In the comments from an earlier Youtube Video, someone posted this:
Jay, could you do a video about REGRET?? Not living to full potential [in the] past due to narcissistic abuse and feeling like you lost your “best years”.
I thought this was a very important point and topic. Based on the number of replies, it looks like many other people did too. If you had a narcissistic parent, then the ways you had to adapt to survive such treatment while staying in relationship with that person likely made it impossible to live life to your full potential at the time. This commenter raises the important question of How to cope with the loss of this time once you recover from such abuse. An unfortunate consequence of having to endure such a difficult quality of life can be the experience of Regret. I’ll define Regret as the feeling of disappointment in oneself for doing or not doing something in the past. I’m going to contrast Regret with Grief – a deep sadness felt due to a significant loss. Regret is what I would call ‘dirty pain’ and Grief is what I would call ‘clean pain’. In today’s blog, I’ll discuss some common sources of Regret for survivors of narcissistic abuse. Next, I’ll describe how Regret may reflect a way of going along with the survivor’s belief that he or she is defective. I will also challenge the assumption of control that may underlie a survivor’s experience of Regret. Last, I will describe how Regret can be transformed to Grief and the essential role of safe, close relationships.
My name is Jay Reid, and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse.
Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse, I try to offer a map that allows them to return to the quality of life they know they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves, but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are three features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. Finding and participating in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path is also essential. Today’s post falls under Pillar #3: Making sense of what happened.
My free ebook on Surviving Narcissistic abuse as the Scapegoat is a great resource to help with Pillar #1: making sense of what happened.
Why survivors feel Regret after narcissistic abuse
Researchers divide Regret into two buckets: disappointment in oneself for what one has done and disappointment in oneself for what one has not done. I will list some of the common sources of Regret for survivors of narcissistic abuse that I have encountered. This list is by no means exhaustive and I encourage you to put your own sources of Regret you have experienced in the comments below if it’s not included here.
How the necessary adaptations to survive narcissistic abuse can lead to Regret
Surviving narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent requires the child to do and not do many things that they would not otherwise choose. Since the child is dependent on the narcissistic parent for a sense of connection, identity, and protection the child must make that relationship work no matter what. And ‘no matter what’s in the case of a narcissistic parent means working to keep the narcissistic parent’s fragile yet inflated self-esteem propped up at all times while requiring very little emotional nourishment from them. So, the child has to appease the parent and deny their own needs to make the relationship work.
Here are some common actions survivors have had to take to alleviate the narcissistic parent:
Put the parent’s needs first: This can look like dramatic displays of appreciation of the parent to bolster the parent’s self-esteem. So, greeting the narcissistic parent with a big smile when they walk in the door, agreeing with the narcissistic parent’s opinion no matter what it is, and/or trying to preemptively do things around the house that will please the narcissistic parent (e.g. taking out the trash, cooking dinner, doing homework without fail).
How this can lead to Regret: When the survivor of such a narcissistic parent looks back at how they placated the parent in order to survive, s/he may cringe at having taken these measures. “I should’ve stood up for myself.” “I let them walk all over me.” “I didn’t pull their card when I should have.” Thoughts like these can lead the survivor to feel that disappointment in themselves that is the calling card of Regret.
Accept blame that wasn’t yours: If a narcissistic parent is angry with you as the scapegoated child then there is no hope of proving your innocence. Children in such difficult situations grow to learn this early and often in their lives with their parent. When narcissistic parent is met with their own intolerable feelings of defectiveness or undeservedness they have to delete those feelings into the scapegoat child. They do this unconsciously and perceive the CHILD as the undeserving and defective on in their relationship. From there, the narcissistic parent can easily berate and devalue the child as the one who deserves such ill will. By locating these intolerable feelings in the scapegoat child instead of themselves the narcissistic parent feels safer from the feelings and feels like they can control the feelings – by influencing the child to identify with these terrible feelings as the child’s own. As a result of all this, the child will have the experience of taking the blame for situations that were not the child’s fault – time and again.
How this can lead to Regret: After surviving this ordeal, the now adult may look back and feel disappointed in themselves for having assumed blame for situations that were never their fault. “I let my parent get away with blaming me for ruining the day, etc.”
How survivors emotionally deprived themselves to maintain a relationship with the narcissistic parent:
Sacrifice having a fulfilling social life: Most scapegoat children of a narcissistic parent encountered punishment if they sought sources of happiness outside the parent. A narcissistic parent will often trump up reasons of what the child did or didn’t do that meant the child did not deserve to see their friends. If the child showed enthusiasm towards people outside of the narcissistic parent, this could wound the narcissistic parent’s fragile sense of being special to the child. The parent would then be inclined to take these sources of happiness away from the child.
How this can lead to regret: After surviving the relationship with the narcissistic parent the survivor may find that they missed out on fulfilling friendships and relationships. The survivor may know that s/he is capable of connecting to others yet feel aggrieved at having to withhold themselves from past experiences. “Why did I cut myself off from these people back then?” or “I gave into my narcissistic parent by socially isolating myself like that.”
Thwart their enjoyment of their own abilities: At the most basic level, the narcissistic parent wants the scapegoat child to prefer the parent’s company to the child’s own. The parent wants the child to love the parent more than the child loves himself or her self. And the parent will react to acts of self-love by the child with envy and vindictiveness to retaliate. As such, the scapegoat child must disregard their skills and talents to comply with this mandate.
