Did you find one parent to be consistently hostile towards you?
Did your other parent seem indifferent or hard to relate to?
Do you find it hard to establish new social connections due to anxiety at being rejected or passed over?
A family with a narcissistic parent can take many forms. Sometimes there are two parents, one narcissistic and the other submissive or detached. Their unfortunate child thrust into the role of scapegoat faces a no-win situation. The narcissistic parent treats them with contempt and hostility. The other parent – whom I will refer to as the enabler – offers indifference.
This dynamic starts with the narcissistic parent’s inflated yet fragile self-worth. They feel entitled for others to reflect back on their exaggerated importance. Someone else can fail to do this in several ways, from not being submissive enough, to possessing an ability or trait the narcissist envies to open criticism. When this happens, the narcissistic parent can feel disproportionately worthless.
They fear these resulting worthless feelings when others do not cooperate. From this, fear grows contempt and hostility towards the offenders. A naturally independent, honest, and fair child can easily pose a threat. Narcissistic parent relies on distortions to convince themselves of their inflated self-worth. The child who sees them plainly is a monkey wrench in this pathological system.
The parent can nullify this threat by devaluing, depriving and trapping the child into the role of scapegoat. These measures make the child feel worthless so the narcissistic parent does not. The child faces a steady diet of contempt and hostility from this parent.
The enabler parent’s appeasing or uninvolved attitude gives the narcissistic parent free reign. The scapegoat child cannot appeal for acceptance or protection from this parent. For reasons I will discuss later the enabler parent is unable or unwilling to be there for the child.
The legacy for the scapegoat survivor is two beliefs that interfere with their efforts to heal. Healing from narcissistic abuse requires ongoing, safe and reciprocal relationships. Both of these beliefs set the scapegoat survivor up to expect rejection or dismissal. This makes the survivor feel very anxious when establishing new safe relationships.
In today’s post, I explain how the narcissistic parent can envy and attack the scapegoat child. Then I discuss how the enabler parent’s emotional unavailability makes this possible. Third, I discuss how the beliefs the scapegoat survivor adopts to survive can create social anxiety today. And watch until the end because I will offer a tactic you can use today to reframe and challenge this social anxiety. The result can be finding it easier to find and establish new safe social connections.
How the Family Creates a Hostile and Indifferent World for the Scapegoat Child
An Entitled and Hostile Narcissistic Parent
A narcissistic parent’s psychological mission is to stomp out their experiences of inadequacy. This proves difficult as they are extremely vulnerable to such states. Instead of taking accountability and looking to mend these feelings, they insist on the opposite. They deny their felt inadequacy and re-assert their superiority. Their self-worth is not to be questioned. The person posing the threat is the problem.
Sometimes it is just the scapegoat child’s existence that threatens the narcissistic parent. If the child is born with a sense of decency, goodwill and honesty the parent can feel inadequate in comparison. This means that the child’s mere presence can trigger their parent’s envy. The parent loathes themselves for being less than the child. They try to solve this self-loathing by tearing down the child who is triggering it.
The narcissistic parent uses vindictive attacks to devalue the scapegoat child. Their logic is something like: “You made me feel bad about who I am by having what I do not have. Now I am going to ruin you and what you have.” Of course, the scapegoat child “made” their parent feel bad through no fault of the child’s own. The scapegoat child is left feeling despised just for being alive in such a family.
Violet came to therapy in her mid-twenties because she felt very alone in her life. She was successful at work but felt isolated otherwise. She felt a lot of anxiety when she tried to create new relationships or deepen existing ones. She stated in the first session that growing up was hard. She wondered if that had something to do with what life felt like now.
I asked, “Can you tell me how it was hard?”
She said, “Well my Dad always seemed to have it out for me. I couldn’t go a day without him finding a reason to yell at me. The worst part was that he was only mean to me. He treated my younger brother like a prince. He didn’t pay much attention to my mother. She pretty much kept to herself anyway.”
“That sounds awful and unfair for you. How did you deal with him?” I asked.
“I just learned to expect his wrath. I knew that nothing I did or said was going to please him. It sucked. I felt like an outsider in my own family.”
Violet’s presence was one of an articulate, earnest, kind-hearted and self-possessed person. I began to wonder if these qualities evoked her father’s envy.
“How did people outside of your family tend to treat you?”, I asked.
“Pretty well for the most part. I had friends in elementary school. But as I grew up I got a lot more anxious with people. I tended to keep to myself in high school and college. I did well in school. I like learning.”
“Do you think your father was happy with who he was? Did he have friends or success at work?” I asked.
“Well he always seemed supremely content with himself. He had friends but they never seemed to last. He did not talk much about his work. But I do remember him losing his job a couple times. Once I overheard my parents talking and he had been fired for not finishing his projects. He was in computers.”
The picture was becoming clear. “Violet, I suspect that your qualities as a person had an effect on your father that is opposite to most parents. Instead of being proud and happy that you were smart, self-possessed, kind, and well-liked he seemed to feel envious of you. It sounds like his attacks on you may have been attempts to ruin these qualities. The logic may have been that if you seemed to have or be less then he would not have to feel so inadequate in comparison. I wonder if your anxiety today in social situations is in fact a danger signal telling you not to do what used to evoke your father’s attacks.”
