I think there’s a lesson in how the most basic unit of life – the atom – is structured and how our inner experience is meant to be structured. Here’s what an atom looks like:
You have the center or nucleus of the atom that has these sub-atomic particles called protons and neutrons that carry a positive charge. Then you have these orbiting electrons that serve to create stability in the atom and carry a negative charge. The center can’t function without its satellite electrons.
Similarly, the growing child has a self that might be thought of as the atom’s nucleus but she needs others – particularly her parents – who can surround, encourage, respond to, and be available to her in order to offer the needed balance to the child’s nuclear self.
Just like electrons serve the atomic nucleus. So each unique organism in life starts with their self in the center of their existence then depends on and needs others to recognize and nourish that center. In good enough situations, these others recognize the child’s needs as legitimate, worthy of respect, and expected and willingly seek to meet them for the child.
Something else, as you might imagine, happens for scapegoat survivors of narcissistic abuse. In today’s post I’m going to use the metaphor of the atom to describe how a scapegoat is forced to orbit the narcissistic parent instead of the parent to orbiting the child so that a strong self structure can flourish.
Next, I’ll explain how the child is deprived of what she deserves– that someone else will make themselves available to her so that her nucleus has what it needs to thrive. And watch until the end because I will offer a strategy to recover your sense of entitlement to being the nucleus in your own life while expecting others to serve as electrons. This doesn’t mean devolving into a state of selfishness. On the contrary it’s actually how real person-to-person connection happens. I’ll explain why.
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 blog post falls under the category of ‘Living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules’.
If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. Along with today’s post, this e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems. You can find the link to the book here.
How the scapegoat is forced to be an electron to the narcissist’s nucleus
I really like this metaphor because it so clearly articulates what goes wrong for the scapegoat child of the narcissistic parent if the child tries to assume his or her rightful place in the center of their own life. The narcissistic parent, in essence, refuses to be the electron to his or her children. Leaving the child in this position:
As you can see it’s better to the electron to someone else’s nucleus than to be a nucleus with no electrons around. In this diagram there’s just the child and no one or no thing else. An unbearable state of loneliness that must be avoided at all costs.
Here’s why the narcissistic parent refuses to be the electron to the child’s nucleus.
That parent starts with a core sense of worthlessness that is intolerable parent and must be relocated into someone else over whom that person has authority. Much like a hot potato. Enter the child as a near perfect receptacle for the parent’s cast off feelings of worthlessness. This is the only way the narcissistic parent will grant a shared reality with this child – where the child believes him or herself to be worthless. When the child is forced to adopt the parent’s malevolent view of him or her there’s an implicit way in which that child is forced into an orbit of the narcissistic parent and does not get to live in the center of their own experience. But again, this relegation to being the electron to the narcissistic parent’s nucleus is far better than being a nucleus with no electrons.
What does it feel like to have to be in orbit of the narcissistic parent?
The child has is dislodged from their own nucleus in a traumatic way. In essence, they learn that to be at the center of themselves and expect the narcissistic parent to be supportive electrons to them results in intense and intolerable feelings of abandonment, shame, emptiness, despair, hopelessness and rage. In order not to drown in these feelings the only psychological life preserver available is grabbed – being the electron to the narcissistic parent. This affords an identity and a bond that is bad for the child but better than having no one and being no one to nobody.
However, once the child enters the orbit of the narcissistic parent then life feels like it gets lived from the outside in rather than from the inside out. The child is forced to substitute the narcissistic parent’s feelings, needs, and preferences for his own. A muting of the significance of the child’s own inner life often occurs so that he is not reminded of the agonizing state of being at the center of his own experience.
Despite how much erasure of the child’s inner nucleus occurs, there is often a preserved hope that the child can eventually find suitable electrons so that he might resume life from the center of himself.
What does recovery from being in the orbit of a narcissistic parent look like?
Here’s where safe friends, partners and therapist can serve vital roles in being the kind of supportive electrons to the scapegoat survivor’s nuclear self that were not available earlier in the survivor’s life. The task for recovery is to re-occupy the center of one’s experience which is the seat of the trauma faced earlier in life. In a lot of ways it is like recovering from PTSD symptoms after surviving a car crash.
There may be intense flashbacks, overwhelming affect, tension, etc. when the survivor goes to drive her car again. However, with repeated exposure to driving the car, these symptoms will subside. Similarly, for recovery from scapegoated narcissistic abuse, repeated occupance of one’s nuclear self while in the ongoing company of safe friends, partners and therapists gradually allows the post-traumatic flashbacks to subside and resumption of living life from the inside out. That’s not to say that some discomfort with being at the center of oneself may still occur and even dominate on occasion. But on the whole, it is possible to feel more at the center of one’s own experience while expecting others to serve as electrons to the self.
Sometimes survivors fear that doing this will result in them being completely selfish but this is a different model of connection than what was known with the narcissist. Here, the idea is to take turns being in one’s own nucleus and offering oneself up – voluntarily – to serve as an electron to someone else out of genuine care for that person – not from feeling coerced to do so. This is something called inter-dependency that affords both people to feel authentically connected to themselves and to the other person. In short, there’s an “I” and there’s “You” and there’s a real “We”.
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.