How this can lead to Regret: After surviving such an experience, the scapegoat survivor may blame themselves for failing to maximize their potential. “I let my ability as an athlete, writer, carpenter, etc. go by the wayside because I was so afraid of what my parent would do to me.”
What other sources of Regret have I missed? I encourage you to put your own in the comments section below.
In every one of these sources of Regret there is the assumption that one could have acted differently. I would argue that you cannot feel disappointment in yourself – or Regret – unless you assume that a different course of action was possible for you at the time. And for a child who comes into this world with the need to have a relationship with a parent or perish, I don’t see how the scapegoat child enjoys much or any choice in what they had to do to adapt to the conditions imposed upon them by their narcissistic parent. So,
Why are feelings of Regret so common for survivors of narcissistic abuse?
The extent of the abuse has yet to be fully felt, understood and witnessed
I cannot overstate how big of an undertaking it is to recognize that the mistreatment you suffered from a narcissistic parent was not your fault. So much goes into this. Learning about the dynamics of narcissistic psychology is just one of the important ways of doing this. It is also extremely important to tell someone in your life about what you went through and feel believed by him or her. And it can take a long time before you feel like you’re being believed by such people. The reason is that most times when a survivor tried to tell someone about how they were being treated they were invalidated by the parent and/or the enabling spouse or siblings of the narcissistic parent. As a result the very thing that might help the survivor know the abuse was not their fault can also trigger feelings of panic and flight at the anticipation of being disbelieved and punished that is so familiar. The point of all of this is to convey just how long it can be before a survivor has the experience of telling someone, being believed by that person, and experiencing the fact that the abuse is in the past.
In my experience, until this state of being believed by others is achieved, the survivor can blame themselves for not having acted differently in the face of the abuse. When the full extent of the abuse is understood and believed by someone else, what typically ensues is a deep feeling of compassion for oneself. This is not to say that if you feel such feelings of Regret that you are not where you “should be” in recovery. I think this is one of the very common experiences in recovery that often just have to be lived through. If this compassion for yourself for what you went through is not yet accessible, I would strongly encourage you to try to exercise compassion towards yourself for being wherever you are at.
A resource that can help with this is my free ebook on Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat. It arms the reader with theory, research, and case examples that let them understand the abuse was not the scapegoat child’s fault.
Feelings of Regret may reflect a belief of being defective
Having a narcissistic parent is an unnatural state of affairs. Our species would not have survived as it has if most parents were pathologically self-absorbed like this. In the face of such relatively unusual and dire circumstances for the child of such a parent s/he is going to have to go to some pretty severe lengths to survive. I’ve discussed a lot of these lengths on this channel but in summary the child of a narcissistic parent is likely going to have to adopt the belief of being defective and/or undeserving to share a reality with this parent. Everyone uses beliefs to color their perceptions of the world, others and themselves. Whether it’s a belief in basic goodness or defectiveness, we need such beliefs to orient us in life and guide our decisions. As such, a belief of being defective or undeserving for the scapegoat child of a narcissistic parent is going to inform their view of themselves and the world long after childhood.
Holding oneself responsible for not choosing otherwise in the face of abuse from a narcissistic parent may reflect viewing oneself through a lens of defectiveness. Just as the scapegoat child may have had to believe that their narcissistic parent would not yell and devalue them if they were not so bad, the survivor may blame themselves for not acting otherwise. This move can subtly take some of the responsibility from the narcissistic parent and attribute more responsibility to the scapegoat child than s/he deserves.
I still suffered when I should have been thriving
I am challenging the basis for Regret in recovery from narcissistic abuse. I am not challenging the conclusion that the survivor suffered a profound loss in their lives as a result of this abuse. The scapegoat child deserved to be born to ‘good enough’ parents who were capable of caring about that child on the child’s own terms and finding happiness in the child’s own pursuit of happiness. That was not the case for the survivor of narcissistic abuse and the survivor suffered as a result. The survivor has to come to terms with what s/he lost as a result of the abuse they suffered. How can the survivor do this without blaming themselves in a way that leads to regret?
I had a very dear friend who was also a therapist and he liked to distinguish psychological suffering from that which is a part of life and cannot be avoided from the suffering that results from trying to avoid the unavoidable pain. He called unavoidable but experienced pain to be “clean pain” and the pain that results from trying to avoid unavoidable pain to be “dirty pain”. I the ways I listed earlier, I think a survivor’s Regret towards oneself is a form of dirty pain. However, there is still a source of clean pain that is there to be experienced. In order for the survivor to claim their sense of possibility in their lives today and in the future, the pain of having been denied such a good quality of life as a child must be worked through. For one reason or another, the ability to reclaim one’s full quality of life today seems to correlate with one’s willingness to admit and grieve the loss of that happiness throughout childhood. And for this experience of clean pain – or Grief – to be a healing one, it can be very important to share these feelings with someone else.
As these feelings are met and lived through, something else often happens. Possibility becomes something that may be felt not just thought about. A sense of liking oneself may also slowly emerge. The survivor may begin to look inward for direction in their lives rather than have to react to what’s happening on the outside so much. Of course these are great outcomes for the survivor but they can also be surprising because they happen after surrendering to the sadness of what was lost earlier in life. As the survivor feels supported in the fact of that loss in current safe relationships, then newness becomes possible.
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.