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Choosing and Protecting Safe Relationships: The Second Pillar of Recovery for Scapegoat Survivors

choosing and protecting safe relationships: the second pillar of recovery for scapegoat survivors

Do you find yourself in friendships or relationships where kindness is hard to come by?

Do you avoid people who are good to you because you think they must not really know you or there must be something ‘wrong’ with them?

Do you expect to be rejected if your opinion does not match the other person’s?

Scapegoat survivors of narcissistic parents may actually feel better when they are in one-sided relationships. The reason goes back to how uncared for they really felt as a child. They felt abandoned, astray, ashamed. I will call these the “Three A’s” as we go along. To avoid the Three A’s the scapegoat child had to find a way to not expect care from their narcissistic parent. The child may do this by adopting the belief that they are defective and undeserving while their parent is perfect and deserving. Now the child can conclude that they exist only to obey and admire their parent. So long as they are operating this way they can feel useful to their narcissistic parent. Feeling useful beats the Three A’s by miles.

The scapegoat child internalizes this pattern of interaction with their narcissistic parent. In so doing, they experience life as something that feels good when they are psychologically close to that parent and bad when they are not. Staying close can mean acting like that parent is around and in charge or treating oneself the same way the parent mistreated them. Scapegoat survivors do one or both by moving towards people who treat them like they do not deserve much. Such friendships and relationships reinforce their internal connection to their narcissistic parent. And this internal connection staves off the ongoing threat of the Three A’s.

Reciprocal friendships and relationships can feel threatening to the scapegoat survivor at first.This is because being treated well makes them feel distant from their internalized narcissistic parent.If they feel distant then they are at risk of feeling the Three A’s. These safe friends and partners may offer the care that was not available earlier in life. However the past trauma of not having it available can initially flood the survivor with the Three A’s. This makes it very difficult – at first – to see that things are different now.

In today’s post, I explain how to apply the second pillar of recovery from narcissistic abuse in your life. This pillar involves moving away from narcissistically abusive people and towards safe people. I will also explain the challenge and the promise that this pillar offers. The challenge involves re-encountering the feelings of being ashamed, abandoned, and astray resulting from going uncared for as a child.The promise involves a gradual realization that the care you need from others will no longer be withdrawn at any moment. Finally, I will point you to a resource that can help you structure your life to help you meet this challenge and realize this promise.

How Staying Close to the Internalized Narcissistic Parent Protects the Scapegoat Child

As I mentioned earlier the scapegoat child is not sufficiently cared for. Their narcissistic parent does not show them love but instead uses the child to maintain their own flagging self-esteem. In the case of the child thrust into the role of scapegoat this means embodying the worthlessness that the narcissistic parent feels but cannot tolerate in themselves. If the child cooperates then they get to feel useful to the narcissistic parent. If the child does not cooperate and, say, expects to feel care from the narcissistic parent then they feel something far worse. The child can come face to face with the utter absence of care the narcissistic parent has towards them. Such encounters can throw the child into one or more of the Three A’s.

Abandoned

The scapegoat child’s healthy need to know that they are genuinely important to their parent tragically does not get met. Instead they find a parent who is not interested nor genuinely concerned about the child. The scapegoat child may get some attention for superficial attributes. However, they feel utterly alone in their inner worlds. They feel abandoned.

Roy always felt a pressure inside to be doing or thinking something. If he paused, he would feel a terrible and discomforting state come over him. From the moment he awoke to when he went to sleep he felt like he had to stay ahead of this feeling. Action in thought or deed was the only thing that had worked for him.

Eventually Roy grew to understand that the feeling he had been running from was that of abandonment. He and his therapist traced this to how unseen and uncared for he felt in his home growing up. His father was narcissistic and treated Roy as if he could not do anything right. His mother was emotionally uninvolved and paid him little attention. As Roy grew closer to his therapist and certain caring friends in his life he was able to see how abandoned he felt in relation to his parents.

Ashamed

The scapegoat child who hangs onto their need to be cared for can land in a world of shame. We feel shame – or intense self-loathing that makes us want to disappear – when we think we have a need that deserves to get met. Instead, the person we want to meet that need responds as if we do not deserve this. The sudden switch from what was hoped for to what was found is devastating to the child. This is what can result when the scapegoat child brought their emotional need to their narcissistic parent.

Roy knew to never ask for anything for as long as he could remember. Despite this he always worried that he required too much from others. He was a good employee at his company but during performance reviews he expected to be told that he needed too much help to get his work done. Although his supervisors never told him this he kept expecting it.

When his partner would host parties Roy did not feel safe to pause and converse with guests that he liked. He felt compelled to constantly check whether everyone had enough food or drink. If nobody needed anything he would identify and solve potential problems.

In therapy he and his therapist understood how being useful to his guests helped stave off the feeling of shame he would feel if he did what he wanted at these parties. He did not feel like he deserved to do what he wanted and would feel intense shame if he did so anyway.

Astray

The scapegoat child who does not make themselves useful to the narcissistic parent can feel profoundly disoriented and astray. As painful as being close to the narcissistic parent is, it is also orienting. The scapegoat child knows what to anticipate and how to react when engaged with this parent.

Since the narcissistic parent does not benignly stay in contact with the scapegoat child when they go their own direction, the child can feel painfully astray. The child is psychologically lost in these moments without hope of being found.

