Does it feel very difficult or even impossible to feel proud of yourself?
Does winning feel like a foreign experience to you?
Do you find yourself taking on activities in order to disprove that you’re incapable rather than seeking feelings of effectiveness, power or satisfaction?
Do you spend a lot of time trying not to be a disappointment to yourself?
If you survived narcissistic abuse by a parent or a partner and survived the role of scapegoat, then these questions could very well fit your experience. For the child or partner to a narcissistic abuser, there is no room in the relationship for your strengths, appropriate needs for affirmation and validation, or rightful pride in who you are and what you can do.
In this blog post, I want to explain how the scapegoat survivor of narcissistic abuse is systematically denied the self-worth medals in narcissistic abuse they deserve. Next, I’ll describe how the scapegoat child or partner may learn to cope with the narcissistic abuser’s withholding of needed recognition for their positive qualities. And if you read until the end, you’ll learn three tactics to help you reclaim the pride in yourself and your abilities that you are entitled to, which is, frankly, long overdue.
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, 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 ‘making sense of what has happened to the scapegoat survivor.
And if you survived narcissistic abuse from a parent or a partner, you might check out my free e-book on this topic. It explains why someone is selected to be the scapegoat – it’s not because they’re so bad but because they’re so good – and why none of this sort of treatment was deserved. The e-book clarifies how the process of narcissistic abuse and the role of the scapegoat is a product of the narcissistic person’s psychopathology and nothing else.
No medals here…
During the winter Olympics, world-class athletes compete to win medals. Let’s take snowboarding, for example. Shaun White is the American athlete who’s dominated this event for over a decade. Let’s say he has a phenomenal run and then is waiting for the judges to give him his score for a run. These moments always result in bated breath by the crowd.
I think part of the bated breath moment is our slight anxiety that Shaun White will not be justly awarded for his performance and the hope that he will. And we all have a sigh of relief when the judges’ score matches our sense of the quality of Shaun White’s performance. If the score is lower or higher than the collective sense of Shaun’s performance, then there’s often an outcry and a sense that things are not right.
What do the winter Olympics have to do with being the scapegoat survivor of narcissistic abuse?
A lot, I think. If you were cast into the role of scapegoat by a narcissistic abuser, you could perform like Shaun White in any given domain, and the judges’ score from the abuser will always be way lower than you deserve.
If you were a child born to a narcissistic parent, then maybe you’re used to being judged as a poor performer by that parent – despite objectively performing quite well – and have learned not to get your hopes up that others’ evaluations of you will match the quality of your performance. This can be demoralizing. It can also turn life into a grim affair because there is no viable path towards victory and the resulting pride in oneself.
One can only hope to avoid getting the lowest score possible. That is not a great basis for motivation. No wonder those who’ve survived scapegoated narcissistic abuse often have trouble motivating themselves to work towards personal and professional goals. The usual rewards of pride, joy, and the “thrill of victory” that those who had good-enough families to accomplish such goals are not possible.
Why is life rigged for the scapegoat to deny them the just desserts for their efforts?
I think this metaphor of corrupt judges at the Olympics is good for what it’s like to grow up as the scapegoat for a narcissistic parent. In these cases, the narcissistic parent’s core sense of worthlessness, denial of these feelings, the insistence that they’re instead superior to other people, and mission to “find” their cast-off worthlessness in someone else makes it so that they cannot tolerate giving a good score to the person they’ve relocated their worthless into.
Unfortunately for the scapegoated child, he or she has no way to doubt the narcissistic parent’s judgments of him or her. The child is born into the world without a frame of reference for who they are in the world and depend on their parents for their very first and often most influential answer. If the parent is narcissistically abusive, the answer that child receives – particularly if that child’s natural abilities or qualities threaten the narcissistic parent’s fragile sense of superiority – will likely be disappointing or even humiliating.
I think it’s really important to distinguish here the messages the scapegoat child of a narcissistic parent received from the essential qualities of that child. Like Shaun White in the example above, the child could be excellent in what they do or who they are, and this capability can evoke a “low score” from the narcissistic parent.
It’s not that the child did not deserve an accurate high score but that the evaluation was rigged.
