If you grew up with a narcissistic parent and felt devalued most of the time then you were that parent’s scapegoat. The scapegoat is someone who must embody what the narcissistic parent cannot stand in themselves. By “finding” what they hate in themselves to be in the scapegoat child, the parent feels protected; this is the role of the scapegoat child.
The scapegoat child has to maneuver themselves to participate in the narcissist’s projections. These maneuvers are necessary to manage the terrifying awareness that their own parent is hostile towards them. Hostile towards the child’s growth, joy and authentic self. Participating with the narcissistic parent’s devaluation of them can make this situation survivable. The ways a child learns to participate in their devaluation are the symptoms of the scapegoat child.
In today’s post, I describe how the role and symptoms of being the scapegoat child make it possible to attach to a hostile parent. Then I explain how gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser helps you recover from the role of the scapegoat. Last, I describe how living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules helps you relieve the symptoms.
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 come back 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 3 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. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. Today’s blog falls under Pillar #3: Making sense of what happened.
A great resource to help with Pillar #1: making sense of what happened is my free ebook on Surviving Narcissistic abuse as the Scapegoat. You can find the link to the ebook by clicking here.
How the scapegoat role develops
A narcissistic parent is in a constant battle to keep their self-hatred at bay. They deny such feelings and insist on their opposite. Instead of experiencing themselves as worth less than others they are worth more. They relocate their bad feelings into the scapegoat child and exaggerate their own good feelings. This results in devaluing that child while requiring excessive admiration and obedience.
A scapegoat child’s growth threatens the narcissistic parent’s fragile and inflated self-worth. Growth is a vitalizing and self-enhancing experience. Such experiences conflict with the child seeming less than the narcissistic parent.
The scapegoat child’s growth puts them at odds with the narcissistic parent. If the child revels in their developmental achievements they will be met with more hostility. If they disown their expanding abilities they may be spared. Only the latter strategy feels survivable to the child.
A scapegoat child can disown their own growth by believing they are defective and dangerous. In the first case the child doubts their ability to grow. They see themselves as dispossessed of their own expanding capabilities. They believe that they cannot do anything right.
A scapegoat child who believes their growth is dangerous will also disavow it. Their increased physical strength could make them hurt other people. Their developing sexual identity is sinister and shameful. Their increased perceptiveness hurts others’ feelings.
The scapegoat child’s role requires them to sacrifice their own growth to remain less than the narcissistic parent. The child has to collude with the parent’s claim that the problem in their relationship is the child’s growth. The child has no recourse to the real problem: that the narcissistic parent cannot tolerate the child’s development.
Now the parent seems less cruel when they are hostile towards the scapegoat child’s displays of growth. A child who believes their own growth is defective or dangerous can see their parent’s hostility as justified. The parent is no longer wrong for treating the child with contempt.
Functions of the scapegoat child’s role
Once the child accepts the scapegoat role they have a way to attach to a rejecting parent. The child faces rejection because they are accused of being what the narcissistic parent rejects in themselves. In fact the narcissistic parent will refuse to know this child in any other way. Now the child stomachs their feelings of hurt and anger at the parent’s cruelty. They deserve such treatment after all – say their beliefs about themselves.
Assuming the scapegoat role also lets the child perceive the narcissistic parent as good and helpful to them. These are necessary perceptions to survive as a small child. The child has to live in a world with a parent who is only trying to correct their wicked ways. The parent is not their enemy even though the child is treated like the parent’s enemy.
If the scapegoat child experiences themselves to be wretched then they can still seek help from their parent. Many scapegoat survivors are familiar with a strong pull to go towards their narcissistic parent. The way the child learned to cope with the parent’s demand that there be something wrong with the child prevents the child from seeing what the parent is doing to them. Instead the child sees the parent as someone who might help them fix what is wrong with them. Maybe this means being told more things that are wrong with them. And so it goes. Without distance from a narcissistic parent such a cycle can continue into perpetuity.
How the Child Participates as the Scapegoat
Everything I have explained so far is at a conceptual level. In practice this happens very fast for the child and the narcissistic parent. It is in interactions with the parent when the child can suddenly find themselves to deserve the parent’s abuse.
The child is aware that the hostile parent ‘knows’ there is something fundamentally wrong with the child. Being treated this way by the narcissistic parent can feel like an invasion of the child’s mind. Like being possessed. The child’s feeling of being deeply defective is intrusive, disturbing, smothering and inescapable in these moments.
In contrast, the narcissistic parent finds themselves and is found by the child to be flawless. This is because the scapegoat child is full of flaws. It must be this way for this system to exist. And the system must exist for the child and the narcissistic parent to go on being.
