Self-Consciousness in Scapegoat Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse

self-consciousness in scapegoat survivors of narcissistic abuse

Do you worry that something about you makes you stand out in a bad way?

Do you find it hard to live without thinking there is some sort of problem with you?

Do you worry that the more someone gets to know you the less they will like you?

It is no accident that scapegoat children of narcissistic parents often feel self-conscious. These children have to embody the worthlessness their parent cannot tolerate in themselves. Having to perceive oneself as objectionable makes a person conscious of who they are. They have to worry that others will “see” how defective they supposedly know themselves to be. It becomes extremely hard to forget oneself and assume acceptance from others. 

When a parent calls attention to the child’s habits, posture, speech, gait, manners, weight, temperament, elocution and/or intelligence the child can feel like an object to the parent. Being an object to the person you depend on is an awful experience. You have no say in how they see you based on your definition of yourself. Instead you have to become conscious of and operate within their definition of you. For the scapegoat child the parent’s definition of them is biased by the parent’s need to see the child as “less than”. So the child is trapped in the parent’s gaze of them and that gaze is rigged to make the child feel different, disgusting, and devalued.

In today’s post, I address how a narcissistic parent’s scrutiny can make a scapegoat child self-conscious. The parent may scrutinize aspects of the child that are real but distort them into qualities to feel ashamed of. For example, a scapegoat child may show marked intelligence and a love for learning at a young age. A narcissistic parent who is insecure about their own intelligence may tease the child for being such an “egghead”. Now the child’s good quality feels like a reason for embarrassment. This child becomes conscious of self that is preoccupying, shameful and alien. The way out for scapegoat survivors is a new relationship where they feel understood and accepted from the inside out.

Why a Narcissistic Parent Makes a Scapegoat Child Feel Self-Conscious

One might wonder why a parent would go out of their way to make their child feel bad about themselves. The answer starts with the parent’s pathological narcissism. This means that the afflicted person has an exaggerated yet fragile self-worth. They also use others to prop this self-worth up either through association or disassociation.  They may feel more self-worth when they associate with people they see as higher status. They can also feel more self-worth when they disassociate from people they see as lower status.

The problem is that no child is actually lower status to their parent. This fact is a problem for the narcissistic parent seeking to prop themselves up by disassociating from their child. The parent solves it by making up reasons to see their scapegoat child as lower status. These reasons become prophecies the child has to live out.

One of the ways a parent can convince their child of their lower status is by scrutinizing them. Instead of seeing the child’s existence as fundamentally understandable and normal, the parent calls it into question. The pay attention to the child under the auspices of “noticing” what is strange about the child. Scapegoat children are often familiar with the dread of hearing their name in the narcissistic parent’s mouth. This often involved the parent talking about their child in subtly humiliating ways. 

Devin was big for his age as a first-grader. He liked to rough house with his friends and was infatuated with being strong. He would watch the movie Hercules over and over because he was delighted by it.

One day he went shopping for clothes with his pathologically narcissistic mother. She looked at him and said, “Devin, you’re husky. We need to find clothes that will fit a husky boy.” Devin wasn’t sure what this meant. “Mom, what does husky mean?”. She said, “It means that you have bigger bones than other kids your age.”

He went to try on clothes and she frowned and said “Your waist is too big for these pants. I’ll go get a bigger size.” He was confused. He felt like she saw something wrong with his body but couldn’t say exactly what.

The next week they were visiting his maternal grandparents and his mother said at the dinner table: “Devin is big for his age. I took him clothes shopping last week and we had to go to the Husky section.” Devin felt embarassed but he still wasn’t exactly sure why. He wondered why his mother was making such a big deal out of him being big for boys his age. He overheard her on the phone telling other parents about his husky clothes. He felt singled out and put down.

At the dinner table she would point out that Devin did not chew his food enough and ate too fast. She said that was why he was too big. Devin felt terrible. Now he knew there must be something wrong with his body.

At around this time, Devin stopped seeing himself as a strong boy and started seeing himself as digustingly overweight. He saw this when he looked in the mirror and feared that his classmates thought the same of him. He grew extremely conscious of hid body and couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a liability instead of an asset.

What Devin did not know was that his mother was worried about her own weight at the time. She had been quite thin up until that point and seemed to feel threatened by having put on some weight. She transferred this fear of her own perceived defect onto her son by calling so much attention to his body. Although she did not directly state he was overweight, her harping on the subject was enough to make Devin self-conscious. Seeing him self-conscious about his body helped her disassociate from her own fears of being physically unappealing.

What It’s Like for the Scapegoat Child 

The scapegoat child is in the vulnerable position of needing to be who their parent recognizes. If the parent sees them as strange then the child had better believe they are strange. To believe otherwise would risk diverging from the parent’s reality. Better to be a defective somebody to someone than a nobody to no one.

The scapegoat child gets coerced into being the one who has something wrong with them. Just like Devin’s mother kept bringing up his ‘husky’ body so the narcissistic parent keeps insisting on the child’s defectiveness. The child cannot help but assume the parent is right to focus on their – supposed – defect.

Lastly, the narcissistic parent often finds some small basis in reality upon which to transfer their defective feelings. In Devin’s case, it was that he was in fact big for his age. His mother used this fact to relocate her own weight insecurities onto him. Devin found her insinuations about him more believable because there was something about him that served as the hook for them to hang on.

