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No Redemption Necessary: How Scapegoat Survivors Stop Fixing Themselves

how scapegoat survivors stop fixing themselves

Have you been focused on a flaw in yourself, your appearance, your abilities for most of your life?

Do you organize life in a way to fix these flaws in yourself?

Do you feel like the only one in the world with these ‘flaws’?

Scapegoat survivors may cope with their narcissistic parent’s contempt by believing they are broken. Once they find a specific way they are broken then they can set about trying to fix themselves. This can result in obsessively thinking about their supposed flaws and what to do about it. The scapegoat child is tormented but spared the loss of their narcissistic parent’s willingness to care for them.

In today’s post, I explain why the scapegoat child feels in need of redemption. The ‘flaws’ they are seeking to fix are not really their own. Rather they have had to identify with what their narcissistic parent disavows – the parent’s core sense of worthlessness. The child who is broken but fixable has hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. Last I discuss how survivors can find it safe enough to surrender the pursuit of redemption. A key part to this is accepting themselves as they are and being in relationship to people who do the same.

The Illusion That the Scapegoat Child Needs Redemption

Scapegoat survivors are often familiar with being deeply dissatisfied in themselves. This dissatisfaction usually takes a form. Like hating an aspect of one’s physical appearance. Or seeing oneself as psychologically inadequate (e.g. ‘I’m too selfish’, ‘I make people angry’, ‘I don’t have good opinions’). Or seeing themselves as incapable of doing well in areas important to them. It can be a matter of when not if the scapegoat individual finds their fatal flaw(s).

There is usually a real stickiness to these perceived flaws. The scapegoat child may see evidence to the contrary yet remain convinced they are broken. For example, one scapegoat survivor saw herself as disgustingly overweight since she was eight years old. One day her basketball coach said that she was in good shape for someone her age. The girl felt some relief when the coach said this but could not help but see herself as obese the next time she looked in the mirror.

Whatever form it takes, this process yields a feeling of being uniquely unacceptable. The scapegoat survivor feels like there is something wrong with them and only them. They likely do not scrutinize others in the same way. Their inner worlds can be dominated by worries about these supposed flaws and perpetually making plans for how to fix these flaws.

John was in therapy in his mid-twenties. He had always felt like there was something wrong with him. Although he got along well in social situations his inner monologue was tormenting: “Why did you say that?!”, or “That was so dumb of you!” . The same would happen in hobbies that he was good at. When he played chess on the team in his high school he would tell himself that every move was ‘dumb’. Usually right up until the point he would win the match. John recalls scheduling out his time each day after school where he would work on his ‘defects’. 3-5pm would be spent practicing chess. 5-6pm was dinner. 6-10pm was homework. Spontaneous interactions with friends or enjoying ‘down time’ was a luxury he did not feel he deserved. Working towards his redemption had to take priority.

John was unable to think of himself in ways other than being in need of redemption. The notion of him being just fine as he is felt foreign, unconvincing, and disorienting. What would he do with himself if he was not working towards a better version of himself? A conversation with a friend underscored this.

It was the summer going into John’s junior year in high school. He had spent the day with his friend, Jamie and some of Jamie’s friends. They had no agenda and were just hanging around talking. John enjoyed the time but felt like he was falling behind. As they took a walk around their hometown, John told Jamie that he had to go home and get ready for chess practice later that evening. Jamie said, “Man, you’re really dedicated. I don’t think I could commit to something if it took away from my time to relax during the summer.” John said, “Well, I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t have something to work towards.”

John thought about this conversation later. How was Jamie so content to just hang out all the time? How did he not feel like he was falling behind? How did his parents let him enjoy himself like that?

The Functions of the Scapegoat Child’s Pursuit of Redemption

The scapegoat child has to see themselves in need of redemption so that their narcissistic parent does not have to. A narcissistic parent has an intolerable core sense of worthlessness. To cope, they insist on the opposite: that they are worth more than others. In order to convince themselves of this, they need to relocate that worthlessness. A child put into the role of scapegoat has to embody the worthlessness the narcissistic parent refuses to acknowledge. By “finding” this dreaded quality in their child the narcissistic parent feels less threatened. They then act in ways to get the scapegoat child to think of themselves as worthless.

The scapegoat child is in a no-win situation. In order to be who their parent will recognize them as they have to be the worthless one. If they do not, then the child risks being nobody to no one. That is always worse than being a bad somebody to someone.

Believing they are in need of redemption is one way the scapegoat child stays somebody to their parent. Now the child is somebody who the narcissistic parent will relate to.

The child also becomes important to the parent in a very exploitative way. The parent needs the child to embody the parent’s cast-off worthlessness. The child is now an essential part of how the parent maintains their pathologically inflated self-worth. Without the child in the role of scapegoat the parent does not have someone to point to as the worthless one. This puts the parent at risk of coming into contact with their own worthlessness. So the parent both reviles and needs the scapegoat child.

Finally, there is an adaptive quality in the scapegoat child’s pursuit of redemption. The child now has reason for hope. If they can just fix their “defects” then they can like who they are. The child can summon vast amounts of energy towards the project of fixing themselves. This hope and energy may be founded on a false premise. But the child is in an otherwise hopeless situation. They are not offered love but devaluation and must figure out a way to keep going. Seeing themselves in need of redemption provides a reason to keep going while being who they have to be to their narcissistic parent.

