“Yeah but…” How the Scapegoat Survivor Discounts Their Strengths
Do you add caveats to your strengths or accomplishments?
Does it seem like you are not as mature, developed or confident as others?
Have you perceived a flaw in yourself that makes you inadequate compared to your peer group?
These are all ways to discount yourself to yourself. Why would that be necessary? If you were the scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent then your strengths posed a problem. A narcissistic parent needs to regard the scapegoat child as always wrong. This allows the narcissistic parent to convince themselves they are always right.
This is an artificial but insisted upon arrangement. The scapegoat child in reality is not always wrong. They have their share of strengths and deserve the same measure of respect as anyone else. This reality threatens the narcissistic parent’s fragile yet inflated self-worth. By extension it threatens the child’s ability to depend on that parent.
A scapegoat child can either know their strengths and wound their parent or discount their strengths and have a parent. Since the child’s survival depends on their parent’s willingness to care for them, this is not a choice. The scapegoat child finds ways – often unconscious – to discount their strengths to preserve the parent.
In today’s blog, I’ll describe the deeply embedded rule that the scapegoat child not know their strengths. An effective way of doing this is to add a caveat or ‘yeah, but…’ to signs of prowess and value. These caveats are convincing to the scapegoat child – especially when they operate unconsciously. Scapegoat survivors can persist this practice after childhood. I will offer an explanation – based on attachment theory – for why this happens. Last, I discuss how therapy can help you know it is now safe to stop caveating your strengths.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse, I try to offer a map that allows them to come back to the quality of life they know they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are 3 features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path.
I’m very happy to say that I have recently published a book on Amazon called “Growing Up as the Scapegoat to a Narcissistic Parent: A Guide to Healing”. This book is a collection of essays that are organized into the 3 Pillars of Recovery. My hope is that the reader can turn to this volume for encouragement, validation and support along their own path towards a better quality of life. You can find the link to the book’s amazon page by Clicking Here.
How the scapegoat child caveats themselves
A caveat is defined as “a warning of a specific limitation of something”. I can think of no better description for how the scapegoat child has to discount – or caveat – their strengths.
Terry was in therapy in his mid-thirties. Despite being a successful landscaper he could not see himself this way. He saw his business as small potatoes compared to the competition. He was a loving husband and devoted father to his two children. He mostly felt like he was on the verge of making a terrible mistake with them. They would see he is not a good husband nor father and be done with him. He made exceptions – or caveats – for his successes that seemed convincing to him.
In therapy, Terry knew that his perceptions and the objective facts did not line up. His therapist and he began talking about his upbringing. He described his father as aloof except to pay attention when Terry made mistakes. In these moments, his father seemed to relish correcting Terry and showing him how to do it “better”.
“Do you recall an accomplishment or success that you took pride in?” his therapist asked.
Terry paused. He had a lot of events that qualified. He built a successful landscaping business that he started in high school. He always showed up for his kids to support what was important to them. He was really good at chess and had even won a tournament. None of these stirred pride in him though.
“Gosh. I really can’t. What is going on? That doesn’t make sense. And it’s kind of scary. I can’t really feel happy for myself.”
His therapist said, “Well, it may not be that you cannot feel happy for yourself but that you learned it was dangerous to do so. The way you described your father left me wondering how a son of his could ever get recognized let alone encouraged for his strengths. Your father seemed indifferent to you when you were at your best. If you were “broken down” he came around. For a kid, any contact is going to be better than no contact. I think you cleverly figured out how to extract the only form of contact available to you at the time.”
Terry’s therapist’s interpretation of why he could not feel happy for himself did not suddenly dispel his difficulty. Over time, however, Terry and his therapist could think together about what was happening when he could not feel happy for himself. The caveats he would tell himself to discount his strengths took on a different meaning. Terry could compassionately understand this process as how he used to protect himself. This strategy prevented him from going completely ignored by his father.
By virtue of discounting his strengths Terry could not admire or feel proud of himself. This outcome abided by his father’s rule that only he deserved such feelings. His therapist also suspected that his father felt envious of Terry. Someone who is pathologically narcissistic is prone to vindictively attack and/or withdraw from those they envy. Terry likely spared himself such outcomes by discounting himself in these ways.
Making the caveats seem true and normal
The scapegoat child needs to wholly believe in their caveats. To entertain positive views of themselves can strike an inner alarm. As the child meets success in one or more areas of their lives they need to avoid feeling good about it. The scapegoat child may do this by relegating their caveats into their unconscious.
Once their caveats are unconscious then they become fundamental assumptions. Everything they think about themselves is filtered through this lens of “yeah but…”. Clients like Terry consider it a fact that there is a limitation to themselves. From there every success they experience is muted in its significance to them. They can more easily overlook themselves. They can also more easily “see” and celebrate the successes of others. All of this serves them well in keeping a connection to a narcisstic parent.
For the scapegoat child and later the survivor, the present may feel like a coming attraction. Since affirmation of their true self is forbidden they may look to the future. Once they become more successful, a better partner, or a better parent then they will deserve to feel proud. Life can feel like the time worth living will be when they fix themselves. This can boost the survivor’s morale by creating hope. Such hope does not get realized in this context. The present does become more appealing when the survivor can trust that they never needed fixing in the first place.
