Have you felt an invisible force holding you back from sustaining success?
Do you feel empty or disoriented if you are not thinking about obstacles in your life?
Has suffering played a big role in how you know yourself?
When a parent’s love is in short supply a child finds it in whatever way possible. This is particularly true for the scapegoat child of a narcissistic parent. The child finds contempt, control, and devaluation instead of compassion from this parent. This forces the child to figure out how to be treated better. The scapegoat child may learn that they are shown compassion only when they are in a weakened state. By compassion I mean “a combination of empathy, concern, kindness, and consideration.” This can lead the child to purposely get into weakened states to get needed compassion from their parent. With enough time and reinforcement the child can relate to themselves in this way too. In today’s blog, I start by describing how a narcissistic parent manipulates the scapegoat child to seek out weakened states. Next I discuss how this causes the child to associate feeling weakened with deserving compassion. Last, I show how long-term therapy can help the scapegoat survivor safely let go of this association. I will use a case example to illustrate how one client gradually found it safe to feel strong without loss of compassion.
When the Narcissistic Parent Withholds Compassion
A narcissistic parent holds a lot of power over their child. One of the levers the parent has is whether they show compassion towards the child or not. A child needs to feel compassion from their parent as much as they need oxygen. If a parent is conditional in their shows of compassion the child will adapt to those conditions.
Let’s first review the psychological dynamics at play in the narcissistic parent. A pathologically narcissistic person has a core sense of worthlessness that they cannot tolerate. They manage these feelings by denying them, insisting on their opposite and pointing the finger outward. First, a narcissistic parent will deny to themselves and others that they lack self-esteem. Instead they insist to themselves that they are worth more than others – not less than others. Then they “find” their intolerable worthlessness in someone else. A child regarded as the worthless one is known as the scapegoat to the narcissistic parent. This all happens unconsciously. The narcissistic parent then influences the scapegoat child to think of themselves as worthless. When the scapegoat child believes they are undeserving or defective then the parent does not have to.
This process of scapegoating a child in order to manage the narcissistic parent’s self-esteem requires the child avoid feeling good about themselves. We typically feel good about ourselves when we operate at full-strength while feeling connected to others. A narcissistic parent can thwart such experiences by denying connection when the child is at full-strength and providing it when they child feels weakened. This is a tragically effective way of preventing the scapegoat child from feeling good about themselves.
Case Example of Withholding Compassion When the Child Is Strong
Lawrence remembered bringing home an A+ on his report card and excitedly telling his father about it. His father did not show compassion for Lawrence’s excitement and pride in himself. Instead he looked at the paper and coldly told Lawrence to clean the garage before dinner time. Lawrence recalled feeling like the bottom had dropped out of his soul in that moment. He felt empty and despised himself for thinking that he was such a “big deal”.
A child who is met with indifference when they hope for compassion will feel intense shame. The result over time is that the child will avoid displays of their strengths.
Case Example of Providing Compassion When the Child Is Weakened
Lawrence remembered his father sweetly offering words of solace only when he felt defeated in life. In eighth grade Lawrence recalled having many friends. However his father would always make it difficult for him to see these friends outside of school. Chores would suddenly appear that Lawrence had to do just as he was leaving to meet up with them. If Lawrence balked his father would accuse him of caring more about his friends than his family. Lawrence usually had to cancel his plans and devote himself to these tasks. As a result of his continued unavailability his friends gradually withdrew from him. His father then comforted him. As Lawrence expressed sadness over losing these friendships his father said, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad. Those kids are no good anyway. They don’t deserve you as their friend.”
A child who does not find compassion when they feel strong will feel starved for it. If a narcissistic parent offers compassion when the child feels weakened then the child will leap at it. The cost is the child’s natural born right to live at the height of their potentials. Instead the child has to live in a compromised state to get what they need from the parent.
Why Children Need Compassion
As I mentioned earlier, compassion refers to the best things we can get in a relationship. The child who consistently finds empathy, concern, kindness and consideration from a parent will enjoy a secure base from which to live. They will know that their existence is important to someone very important to them. They will also get to know that they deserve compassion without conditions. Whether they are at their best or worst, the child can find compassion from the parent often enough. It is available as needed.
The absence of needed compassion from a narcissistic parent can traumatize the child. The child who has to go without compassion from a parent cannot feel like the protagonist in their own life. They do not feel like anyone is genuinely rooting for them to be well. They can feel particularly vulnerable to self-criticism. They do not have a compassionate parent to comfort them when they cannot meet their own expectations. All of their frustration and anger towards themselves goes unfiltered and they get emotionally beat up.
At an existential level the child without compassion can feel utterly alone and in the dark. Survivors of such forms of abuse describe an emotional no man’s land they would encounter when they felt strong. In the absence of the parent’s compassion during such moments the child is left entirely on their own. Feeling compassion is integral to feeling loved. In these moments the child encounters the dreadful immediate experience of feeling unloved.