“Are you saying my own parent was jealous of me?” she asked.
“Well, in so many words. That is the only explanation that makes sense to me. I am sure that you did not deserve his contempt for anything you were doing.”
Violet’s story shows how a child can become the scapegoat to an envious narcissistic parent. Her social anxiety was not an insecurity about whether others would accept her. It was driven by how her success as a person seemed to worsen her father’s contemptuous attacks on her.
An Accommodating Enabler Parent
A narcissistic parent may select a partner who accommodates them. This parent enables the narcissistic parent’s pathology by prioritizing that parent’s happiness. Normally this is a good trait in a healthy relationship. In a relationship with a narcissist this approach means they deserve everything and others deserve nothing. When all that matters is that the narcissistic parent is happy, they have free reign. The enabler parent will offer little to no resistance because this makes their partner happy.
There are a couple of reasons the enabler gives up territory to the narcissistic parent. First, this parent could have an unchallenged belief that they are undeserving. If they grew up with a domineering parent, such a belief may have been necessary to survive. If this parent has not examined this dynamic in their own childhood, then they are more likely to repeat it. Someone who insists their domineering parent was “the best” will see little wrong with how their narcissistic partner treats them. In order to insist on this the person would have to believe that they did not and do not deserve better.
Another reason the enabler parent may cede to the narcissistic parent is if they are emotionally withdrawn by nature. Some people find reciprocal social and emotional communication to be difficult. They have difficulty interpreting social cues – especially non-verbal and emotional cues. They may find it most comfortable to establish and maintain routines that afford them solitude.
In this particular context, such a parent can fall into the role of enabler. At least when it comes to the impact on the scapegoat child. Since it is so hard to understand and engage with other people, the narcissistic parent may seem impossible to challenge. They may adopt the solution of psychologically withdrawing from the relationship. Let the narcissistic parent act however they insist while this parent sticks to their own world.
Violet’s mother always seemed preoccupied with lists of chores, her exercise regimen, and her job. She worked as a computer analyst. Violet found it extremely challenging to have a conversation with her mother. Her mother might ask Violet questions about school but would not have much to say after Violet answered. Sometimes her mother could start talking about a project at her work and go on for what seemed like hours. Violet would often feel like she was not in the room when her mother did this. Her mother did not seem to know Violet would want to feel close to her. She rarely spent time with Violet just to build their bond. Most of their time together was focused on a task. Going shopping for specific items together, weeding in the garden and cleaning the house. Silence dominated these activities.
Her mother seemed oblivious to how Violet’s father treated her. It never occurred to Violet to go to her mother for help with her father. She knew her mother would be overmatched by her father’s verbal agility and belligerence. It did not seem like her mother felt malevolent towards Violet. She just did not seem able to notice – at a deep level – Violet’s feelings.
Violet’s mother thrived in solitary analytical and goal-directed activities. Social engagement seemed confusing and tended to be avoided. She could cope by tuning the rest of the world out and focusing on what was in front of her. For Violet, this meant going unprotected and feeling like she did not matter to her mother.
The Impacts on the Scapegoat Child
There are two challenges to having a hostile narcissistic parent and indifferent enabler parent. First, the scapegoat child has to find a way to keep these parents willing to attach to them. Second, the child has to minimize the emotional pain of how they are being treated.
The child forms beliefs that help them meet these challenges. Younger children are only able to think of the world in an egocentric way. So whatever happens is a reflection of them. A hostile narcissistic parent must be reacting to something in the child. This way of reasoning can result in self-blame but also grants the child a lot of control. If they can change themselves then they can change the people and world around them.
Beliefs To Cope With the Narcissistic Parent’s Hostility
The scapegoat child concludes it is their attempts to be loved that cause the narcissistic parent’s hostility towards them. Finding acceptance and love in life is an important developmental goal. The child’s pursuit of this goal gets associated with the danger of their parent’s hostility. Whether the child seeks love from the parent or in other relationships, the envious narcissistic parent grows more hostile. The parent already sees the child as having more than them. If the child feels loved then this will only intensify the parent’s envy and hostility. The parent’s reactions threaten the child with feeling unattached and intense shame. The scapegoat child must protects themselves from these threats. They adopt a belief that sacrifices the developmental goal which seems to bring on these threats. The child may land on something like: “If I seek love and acceptance then I will be rejected.” Now the child is discouraged from the behavior that worsened their parent’s hostility.
Beliefs To Cope With the Enabler Parent’s Indifference
The scapegoat child can experience their enabler parent to be emotionally unavailable. The child concludes that the parent’s seeming indifference is their fault. The child might be too needy and that is why the parent seems so withdrawn. Or perhaps the child does not deserve this parent’s attention. In either case the problem is in the child not the parent.
Knowing that you are deserving of reciprocal care and protection is an important developmental goal. The child feels painfully dismissed when trying to meet this goal with their enabler parent. The scapegoat child develops a belief that discourages them from seeking care or protection from the enabler parent. They may determine that: “I do not deserve to matter to the people who matter to me.” Now the enabler parent’s indifference is a reflection of the child – not the parent’s limitations.
