Have you felt like you do not stand up for your core principles?
Is it difficult to feel like you deserve to be proud of yourself?
Do you somehow feel dishonorable yet find it hard to know why?
All children must convince themselves they have a parent who loves them. In the case of a good enough family this is not hard to do. The parent provides the child with daily evidence that they have a loving parent. Such children do not have to distort themselves to feel cared for. In contrast, the scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent must attach to someone who rejects them. The child has to make sense of this rejection to make it seem okay. They can do this by adopting the belief that they are bad, defective and/or undeserving. Now the narcissistic parent’s treatment of them feels justified. The scapegoat child can still see this parent as a viable caregiver.
Importantly the scapegoat child has no choice in this matter. Survival dictates the child believe in their parent. So whatever the child does to maintain this belief is something they are forced to do.
The scapegoat survivor may feel corrupted by the sacrifices they had to make to feel cared for. To be corrupt is to ‘show a willingness to act dishonestly in return for personal gain’. The concept of corruption requires that the corrupted person has a choice in the Matter. Instead of acting honestly they choose to act dishonestly for personal gain.
Personal gain differs from survival. As organisms we are hard-wired to survive. When something interferes with this mission we do everything possible to surmount it. The scapegoat child may confuse their adaptations to survive for corrupt choices they made.
In today’s blog I show why the scapegoat child was not the corrupt person in the narcissistic family. Next, I discuss what life may feel like for the scapegoat child and survivor who believes they are corrupt. Third, I suggest a process of healing from feeling corrupted to enjoy a much-deserved sense of your own honor and integrity.
The Narcissistic Parent’s Corrupt Ways
The scapegoat child is thrust into the role of villain by the narcissistic parent. The parent treats the child like an enemy. In order for the child to feel like somebody to this parent they must think and act like the enemy. An enemy to the parent, an enemy to other family members and even an enemy to themselves. Being the enemy of the narcissistic parent spares the child the annihilating experience of being nobody to no one.
All of this is a profound act of dishonesty by the narcissistic parent. They are consumed by the fear of their own worthlessness and will do anything to deny it. What they end up doing is projecting their own sense of worthlessness into the scapegoat child. Next they insist the child see and think of themselves as worthless. An effective way to do this is to treat the child like an enemy. With the parent’s dreaded feelings cast out of themselves and embodied in the scapegoat child they feel protected. The narcissistic parent is now more free to believe they are not worth less but worth more than others.
This entire psychological process is dishonest. The narcissistic parent refuses to acknowledge the truth that they are the ones who feel worthless. Instead they lie to themselves about who is worthless. Since they have authority and power over the child they can force them to go along with it. The narcissistic parent gains protection from feeling worthless and a sense of superiority. They show a willingness to act dishonestly for personal gain. The very definition of corrupt.
Paul had a narcissistic father who went out of his way to blame and put Paul down at every turn. He came to therapy in his late twenties because he found himself shying away from success in his life. In the early sessions we grew to understand how hostile Paul had grown towards himself. He readily discredited his attributes or acccomplishments. This hostility towards himself mirrored his father’s towards him as a child. Paul recounted being devalued and humiliated whenever he came to his father’s attention. He had no choice but to view himself the same way if he wanted to share a reality with this man.
One of the painful results of this treatment was Paul’s view of himself as a corrupt man. He recalled a time in eighth grade when he asked himself whether he cared more about liking himself or being liked by his classmates. He knew his answer was that he cared more if his classmates liked him. This inner dialogue led to him concluding that he was willing to act dishonestly by disliking himself for the personal gain of being liked by others. He had to live with the conclusion that he was corrupt.
Paul’s conversation with himself in the eighth grade omitted some important factors. First, his father was acting with dishonesty in his abuse of Paul. His claims that Paul was worthless instead of himself were inherently dishonest. However, Paul was forbidden from knowing this at the time. Second, his father also would have been the one who thought it more important to be liked than to like himself. His whole world was premised on substituting other’s positive views of him for his negative view of himself. Third the question itself reflected the abusive situation he was in with his father. Paul had learned that in his life he could either like himself OR be liked by others. He could not imagine at the time being entitled to both. This was an extrapolation of his relationship to his father. To be liked by this man Paul had to dislike himself. If Paul liked himself then his father would intensely dislike him. So, upon further examination Paul’s claim to his own corruption did not hold up.
The Scapegoat Child’s Adaptations That Get Confused for Corruption
The scapegoat child has to take on the role of enemy to the parent or else. If they do not then they risk something unsurvivable – being nobody to no one. Under this threat everything they do is based on their survival.
The scapegoat child has no choice in this Matter. Choice requires that one will survive if they say yes or no. The child will not survive if they say no to the narcissistic parent’s psychological demands. They are forced to say yes.
In the course of having to say yes or comply with the narcissistic parent’s dishonesty they can feel corrupted. Survival requires that they think, feel and act like they are worthless while staying close to the narcissistic parent. The parent needs the scapegoat child close to feel expunged of their own worthlessness.
The scapegoat child may conclude that they are choosing to stay close to someone who rejects them. In order to make this supposed choice the child has be dishonest about how hurt they feel. They have to excuse the parent’s cruelty towards them as justified and keep seeking the parent’s favor. The child may misattribute their behavior to a lack of integrity. That they are willing to betray themselves in order to be liked. That they have sold themselves out for the gain of acceptance from someone else.
