In my work with individuals who have survived being the scapegoat in their family of origin I am almost always struck by their deep capacity to understand, empathize with, and offer acceptance to the experience of other people. It’s striking because these people exhibit these instincts despite – for the most part – not knowing this treatment firsthand in the homes they grew up in. It is like the option to reject, judge, condemn or put down has never seemed viable to them. In today’s post, I want to offer an understanding that hopefully celebrates this attribute of many scapegoat survivors and explain how sometimes it can get in the way of creating needed distance from one’s narcissistically abusive family. And watch until the end, because I’ll offer a strategy to challenge the notion that creating boundaries for yourself means excluding others who deserve your inclusion.
Well, my name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California specializing in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & accompanying private Facebook group. Someone who’s been scapegoated by a narcissist has been blamed for all kinds of problems then sent into emotional exile. Now that you question whether you deserved that blame the next task is to find your way “home”. That “home” may be a place you’ve never been before but you likely have a deep sense that it’s where you want to be. A place where you get to view and relate to yourself with compassion, respect, and connection. I think recovery from narcissistic abuse for the scapegoat survivor involves find your way to your new and safe home within yourself.
Through therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse, survivors are provided with a map to get to their new home within themselves and in new or re-engineered relationships. This map contains the 3 Pillars of Recovery that let the survivor know how they got here, where they want to go and how to get there. That translates to:
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 essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. Today’s post falls under the Pillar #2 of Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to learn more about my online course by clicking here.
And if you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. Along with today’s post, this e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems. You can find the link to the book here.
Why does the scapegoat survivor feel so inclusive towards others?
I think the scapegoat survivor knows firsthand how painful it feels to be singled out and rejected by a group that you just want to belong to – your own family. It makes no sense to the person when it’s happening. If that group is your only hope of belonging to anyone then the scapegoated person has to find a way not to blame the group for their rejection but rather to blame themselves. All the while, many scapegoats have an exquisite inner record of how painful this entire ordeal is for them. But why would this lead to wanting to protect others from feeling this way?
I think that by virtue of knowing their own feelings so well it becomes easy to feel empathy towards others who might feel similarly. In addition, and this is anecdotal not based on research findings that I can cite, the scapegoat survivors may be endowed with a higher genetic capacity for empathy. We do know that empathy comes in two forms: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. One study found that genetics accounted for about 50% of a child’s ability to demonstrate emotional empathy. Of course that begs the question of how the scapegoat child ended up so empathic if they had a narcissistic parent who often has very low emotional empathy, but I’ll leave that to the geneticists. Suffice it to say that my argument here is that scapegoat survivors may be operating on a natural endowment for compassion and emotional connection to the feelings of others.
So, it’s knowing firsthand how painful rejection can feel and possessing a higher than average amount of empathy can predispose the scapegoat towards feeling inclusive towards others. Similarly, the scapegoat child was often forbidden to say what they did not like. At least what they did not like about the narcissistic parent. It may have been a matter of survival to show continued appreciation towards the narcissistic parent regardless of the scapegoat child’s true preferences or opinions. Given the limited available options for sources of self-worth while in the narcissistic family, the scapegoat may have derived pride from their willingness to see the good in everyone else and respond to them in kind. In this way, the scapegoat may feel like a bad person or without worth if they entertain negative thoughts or feelings towards others. It may feel like you’re losing the one thing that makes you special and worthwhile.
The challenge of being inclusive when it comes to recovery
As adaptive a trait as compassionate inclusion is for the scapegoat survivor, this practice can interfere with the second pillar of recovery: gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser. It is often an important milestone in recovery when the scapegoat survivor grows to feel safe in exercising discretion over whom they do and do not offer inclusiveness. This is an important step in development because they have had to act inclusively towards someone who was acting rejectingly towards them. As a result the scapegoat has had to compromise their own self-care by keeping someone close to them who is treating them poorly. I believe that it takes repeated experience in new safe relationships to post-traumatically learn that they can exercise discretion without losing the people the need most in life. Importantly, this was not the case in the past but is now a possibility in the right relationships.
Choosing to create and maintain distance from a narcissistic abuser may require some compassionate self-talk when feelings of guilt or self-blame emerge. You can reframe the right to exclude people that mistreat you as a non-injurious act of self-care. And for a time your feelings may not agree with this reframing. And that’s OK. With repetition and execution of exercising discretion to limit your exposure to those who mistreat you, your system will gradually adhere to this cognitive reframe. That is to say, that your feelings will likely catch up with this mental reframe when you are being reinforced in safe relationships in these ways.
I hope you found today’s post helpful in challenging the notion that you must always act inclusively towards everyone in your life. If someone is not treating you well despite your efforts to treat them well then you are entitled to move away from them. After surviving narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat this is likely an unfamiliar experience but one well worth practicing.
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.