Do you define the ‘real you’ as someone who has low self-worth, is
insecure, or anxious?
Do your own good feelings seem inauthentic or superficial?
Does life seem like it needs to be a struggle to feel real to you?
The scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent is no stranger to feeling bad. If this form of abuse is chronic and severe enough the child can confuse badness with who they are. After surviving a childhood of narcissistic abuse, good feelings may feel inauthentic. There are good reasons for this. In today’s
blog, I am going to explain what those reasons are. Next, I describe how pursuing an authentic ‘bad self’ can be compelling but still false. And watch until the end because I lay out the steps to making a good self feel real.
How the Scapegoat Child Is Led To Confuse Badness With Realness
All children depend on their primary caregivers as a frame of reference for who they are. Parents are in a particularly powerful position to tell their children what about them is real. The ways the child is responded to will tend to feel more real than what goes ignored.
In good-enough scenarios, the child’s parents appreciate and respond to the child. They hold a baseline level of unconditional acceptance toward the child. Then they notice the child’s original expressions, traits, and ways. This gives the child a sense that they are understood how they understand themselves.
There is a comfortable symmetry between the child’s inner world and how the caregiver responds to that world. The child feels real for who they are in the world.
The scapegoat child’s unique ways of going unnoticed by their narcissistic parent. Instead, the narcissistic parent sees this child as an instrument to meet their needs. The child is earmarked to embody the worthlessness the parent cannot bear to feel.
The narcissistic parent cherry-picks faulty attributes of the child to recognize. None of us are perfect. The scapegoat child – like all children – makes mistakes. The narcissistic parent selectively responds to these mistakes with scorn and contempt. This happens against a backdrop of not responding to the child’s good traits. A scapegoat child is left to conclude that the only things real about them are bad.
Here is an example of how the scapegoat child is led to confusing being bad with being real:
Greg was the scapegoat in his family of origin. His mother was narcissistic. She insisted on her perfection and found him a worthless family member. She would lash out in vindictive rage if she perceived even the slightest of criticisms or insults,
His childhood was an ongoing gauntlet of her and his dad finding fault in him. They would go to church on Sundays and have breakfast at a diner afterward. At that time, eating was his only source of feeling good. Greg loved food and would eat with great relish.
“Greg, chew your food before you swallow!” his mother would exclaim – bringing his father and sister’s derisive attention toward him. On the car ride home, she discussed how Greg eats too fast with his father. “Greg just will not chew his food. He swallows it down whole. He’s going to become obese.” Greg felt shame and intense worry that he would become something bad. He was unsure what ‘obese’ meant but knew it was not good.
Greg looked out the window to absorb what he saw and leave these feelings behind. Something felt like it was inside his nose. Greg stuck his finger in to get it out. “Ew, he’s picking his nose now!” exclaimed his sister. His mother spun around in her seat with unbridled contempt. “Greg, get your hand out of your nose right now, Darnit! You can’t go around picking your nose like that. It’s disgusting.”
In the third grade, Greg won his weekly spelling bee class regularly. Greg lost in an early round one week because he spelled ‘development’ with an extra ‘e’. As Greg came to the lunch table to sit with
his friends, he said with full sincerity, “I’m really stupid”. Saying. that seemed like the truth. The feelings of sadness and disappointment in himself were what he felt so often at home. His friend, Sally, got up from the table and was so upset by what Greg said that she told his teacher. Greg did
not know what to do with it but felt protected. Greg was in a family where everyone always picked on him, and now someone was saying that he should not pick on himself. That it pained them to see him hurt himself like this?
The only responses Greg tended to get from his parents were that he was defective. They ignored his strengths. Over time their continued emphasis on his mistakes led him to conclude that this was what was real about him. He assumed that when people saw and heard him, they recoiled in disgust like his
mother. Of course, Sally offered a powerful example to the contrary, but Greg could not use it at that point in his life.
The Siren Song of Catharsis for the Scapegoat Survivor
The scapegoat child is conditioned to feel real only when they feel bad about themselves. One of the ways this can manifest as the child grows up is to search for a way to wholly become this negative identity. Here is how and why this occurs.
The scapegoat child forced to think of themselves as bad also feels like something is amiss. There can be a lurking sense of not feeling entirely real and incomplete. When this happens, the scapegoat survivor may seek to feel more complete by accessing and expressing how bad they feel about themselves. This, they have learned, is what is real about them. So ratcheting up these feelings should lead to feeling complete and authentic.