Roy found it difficult to speak up in groups of people. He would find himself letting others set the conversational agenda even if he had something he wanted to discuss. He also had friends who seemed eager talk more than listen to him.

One day at work, Roy was in a meeting with three people who had always seemed to appreciate him. One colleague asked Roy to share his thoughts about the project they were discussing because they were sure that Roy had some good ideas. As inviting as this seemed, Roy suddenly felt tongue tied. His mind went blank and he did not know what to say. He felt astray.

Staying psychologically close to their narcissistic parent protects the scapegoat child and survivor from the Three A’s. This means not expecting care from others and being useful to them. Doing this produces a less intense but ongoing dull pain that can be lived with. The Three A’s can be too disruptive to allow the scapegoat child or survivor to function.

This picture illustrates the protective function of staying close to the narcissistic parent. The scapegoat survivor has the internalized relationship of themselves as the undeserving and defective scapegoat child to the superior and perfect parent in mind. As they follow the green arrow towards narcissistically abusive friends and partners they avoid the Three A’s. The latter are represented by the shark-infested waters that stand between the survivor and safe people.

The Challenge of the Second Pillar

The second pillar of recovery involves moving away from narcissistically abusive people and towards safe people. This allows the scapegoat survivor to reawaken their need to be cared for. As important as this is to heal, it is also intensely challenging. Forsaking this need keeps the scapegoat survivor psychologically close to their narcissistic parent away from the Three A’s. Embracing it can require the survivor to re-encounter the Three A’s. This time, however, there can be a different ending to these difficult states.

The Promise of the Second Pillar

The scapegoat child had to avoid the Three A’s because there would be no end to the pain involved. They were stuck with their narcissistic parent and could not get the care that would have truly mended these states. When the scapegoat survivor puts the second pillar of recovery into practice there is a new hope. Now the safe other people they move towards can – in fact – offer the care they have been seeking.

This does not mean that the scapegoat survivor will not have to re-encounter the Three A’s. It does mean that re-encountering these painful states can eventually yield to a quality of life that feels much safer and fulfilling. Here is how:

1) The scapegoat survivor begins to notice who treats them well and who does not in their life.

2) They spend more time and energy with the latter and less with the former.

3) They move away from being useful to others and towards expecting care from them.

4) They feel the shame, abandonment, astrayness and abhorrence that results.

4) While they encounter the Three A’s they remain in connection to these new safe friends and partners.

5) These new ongoing connections gradually inform the survivor that they can expect and get care as needed today.

6) As the scapegoat survivor grows convinced of this new information they can tolerate the Three A’s more easily while seeing themselves as deserving and adequate.

In short, the problem becomes the solution. Initially, safe others need to be avoided because they can bring about the Three A’s. As the survivor moves towards them, however, they gradually experience the benefits. While being treated well, say, by a friend they may also feel profoundly astray inside. Maybe the scapegoat survivor confides in their therapist how foreign it feels to be treated this way. Perhaps their therapist helps them navigate this inner disorientation until they feel more stabilized with this friend. Over time the scapegoat survivor finds themselves seeking this kind of treatment from this friend and others.

This picture illustrates the promise of the second pillar of recovery. The scapegoat survivor moves away from narcissistically abusive as depicted by the fence around them. Then they traverse what used to be the shark-infested waters towards safe people. Now, the pangs of the Three A’s they encounter are survivable. Instead of being represented by sharks they are represented by fish. The result is feeling protected from the feeling of going uncared for and reassured that they are cared for by the safe people in their life today.

A Resource to Help You Put the Second Pillar into Practice in Your Life

In my new course called the Empowerment Blueprint for Adult Scapegoat Survivors,[Show thumbnail] I have a section devoted entirely to this topic. This course delivers eight specific life moves that reflect the three pillars of recovery. Here are the three life moves that translate the second pillar into action:

The third Life Move, challenges feelings of responsibility you may have for the emotional wellbeing of your narcissistic parent. One of the obstacles to moving away from narcissistically abusive people today can be the intense guilt that is felt when doing so. This guilt is actually premised on the notion that you are responsible for this person’s emotional wellbeing. As adults, we can only be responsible for our own wellbeing so this notion can be challenged. This life move shows you how to apply the 3C’s in your life:

You did not cause, you cannot control, and you cannot cure your parent’s pathological narcissism.

The fourth Life Move,[Show thumbnail] in the Course offers specific plans to find and get close to safe people. One of the hazards of moving away from narcissistically abusive way can be social isolation. It can just feel too scary to connect with new people. You may not trust your own sense of who is safe and who is not. In this life move you will use the “training wheels” of psychotherapy and peer support groups to find acceptance & support. You can then apply what you experience and learn in these settings in choosing safe people.

The fifth Life Move,[Show thumbnail] helps you set boundaries around narcissistically abusive people today. Saying “No” was usually forbidden for scapegoat children. This is why setting boundaries today goes right to the heart of the scapegoat survivor’s traumatic past. This life move shows you how to set protective boundaries with people who mistreat you. It also shows you how to set proactive boundaries with people who treat you well – without feeling disloyal.

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. I offer an introduction online course on the nature and impacts of narcissistic abuse. I also offer an advanced online course offering 8 powerful strategies for scapegoat survivors to reclaim the quality of life they deserve.

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