How and why the caveats persist
The scapegoat child’s relationship to the narcissistic parent seems one-sided. The narcissistic parent needs the child to serve as the receptacle for their unwanted feelings of worthlessness. However, it would violate the assumption that the child is worthless to acknowledge the value they hold for the parent. That is, the narcissistic parent will never credit the child for serving this function.
As a result the child can feel like there is nothing within them that warrants someone else’s gratitude. This leaves the child feeling worthless. They may escape such a horrible feeling by preoccupying themselves with someone else. In this case the scapegoat child is preoccupies themselves with the narcissistic parent.
It is less painful for the child to focus on the parent than themselves. The child feels unwelcome to be in the world as a result of the narcissistic parent’s lack of care. When the child focuses on the parent they do not have to feel so unwelcome. Numbing the pain of going ignored is necessary to survive.
The child weaves this preoccupation with the narcissistic parent into their reality. Attachment theory offers a good explanation for why. This theory observed the behaviors of human infants and mothers. Starting with John Bowlby, these researchers noticed that children alternate between exploring and seeking closeness with their mothers. When the mother was consistently available to the child, they explored more. If the mother was inconsistent or dysregulated herself the child tended to stay closer to her. Bowlby reasoned that in the first case the child felt they had a secure home base from which to explore. In the latter case the child was trying to find a secure home base before exploring the world. Painfully if the parent remained inconsistently available then the child would stop exploring.
Such early experience imprints attachment templates that tell us our value and what to expect from others. An attachment template for a child with a good-enough parent would say that the child and the parent have value. It would also tell the child to expect reciprocity and care from people who are close. An attachment template for a child with a narcissistic parent would say that only the parent has value. It would also tell the child to expect little care or support from people who are close. Despite how painful this template is for the scapegoat child it does allow a form of closeness to the parent.
When the scapegoat survivor keeps discounting themselves they are following their attachment template. Doing so preserves the psychological presence of the parent in the survivor. Why? A prominent psychoanalytic researcher named Lorna Smith Benjamin convincingly argues that such children harbor a wish that if they become who the parent says they are then the parent will love them. So, persisting such a traumatic attachment template can protect this wish for the survivor.
Benjamin identified three ways survivors of narcissistic parents can persist their attachment templates. First, they can treat others in the way the parent treated them. This form is called identification. In my experience, scapegoat survivors are less likely to do this. Second, they can treat themselves like their narcissistic parent treated them. This is often the case with scapegoat survivors. Sure, the child learned that it was dangerous to expect equal rights in relationship to the parent. At the same time, the child needed to forge some type of closeness to this parent. By treating themselves in the depriving and devaluing way the parent treated them they can preserve the parent’s psychological presence. It is not a fulfilling presence but it keeps the survivor’s wish alive. The third way of staying loyal to this attachment template is to live as though the narcissistic parent is still around and in charge. This is another common strategy for scapegoat survivor.
Insisting on caveats for one’s strengths reflects two ways of persisting the attachment template to the narcissistic parent. It involves treating yourself as defective like the narcissistic parent treated you. It also reflects living as though the narcissistic parent is still around and in charge. I want to emphasize that these are not consciously chosen. It is not a fault in the scapegoat survivor’s character that they cannot do otherwise at certain times. Rather, this information is intended to shed some light on why the habit of caveating oneself may persist after childhood.
If you survived such a parent and this process of caveating your strengths resonates then consider this. Everyone has an attachment template. People with good-enough parents learned that their independence and happiness strengthened their relationships. Such people – I believe – rely on their attachment templates too. It is just that those templates yield adaptive ways of living. Scapegoat survivors learned that independence and happiness threatened their relationships. When these individuals rely on their attachment template they tend to be unhappy. This is not the fault of the survivor just like it is not by merit that the person with good-enough parents has a more adaptive attachment template. It also does not mean that this template cannot change. It can and does. But if you feel critical of yourself for struggling at times, I hope this perspective can offer some compassion and validation for you.
How Therapy Offers an Alternative Way to Feel Attached
You need an alternative to know you can safely stop treating yourself like your parent did and live as though you are now in charge. Trusted relationships where these practices are not required are needed. Therapy offers this type of relationship. Such a collaborative relationship allows survivors to feel supported and understood. Next the scapegoat survivor and therapist can identify how the strategy of caveating strengths operates in and outside of session. As this strategy is noticed and addressed in real-time the survivor may feel more empowered to act otherwise.
There’s something beyond these important mechanics that is happens in therapy. With a good-enough fit between client and therapist a gradual sense of deserving attention, support, care, and validation develops. Over time, this ‘new normal’ can get internalized in often subtle ways. It may be the old attachment template realizing that there is a new way to attach. This way involves being attached to – not just attaching to the other person.
The process and relationship in ongoing therapy can modify the survivor’s attachment template. This might look like finding it desirable to share your exhilaration at using one of your strengths. Doing so violates the old attachment template. The new template endorses such self-expression. As this new template takes hold clients tend to seek relationships that are reciprocal and avoid those that are not.
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.