Recovery in Pictures for Scapegoat Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse

recovery in pictures for scapegoat survivors of narcissistic abuse

Does the process of recovery from narcissistic abuse seem unclear at times?

Do you often wonder whether you are on the right track or not?

Is it confusing how to reclaim your actual identity?

I like to think in pictures. Recently I have not been able to get the image of a fork in the road out of my head as a visual for how the scapegoat child adapts to a hostile narcissistic parent. One of the paths in the fork is conscious and the other is unconscious. The unconscious path is the scapegoat child’s developing and expanding real experience. The conscious path requires suspending awareness of their own development and prioritizing the needs of their narcissistic parent. This fork protects the scapegoat child from becoming nobody to no one. The child and later survivor travel down both paths but at first may only be aware of where they are along the conscious path. Recovery involves participating in new relationships where the survivor can be who they are along the unconscious path without losing needed connection. As this happens the fork in the survivor’s developmental road dissipates and a landing in one’s whole real self today can gradually occur. In today’s post I use visuals to show what happens to the scapegoat child, what recovery looks like and how the 3 pillars of recovery help scapegoat survivors get there.

The Fork in the Scapegoat Child’s Developmental Road

A child born to a narcissistic parent starts their life out as who they actually are. Babies do not know how to do otherwise. As they get a little older they may grow more aware of how they do not get enough attention from their narcissistic partner. This experience can set. Off alarms that their parent does not care about them enough for the child to feel attached to them. If the narcissistic parent goes a step further and begins to relocate their own sense of worthlessness into the child, then the child faces another traumatizing burden. In order to be who the narcissistic parent recognizes them as, the child must identify as the bad kid the parent insists they are. Hence the devil horns and tail on the child in this picture. Assuming this identity allows the child to remain somebody to someone even though it’s somebody who faces ongoing rebuke from their parent.

In order to adopt the identity as the worthless scapegoat the child may believe they are:

  • Less than the narcissistic parent
  • Defective
  • Undeserving of respect, care & protection

This is the child’s conscious identity.

Meanwhile, the child has to submerge into their unconscious their developing self. That is, they cannot know that they are growing up because that would challenge the narcissistic parent’s dominance. At the time they are too dependent on the parent’s willingness to attach to them to protest the family hierarchy. So their actual growing self goes into the unconscious. Expressing this self could land them in the agony of being nobody to no one viz a viz the narcissistic parent.

Qualities of this unconscious developing self include:

  • Expanding capacities
  • Feeling equal to other adults
  • Deserving of equal rights
  • Cared about by safe people

A marker of this unconscious maturing self is often what people outside the family say about the scapegoated person. These typically positive reflections may feel untrue or a product of being pleasing to these people. At the start of the recovery process scapegoat survivors may really have no way to think positively of themselves yet. So such feedback can seem impossible to believe. Over time, however, this feedback often serves as clues for who the developing/developed self is.

Sarah was a scapegoat survivor of narcissistic abuse in her family. She was beginning to come to terms with this and tell some of her trusted friends of what her narcissistic mother was really like. One of her friends still lived in her hometown. This friend told her, “You know, everytime I mention you to anyone we went to school with they always say what a good person you are.” At the time, Sarah said, “Yeah, well sure. That’s because all I knew at the time was to people please so of course they liked me.”

Sarah was, in fact, a considerate and moral person whom these other friends recognized. It was not yet safe for Sarah to see this as a reflection of her developed self.

The Goal of Recovery


Recovery involves the recognition that the developing self and the scapegoat self were always the same person. Nothing changes the time spent in the fork but a convergence of the two selves can eventually happen. As the process of recovery goes on, the scapegoat survivor eventually gets to operate from their developed self with a compassionate and appreciative understanding for how they survived their narcissistic parent as the scapegoat child. And this happens in the context of new lasting connections to safe people.

How the 3 Pillars of Recovery Help You Reach This Goal

Pillar #1: Making Sense of What Happened

Here, the scapegoat survivor is still having to live in the fork. The survivor learns more about narcissistic personality disorder, sees parallels in the ways they were treated and begins to question whether they are and were as bad as their parent insisted. Here is where consuming information about narcissism and narcissistic abuse and sharing your story with fellow survivors is particularly helpful.

The survivor is creating a new frame of reference to understand themselves. Now the survivor no longer sees themselves as the devil their parent made them out to be. They see the devilish behavior where it originated – in the narcissistic parent.

At this stage, there can also be breakthrough times where the developed self peaks out of the unconscious. The scapegoat self and the developed self begin to get acquainted.

Sean came to treatment in his mid-twenties with severe anxiety. He had difficulty concentrating at work and would find reasons to work from home. During this time, he would nap or idle the time away. He experienced a spike in his anxiety whenever he went to see friends or go on dates. Despite all of this, Sean was a very likeable, intelligent, emotionally strong, academically accomplished and athletic person.

In therapy, we initially worked on ways he could cope and respond to his anxiety when it peaked. Sean made good use of diaphragmatic breathing and would often expose himself to the anxiety provoking situations. He wanted to prove to himself that nothing catastrophic will actually happen. And it was working for him.

A few months later, we began to explore his experience in his home growing up. Sean portrayed himself as lazy, fraudulent in his abilities, and having little of value to offer. I suspected that this portrayal was a compliance with being who he had to be in his family growing up. The person I saw across from me did not jibe with his description.