Thus the scapegoat child is forced into being self-conscious about one or more aspects of themselves. There are three features to this self-consciousness in the child’s and later the survivor’s experience.

Feature #1: Preoccupation

It takes a lot of work for the scapegoat child to stay self-conscious. This is because their natural being does not correspond to what they have to be self-conscious about. The child is not – in fact – what they are self conscious about. But to be self-conscious they must harass themselves with these reminders of their – supposed – defectiveness.

The scapegoat child is in a predicament. They want relief from the agony of self-consciousness yet find it impossible to stop. To not be self-conscious in these ways would be to have no relationship to their parent. It is always better to be anxiously preoccupied about supposed defects in themselves and known to a parent than to go unknown.

Feature #2: Shameful

The scapegoat child’s attention gets called to their supposed defect because of the alarm bell of shame. They have been supposedly shown how they “really are” by their narcissistic parent. This information was received in a way where the child was seen as a defective object. For this to happen, there has to a break in the subject-to-subject connection that we all want ideally. To hope to be seen from the inside and instead be seen as a defective object is inherently shaming.

Such experience overwhelms the child’s abilities to cope in the moment. After a trauma like this it can be natural to rehearse it. The child can feel like they need to stay aware of it to make sure it does not happen again. Or if it does that they can survive it this time. This means keeping the experience of shame in one’s consciousness so that they are not ambushed again by it.

Feature #3: Alien

No matter how much the scapegoat child has to torture themselves via self-consciousness there is a nagging sense that none of it is true. This feature can hard for the child to articulate at the time. Experientially there can be a sense that the way their parent is treating them does not feel real. But the way they feel real in themselves is not recognized by their narcissistic parent as real. So the child has to prioritize the parent’s claim of what is real about them over their own. This means having to cling to an identity that feels ill-fitting yet necessary. The alternative would be to insist on how they feel themselves to be with no one to echo that back to them.

Devin now had to contend with the premise that he was objectionably overweight to himself and to others. It flooded his thoughts. He always felt on the verge of embarassment for this. Shame was a constant and unwelcome companion in his world now. He would remind himself to worry about this and seemed to get reminded about this. It was confusing which happened more.

Devin felt lost if he wasn’t thinking of what to do about his defect. He also felt an underlying bewilderment when he was thinking about his defect. It was as if he had a secret language that skewered him which he could only speak with his mother. She spoke this language to him and he understood it by thinking himself in the way she led him to. Outside of this pathological arrangement this identity did not hold. Devin had no other viable relationship with a caring adult to figure this out with. He was on his own in this respect. The only thing he could do was go along with his mother’s ideas about who he was. This meant staying occupied about the shameful supposed fact that he was overweight and ignoring how alient this felt to him.

Devin functioned in his life on top of this bed of defectiveness. No matter what he did or accomplished it was marred by this underlying supposed reality. It became a wobbly fact of life that he had to keep with him at all times.

How to Escape the Binds of Self-Consciousness

Liberating oneself from this type of self-consciousness is a process. There are two challenges in doing this. First, being self-conscious to stay close to someone important may be what attachment feels like.If that is the case, then a different way of feeling attached is needed before the old way can be given up. Second, the pull to feel self-conscious may get reinforced by finding friends and partners who also require it. The scapegoat survivor may not feel close unless someone is shining a light on their supposed defect.

Therapy can help scapegoat survivors overcome these two challenges. First, a therapist has extremely low odds of needing their client to feel self-conscious so that they do not have to. So you can be sure that you will not be with someone who reinforces your self-consciousness. Second, a therapist’s job is to facilitate understanding of how you have had to define closeness and whether that makes you happy or not. This can empower the scapegoat survivor to identify the forces that go into them feeling self-conscious. As they participate in the therapy and are free from those forces, they can make different choices. In order for this to happen, though, a sense of attachment needs to develop in therapy. This alternative form of attachment has to be experienced for the survivor to give up the only form of attaching they have known.

Devin sought therapy in his mid twenties because he felt imprisoned by his anxious self-consciousness. He explained to his therapist that he had found his appearance to be objectionable since he was young. Nothing they discussed seemed to change this in the first couple years of treatment. However, Devin consistently attended his sessions and he began to look forward to them as a place to relax and entertain whatever thoughts he had in the moment with his therapist. He had not been afforded such a relationship growing up. People in his family were not able to communicate from a baseline sense of caring about one another. Interactions did not feel safe. Devin was beginning to experience what safety in a relationship felt like.

Over time Devin was able to make more use of his therapist’s interpretation that his current self-consciousness was a way to stay close to his internalized narcissistic mother. He did not win an internal argument to “prove” that his appearance was acceptable. It was more like he turned away from the that premise entirely. This was apparent in one particular session:

Devin said, “You know, I think I’m a healthy guy – psychologically and physically. It’s kind of scary to say that actually but I think it’s true.”

His therapist nodded and listened intently.

“I just had this image come to mind. It’s like I was shanghai’d onto a boat where the captain and the crew told me there was something wrong with me. I walked around the ship and did my sailing chores thinking they were right.

But now I feel like I have leaped off of that old boat and onto a boat that you’re steering. On this boat I know I am healthy. I also know that you know I am healthy. It feels totally different but I’m still on a boat and going where I need to go.”

This session demonstrates how Devin was able to give up the old way of thinking about himself in favor of what had developed between he and his therapist.

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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