If saying you’re sorry – and rarely hearing it – feels like an all too common part of your experience, then you may have had to survive narcissistic abuse from a parent or partner. A big part of this abuse may have also been an absence of protection from it by anyone else. When you are selected as the scapegoat to a narcissistic abuser and there is nobody around with authority who intervenes on your behalf, then you must find a way to protect yourself. Trying to fight the narcissistic abuser will not work because s/he picks individuals to scapegoat who are in a less powerful position than the narcissist. And fleeing the narcissist won’t work b/c the scapegoat can feel like the narcissist has what s/he desperately needs to exist happily – the child believes at his core that he has to win his narcissistic parent’s approval before s/he can value his/her own self so to flee is to forgo what feels so desperately needed from the only available source for it – the parent. So what’s left? Figuring out a way to get the narcissistic abuser to relent on his/her attacks on you the scapegoat. And what’s a very good and ingenious way to do this? Developing the reflex to apologize for any and everything that leads to the narcissistic parent’s unhappiness.
In today’s blog post, I want to explain how and why narcissistic abuse means always having to say you’re sorry. I hope that the explanation can yield a compassionate – and accurate – narrative of how this coping strategy developed out of an utter lack of protection from abuse that was wholly undeserved. If the reflex to over-apologize was a means to the end of protection, then over time if alternate forms of protection can be established then it can feel safe enough experiment with not apologizing – or being ready to apologize – so much. If you read until the end, I’ll offer a concrete way to do just this: taking a specific action to offer yourself a greater sense of protection so that you get to apologize to people of your choosing ONLY when you mean it.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA specializing in helping scapegoated survivors of narcissistic abuse recover the quality of life they deserve. We do this through therapy and my online course that amount to 3 components: 1) making sense of what happened where you get to know the abuse was not your fault, 2) resolving whatever stands in the way of creating distance from the narcissistic abuser, and 3) working to live in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Today’s blog falls under the component of living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
If you want to learn more about surviving narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat, I encourage you to check out my e-book on my website.
Recently I was talking to a friend who was also a scapegoat in his family. I asked where he stood with a sibling who always seemed to find fault with him. He said something to the effect of: ‘sometimes you just have to question how it can be possible that I always in the wrong? Like statistically- speaking’.
This exchange really got me thinking about the falseness of the scapegoat always having to be the one to apologize for a supposed fault in systems of narcissistic abuse. First, the act of always being found wrong reflects a psychological requirement of the narcissist. Finding the flaws to ‘always’ exist in the scapegoat is necessary for the narcissist feel safe from their own awareness of their perceived flaws. If the scapegoat is not always wrong then maybe they aren’t suitable for offloading the narc’s own worthlessness and that could make it boomerang back on the narcissist with feels intolerable to them. This can result in the scapegoat feeling a pressure to be and stay wrong so that the narcissist does not have to taste their own worthlessness can be felt.
Importantly, through all of this, there is no third party witnessing how the narcissistic abuser is treating the scapegoated survivor and intervening to protect the scapegoat. The scapegoat is being treated this way against the backdrop of being completely alone in this mess. That is a very important factor to keep in mind when understanding how the apology reflex can develop.
It’s Like having to keep a secret – at one’s own expense.
An elaborate set of guilt and shame-based rules can get set up in the scapegoat to inhibit them from questioning their ‘wrongness’.
How does apologizing protect the scapegoat?
Once the narcissistic parent has found the child as their receptacle for their own worthlessness, and that child has no one else offering them protection, then the child learns that being wrong is a condition for feeling connected. Being wrong is what happens when they try to engage with others and/or the world. It’s a matter of when not if they anger or disappoint someone else – feel deserving of that reaction – and must offer an apology. The apology often results in a diminishment in the intensity of the attack and felt shame, guilt, and self-loathing that the scapegoat is often left with.
The narcissistic parent needs to feel ‘right’ first and foremost. Being right for the narcissist gives them a boost in their very fragile sense of self-worth – albeit temporary. When there’s not another parent willing to stand up for the target of the narcissistic parent’s abuse then it’s in the target’s interest to expedite the process of the narcissistic parent feeling right. What better way to do this than to offer an apology for whatever complaint the narcissistic parent has?