Sean recounted a childhood and adolescence filled with criticism, derision and explosive rages from his father. His mother was very emotionally remote except when she wanted some sort of emotional support from Sean. He could never go to either parent for protection, understanding or support. As we unpacked his history in session, Sean began his journey through Pillar #1. He was making sense of what happened in his upbringing and seeing that he was never as bad as his parents treated him.

The best resource I know to point people to for Pillar #1 is the book ‘Growing up as the Scapegoat to narcissistic parents: A guide to healing’. In it, I go into a lot of depth on each of the three pillars. Survivors can arm themselves with in-depth information on why they often feel bad, ineffectual, and inadequate. They will also learn how these experiences are a product of their narcissistic parent’s mistreatment of them not who they actually are. 

Pillar #2: Gain Distance From Narcissistic Abusers

Next, the scapegoat survivor grows more aware of narcissistic people in their life and seeks distance from them. Simultaneously there can be a seeking of people who treat them well – or safe people. The scapegoat and developed self continue to be in more contact. And the survivor may experience safe people noticing and responding to qualities of their adult self.

Sean had always taken it as a solemn obligation to visit his parents twice per year. He described these visits as painfully unfulfilling for him. He felt as if he was checking a box where they could not complain that he does not visit them enough and is a bad son. But after arriving, his mother and father would go to separate rooms and Sean would feel left on his own for the duration of the visit. The exceptions were if a family friend came to the house and then his mother would want to parade Sean out to show what a good job of parenting she did.

We also tracked that his anxiety attacks historically spiked after visiting his parents. I took the tact of wondering why his needs in the decision-making process of whether to visit his parents seemed less important than his parent’s needs for him to make an appearance. Initially Sean saw the prospect of not visiting as a cruel blow to them. As we continued to work on this, he grew more convicted that taking care of himself is not an act of punishment of his parents. Though they might characterize him as such, he had enough time in therapy and in new safe relationships to assure himself that he was not doing anything hurtful. Sean limited his visits to once per year and his anxiety levels did not spike nearly as much.

A useful resource for Pillar #2 is my YouTube playlist titled ‘Gaining Distance from the Narcissistic Abuser’. There are 18 free videos on this playlist that cover the importance of gaining distance to protect yourself. They also address common challenges that can arise in achieving distance – such as guilt, trauma bonding, a desire to prove the parent ‘wrong’ about you, and more. You can find the link to the playlist in the description box below or by clicking here.

Pillar #3: Live In Defiance of the Narcissist’s Rules

Pillar #3 involves challenging and disconfirming the beliefs you had to adopt to stay somebody to your narcissistic parent. These beliefs protected you from the fate of being nobody to no one. With the other two pillars in operation, the survivor grows to feel increasingly safe in identifying and challenging these beliefs.

Many of these beliefs such as:

“I am defective.”

“My needs are less important than others.”

“I do not deserve protection.”

…serve to deny the existence of the survivor’s developed self. The person as a developed adult is clearly not defective but functional. Their needs are equally important as others. And they are capable of and willing to protect themselves.

The survivor gets to bring their developed self more and more into their consciousness. The former danger of doing so is mitigated by the distance they have from narcissistic abusers. Plus they know from Pillar #1 that they are no longer obligated to bolster someone else’s emotional needs by serving as the devalued one to them.

Sean began to talk about how he did not enjoy his present role at work. He loved to write and think critically and this role offered him none of that. He began to value his abilities and developed a confidence that he would succeed in the right position. He sought and got a transfer to a new department at his company where his job was to write technical papers for the software team. He discussed how much he liked learning about the products he had to write about and then explaining them in terms that were digestible to a wider audience. Sean was recognized for his efforts in this role by his manager and others in the company.

He regarded himself as a talented writer who had a lot to offer. This self-concept contradicted how he saw himself at the start of therapy – as lazy and fraudulent.

A useful resource for Pillar #3 are modules 5 & 6 in my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse. In these two modules I cover the common beliefs that can keep the scapegoat survivor psychologically ‘at home’ with their narcissistic parent. Next I describe the process for identifying and disconfirming these beliefs in your own life. In module 6, I address a major sticking point for many scapegoat survivors – equating loveability with competence. Scapegoat survivors were treated in a very conditional way. The times they were shown kindness or maybe just spared hostility were conditional upon serving the interests of the narcissistic parent in some way. This can lead to a transactional view of when you deserve to receive love. In this module I describe how to notice, challenge and disconfirm this view in the process of recovery.

Resolution of the Fork

The resolution of the fork in the scapegoat child’s development involves the developed self and scapegoat self recognizing each other fully. There is a mutual appreciation for who both were, where they had to go during the abuse, how they both fought against the abuse in their own ways, and how they are now both valued by safe people today. Their developed self gets to take the lead in life as this part is most commensurate with where the survivor is in their lifespan. They get to experience mastery, connection, and autonomy as the adult they are.

Sean began to have a different presence in the therapy session. At the outset he seemed ready to agree with whatever I might say about my understanding of his experience. He seemed to feel it was not safe to disagree with someone whose goodwill towards him he wanted to keep. Now, he would consider what I said in session and very often tell me that what I said was not quite right. He would clarify what he wanted me to understand and I would appreciate his honest feedback so that I could better understand him. In this process there was much flatter way we were relating. As two adults rather than one having more authority than the other.

Sean talked more of friendships he cultivated where he was treated with respect and admiration. He also found himself protecting his own needs and autonomy in his romantic relationship. Sean was operating from his developed self while carrying an empathic understanding for the part of him that had to identify as the scapegoat to somebody to his narcissistic parents.


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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