Do you feel bossed around by other people’s expectations?
Do you get extremely anxious or blank when making a decision for yourself?
Do you find yourself living through the eyes of others instead of your own?
The scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent was deprived, devalued, and trapped. They were deprived of the emotional nourishment needed to develop. They were devalued so the narcissistic parent did not have to feel devalued. They were trapped by the parent’s attacks on their sources of happiness outside of the family.
Such abusive treatment triggers the child’s flight response. Their instinct is to get away from someone who seems intent on hurting them. This is only adaptive if there is another caregiver to flee towards.
When the only viable parent is also narcissistically abusive, the child is stuck. Yes, the child wants to get away from the source of harm. But the child cannot survive if getting away leaves them parent-less.
Under such conditions, the scapegoat child has to override their instinct to flee. This means finding a way to make being deprived, devalued and trapped seem tolerable. One way the scapegoat child can do this is by caring more about what the parent thinks of them than what the child thinks of themselves. Now all that matters is the parent’s opinion. If the parent is unhappy with the child then the child is unhappy with themselves. If the parent is happy then so is the child.
Now the scapegoat child has a reason to stay close to a parent who is hurting them. The problem is that what makes the narcissistic parent happy is often what makes the scapegoat child suffer. And what makes this parent unhappy is the scapegoat child’s growth.
In today’s post, I explain how the scapegoat child overrides their instinct to flee a narcissistic parent. The child does this by caring more about what the parent thinks of them than what the child thinks of themselves. I will describe how this strategy helps the child survive. As adaptive as the strategy is, it later robs the scapegoat survivor of living their lives in the first person. Last, I discuss how therapy is a way to learn that relationships no longer require you to adopt the other’s mind as your own.
The Threats Posed by the Narcissistic Parent
The narcissistic parent relates to the scapegoat child as if they are worthless. In order for the child to share a reality with that parent, they must adopt this identity. It is searingly painful to have to live as though one is worthless. Our natural reaction to such treatment is to get away from it.
The child in the role of scapegoat to the narcissistic parent often does not have this luxury. If the other parent is emotionally unavailable and/or absent, the child must stay attached to the narcissistic parent. The child must become wary of their flight instinct because it leads them towards being parentless. Being without a parent can be akin to psychic annihilation to a very young child. There is no one to know the child who has yet to know themselves fully. This can feel like an internal obliteration to be avoided at all costs.
So, the scapegoat child must find a way to stay with the parent hurting them psychologically. Staying involves the scapegoat child overriding the impulse to flee from harm. This is a tall psychological order.
The Scapegoat Child’s “Solution” to Stay with the Narcissistic Parent
The scapegoat child stays attached to the narcissistic parent by adopting the parent’s mind as their own. The child can reason – often unconsciously – that their parent is always right. This helps them avoid the parent’s wrath for challenging the parent’s authority. Furthermore, if the parent is always right then their opinions, feelings, and thoughts are the most important.
These conclusions lead the scapegoat child to care most about what the narcissistic parent thinks of them. The child’s own thoughts about themselves seem far less important. This amounts to adopting the parent’s mind as the child’s own. When the parent attacks the child’s character or behavior the child “knows” they deserve it. If the parent is always right and they are devaluing the child then the child must be value-less.
This strategy has several adaptive benefits for the child. It overrides the child’s flight response. The parent is no longer the source of harm. The child’s “badness” is what causes the child harm. The parent is just reacting to how the child “is”. Now the child wants to flee themselves for the favor of the narcissistic parent. The child is aligned with the parent against the child’s self.
Rafael had a narcissistic mother and an emotionally remote enabler father. His mother’s stance towards Rafael always seemed to be: “stay close to me so I can keep hurting you.” His mother regularly screamed at him for pseudo-offenses around the home. However, he could not know that this was what was happening at the time. He needed his mother too much – despite how abusive she was.
Rafael had found a way to keep himself safer in the fifth grade by asking himself what his mother would want him to do. He policed himself not to do or be anything that would cause her to be upset with him. It hurt too much when she yelled at him. He had to find a way to limit it.
In middle school, Rafael was confused by his mother’s refusal to let him see and enjoy his friends. His efforts to convince her that he should be allowed to see them only made her more angry. He found himself reasoning that there must be something wrong with his friends. That staying home with his family was morally right, and he was immoral by wanting to go out.
Later in therapy he realized that his reasoning at the time was done under his mother’s dark coercion. He saw how he had to conclude that she was right about everything. He also had to question and accuse himself when he disagreed with her. Rafael felt intense grief for himself as he remembered how isolated
and alone he felt throughout his adolescence. What he further mourned was that he was made to feel so alone while doing what he thought was the “right” thing.
