In my practice, I see a fair amount of people who have been scapegoated in their families of origin. There is a conspicuous bigness that scapegoated people seem to possess. I mean ‘big’ in the size and strength of one’s body and personality.
Over time I have come to conclude that the ‘size’ of scapegoated individuals is no accident. A malignantly narcissistic caregiver chooses targets that are most threatening and/or worthy. A good target is someone who could potentially make the malignant narcissist feel ‘less than’. Having more – through no fault of their own – of what the narcissist values can put the kid in their crosshairs. Just as Snow White was despised by her own mother (in the Brothers Grimm version not Disney’s) for being the fairest in the land, so goes the plight of the child born having more of what the narcissistic caregiver wants for themselves.
This blog post starts a three-part series on the frequently found literal and figurative size of scapegoated survivors of narcissistic abuse. These kids’ size whets the narcissist’s appetite for destruction. The scapegoated child must work to hide their true size from their abuser and themselves. This results in tragic sacrifices to the scapegoated victim’s quality of life.
Today’s blog post covers the specific trait of having a large physical stature. The second part of the series will address the trait of having a strong personality. The third part will describe how therapists can work with such people to know it is now safe to be their full size – physically and/or personality-wise.
Why Malignant Narcissists Target the Biggest People They Can
A malignant narcissist’s mission is to believe they are better than others. They promote and protect their grossly inflated sense of themselves at all costs. We all want to be thought well of but this drive towards healthy self-esteem is typically integrated with our wish to connect with other people. For most of us it is more important to be ‘in relationship with’ than to be always be better-than. This is not the case for a malignant narcissist.
These people have sworn off of actual human relationships. Instead of connection they seek an implicit or explicit sense of domination of others. Actual tyrannies are usually hard to come by in today’s world – standing presidents aside. Most malignant narcissists must then find whatever fiefdom they can to subjugate who they can. Being the head of a family with a weak-willed partner and young children offers just such an opportunity.
A malignant narcissist can look to their children as potential targets for domination. All the better if the child possesses qualities that the narcissist feels threatened by. The narcissist can use the child’s in-born needs for nurturance against the child. They will select the child who has the most because that offers them the biggest boost to their fragile self-esteem.
An important note about why malignant narcissists are the way they are: I want to caution readers – especially those who have been scapegoated – from wading too far into the waters of the narcissist’s psychology. If you have survived such treatment then you know that the rule in such a relationship is that all matters is what the narcissist thinks or feels. Recovering from their reigns of terrors often involves turning a blind eye to what made them the way they were/are. Instead the focus can be on how you think and feel with less and less regard (err….worry?) of what is going on with the narcissist. This is why these blog posts focus more on the inner lives of those who have been abused by narcissists rather than the narcissist themselves.
The Conspicuous Physical Size of the Scapegoated Child
So now we know why a malignant narcissist will keep their eyes out for traits in their children who threaten their fragile sense of dominance. Let’s turn to the qualities of people who get scapegoated and what they must do to endure life in the narcissist’s cross-hairs.
A child’s physical strength is often targeted by a malignantly narcissistic mother or father. A kid who possesses the build for physical strength can draw the ire of such a parent. Physical strength is intuitively associated with power. I suspect that this basic association can be made by the narcissist and he may then work to undermine the child’s sense of his own power via his strength.
Chet* was a powerfully built kid. He loved wrestling with his friends and typically won these matches. His mother was a sadistic woman who saw his physical prowess as a threat to her draconian authority in the family. She would call him ‘husky’ and tell him that he ate too much and too fast. When Chet was in third grade (as described here) he developed the distorted belief that he was fat when in fact he was just strong. This belief resulted in him going jogging at a young age and watching what he ate. In essence, he began activities that – at his age – worked against his possession and development of being physically strong.
Chet could not work completely against his genetic blueprint and developed into a very physically strong man. Despite this outcome, he did not have the inner sense of being much stronger than the average man. He knew unconsciously that realizing his actual size in the world meant bearing the full brunt of his mother’s envious hatred. He had been traumatized by the looming threat of what his strength meant to his mother and had to flee this realization of who he was as a person. His knowledge of this personal trait – precisely because it was positive – had to be avoidedin order to keep his mother as unprovoked as possible.
Chet’s case has been discussed elsewhere. He had to find shelter where there was none. The only way to do that with his physical strength was to convince himself he did not have it. He was like the reverse Emperor with no clothes. He had some really nice duds but walked around convinced that he was in the nude. This was all required because of how threatened his mother felt by his inherent strength and power.
