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Realistic Self-Worth for Scapegoat Survivors of a Narcissistic Parent

realistic self-worth for scapegoat survivors of a narcissistic parent

Is it hard to feel like you deserve the praise you might receive from people?

Do you hold yourself to secret and perfectionistic standards?

Have these standards motivated you yet been impossible to achieve?

The scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent has to share the only reality the parent will allow. In this distorted version of reality the child is to blame for all the family’s problems. They are accorded less status than the rest of the family and deprived of basic privileges. To take part in this reality, the child must determine that they deserve this treatment.

Scapegoat children can hedge against feeling completely devalued. This is part of their psychological resilience. They create secret and perfectionistic ways of feeling good about themselves. These ways are only known to the child. Their secrecy prevents them from being overtly at odds with the family’s reality.

In today’s blog, I explain how a scapegoat child manages to stay a part of the family’s reality and have a way to believe self-worth will be possible. This is an adaptive way to survive an abusive childhood. In adulthood, this secret and perfectionistic basis for self-worth creates problems. I will explain how the scapegoat survivor can use current relationships to know it is safe to have shared and realistic standards. This recalibration of standards can produce a more solid basis for self-worth.

How the Scapegoat Child Creates Secret and Perfectionistic Self-Worth

I have been lucky to work with many scapegoat survivors in therapy. I am struck by their ability to eke out a basis for self-worth amidst the emotional abuse they grew up in. Despite being treated as if they are worthless at home, they might not give up the quest to know how they can have value in this life. Maybe this means noticing what they are drawn to in the world. Or paying attention to how people outside the home react positively to aspects of who they are.

With this information about themselves they may create standards around them. If met, then they can feel deserving of pride. These standards tend to be perfectionistic. They have no well-meaning adult to help them learn reasonable expectations for themselves. As a result their expectations for themselves tend to be unrealistically high.

All around the scapegoat child and this secret chamber of self-worth are the family’s messages that they are worthless. So, the result of not meeting their own standards is feeling confirmed as the worthless person the family claims they are. This can result in a tormenting cycle of pursuing perfection, falling short and feeling worthless.

The Necessity of Secrecy

The narcissistic parent’s trump card is that if the scapegoat child insists on their worth then their parent will not recognize them. Not being recognized psychologically by a parent can make a young child feel like nobody to no one. As such, the child must find a way to be who the parent will see them as. That means embodying the worthlessness that the parent cannot stand in themselves.

The knowledge of the child’s self-worth must remain secret so they stay who the parent needs them to be. If it leaks out, then the narcissistic parent will likely intensify their coercion to get the child to see themselves as worthless. This means acting with more punitive hostility or coldly withdrawing from the child.

The Resulting Flimsiness of the Scapegoat Child’s Self-Worth

These features combine to create a very fragile and mercurial experience of self-worth for the scapegoat child. Since their standards for themselves are so high they cannot be reliably met. The times when they do manage to meet their own standards can be infrequent. The child may also feel fraudulent because of how unrealistic it is to attain such high standards. They know that as a fallible human being perfection is near impossible to reach. As a result, they may feel inauthentic when they approach such standards. Last, their moments of feeling good about themselves can seem like pure luck and not something they can replicate. Upon experiencing success they may feel dread at the prospect of repeating this success.

Greg grew up in a family that sought to tear him down at every turn. Led by his pathologically narcissistic father, they would react with contempt and disgust at his presence. He internalized a lot of this disgust and believed that he was objectionable to others.

One trait that Greg protected was his physical aggression. He loved to play football at recess in elementary school. He was big for his age and his friends had a hard time bringing him down when he had the ball. He loved how this felt.

When he entered junior high school he was intent on joining the school’s team. Despite being verbally attacked most nights after dinner by his father, he believed in his ability to do well on the team. Greg made the team but did not crack the starting lineup. This pained him and he felt like his family was right about him.

One day midway through the season Greg had a break through at practice. The first team running back was out sick and Greg was told to participate with the first team. He knew all of his assignments and ran the ball well. He even scored a touchdown on one play. His coach remarked, “Wow Greg! I didn’t know you had this in you. You are going to be starting or close to starting for the rest of your time here.”

Greg was initially elated. He felt like he’d reached the top of the mountain he’d been climbing for so long. When he went home, he couldn’t wait to get up to his room and reflect on his day at practice. He told no one in his family what had happened. In his room, he relived the plays he made and what it felt like when his coach told him he’d always be in the starting lineup. He felt like no one could touch this good feeling. Not even his father’s barging into his room and yelling at him for not taking the trash out.

When Greg woke up the next day he felt nervous. Practice was happening later that day and he worried that he would not be able to do what he had done yesterday. He tried to reason with himself that he was the same player but the nervousness did not go away. As the day wore on, he felt a nebulous dread on top of the nervousness. He was having an increasingly harder time imagining the practice going well this time.

Greg’s nervousness was a ten when he got on the field that day. He went through the warm up drills alright. When it was time to practice plays, his coach said, “OK, Greg. Get in there with the first team. Let’s see it again!”. Greg felt like he had already lost something. The first play was designed for him to be pitched the ball on a sweep around the edge. The ball was hiked and his legs felt like jello as he ran looking for the quarterback to pitch him the ball. Now the ball was coming at him and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to catch it. His hands landed on it but the ball fell to the ground. Just then a defender tackled him hard to the ground. Greg could not catch the pitched balls for five plays in a row. His coach asked him what was the matter and Greg shrugged. He didn’t know. Finally his coach told him to get on the bench and told someone else to run with the first team.

Greg’s experience illustrates how he had to create a private and perfectionistic source of self worth that felt unsustainable and fraudulent. This is what made him so nervous the day after his successful practice.

Scapegoat children and survivors like Greg are led to conclude that they are not in control of the events that lead to them feeling self-worth. This just happens to them and they have no influence over whether it will happen again. Greg felt this way when he woke up the next morning. He had nowhere inside to recognize that it was his skill and determination that drove the good day at practice. It was a matter of fortune that he had no idea if it would strike again.

Forming a Shared and Realistic Basis for Self-Worth

It may come as no surprise that the answer to this problem involves relationships with safe people today. The reason is that showing you value yourself used to threaten the relationship you needed with your parent. In order to know it is now safe to do this you need experience in new important relationships that argues otherwise. You are most likely to find this type of new experience with people who are safe.

Making Your Secret Self-Worth Known to Others

One common concern amongst scapegoat survivors is how to identify safe people. Here are three indicators of whether someone is safe to share your worth with:

1) They tell or show you what they value about youIf a friend or partner goes out of their way to emphasize what they value about you then they are likely safe.

2) They agree with you about your reasons for valuing yourselfThis often comes in the form of telling them something you are proud of and seeing their affirming reaction.

3) They are not threatened by your expressions of your worthThis means that they do not slight or find fault with your reasons for valuing yourself.

When your self-worth is no longer secret to safe others then it is less necessary to be perfect. If you have people recognizing your realistic reasons for valuing yourself then you can get what you need without having to be perfect.

These kinds of relationships can make it possible to recalibrate your standards to be more realistic. Instead of outcomes being the only basis for self-worth, progress gets to count. Working towards a goal can be praise-worthy just as much as reaching that goal. The point is that when you have safe relationships then self-worth is readily endorsed and does not need to be kept secret.

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. I offer an introduction online course on the nature and impacts of narcissistic abuse. I also offer an advanced online course offering 8 powerful strategies for scapegoat survivors to reclaim the quality of life they deserve.

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