Rafael saved himself by caring more about what his mother thought about him than what he thought about himself. Her attacks on his character felt world-ending to him. If she was always right and she said he was a selfish and disgusting person then he would feel immense amounts of self-hatred. Caring more about her thoughts about him resulted in less disagreements with her. Fewer disagreements meant less attacks on him. The cost was having to feel like he was not in charge of himself.
5 Impacts of this “Solution” on the Scapegoat Survivor
The scapegoat child and later the survivor cannot live their lives in the first person. They have been forbidden to think and feel freely. Doing so could have led to their instinct to flee their narcissistic parent. Flight from the person one needs must be thwarted. Caring more about what the narcissistic parent thinks about the scapegoat child than what the child thinks of themselves does this.
There are several costs to the scapegoat survivor of this “solution”.
The Scapegoat Survivor is Skeptical of Their Own Opinions, Conclusions, and Feelings
In order for the narcissistic parent to always be right the scapegoat child must always be wrong. The narcissistic parent acts in ways that are hypocritical, duplicitous, vindictive and self-promoting. The scapegoat child who sees this clearly must question their perceptions. Now they can regard the parent as always right without as much dissonance.
Nobody Else’s Positive Opinion about the Scapegoat Survivor Matters
There is not much room for opinions other than the narcissistic parent’s to matter. The scapegoat child received positively by other people is in a difficult position. This feedback conflicts with their parent’s view of them. Since there can be only one person who is always right -the narcissistic parent – the child must dismiss the positive feedback. They might tell themselves, “My friends don’t really know me”, or “These people must be messed up if they think well of me.”
An Amoral World
This solution is a product of the narcissistic parent’s coercion and the child’s need for attachment. It is an arrangement premised on power rather than ethics. The child has to regard what is right as what makes someone else happy. Any moral code themselves does not bind this someone else. They will punish the child for offenses that may be ethical but are displeasing. For example, Rafael recalled how his mother screamed at him the loudest when he told her not to attack his younger sister. He did something just but was punished even more for it.
Boundaries Become Impossible
When the scapegoat survivor has to care more about what others think of them than they think about themselves boundaries become confusing. A boundary requires a clear sense of who you are and the other person. This solution fuzzies such an understanding.
The scapegoat survivor can have difficulty knowing how they want to be treated. They have had to get used to living in a state of pain throughout their upbringing. They did this by thinking of themselves through their narcissistic parent’s eyes. Setting boundaries means that one can safely say what they want through their own eyes.
Hard to Identify Narcissistic Abusers Today
When attachment has come to mean caring more about others’ views of yourself than your own then you may be vulnerable to narcissistic friends and partners. Since this strategy prizes the other’s claims over your own it will be difficult to experience your feelings as valid. So, the hurt feelings you experience in these relationships are less important than what the other person claims. This is exactly the scenario faced with a narcissistic parent.
How Therapy Can Help the Scapegoat Survivor Live in the First Person
Having to adopt this strategy reflects a severe level of narcissistic abuse. It only happens when the scapegoat child has no other option for attachment than the narcissistic parent. Insidiously this solution can live on in the scapegoat survivor. Once adopted it can become a way of living in the world.
What is ultimately needed is a relationship that does not depend on the survivor adopting the other’s mind as their own. The challenge can be that scapegoat survivors may still experience others in this way.
Longer-term therapy, where the therapist affords some neutrality can be particularly helpful. The goal of therapeutic neutrality is not to make a client feel alone or strange in their experience. Rather, it affords enough space for the client’s ways of organizing their reality to come forward.
The goal of this form of therapy is for the client to get to be alone with themselves with someone else protectively there. This is typically a nonverbal process that takes time to develop. A different relational calculus is being introduced to the client. It is one that wholly allows them to be themselves while the therapist remains present. But it may seem disorienting for a time until this new arrangement gets to be felt and appreciated.
Rafael stayed in his therapy for many years. His therapist’s silence at the start of treatment would create a lot of anxiety for Rafael. He had such trouble focusing on himself in the presence of someone else. He would get overwhelmed with the feeling of being scrutinized and criticized. It would stop
his ability to think much less feel OK inside.
Rafael and his therapist traced these moments of him feeling scrutinized and criticized to him thinking critically about the therapist. Doing so constituted a departure from the old rule of how to avoid danger – that the other person was always right. To protect himself from the wrath he anticipated, he would
experience himself as the one deserving criticism. The therapist’s neutrality was important for this to be seen as a feature of Rafael’s psychology. Now that they both understood what was happening in these moments Rafael felt a little more free and safe to consider his own thoughts about his therapist.
Bit by bit the ways Rafael had to prioritize his mother’s perspective over his own began to give way. Rafael felt it more possible to think his own thoughts in the presence of his therapist. Something different and new held them together. Something that did not require Rafael’s obedience. With this experience under his belt he sought out relationships in his life that afforded something similar.
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.