Here’s an anonymized example of a scapegoat survivor working on distinguishing who she was from her low scores throughout her childhood and adolescence as the scapegoat to a narcissistic mother and enabler father. Let’s call her Vanessa. As an adult, Vanessa tried to make sense of what she endured at the hands of her parents and was in therapy.
Through therapy, she had grown to recognize some of her very real qualities as a person: she was perceptive, had a keen sense of fairness, was motivated to fight injustices that she encountered, and cared deeply about others’ feelings. She recalled being the only one in her family who seemed ever to voice that something felt wrong. At one point, she spoke 1:1 with her father, who had always taken a submissive role to the narcissistically abusive mother and refused to ever intervene on Vanessa’s behalf. She then asked her father,
“Did you recognize that I was emotionally the strongest family member?”
Her father immediately cut from his usual passive stance and said gruffly and sharply:
“I don’t know, Vanessa; I didn’t go around handing out medals!”
As we discussed this moment in therapy, Vanessa immediately felt shame at having supposedly bragged by citing her strength and asking for her parent to recognize it. Her therapist quickly rejoined with:
“Well, why didn’t he hand out medals? Wasn’t that his job as a father?”
This statement lifted Vanessa’s shame, and she could return to her initial rightful question of why her father did not give her the medal she deserved for being so strong.
Vanessa’s example, and others like it, illustrate how matter-of-factly the scapegoat of the narcissistic family is denied the recognition and pride they deserve in who they are. Vanessa learned to cope with this ongoing denial of the self-worth medals she deserved by not asking for such recognition.
When she was growing up, she didn’t have a therapist who could help her work through the humiliating way her family received her very reasonable efforts to be appreciated and recognized for her strengths and capacities. As a kid, she also had no way to know that she was up against a psychological pathology in her mother and father that made it impossible for her to get the credit from them she needed. The experience Vanessa had – over and over again – was that when she piped up to ask for someone to witness her gifts or abilities, she experienced shame instead of pride.
Shame results when someone in a relationship with someone else goes to that person with the intent of sharing something meaningful and vulnerable with that person (like when Vanessa asked her father if he recognized how strong she was) and expects that person to respond in a validating and supportive way – to communicate that he or she shares the state of mind that the person is experiencing. This would’ve happened if Vanessa’s father said something like,
“Boy, did I! I saw it from the moment you were a kid…you always had a great bullshit detector and spoke up about it.”
When this expectation gets violated, and the other person responds unexpectedly and derisively, an intense burning feeling of shame can be experienced. So, when Vanessa’s father responded with his comment, he was, in essence, telling her:
“You see yourself as deserving encouragement for being so strong, but I see you as weak for needing such recognition in the first place, and I want you to feel embarrassed about that need.”
Three tactics to help you reclaim pride
1. Keep on Keeping On
If you’ve been denied the medals you deserve in this manner, then continuing to “compete” in life can feel like a slog. The feeling can be, “Why should I go do the thing I enjoy when I’m not going to experience any sense of accomplishment or pride in what I can do?”
This is super understandable and reflects the unfair position the narcissistic abuser put in the scapegoat. Fortunately or maybe, unfortunately, at times, the only way to recover through this feature of the abuse is to continue trying the things that – at some level – you know are important to you.
But in the effort of continuing to try, you might offer yourself patience and compassion when the experience feels like a slog or bleak. To serve as your witness that doing things that you enjoy or are good at was rarely given the response it deserved so that you got to know that you can feel proud of yourself. And with that, when you’re ready, work to resume your efforts towards what is important to you.
2. Knowing you deserve the medals you were robbed of
Finding safe friends and partners and having a therapist can be important in recovery. In safe relationships, you are unlikely to find shaming responses to your rightful expressions of pride in who you are and what you can do. And they can show you how the earlier shaming responses you received for asking for the medals you deserved were wrong.
I would encourage you to check out Module 4 in my online course “Identifying ‘safe people’ as friends and partners” for a detailed explanation of how to find and cultivate relationships with such individuals.
3. Practice giving yourself medals
At the end of each day, write down three things you – at least hypothetically – deserve credit for. You may come up with many reasons why you don’t feel the credit, and that’s OK. With time and practice, it can be remarkable how this habit can get under one’s skin very well.
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.