Someone who had survived narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat in his family of origin recently described what it was like for him to play his favorite sport – basketball. We’ll call this person ‘Steph’ (no relation to Curry). Steph loved shooting baskets and playing in pickup games with his friends since he was 5 years old. Something just felt good and correct to him and in his body when he was on the basketball court at such a young age.
Steph’s experience in his home was completely the opposite: he felt like an unwelcome alien amongst his parents and siblings and he always had to watch his back to see what he would be accused of that would lead him to getting into ‘trouble’ next. So, he had these two wildly divergent realities between how he was dehumanized at home and blamed for any and everything in his family versus the appreciation he experienced from his teammates for being able to pass and score so effectively on the court. Steph described his inner experience when he plays basketball and it revealed how he has had to reconcile these two divergent realities.
“I always think I’m going to make a mistake on the court. It’s a surprise to me every time I do something well. Sometimes, I’m amazed at how different the track in my head is compared to what I’m actually doing on the court. It’s really hard to reflect on my skills as a basketball player and my accomplishments. I fear that if I think too much about what I can do, then I won’t be able to do it anymore. I’ll think of some problem in my shooting or passing and obsess over it and it’ll ruin my game.”
Steph has a mental frame about who he is that opposes how he is actually living in the world. The American Psychological Association defines a mental frame as “a set of rules…by which an individual perceives and evaluates the world”. In today’s post, I want to talk about what it’s like to have to live with a mental frame that is incongruent with how you actually live in the world. Next, I’ll explain how surviving narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat can bring this about. Last, I will talk about the process of changing one’s mental frame to better match how you live in the world – and here’s a spoiler: it’s not a one-person job but one that happens in relationship to others.
Well, my name is Jay Reid and I specialize in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & community. We take a 3-pronged approach to recover of 1) Making sense of what happened, 2) Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and 3) living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Today’s blog post falls under the category of ‘Living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules’.
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.
So why does it feel so bad to do what you’re good at?
Steph’s experience on the basketball court and the wildly divergent narrative of what’s happening in his mind can be a common experience after surviving narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat. Others may find themselves to be very competent at work or school yet constantly tell themselves that they’re one mistake away from ruining it all. Or maybe you get the feedback of being a very good friend, parent and/or partner yet you always feel like you’re one step away from betraying, disappointing or failing these people. The conviction that one is not as good as one seems to be is not easily given up. This experience can frustrate – understandably – scapegoat survivors. It also makes fraught the experience of doing what you are good at. Although Steph loved basketball, the experience of playing always carried a state of anxiety, unease, and even a mild depression that he had to tolerate in order to play.
The reason is that in order to survive narcissistic abuse as the scapegoat it is typically necessary to adopt a mental frame about who you are in the world that corresponds to the distorted and devaluing messages you received from your family. There is pressure from within and without to do this. From within, the scapegoat must forge some kind of bond with the narcissistic parent in order to survive. From without, the narcissistic parent sees the scapegoat child as a threat to his or her fragile and artificially inflated self-worth so he or she relocates her own sense of worthlessness into the scapegoat child and influences that child to adopt this worthlessness as the child’s own. So, in order to share a reality with this parent – which is the first step in forming a bond – the child must internalize a mental frame about themselves that – in essence – says they are ‘no good’, undeserving, and defective.
And at the same time, the scapegoat child has to go on living and does. In the process of going on living, he or she will show who he or she actually is in the world and at times encounter accurate feedback about themselves. These moments are where the mental frame needed to survive at home often becomes most conspicuous. One fictional client remembered winning spelling bees in his second grade class week after week then telling his friends at lunch that he was “stupid”. He remembered how upset his friends were to hear him say this and at the time their reaction was confusing to him. But he was being treated as though he was unimportant and a problem by his narcissistic mother at home so the feelings of esteem and pride brought on by his talent in spelling made him confused. As this client went on to succeed in school, he described it as a very tension-filled experience because he’d be studying on top of this mental frame about himself that said he was “stupid” in effect.
Changing your mental frame to better match who you are
I think this concept of a mental frame versus who you are in the world points to the purpose of therapy as a profession. Since we all live within our mental frames, they deserve our attention and will likely influence our quality of life for better or worse. So, when our mental frames are aligned with who we actually are then life should feel authentic, empowered and meaningful. It’s when your mental frame is at odds with who you are that life can feel tense, unsafe and flat. Enter the process of therapy where the intention is for the client to develop a working relationship with someone who is trustworthy, compassionate, and motivated to help you align your mental frame with who you actually are. I bring up therapy because the process of changing your mental frame as the scapegoat survivor of narcissistic abuse is not exclusively a one-person job. Your mental frame of being defective and/or undeserving was established as the only way possible to eke out some small amount of safety for yourself in your narcissistic family. This mental frame saved you from having no relationship to anyone in your family – a far worse experience than having a bad relationship to someone in your family.
So, here’s how therapy and other supportive relationships can function to help you relinquish the old mental frame about yourself and feel safer in adopting a new and more accurate frame of who you are. In essence, a therapist can help you notice and identify how the old painful mental frame of who you are operates in your life and respond in ways that convey to you that this relationship does not require you to believe such things about yourself in order for it to continue. In effect, you get to learn the opposite of what initially instilled this painful mental frame – that you get to experience continued connection to someone else while also noticing and accepting what is good about you. For the scapegoat survivor, the only way to notice what is good about oneself is typically to be completely alone. Such information threatened the needed bonds to the narcissistic family. Therapy can offer the opposite lesson.
And this is not to say that educating yourself on the topic is not also effective. But I do believe that both are required. Towards that end, you might check out module 2 in my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse. I go into great depth here about how the scapegoat survivor’s self has to essentially split itself in order to maintain a bond with the narcissistic parent while holding his real self hostage as the one to blame for the parent’s abuse. This module can help you cultivate compassion and patience towards yourself as you work to change your mental frame because it highlights the ‘no-win’ position you were in with the narcissistic parent.
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.