There can be a subtle hope that feeling one’s badness will lead to salvation. This hope may mimic the scapegoat child’s understanding of why their narcissistic parent was so hostile. The child has to assume that the parent would not be so contemptuous if the child were better. So if the child can take full ownership of their badness, they may be forgiven by the parent and loved. It would be a salvation for the child in this predicament. Unfortunately, both forms of salvation are mirages.
The actual reason the scapegoat survivor feels incomplete is because the idea of their badness is inauthentic. The narcissistic parent’s selective responses to their childhood mistakes were a fabrication. The intent was to get the child and the parent to believe the lie that the child was worthless. So,
the child will feel a gnawing sense of being inauthentic because their identity is built on a lie.
At Greg’s first job after college, he received his first performance review. Before walking into his boss’s office, he braced himself to be told how bad of an employee he was. As he sat down, he said, “Look, I want to come clean with you. I don’t think I’ve done as good a job as possible. I want to, so please don’t pull any punches in telling me how I can improve.” Admitting his flaws at the outset felt honest to him.
To his surprise, his boss said, “Well, Greg, you’ve given me no reason to throw punches. You care about your work. You turn in good to excellent deliverables. If anything, I would want to address your perception of your performance. I think you are short-changing yourself.”
When Greg could be evaluated well or poorly, his sense of badness initially tried to take control. He “confessed” his underperformance and openness to being shown how to improve. This felt like he
was being honest about who he was – in the way his family had conditioned him to think of himself. His boss’s response highlighted how Greg was received in his world. But at the time, Greg found this feedback to be confusing and unreal to him.
Silvia Perrera, a Jungian scholar, talks about the uroboric in her book ‘The scapegoat complex’. This concept refers to the idea of becoming complete by being fully bad. The term uroboric refers to this diagram:
The snake is attempting to eat its tail. Just as Greg tried to claim that he was failing at the start of his performance evaluation, it was the only way to feel real and honest at the time. How his family responded to him had led him only to be able to take in negative information about himself. He might hope to
feel complete by swallowing more negative – like the snake’s intent towards its tail.
Finding What Is Good and Real in Yourself: Try Some Wrong
In the movie, 40-year-old virgin Steve Carrell plays the main character. He gets outed by his friends as a 40-year-old virgin, and they try to help him break this streak. In one scene, they take him to a nightclub and coach him on approaching women. His friend named ‘Jay’ played by Romany Malco, is encouraging him to approach a woman, and Steve Carrell says,
I cannot think of a better way to put it.
The scapegoat survivor’s task is redefining what is real about themselves. To date, real may have been the same as being flawed. Recovery involves resisting the siren song of doubling down on this identity. Next, the survivor can try what feels unfamiliar or even unreal. This step may mean tolerating feeling lost, disoriented, inauthentic, and anxious.
I cannot overstate how important safe others are to this process. As the scapegoat survivor moves from the narcissistic family who responded to them as if they were bad, they need responses from people who see the good in them. That will make goodness a basis of their identity feel real in due time.
This process takes time because we are programmed to privilege our family’s view of us. The scapegoat survivor has to surrender their allegiance to their family’s view of them. This is hard by itself. Next, the survivor attempts to replace this view with safe friends’ and partners’ views of them. Although these views will be more accurate and kind, they will initially feel unfamiliar. The survivor may also feel disloyal for believing people outside their family. These feelings are all understandable and can be temporary. With persistence and time, these feelings can subside, and a new, more accurate definition of reality can take hold.
How Greg’ Tried Some Wrong’
When Greg was in his mid-twenties, he went to therapy. He knew he felt off inside but didn’t know why or what to do about it. He met with a therapist who smiled kindly at him. He seemed to like Greg. This was the beginning of a long-term therapy.
In the fourth year of treatment, Greg saw more clearly the ways he was in the world. He was funny. He was intelligent. He was warm and kind. He was drawn to woodworking. He was drawn to cooking. He also knew that when he did these things, he felt unreal, anxious, and even depressed. It was the mutual understanding he had with his therapist that helped him persist. He did not feel alone in trying to make real the parts of himself that had gone unresponded to by his narcissistic mother.
Greg would commit to acting in these ways as much as possible in the world. Sometimes when he went to woodworking class, it seemed like every part of him was screaming not to go. And yet he would proceed. Over time, his inner resistance to doing what was good and real about him subsided. He now had a supportive relationship with his therapist that helped him understand these feelings and push through them.
This process itself took several years. Progress was sure but incremental. At the end of treatment, Greg could say that he had a new frame of reference for who he was that was good and felt fairly real. The old frame of reference would still creep in at times, but Greg could now see it as a familiar but false inner state.
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.