Isaiah had been in therapy for several years. He came to treatment because he could not shake a sense of feeling deeply inadequate. He felt this way no matter how he was received in his work, friendships or relationships. All tended to be positive for him. He was well aware that his narcissistic mother had forced him into the scapegoat role. Now he and his therapist were identifying how this role showed up when he got close to people today.
One session Isaiah was talking about being happy that he was going to be promptly reimbursed by his insurance for the sessions. He said, “I can’t believe the insurance company is being an efficient provider for me.”
His therapist was struck by this term and asked, “What about inefficient providers? Are you familiar with that?”
Immediately Isaiah was convinced that his therapist was pointing towards his own psychopathology. He thought, “He must be referring to how I don’t give people enough of a chance. That if they don’t provide for all of my needs perfectly I just drop them. He thinks I am narcissistic. And I must be!”
And Isaiah felt guilty of these accusations. He felt instantly lower than his therapist and a searing shame came over him. He could not say or do anything to prove his innocence but maybe he could get his sentence reduced. So Isaiah tried to cut his therapist off at the pass and preemptively see himself as defective.
He said, “Well, yeah I guess I have often cut people out when they don’t meet my needs. I guess I’m too sensitive about that stuff.”
But then he stopped. His mind settled a bit. He felt some trust towards his therapist whom he’d been with a long time. “Wait a minute, why did you ask me that question?” he asked the therapist.
His therapist said, “Well when you said efficient provision I was struck by it. I thought it might open something important up. I wasn’t sure what but I went with where my instinct took me.”
Isaiah exclaimed, “Wow! I just realized that I heard your question as an indictment of my psychology. That you had found what was wrong with me and you were leading me to see what it was. I thought you were laying bare how I am really the narcissistic one who can’t stand imperfections in others.”
Even as Isaiah talked about it he still felt like he was in the situation. “It feels like something permanent. Like there’s nothing to be done to fix or repair this feeling.”
Isaiah’s experience with his therapist shows how quickly the ways of participating in a narcissistic relationship can show up. Just like in earlier situations with his narcissistic mother, he had to be who was wrong in the situation initially. That’s why he was flooded with thoughts of his therapist implying he was intolerant of others’ imperfections. That the problem was Isaiah. But in this case, he had enough trust in his therapist and distance from his narcissistic abuser that he could question it all. He asked his therapist what he meant by the question. His therapist’s answer shed light to both of them of how fast and consuming the scapegoat role can strike him.
Maneuvers like the one Isaiah made in this session are born out of having to attach to a hostile narcissistic parent. Assuming the role of scapegoat allowed Isaiah to have a reality that was shared. He suffered tremendously but it was better than having no shared reality with anyone at the time.
The Scapegoat Child’s Symptoms
The symptoms of the scapegoat child are the ways the child must treat himself to comply with the scapegoat role. This can mean constructing An inner critic that is hellishly harsh. The child can feel like everything they do is embarrassing, stupid and/or wrong. It may be quite different on the outside but this is what goes on inside the child.
The symptom of anxiety is prominent. The scapegoat child feels an ongoing inevitability that someone else will discover their defect. That feels threatening and the result is anxiety.
Unkind relationships can be another symptom. Since the scapegoat child’s mind is so primed to be found as defective, the child might find friends who treat them poorly too. They may seek the only reality they know in their family outside of their family too.
By design the scapegoat child is not allowed to feel self-esteem. Feeling proud of oneself would have prevented them from being the scapegoat to the narcissistic parent. The consequence of this is a symptom of chronic depression marked by a hopelessness. Life without the possibility of self-worth is a dreary proposition.
The Way Out
I believe that it is possible to find relief from the scapegoat role and its symptoms. The scapegoat role is an experience that happens in interaction with a narcissistic abuser. This is why the second pillar of recovery: Getting Distance from a Narcissistic Abuser is so important. Survivors need to protect themselves from more experience that requires them to be the scapegoat.
In Module 3 of my online course for Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse I go into just this topic. I address the challenges in creating such distance. It can be more difficult to create distance from a narcissistic parent than a ‘good-enough’ parent. Finally, I offer concrete strategies to achieve the needed distance. You can find the link by clicking here.
The symptoms of being the scapegoat can eventually be relieved by living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Just like Isaiah stopped going down the rabbit hole of pathologizing himself in the example above. By asking his therapist what was meant by the question he defied the earlier rule from his narcissistic mother that he was not to question her.
There are infinite other ways that a scapegoat survivor might defy the narcissist’s rules. Defying these rules often happens most effectively in relationships with people who are safe. Of course, it can be a challenge itself to believe there are safe people out there. Doing experiments like Isaiah did with his therapist is a good way to find out if someone is in fact safe. Other examples could include telling a friend when they have hurt, irritated or angered you. If they respond in a way intended to mend the friendship then they are safe. If they get defensive and blame you then they are not safe.
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.