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When Scapegoat Survivors Think: “It’s Only Me Finds Who This Difficult”

when scapegoat survivors think: “it’s only me finds who this difficult”

When you feel challenged by a task do you also feel like you are the only who finds it challenging?

Does feeling challenged remind you that you are inadequate in some way?

When you look around does it seem like others can easily do what you are struggling to do?

Life can be hard. This is true whether you grew up with a narcissistic parent or not. Fortunately most children are encouraged and supported when they encounter challenges in life. The scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent does not fare as well. If they encounter a challenge they are undermined by and/or ignored. Neither reaction by the narcissistic parent sets the child up for success.

As a result, scapegoat children and survivors may avoid challenges. The emotional cost can be too severe. They have been conditioned to associate challenges with feeling inferior, strange and alone.

The rub is that challenges are a natural part of realizing our full potentials. To avoid them is to avoid one’s full self. Scapegoat survivors are often painfully aware of this fact. They can experience a gnawing sense of not living as fully as they want to be. Yet the pain and felt futility of facing a challenge is too much.

One of the ways challenges can feel painful is in the experience that you are the only one facing them. In today’s post I explain how the scapegoat child believes they are inferior, strange and alone if something does not come easily. These beliefs weaken when they see that someone they admire faces similar struggles. And read until the end because I will offer an exercise to discover that you are not the only one who finds challenges difficult.

Challenges Make the Scapegoat Child Feel Inferior, Strange & Alone

The scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent has to identify with all the bad feelings the parent cannot tolerate in themselves. It is a psychologically brutal arrangement. The child needs to share a reality with a parent. To do otherwise would feel like being nobody to no one. The only reality the narcissistic parent offers is one where the child is defective and undeserving and the parent superior. So, the child takes the only tact that ensures their survival. They become an inferior somebody to a superior someone.

The scapegoat child is forced to believe they cannot do anything important right. The rub is that anything important is going to contain some challenging moments. Most people are encouraged to work to overcome challenges. When the scapegoat child encounters a challenge they go unsupported. Their parent may use the fact that the child is feeling challenged as proof that they are inferior. An adequate person – supposedly – would not find the situation challenging at all. This leaves the child and later the survivor feeling inferior, strange and alone when they take on challenges.

How the Scapegoat Child is Made to Feel Inferior in the Face of Challenges

The scapegoat child is in a terrible predicament when it comes to their own self-worth. Their narcissistic parent does not want them to feel good about who they are and what they can do. This would threaten their ability to relocate their own worthlessness into the child. And yet, the child needs to retain hope that they can figure out how to one day be of worth.

Scapegoat children may stay hopeful that they have worth by privately telling themselves they are great. In this secret place within themselves they can insist on their worth. The rub is that this worth has to be based on exaggerated claims about their traits and abilities. These claims are inflated to counter the parent’s message that they are worthless. 

The child cannot bring these elevated claims into their reality. Every time they do they come up short and feel crestfallen. The child who secretly sees themselves as the smartest person in their class is crushed by getting a ‘B’ grade. The child who sees themselves as the best soccer player is devastated when they do not make an all-star team. These setbacks are so painful because their parent is setting them up to feel worthless. A setback dunks the child in the tank of worthlessness that they are working so hard to save themselves from. 

Over time the scapegoat child may avoid challenges. Experience tells them that the only result is feeling inferior. They cannot see how life has been rigged against them. They assume that their privately held high standards are their own and they are not living up to them. They cannot see yet that their standards have to be so high to combat their parent’s efforts to devalue them. 

Rick never felt loved as a child. For as long as he can remember he felt like a burden and an outcast to his family. His mother related to Rick as if he did not know the proper way to live. If he was walking in front of her she would say he was slouching and needs better posture. If he was chewing at the dinner table she would say he swallows his bites too soon and needs to slow down. If he was happy for any reason she would criticize him for being selfish.

Despite all of his mother’s efforts to tear him down, Rick found a way to keep thinking of himself as likeable and smart. He would identify which of his classmates he wanted to become friends with. Then he would set about talking to them and playing with them at recess. Over time a friendship would develop.

In third grade, Rick saw that some of the kids in his class got taken to a special class during the afternoons. He asked his teacher why and she told him that they were part of the gifted program. He resolved right there to gain access to it. He found out about the test he had to take and asked his teacher to recommend it for him. He took it and was told that he had done well enough to join the program. He was elated. He felt like now he could finally believe that there was something special about him.

His parents had to sign a permission slip to let him join. When his mother looked at it she unilaterally decided that he should not be separated from his other classmates. Rick’s heart was broken. He begged and pleaded for her to change her mind to no avail. Rick spent the rest of third grade feeling the sting of inferiority every time his classmates were gathered to attend the gifted class.

Having a private elevated picture of yourself does not necessarily make you narcissistic. You can do this while still having empathy for others. It also does not mean that you coerce others to reflect back this elevated picture. Yes, it may be something that has to be addressed in the recovery process. Finding a better quality of life will involve a realistic basis for self-esteem.

Why the Scapegoat Child Feels Strange in the Face of Challenges

Scapegoat children were often reacted to as if there was something uniquely wrong with them when they faced a challenge. To remark about the difficulty of something was to invite alienation. What is it about you, child, that you cannot easily do this? Their narcissistic parent pushes their own self-doubt into the child and recoils from it. The child is left feeling strange for finding a challenge to be difficult. 

