Scapegoating is a common behavior among narcissistic abusers. They will single out one person in their life and blame them for all of their problems. This can be an ex-partner, a family member, or even a co-worker. The narcissistic abuser will often try to gaslight their victim and make them question their reality.
Someone recently articulated this question in the private facebook group that accompanies my online course on recovering from narcissistic abuse. A scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent was trying to protect themselves from this parent by maintaining boundaries, and the parent reacted to this person as if they were committing a mortal sin. The narcissistic parent expressed indignation, outrage, and seeming disbelief. Understandably the scapegoat survivor felt confused and slightly doubtful of themselves. They asked themselves questions like
“Is my parent actually good to me and I somehow have failed to see this?”
“Am I being cruel and wrong by thinking of this parent as someone who has hurt me?”
“Can I trust my own perceptions and judgments”
In today’s post I want to explain why a narcissistic parent or partner’s attempts to invalidate your reality can feel so undermining. There are good reasons for this and understanding them can empower you. Next, I want to offer 3 tactics for protecting your ability to believe yourself from a narcissistic abuser.
Well, my name is Jay Reid and I specialize in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & community. We take a 3-pronged approach to recover of 1) Making sense of what happened, 2) Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and 3) living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Today’s post falls under the category of ‘living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules’. If you’re interested, I’ve organized the videos on this channel into these similarly named 3 playlists.
Another aspect to defying the narcissist’s rules for living is taking care of yourself. That’s why I created this free webinar that offers 7 self-care tools to help you in the process of recovering from narcissistic abuse. You can find the link by clicking here.
So, why can it be so hard to believe yourself over the narcissistic abuser?
If you survived narcissistic abuse – particularly in the role of scapegoat – then you may have had to believe you were defective in order to share a reality with the narcissistic parent or partner. This can come in the form of the narcissistic abuser expressing bewilderment at your opinions or ideas to convey the message that your judgment is poor. Later, when you express a feeling, you may be met with recoil or the accusation that you can’t control your emotions. The narcissistic abuser may work to influence other family members and friends to react to and think of you similarly. And perhaps much worse. In the end, the scapegoat survivor, who’s being treated this way often has to assume this pseudo-identity as their own.
It’s not really a choice and here’s why
When such a systematic effort to invalidate, devalue, and undermine your standing is in place, then protest will only result in exasperation and despair. Many survivors have come to the harrowing conclusion that there’s nothing they can say or do or “clear up” to convince the narcissistic abuser of their good intentions. There’s a different kind of calculus being used where the survivor HAS to be found as defective – nothing else can or will be considered.
The narcissistic abuser’s way of coping with their own sense of worthlessness (usually unconscious) is to deny it and relocate those feelings into someone else – often the scapegoat child or partner. Next, that narcissist acts in ways that influence that scapegoat target to adopt these feelings of worthlessness as his or her own. And that’s exactly what I’ve been describing so far. The narcissistic parent or partner’s efforts to undermine your judgment and perceptions serves the psychological function of relocating their own worthlessness into you. That may be one reason why it can feel impossible to “clear up” their distorted view of you. There’s just too much at stake for them.
So, if you’re in a position where the first priority is for someone else to be there, and second comes the hope that that person is not only there but treats you well, then there’s no other choice but to comply with the narcissistic abuser’s claims that you are defective. This position literally applies to children of a narcissistic parent and it can certainly feel this way to a partner of a narcissistic abuser. As it’s often said, our order of preference when it comes to relationships is a good relationship, bad relationship, then no relationship. We have to avoid the third alternative at all costs.
The rub in having to comply with the narcissistic abuser’s claims of your defectiveness is that these claims are not true. So, in order to maintain an attachment – by sharing a reality with – this person, then you must create a sort of false reality within that goes along with the narcissistic abuser’s narrative of who you are and who they are.
There’s a great book about the experience of living in a totalitarian state called ‘1984’ by George Orwell. I had to read this in high school and was blown away by how plainly Orwell described the tricks of mind that had to happen for the followers of a dictator (which for our purposes we might swap out for the term narcissistic abuser just as easily). The main character was a guy named Winston Smith and he started questioning all the loyalty practices he was being forced to participate in. One of those practices was what the dictatorship called DoubleThink. And this is how Winston described it:
“to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself—that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word—doublethink—involved the use of doublethink.”