The scapegoat child can end up feeling like the corrupt one by concluding they are making the choice to be dishonest about how unfairly treated they feel for the ‘gain’ of being accepted by the same person who is mistreating them. This misbegotten notion of their own corruption can lead many scapegoat survivors to wish they had ‘stood up for themselves’ or not ‘let their parent get away with treating them this way’. These sentiments are understandable efforts to correct the feeling that they are corrupted.
Someone who is truly corrupt is not bothered by this fact. A narcissistic parent who is confronted by a scapegoat survivor will often not see themselves as having done anything wrong. To them, being dishonest is nothing to be ashamed of. They have other priorities. Like not seeing themselves as worthless.
Interestingly, scapegoat survivors are extremely upset by feeling corrupt. They want to live in an emotionally honest world. The accusation that they have lived dishonestly for personal gain is deeply troubling. The good news for survivors is this accusation has never been true even if it has felt true.
To exonerate themselves from feeling corrupt the scapegoat survivor must recognize how they never had a choice in all of this. They had to manage the biological necessity of being someone to their parent with that parent’s requirement that they act dishonestly. Since biology dictates that we do whatever it takes to survive as children, they had no other choice. I have yet to find an account of a young child who “chose” to be on their own instead of seek connection with an abusive parent. Yet many survivors see themselves as corrupt for not having done this.
If the scapegoat survivor accepts the fact that they did not have a choice in being dishonest about their pain then it makes no sense to call themselves corrupt. Being corrupt requires a “willingness” to be dishonest. This presumes the presence of free will for the corrupt person. The child was not free to exercise their will.
The only person who should stand accused of corruption is the narcissistic parent. As an adult they fundamentally had more options than the child. They may have feared taking accountability for their own sense of worthlessness but they were still responsible. Objectively stated, they could survive such an ordeal. Instead the argument can be made that they chose to act dishonestly and at the child’s expense for personal gain. The point of this is not to play the blame game but to put the corruption where it belongs.
A Strategy to Shed the Familiar but Inaccurate Sense of Being Corrupted
A wise colleague once told me that just because something is familiar and uncomfortable does not make it true. She then said that just because something is unfamiliar and comfortable does not make it untrue. The rapper DMX put it another way: “Forget what you heard, it’s what you’re hearing…”. This wisdom applies to the process of healing from narcissistic abuse time and again.
In order to accept the unfamiliar fact that you did not have a choice in how you adapted to survive your narcissistic parent’s abuse you need distance from narcissistic people in your life. Psychological, emotional, and perhaps physical distance is needed to know it is safe to reconsider your longheld assumptions. If current relationships are dictated by the same abusive terms as before then it will not feel safe to see the other as corrupt instead of yourself.
One must also participate in safe ongoing relationships. A scapegoat survivor may initially find it hard to make use of such resources. Being close to someone has meant taking all the blame for so long that feeling safe seems impossible. Despite this, one can and does feel incrementally safer when such relationships last.
You might consider talking to a safe person in your life about any feelings of corruption you have. A safe person will treat your disclosure as a privilege. They will give it the respect you deserve. By talking through how you may have mistook yourself to be corrupt rather than your narcissistic parent, you have a different experience. You find evidence that it is now safe to know and tell the truth without loss of a needed relationship.
There is an important difference between reading or watching information on one’s own versus having new experience in relationships. The painful beliefs that you are corrupt, defective and/or undeserving were come by in an important relationship. In order to disconfirm these beliefs new experience has to happen in an important – and safe – relationship. We are wired this way. It is difficult if not impossible to trust that these beliefs are safe to relinquish in the privacy of one’s own mind. As daunting as getting close to someone may feel, it is ultimately what will be healing.
Paul worked in therapy over several years. We noted that the idea that he had integrity seemed dishonest to him. He had so much practice in thinking of himself as weak-willed that such a notion seemed impossible. Paul worked in several ways to test whether his therapist needed him to be dishonest to like him.
First, his therapist tended to be a few minutes late to session. This roiled Paul inside. He would feel disrespected and fearful of confronting his therapist about this. He assumed his therapist would turn it on him and ask him why he was so sensitive to such a “small” mistake. Maybe he expected perfection from others and they should work on that. These possibilities felt nauseating to Paul. Aside from being late his therapist helped Paul feel understood, seemed to be on Paul’s side, and was consistently kind to him. After a few months, Paul decided it was time to share his feelings about his therapist’s lateness.
When his therapist came to the session 3 minutes late, Paul said, “I don’t like it when you’re late.” He felt a ton of tension and anxiety in this moment.
His therapist nodded and said, “Yeah? Tell me…I want to hear more.”
Paul replied, “Well, when you’re late it feels like you think your time is more valuable than mine. I feel disrespected and I don’t like it.”
T: “I bet you don’t. I have been late. A lot. You are right. And you are rightfully angry about it.”
M: “Yeah. But I’m also a little scared to be telling you this. Like worried I’ll hurt your feelings or will anger you into attacking me.”
T: “That makes a lot of sense too. It sounds like you expect me to take no accountability for how I have failed your reasonable expectations. That I’ll either wither from your supposed “attack” or retaliate. In either case, I won’t care about the truth that you’re expressing: that I am and have been late a lot. It may be hard to imagine that I would care about honesty even when doing so means I have come up short.
M: “Yeah, it sure is. That was never a possibility growing up. Nobody besides me ever took responsibility for their shortcomings. It seemed like I was the only one who had them.”
This exchange and others like it helped Paul gain experience in this safe relationship that honesty and closeness could now co-exist. Over time, Paul could appreciate how false his feelings of being corrupt were. He could see clearly how the corruption started with his father’s dishonesty.
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.