A very wise client – Mario* – identified his goal in therapy in our first session to “not care so much what other people think”. He survived a childhood with a narcissistic father who sadistically enjoyed making Mario suffer. Mario lamented how he found himself feeling preoccupied with what other people might think negatively about him. He would find himself racked with anxiety to the point of paralysis when trying to write an email to a professional colleague. Mario’s heightened anxiety initially felt like a character flaw to him. “Why am I so dependent on others’ approval?” he would exclaim.
In this blog, I want to describe how child victims of narcissistic abuse along with lack of protection from the enabler parent can shift all of their attention outside of themselves as a survival tactic. In these scenarios children face a danger that never goes away in their childhood home. Mom or Dad is abusive while neglecting the child’s needs. The enabler parent makes themselves unavailable to the child via withdrawal or participating in the abuse of the child.
The kid is profoundly – and seemingly permanently – alone in a living nightmare.
The curse of going unprotected by the bystanders of the narcissistic parent’s abuse can be feeling disconnected. Victims of abuse and underprotection understandably conclude that they are all alone in the world and singularly deserving of their family’s abuse. They have been forced to seek protection and felt security from people inclined to make them suffer. In order to remain willing to seek out such scary parents, they must sequester the parts of themselves that want to run away and hide or fight back. Part of this Faustian bargain is to lose a sense of kindredness to the human condition. Such children often feel like they are unique and ‘just plain different’ from everyone else. That is certainly how their families treat them and this gets transferred onto how they assume the rest of the world understands them.
So, the child is in a heightened state of fear at the when – not if – quality of his narcissistic parent’s abuse. He experiences helplessness at being able to protect himself because the ‘other’ parent does not have his back. When overwhelming stress is guaranteed but surviving it is not – all organisms face an existential crisis. Is it worth continuing to live when life feels so torturous? Some children have the inner resiliency to fight on in spite of such no-immediate-win circumstances.
One way to fight on in the face of chronic abuse and underprotection is to leave oneself.
This means shifting all of one’s attention to the people and things around oneself – and prohibiting attention to oneself. Such children are often attacked based on ‘who they are’ to the narcissistic parent – not ‘what they did or did not do’. It is often the children who have innate good qualities that draw the envy-based hatred of the narcissistic parent. A child in this case can conclude that being connected to who he is only puts him closer to the annihilating agony of being hated by the person who’s supposed to love and protect him the most. Words cannot convey how toxic and – for a child – unsurvivable such parental hatred can feel. The child must go on without feeling it or perish.
The case of Kevin: How a scapegoated child learned to leave himself
Kevin* was a client who faced the the circumstances described in this post. His mother was narcissistic with a bent towards sadism and his father lacked empathy for his children while seeking only to please his wife. His younger sister was indoctrinated into the system of targeting him as the ‘problem child’. For as long as he could remember being awake meant being in danger. In Kevin’s case, there was a moralistic quality to the incessant criticism and abuse. He would be screamed at to get his elbows off the table when eating a meal, to stop picking his nose as a 4 year-old, to not eat so fast, to pick up his toys, etc. All of these “excuses” for showing scorn and contempt at him seemed justified. As if all the yelling and derision would stop if he simply did all the things he was being told to do. This led him to conclude that he made his family unhappy and that he deserve their hatred.
Early in Kevin’s life, this experience brought panic and a fear of not being able to go on psychologically and emotionally. At the same time he continued to live with his tormentor and her minions where he had to act like things were normal. He remember bracing himself in 1st grade as his mother came in to tuck him into bed. He had to act like she was a good mother and that he appreciated her. After she would leave his room, Kevin would be left with terrifying knowledge of how alone and trapped he felt. To escape these feelings and be able to keep going, he would stare intently at a stack of board games in his closet that was left open. There was a way that one of the rectangular boxes seemed to magically turn into the adjacent game. It was a kind of optical illusion that allowed him to wonder about it instead of himself. He would focus entirely on these board games and feel a numbness come over him. That numbness was so welcome because it gave him his first taste of relief from the constant state of feeling threatened.
From that moment onward, Kevin would focus on others and his environment as much as possible. This tactic served two purposes: 1) it afforded him relief from knowing how much danger he was in, and 2) it kept him focused on his mother’s mood fluctuations so that he might anticipate and reduce the damage of her eventual rage when she spewed it at him. There’s a tragedy in this kind of solution for a child because he loses the one character who could offer him a real escape – himself. By focusing solely on the danger of his mother and family members, he lost knowledge of who he actually was, how undeserving he was of their contempt, and what he could do to defend himself. Instead his goal when her rage kicked in was to return her to a state of neutrality towards him.