Jack was told to do a lot in his home growing up. Many of his father’s demands were beyond what a kid Jack’s age should be able to do. At age six, his father told him to clean the garage and that it should take him at least three hours. Jack felt a surge of frustration and despair charge through him. “But, Dad, I don’t want to! It’s Saturday. I want to go play with my friends.”

His Dad responded, “Oh, Mr. Whiner. What is it now?” as he derisively laughed at Jack.

Jack felt the burn of shame added to his exasperation. His father was acting like it was a sign of weakness that Jack did not want to clean the garage. His complete lack of validation for Jack’s protest left Jack feeling strange for finding this task daunting.

Jack was not strange for not wanting to clean a garage instead of play with his friends at age six. If his father had validated Jack’s complaints even if he continued to ask him to clean the garage, Jack would have felt less strange. But his father used this opportunity to mock Jack for complaining. His mockery likely served to protect himself from feeling daunted by any of his own tasks in life. It was his son, not he, who found certain tasks challenging. The threat to his inflated sense of self-worth had been nullified at Jack’s great expense.

How the Scapegoat Child is Made to Feel Alone in the Face of Challenges

The scapegoat child does not get the support and encouragement needed to find challenges attainable. Narcissistic parents can see their own needs as most important. So if their child needs something from them then that child is “selfishly” taking away from who is most important. This logic extends to the child who seeks help and support in the face of a challenge. 

The result for the child is going without the experience of feeling like someone else is on their side. This experience is crucial to feel protected and validated in life. It also helps one feel confident in the face of challenges. The child whose parent has shown belief in them even when the child’s belief was flagging has a strong basis for self-confidence. The scapegoat child who faced a challenge would look around and find nobody on their side to shore up their belief in themselves. 

Rick wanted to be the fastest runner on his cross-country team in high school. At the first practice he was beat handily by three of the other runners on the team. He felt dejected. “I’m nowhere near as good as I thought. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

He told no one of his disappointment because he expected them to react as if he was stupid in the first place for thinking he could be the fastest. He had to tend to this wound alone. He found his joy in running wither over the course of the season. His goal was no longer to be the best but to not come in last.

A Strategy to Feel Adequate, Normal and Connected in the Face of Challenges

I find writing to be important. In fact, I write out what I say in these videos each week. As important as I find this process to be I do easy. Some days when I sit down to write my thoughts are running around like cats. Instead of seeing the progress made in what has been written so far I might only see the flaws in it. A lot of the time I can find some footing to proceed with the writing. Sometimes, however, I just have to put it off for the day.

I’ve always felt inferior, strange and alone when these writing challenges come up. In my mind’s eye I see the other people who write in this field and assume they face no such challenges. They sit down at their computer and produce 1500 impeccable words with ease.

This shifted the other day. I was talking to a trusted friend and colleague who also writes. I have always admired their writing and put them in the camp of finding it easy at all times. That day I could not get underway with the writing. I was frustrated. It occurred to me to ask my friend if he ever encountered challenges when trying to write. I wholly expected him to look at me like I was strange and exclaim that he never has. Instead, he surprised me.

He said, “Well, yeah. I procrastinate all the time. And then I get frustrated with myself for not writing as much as I had hoped that day.”

I said, “Really? Do you ever find that you can’t gather your thoughts or make a linear argument?”

He said, “Oh, absolutely. Other times I’ll have so many different thoughts racing through that I can’t seem to organize them.”

I said, “I always thought I was the only one who found writing to be hard.”

He said, “No way. You are not alone. It is not easy.”

I bring up this story to illustrate one way to combat feeling inferior, strange and alone in the face of a challenge. Asking someone whom you admire and who is likely to be honest whether they find something challenging can counter the messages received about challenges from a narcissistic parent.

Benefits to Asking Others What They Find Challenging

Asking someone you admire whether they feel challenged in similar ways to you can help you conclude that you are not the only one. If someone you admire struggles at times too, then you must not be inferior for doing the same. 

These kinds of questions may help you discover you are on a more equal playing field with those you admire. A narcissistic parent goes out of their way to make their scapegoat child feel they are lower status. Finding out that you are more similar than different to someone you admire when it comes to challenges can help restore your sense of equal status. 

If you are in good company when challenged then there is less justification to criticize yourself. The scapegoat survivor gets to recalibrate their definition of what is ‘good enough’. It no longer has to mean that everything comes easily.

Finally, you can find it safe to regard challenges as a normal part of pursuing important goals. The person you admire is able to achieve important goals. Yet they face similar challenges as you on the way to those goals. Challenges may therefore be expected in pursuit of anything meaningful. Instead of cause for self-criticism they can be signals that you are on a path that matters to you.

An Exercise to De-stigmatize Feeling Challenged

This exercise will help you get firsthand information about whether you should feel inferior, alone and strange for facing challenges at times. Here are the steps:

  • Write down three goals that are important to you.
  • Write down all the challenges you face in reaching these goals.
  • Select someone you admire who is pursuing or has achieved this goal.
  • Find a way to ask that person if they face or have faced similar challenges. 
  • Record the results.

Whenever you feel challenged and self-critical you can refer to this document. Over time you may feel much less stigmatized for feeling challenged.

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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