keep going. If he had a good-enough parent then the “hurt truth teller” could have just been the “truth teller”. The “solver” could have been used to solve problems that he found interesting. And the “soother” could have sought relaxation in connected relationships.
At the start of therapy Frank tended to regard his solver part as undignified and his soother as evidence of his laziness. He yearned to connect to the hurt truth teller but found this part elusive. I would counter Frank’s attitude with curiosity about each part’s experience. Next, I would try to ask him how each part might be trying to help or protect him?
Over the course of several years in treatment, Frank’s attitude towards his parts shifted. His experience of the non-judgmental, curious, and compassionate attitude towards him and his parts seemed to get internalized. As this happened, something else emerged: hope.
“I’ve never seen the point of staying in consistent contact with myself. Life only used to feel live-able when I was not paying attention to my inner experience. Now, when I feel the pain of the truth-teller, I don’t see it as endless. I know that this part deserves patience and to be listened to. And I have faith that if I do, then this part’s pain can be helped. I never used to have hope for my parts before.”
Frank described an important shift that can happen in therapy for scapegoat survivors. In order for the scapegoat child to fit into the parent’s reality they have to exile parts of themselves that do not fit. The child cannot keep in consistent contact with themselves. They find it hopeless to do so while dependent on the narcissistic parent. Therapy offered a relationship that did not require Frank to exile parts of himself to share a reality with his therapist. This allowed him to exercise patience and hope towards his parts.
Now Frank found himself more curious than dismissive towards his hurt truthteller part. Although this part felt immense despair at having to be in exile for so long, Frank still wanted to hear from him. Frank also developed a hope or faith that the hurt truthteller part may not always feel this
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.