Social Anxiety in the Scapegoat Survivor
These two beliefs performed essential functions to survive hostile and indifferent parents. Later these same beliefs interfere with the experience needed to heal – new relationships with kind and responsive people. Expecting rejection and feeling undeserving of mattering to others creates social anxiety. This anxiety can make it difficult to find, approach and participate in such new relationships.
The scapegoat survivor told themselves that others will reject them if they seek connection. This narrative kept them deprived so that their envious narcissistic parent did not attack them further. Later in life the survivor may tell themselves other stories that reinforce this belief. “I talk too much”, “I’m not funny enough”, “I’m not interesting enough”, “I’m not attractive enough”. These stories make it difficult to notice the positive receptions from other people.
The survivor’s belief that they do not matter also creates social anxiety. If you are skeptical that you deserve to be important to people who are important to you then it is hard to feel worthy of others’ attention. So even if the survivor does not meet outright rejection as the other belief would predict, they can still feel inconsequential to others. This belief creates social anxiety when approaching others because the survivor expects to be reminded that they are unimportant.
To keep seeing her hostile mother and indifferent father as viable parents Violet had to distort her perception of herself. In her therapy we came to understand her increased social anxiety in adolescence. She explained that when she left elementary school she told herself that nobody in the big new middle school would like her. She also assumed that her elementary school friends would not still like her in middle school. She would not matter to them.
Importantly, her father’s rageful verbal attacks increased at this stage of her life. Her mother remained emotionally withdrawn from her.
I said to her, “It sounds like your father got more hostile as you grew up. And your mother offered you little protection or connection. The things you told yourself when leaving elementary school seem to reflect how you had to cope. You expected the kids in middle school to treat you like your parents did. Therefore you should expect them to reject your efforts to be accepted. And you should not expect to matter to the friends who mattered to you.”
“That seems right”, she said. “But I still think this today in social situations. I’m rarely at ease and think that others find me boring.”
A Powerful Tactic to Combat Social Anxiety
The process of recovery for the scapegoat survivor requires new safe relationships. Here is a tactic to cope with the social anxiety that can interfere.
First, the survivor can consider the idea that they are valued and sought after. The survivor’s belief that others will reject them is premised on the idea that they have nothing to offer. The other person has what the survivor needs and can only hope to receive. It is likely unfamiliar to consider that the other person – if they are safe – may also seek and value the survivor’s presence. The idea that the survivor would be valued contradicts their belief that they would be rejected. The idea that they would matter to someone else contradicts their belief that they will not matter.
The survivor also needs to accrue data that the old danger of being attacked if they find acceptance will no longer happen. They were conditioned to associate being loved with the narcissistic parent’s hostility. They learned to associate being important to someone else with grave disappointment. Therefore, the survivor needs to consider this new idea, apply it, and see that they are not endangered anymore.
Violet needed to free herself from the social anxiety that blocked her from new safe relationships. We worked to build a shared awareness of how these beliefs were necessary for her before. We also grew to understand how these beliefs showed up in her life today.
One day she reported, “A guy at work asked me if I wanted to join him and his friends at a party. I like him a lot and suspect he has a good group of friends. But when he asked me, I got really nervous. Like what would I say to him and his friends there? I’d feel so out of place and they probably wouldn’t like me. So I made up an excuse and said I was busy.”
“It was hard to imagine in that moment that he and his friends might welcome you” I said.
“Yeah. I think this was my past talking to me but it felt really convincing. The thought of going to the party with him made me so anxious. It seemed like I would be defying some sort of inner law.”
“Well, I think you would have. In the absence of actual parental presence you had these beliefs to guide you. They were painful but they put you in connection with your parents. If you act in defiance of these beliefs by going to the party then you might also feel like you’re doing away with this connection.”
“So you think I should go next time?” she asked rhetorically. I stayed silent. A week later she came into session with a spring in her step.
“You seem in good spirits today”, I observed.
“Well, I did it. On Monday I told this guy that I was sorry to miss the party last week. I told him that I would love to hang out with him at another time. Sure enough he asked if I wanted to go to a bonfire with he and his friends this past weekend. I was so nervous but I said yes. The rest of the week I’d get those anxious thoughts but I was determined to go.”
“You demonstrated a lot of grit”, I commented.
“I guess so. When I actually went it was not at all like I expected. People seemed genuinely interested in me and what I had to say. I hit it off with one woman and we exchanged phone numbers. I think we are going to play tennis this week.”
“How has this left you feeling?” I asked.
“I was a little nervous the day after the party. Like some other shoe might drop. It was strange. But as the day wore on I thought about our session coming up today and that helped.”
Violet used her experience in therapy where she was welcomed and felt important to defy her constrictive beliefs. She wanted to make new fulfilling connections in her life. Declining this man’s invitation interfered. She defied the messages her beliefs were sending and accepted his next invite. Importantly she reflected on her lingering feeling that something might go wrong afterwards. Just as her finding acceptance used to result in her father’s increased hostility. She took in the fact that nothing bad happened this time.
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.