Mario* had a horrifically sadistic narcissistic father. He quickly learned that his only shot at survival was to try to prevent his father from feeling challenged by him. He could do this with his own behaviors. Due to his remarkable intelligence and emotional resilience, he could inhibit displays that would outshine his father. What Mario had less control over was how he developed physically into an extremely strong and athletically talented young man. His father would call Mario a “skinny piece of sh__” as an adolescent. Mario felt some relief in this because he knew his father did not see him as a potential adversary in the realm of physical strength. His father could be extremelyphysically violent even without such an excuse. Mario would lift weights and seemingly develop his physical strength. Similar to Chet, he had some inner tactics that prevented him from knowing how strong he was becoming. When doing bench presses he would often have the feeling/image of the bar falling onto him and severely hurting him. He might also start a workout by telling himself that he is a “skinny piece of sh__”. Therefore whatever he accomplished in the weightlifting session was to not be so skinny rather than to augment the power and strength he possessed.
Mario had to marshal all of his energies to convince himself that his father did not feel threatened by him. At a deep level he always knew otherwise, and therefore was always in danger. Denying his size had 2 benefits at the time: 1) to protect his wish that his father was willing to care for him and 2) to prevent his father’s head-hunting reaction if he detected Mario’s self-awareness of his physical gifts. Mario had to deny to himself how everyone else in the world reacted to him. When coaches or friends would remark on his athletic gifts or presence he would have to eradicate the meaning internally. In 10th grade his high school football coach exclaimed how he was bound for a Division One scholarship if he kept up his level of play. At the next practice, Mario found himself feeling extremely concerned that he would make a mistake on the field. He would tense up and miss play assignments that he would have otherwise easily have made. By the end of his high school career he had started most games but had not stood out in the way he was capable.
Instead of excelling in his favorite sport – football – Mario had to direct his energies towards a pursuit that did not threaten his father – academics. Fortunately Mario was gifted in this realm too. He devoted himself to taking AP courses and studying for hours on end each weeknight and most weekends. Although he endured countless emotional and physical assaults from his father all the while – he emerged from this torture rack in position to attend a good university and start his recovery from his father’s sadism.
Living as a Big Adult with a Scapegoated Past
Adults who were physically imposing yet scapegoated by a narcissistic parent can perceive their bodies as defective, physically feel their bodies as unwelcome, and seek out people who endorse this view of themselves.
The only way to avoid danger with such a narcissistic parent was to perceive oneself as small relative to him or her. That coping strategy gets harder to implement when one’s literal size does not comply. Often the mind has to insist that they are not strong but weak, not formidable but pregnable, and not tough but fragile. These thoughts can be so practiced and necessary that they graduate into perceptions. At the start of therapy, Mario did not think he was ‘too skinny’ when lifting weights – her perceived it. He saw this supposed fact when he looked in the mirror. It was not up for debate. Similarly, Chet saw himself as fat when he looked at himself in the mirror or reflected upon his own body.
Surviving a scapegoated childhood can problematize their physical relationship with their own bodies. Mario and Chet would describe holding tension in their shoulders, lower backs, hamstrings, and triceps throughout the day. This sense of dis-ease within themselves would be especially prominent when tasked with sitting quietly for stretches of time. Plane trips, working at their desk, sitting at home without distractions such as TV all heightened their awareness of – and discomfort with – these tensions. Feeling unease in one’s own skin was adaptive in giving them a reason to feel inferior to the narcissistic parent. Often the latter would not have such misgivings towards their own bodies. They had to take an adversarial stance towards their bodies because welcoming their physical experience would have meant knowing something good about themselves – their physical power – and that would have provoked their parent.
Mario and Chet were always surprised to hear reactions to them that emphasized their actual physical presence. They found ways to write off the validity of these reactions and compliments. “They must not be seeing me as I really am”, for example. They would also seek out relationships and friendships with people who ignored or downplayed their physical presence. However, such relationships left them feeling static, sometimes depleted, and often unseen.
This blog post reflects a series of clinical observations and does not mean to claim that all scapegoated children were of larger physical stature. For those children who survived a childhood of getting scapegoated by a malignantly narcissistic parent, it is important to shed light on how their physical presence was received in their family (as a source of endangerment) versus the rest of the world. Big people are often assumed to know they possess their obvious power. Scapegoated children – and later adults – have had to forcefully not know this. Making sense of why such people have had to shrink away from their actual size is important to: 1) make understandable their inner experience, and 2) start the process of recovering their claim to what is theirs.
*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.