This is the crux of how parental abuse can be so damaging to a child. When getting mistreated, Kevin’s goal was to get his mother to like him again, rather than fight or flee her abuse. When this feels like the only tactic available a child feels like he’s trapped with a tiger. The notion of a future becomes impossible because it just means more misery. Clear-eyed assessments of one’s past are also too horrifying to make. All that’s left is now – this moment – and getting through it. It is essential for the child in this predicament to narrow his attention to the present. Otherwise, he risks collapsing from the despair of knowing what has been done to him by his abusive family and what they likely have in store for him.
The Narcissist seeks to poison the child’s self-regard
When a child is thrust into the companion-less world of being the family’s target and learns to leave himself, he may work to deny his own existence to himself. Such children and later adults are often fantastically attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others. As described above, the advantage of leaving oneself puts one in the catbird seat to notice, predict, and respond to how others could act. Subjectively, this can feel like being an orbiting satellite of one’s own self. Rather than inhabiting the center of one’s gravity – like say, the earth does as a planet – the person can feel like the moon rotating around some entity that they are unfamiliar with and have had to shun to survive. That entity is themselves. The act of shunning oneself feels like the desecration of something sacred. Yet, by feeling like you are on the outside looking in on that sacred entity – your self – you are spared feeling the pain of what this survival tactic is doing to your sense of integrity with yourself.
Kevin recalled a particular moment when this connection got disrupted. At eight years old, Kevin was very strong for his age and loved sports that involved physical contact. One day after school he played in a backyard football game with some older boys in the neighborhood. He recalled making a lot of tackles and being able to run through their attempts to tackle him. Kevin was met with respect and admiration from these older boys. This experience was an accurate reflection of who Kevin actually was – yet the feelings of personal power, strength, and appropriate aggression were also threatening for him. How could these older boys think so highly of him when his family thinks he is so bad? Kevin remembered coming home, looking in the mirror and suddenly having the perception that he was fat. He recalled feeling panicked that he has been fat all this time and nobody has told him. It no longer made sense to him that the older boys were so impressed by his play in the football game. He was grotesquely fat so what did that matter?
Kevin carried this (mis) perception that he was fat through the rest of his adolescence and early adulthood. In therapy we understood it as a Trojan Horse designed to put him at odds with himself. He felt disgust when he perceived himself – effectively moving himself from his center into the orbitting satellite around himself. Kevin regarded himself the way his mother wanted him to – as putrid and disgusting.
It is important to note that he did not see himself the way his mother saw him. Rather he saw himself the way his mother wanted him to see himself. Her objective was to disrupt his connection to himself – as the good person he was. Kevin had no way to articulate – let alone know – that this profound contempt for his physical appearance did not really come from him. It was only in therapy that he grew to feel safe enough to question this perception and recover his sense of himself as physically strong and powerful.
Restoring the connection to oneself after Narcissistic Abuse
Kevin and others like him have had to nearly sever their connection to themselves. Every person with a history like Kevin’s who comes to therapy has managed to salvage themselves enough to work towards restoring their connection within. Like prisoners of war, they have gone to great lengths to seem to be what their tormentors wanted – broken spirits – yet found a way to remain unbroken. Kevin initially felt a sense of hypervigilance at his own self. Any thought that implied he was a good man aroused severe anxiety. Similar to how someone might develop a phobic level of anxiety – say around heights, snakes, or confined spaces – Kevin developed a phobia of himself.
Therapy worked to incrementally reflect Kevin’s actual traits as a physically and emotionally strong , smart, kind, funny, protective and courageous man. Over the course of several years, he not only needed these traits to be identified and acknowledged in and outside of therapy. He needed to know that possessing himself would not arouse contempt from people he trusted. His therapist worked hard to challenge his negative thoughts about himself as emanating from outside of him – rather than being things he thought about himself. This kind of therapeutic work allowed Kevin to gradually expose himself to himself so that the phobic anxiety could be felt, tolerated, and over time extinguished. Kevin eventually found it safe to claim himself and live a life where he felt deserving of love, connection, protection and respect from himself and people he let in.
*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.
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.