The Cost of Losing Compassion When the Child Feels Strong
Life can be tormenting for the scapegoat child who feels forbidden from being strong. The child may feel like their existence depends on them being doubled over. Like they are hooked up to a machine that offers compassion so long as they stay hooked up. The machine does not go with them. The child is not free to move about in the world.
Another feature of this compassion machine is that the child must be kneeling on the ground. If the child stands up to their full height the machine stops working. So the child finds times of being fully upright to be temporary – like a diver briefly taking off their oxygen mask underwater.
The scapegoat child lives in a dilemma. In order to spare themselves an unsurvivable state of having no compassion they must stay weakened. Having to live in an unabated weakened state is its own form of torture. When I refer to the scapegoat survivor’s grit and resilience this is why. Such individuals are able to bear this dilemma and stay in the fight to find an eventual resolution. They do not collapse under the weight of it.
Lawrence found moments of success to be vexing. He played football at his high school and was on the second team. He worked extremely hard to try to start. He woke up before school and did wind sprints. He practiced drills on the weekends. He felt bad about himself that he was not starting.
One practice he was doing well in a drill and his position coach took notice. He told Lawrence to take some reps with the starting team at his position. Lawrence made all of his assignments on these plays and the head coach was impressed. “Lawrence, you really showed me something. I want you on the first team from now on.”
Lawrence was overjoyed in that moment. He had always felt and hoped that he had what it took to start. Now he had what he worked so hard to earn.
As the halo of that moment wore off and he got home from practice, doubt began to creep in. “What if the coach based his impression on a few lucky plays I made? What if I play terrible tomorrow? I don’t really belong on the first team.” He felt shaky and nervous as these thoughts overtook him.
He had no one in his family that he could share his success with. He knew that his father would be completely disinterested – if not offended – at hearing about this. His mother and sister were not involved in his life enough to get it. He had to wrestle with this surge of feeling strong with no compassion from those closest to him.
At this point Lawrence was feeling the consequences of having no compassion for feeling strong. He was disoriented, felt like a fraud, and found his pride impossible to sustain. His self-doubt served to return him to a weakened state where he felt deserving of his own compassion. He was a stranger to himself as a strong and capable football player.
Therapy as a Way for Scapegoat Survivors To Find It Safe To Be Strong
Therapy offers a relationship for the scapegoat survivor where they can find compassion when they are strong. A survivor who has had compassion withheld when they are strong will bring this expectation into therapy. The therapist will collaborate with the survivor to bring awareness to this dynamic. All the while, the therapist’s actual relational stance towards the survivor is one of compassion.The survivor experiences the therapist’s compassion when they feel weakened and when they experiment with feeling strong.The survivor gets to find out that being shown compassion does not depend on being weakened.
This is a simple equation for change that can take a long time to effect. The scapegoat survivor has been threatened with the trauma of no compassion when strong for years. It often takes consistent and ongoing ‘proof’ in the therapy that they no longer risk such danger when they feel strong.
Scapegoat survivors also work on their own behalf in therapy to heal themselves. The survivor is often aware of the price they pay for having to live under this rule. They find ways to test out whether the therapist will react to their expressions of strength in the ways their narcissistic parent did. This often happens unconsciously.If the therapist responds with compassion in these moments then the survivor can find it safer to feel strong.
Lawrence was in therapy in his early thirties. He owned his own business as a carpenter. His clients were all satisfied with his work. However, he was not completely booked with projects because he always put off marketing his business. One session the following dialogue ensued:
Lawrence: I don’t have any work two days this week.
Therapist: What do you attribute this to? You have mentioned several times how satisfied your clients are with your work.
Lawrence: That’s just it. The people I’ve done the work for know that I do good work. Nobody else seems to know.
Therapist: Isn’t that where marketing comes in? Reaching out to potential new customers to let them know the quality service you provide.
Lawrence: I guess so. I’ve never been good at that stuff. Plus I feel weird about it.
Lawrence: Yeah, like who am I to be showing off like that? It feels undignified.
Therapist: I hear you. I also wonder if some of your reluctance to market your business is part of a way you used to have to protect yourself from you father. As we’ve discussed, he showed you no compassion when you were at full-strength. He did when you seemed compromised.
If you set about marketing your business and it leads to success then you might risk the old danger of having no compassion for yourself. You might no longer be compromised by not having enough work.
Lawrence: Something in me says you’re right. It still feels strange to market myself but I’m going to look into it.
Over the next few months, Lawrence took to marketing his business and was fully booked. His therapist’s compassionate stance towards Lawrence did not change throughout. Lawrence was able to tolerate his fear of losing compassion while at full-strength. Over time he grew to find it safer to live from a strengthened position without as much fear of losing needed compassion.
Lawrence and others like him illustrate how therapy allows scapegoat survivors to learn they can live without being hooked up to that terrible machine I mentioned earlier. They get to gradually discover that they can stand fully upright in their lives without sacrificing needed compassion. It can be a long process but well worth it.
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.