I think this perfectly describes the process of what the scapegoat has to do to go along with the narcissistic abuser’s claims that his or her judgment is defective. Let’s say there’s a perceptive, kind, generous of spirit child who has a narcissistic parent named Shannon. Shannon’s natural reactions are to care about the feelings of others and seek connection to them. In high school, she hears about a project called Habitat for Humanity where volunteers go to a construction site to help build a house for a family in need. She starts attending and makes friends with some of the other volunteers. Unfortunately, Shannon has a narcissistic mother who experiences Shannon’s genuine enjoyment in connecting to others as a threat to her artificially inflated sense of self-worth. So, when Shannon returns from going to the construction site one Saturday, her mother comes storming into the living room where Shannon sits tired but satisfied with her day’s efforts and camaraderie she got to enjoy with the crew. The mother furiously accuses Shannon of shirking her household chores so she could go off and play ‘do-gooder’ to others. Next she tells Shannon that she knows the ‘real’ Shannon and isn’t fooled by what she’s trying play off to others.
Now, Shannon, has to find a way to believe what her mother is telling her and I think that process of doublethink is exactly what often happens. Shannon knows at some level that her inclination to help others is genuine yet she has to believe the opposite message from her mother that her desire to help others is disingenuine. So, she has to be aware of her impulses to help others then quickly change her opinion on what those impulses mean to something in line with her mother’s claims. She might say something to herself like,
“There I go again, trying to look good to others by helping them.”
In order to stay in some kind of relationship to a narcissistically abusive mother like this, she has to forget that the perception of herself as manipulative started with her mother’s tirade against her. That’s what Winston Smith means when he says doublethink involves: ‘consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.’ In essence, that someone like Shannon has to forget what her mother claimed and see it as her own opinion.
Shannon and people in her position have to deliberately stop believing themselves in order to believe what’s necessary to survive. In recovery, this is why it can make a survivor wonder “Am I making all this up?” when your efforts to set boundaries and create needed distance from a narcissistic abuser are met with incredulousness and attack by the abuser.
So what can you do to recover your right to believe your judgment?
The solution is not to try to win the argument within but to: create distance, stay the course, gather and connect to new people who validate your experience, expect an incremental not an immediate ability to believe yourself.
If you’re working to recover from narcissistic abuse and detox from the practice of doublethink then I think these 3 strategies can be useful:
- The importance of creating distance from the narcissistic abuser. As stated earlier, you may have had to engage in this practice of disbelieving yourself to share a reality with the narcissistic abuser. As a result, having psychological or emotional closeness with this person can run the risk of having to adopt the same practice to be in contact with them. So working to create psychological and emotional distance can be an important step towards detoxifying from the pressures to engage in doublethink that were experienced in relationship to this person.
- Next, if you find yourself wondering if you are making all of this up, it can be helpful to not engage in an internal debate to prove yourself. As in politics, this question kind of frames debate where your judgment is already in question from the get-go. Instead, you might try doing something caring for yourself – like one of the tactics in the webinar I mentioned earlier – or connecting to other who are safe and supportive to you.
- Gather and connect to people who are curious about you and your perceptions or judgment as opposed to seeking to judge whether you’re right or wrong. Where you get to hold authority over your own perspective rather than grant the other person that authority.
Lastly, and very importantly, restoring your belief in your perceptions and judgment is a process rather than an event. I think that when one’s psychological survival depended on suspending belief in your own judgment then the feeling that something terrible will happen if you reclaim becomes something that has to diminish over time. In using these 3 steps, it can certainly change and this process can likely benefit from being compassionate and patient with yourself.
Another resource for understanding how and why it was necessary to not believe yourself is module 2 in my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse. In this course, I cover how the scapegoated child may have to organize information themselves and the narcissistic parent in a way that minimizes the parent’s wrongdoing and maximizes the child’s own sense of being the bad one in the relationship.
Well, thank you for reading and for your continued engagement with us. I hope you find today’s post useful and look forward to posting again next Sunday. Take care.
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.