One of the most dangerous scenarios for the scapegoat is when s/he takes some type of action and the narcissistic abuser uses that action as what has rightfully caused their anger and contempt. That the scapegoat’s action was disrespectful, hurtful, or deceptive. This is dangerous for the scapegoat because something that emanated from their Self is being held up as the reason for the narcissistic abuser’s vicious attack. This can feel very threatening to the scapegoat’s core self. It can feel like the core self may not survive. Having an apology at the ready can feel like a much needed ‘take-back’ where the scapegoat can rebuke themselves for taking whatever the action was and often reduce the intensity of the narc’s attack
When the narcissistic abuser tells you that you don’t really mean your apology…
Scapegoat survivors of narcissistic abuse are often very familiar with being told that they don’t ‘really mean’ their apology to the narcissist. When this happens, the narcissist may go on to further denigrate the scapegoat for being deceptive along with whatever the initial “offense” was. This is a terrible position to be in for the scapegoat b/c now the apology is no longer working – it has somehow made the narcissist more angry and therefore dangerous. When this happens then all that is left is for the scapegoat to just get to the other side of the attack. Endure all the venom and hope that they are not psychologically destroyed by it. Check out my video on how survival is the only thing to do in the course of narcissistic abuse.
I’d like to offer some explanation as to why you may have felt vulnerable to these accusations…that the recipient of the apology might detect that you didn’t really mean it. All of this is a ruse – a product of the narcissist’s fictional attempt to deny his/her own feelings of worthlessness, so whatever comes from it or out of it will wreak of inauthenticity at one level or another.
There’s truth in this claim that you don’t really mean it. It’s not that the scapegoat is trying to be deceptive but rather that the Narc’s entire blaming of the scapegoat is the primary act of deceit. It’s a deceit of reality and a deceit of the narcissist’s own self-experience. The narcissist is telling himself a lie and forcing others to go along with it – via his privileged position in the relationship – so that he can believe the lie a bit more.
So when the scapegoat feels ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’ for not feeling ‘more sorry’ for how s/he supposedly hurt or disrespected the narcissistic parent or partner – take comfort in knowing that you don’t really feel sorry because there is nothing to really be sorry for.
Finding compassion for yourself in all of this.
If you had to repurpose the act of apologizing from a way to sincerely take accountability for your part in a rupture of a relationship to using it for protection from a narcissistic abuser, then one reaction you might have towards yourself is to be judgmental for doing this. Many will say, “Why did I ‘let’ them treat me this way?”, “Why wasn’t I stronger?”, “Why didn’t I just pull their card and tell them what I really thought?”…all understandable reactions. But as your recovery continues, you can challenge such self-criticisms by taking full inventory of who exactly else was there to offer you protection? What most likely would have happened if you fought or fled the narcissist? As the answers to these questions are considered, a relaxing inside may occur where you feel less upset with yourself for how you survived and more appreciative that you did survive.
When the apologize to survive tactic shows up in daily life
If you find yourself reflexively apologizing or preparing to apologize in a lot of relationships in your life that can signal that your system may still not feel protected from the kinds of attacks it had to survive during the narcissistic abuse. Protection in the case comes in two forms: 1) the absence of attacks and 2) the presence of safe people and relationships who offer different experience in closeness to another person.
So, if you find yourself ready to apologize more than seems warranted this can signal that either more psychological, emotional or physical distance is needed from your narcissistic abuser and/or that more time with the established distance is needed. The reflex to apologize for safety will rescind over time spent in safe distance from the narcissistic abuser. Secondly, and equally important is finding and cultivating relationships with safe people. The presence of safety in such relationships naturally affords a sense of protection that can diminish the pull to apologize. After all, in safe relationships the other person genuinely cares about what you think and feel rather than needing you to think and feel a certain way so that they feel better – a la a narcissist. If you haven’t seen it already my video on finding safe people covers how to do this. See it here. Also my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse goes into great depth on this component to recovery. You can check that out here.
Well, I hope today’s blog post helps to understand and offer yourself compassion if you had to learn to apologize for protection. If you haven’t already, you might check out my free webinar on 7 self-care tools to help recover from narcissistic abuse. I offer some tactics similar to today’s post that help you prioritize yourself and pay caring attention to your own quality of life.
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.
Can I have info if you have it with regards to spouses. My friends partner I think is manipulative