John’s father was narcissistic. He would blame John for anything and everything. In therapy, John recounted feeling like an outsider in his own family for as long as he could remember. When they sat down for dinner his father left his mother and younger sister alone. He would incessantly pick on John’s table manners. “Stop chewing with your mouth open.” “Get your elbows off the table.” “You’re eating too fast.” And if he caught John committing these “offenses” a second time he would exclaim, “I asked you not to do that and you went right ahead and did it again! Go to your room until you can eat like a normal person and join the family.” He would then go back to regaling John’s mother and sister about his day. This was a near nightly occurrence during John’s childhood and adolescence.

John recalled feeling like his father always saw something wrong with him. The first “defect” John found in himself were his freckles. He remembered looking at himself in the mirror when he was eight and seeing his freckles as hideous. He shuddered at how other people must see him. From then on, he would be preoccupied in his mind about his freckles and whether he would be rejected for them. He grew his hair long and would wear baseball hats to hide his supposed defect. He pined for the day when he could get his freckles removed somehow and redeem himself in his own eyes.

John’s worry about his freckles left him in a state of dejection. He got little joy out of friendships. He would tell himself that his friends must not have any other option if they are friends with him. In adolescence, he was very reticent to approach girls for fear of their rejection due to his freckles.

In therapy, John and his therapist concluded that his perception of his freckles reflected the situation he was in with his father. John’s sense of himself as defective and in need of redemption from having freckles left him feeling worthless. His father may have felt propped up by John’s evident low self-worth. John’s painful feelings about himself also made his father’s attacks seem reasonable. Of course he deserved to be humiliated at the dinner table. Nobody would want him the way he was – including himself.

John recalled an inner dialogue he had with himself in high school. He wondered if he found that everyone else accepted him with his freckles if that would fix everything. He knew at a deep level that it would not because he could not – and did not want to, it seemed – accept himself if had freckles. So others’ acceptance would feel inauthentic – he concluded. In therapy he grew to understand how this conclusion reflected how necessary it was for him to see himself as defective. The consequences at home for not occupying the role of scapegoat would be too dire otherwise.

Surrendering the Need for Redemption

Scapegoat survivors of narcissistic parents can find it safe to question their need for redemption. But the approach is not to just challenge the need directly. Rather, the survivor can build themselves up in their life. From this safe and empowered position they can effectively surrender the need for redemption.

The three pillars of recovery offer a map for scapegoat survivors to build themselves up in this way. 

Pillar #1 or making sense of what happened arms them with knowledge of how their parent’s narcissism forced them to feel in need of redemption.

Pillar #2 or gaining distance from narcissistic abusers today removes the pressure to see oneself as needing redemption.

And Pillar #3 or living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules can guide the survivor to live in ways presume their acceptability.

If you want to learn more about the Pillars of Recovery then I encourage you to check out my book on Amazon called “Growing up as the Scapegoat to Narcissistic Parents: A Guide to Healing“. In it I describe each pillar in depth and explain how they can applied in your own life.

Let’s take a look at how John applied these pillars in his course of recovery.

Pillar #1 – Making Sense of What Happened

John was in therapy for about five years and by the end he no longer organized his life around fixing what was wrong with him. At the start of treatment his therapist openly expressed his understanding of his father’s narcissism. This offered John a lens to see his father’s attitude towards him as a reflection of his father not John. John’s constant sense as a child that he could never do or be anything right began to feel less factual. He and his therapist found new ways to understand why he felt so defective for so long. All the while, John was experiencing a good-enough relationship with his therapist where he felt accepted, valued, and interesting.

Pillar #2 – Gaining Distance From Narcissistic Abusers

When John started therapy he was in a relationship with a woman who seemed minimally invested in their relationship. She would let his text messages go unanswered for days at a time. John would never know if or when he would see her. And when he would express his dissatisfaction with this kind of treatment she would accuse him of being too sensitive.

His therapist would attune to John’s feelings of hurt in the relationship and affirm John’s anger at being treated this way. Over time, John and his therapist understood how his relationship reflected his belief that he was in need of redemption. If he did not deserve to be loved as he is then his girlfriend was correct to show little interest in him. He unconsciously determined that he might redeem himself by convincing her to show him the care and love he wanted from her. However this never came so he was left in a perpetual state of feeling unfulfilled and embarassed for needing more than she was providing.

After two years in treatment, John decided he had enough of this treatment and ended the relationship. He said in therapy, “I always thought that I had to change myself to become somebody she could love. Now I don’t feel that way so much. I look at others’ abilities to make me feel loved or not as a reflection of them. I really want to find a partner who has this quality in the future.”

Pillar #3 – Living in Defiance of the Narcissist’s Rules

John’s preoccupation with his freckles gradually subsided over the course of therapy. He grew more aware of his assets as a person. He was intelligent and good at solving problems at his work. He enjoyed helping others and would volunteer in various ways in his community. He saw himself as deserving of his own care and upkeep. He would fix things around his home that needed fixing. In all of these ways, John was exchanging the old view of himself as needing redemption. He was acting in ways that reflected his deservedness as the person he already was.

One thing that facilitated John’s appreciation and care for himself was seeing how his therapist was not threatened by such changes in him. Unlike his father, his therapist did not need John to be in a state of disrepair to relate to him. John found his therapist to be genuinely happy for him and interested when he reported such changes in his life. John found it safer to be and like who he already was because important relationships no longer hinged on him disliking himself.

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.

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