The Dilemma for the Child of a Narcissistic Parent: Be the Scapegoat or Be Nobody to No One

dilemma for the child of a narcissistic parent

Is it much easier to think about what’s wrong with you than what’s right with you?

As painful as self-criticism is, does it seem like it is a necessary condition of your existence?

Does there seem to be an invisible but strong barrier to feeling good in your life?

The scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent may find it most scary to think positively about themselves. Survivors may grow frustrated with themselves for not being able to just ‘snap out of it’. There is a reason why good thoughts about oneself are so hard to come by. The scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent has to accept the ways the parent insists on interacting with them. This means the child must identify as the devalued, undeserving and defective one. While the parent is the superior, deserving and flawless one. 

And what if the child balks at this arrangement? At a deep level the parent is utterly incapable and/or unwilling to see the child any other way. So if the child presents as feeling good about who they are then they risk going unseen by their parent.Being psychologically invisible to a parent is far worse than being seen in a negative light. The child manages this threat of being nobody to no one by adapting to the role of scapegoat. They do this by adopting beliefs that insist on their undeservedness and/or defectiveness.

In today’s post, I explain why it can be so difficult for the scapegoat survivor to think well of themselves. First, I explain how it is important for all children to find themselves in their parent’s mind. Next I discuss the conditions of being found in the narcissistic parent’s mind. Then I’ll cover the specific threat of being nobody to no one. And watch until the end because I will offer resources that can help scapegoat survivors think of well of themselves today as somebody to someone.

The Child’s Need To Find Themselves in Their Parent’s Mind

Infants and young children are in the business of figuring out who they are in the world. Their biology and culture tells them to look to their parents as a reflection of themselves. A child with well-adjusted parents will be reflected accurately and appreciatively. These parents will not require the child to meet their own emotional needs. They will have enough emotional wherewithal in themselves to prioritize the child’s needs.

In these arrangements the child is free to be themselves and expect to receive care as they are. A parent conveys this by showing that they are curious about, want to understand and appreciate the child’s inner experience. There is no conflict for the child between being who they really are and how their parents see them. This allows the child to form a cohesive identity. They get to trust that how they experience themselves is very close to how others experience them. These children get to be somebody to someone without having to distort themselves.

The Conditions of Being Found in the Narcissistic Parent’s Mind

The child of a narcissistic parent does face a conflict. The parent’s denied sense of worthlessness takes priority in their psychology. They typically manage these feelings by insisting on their opposite. They consciously believe they are worth more than others. It is a tall order for them to stay convinced of this claim. So they must continually contrast themselves with people they perceive as inferior. The child forced into the role of scapegoat is coerced to identify as inferior so the parent gets to be superior.

The narcissistic parent has a lot of tools to make the child go along with this. First, the parent feels entitled to be treated as superior. So the child’s failure to revere the parent will be met with severe abuse. Second, the narcissistic personality does not have genuine empathy for others’ feelings. So the child’s appeals to be treated better will be of no consequence to the parent. The most powerful tool the parent possesses is the child’s need to be known by the parent. When a narcissistic parent is intent on seeing the child as defective and undeserving then the child’s only choice is to be this. Why? The narcissistic parent is laying out the conditions under which they agree to know the child is. These conditions are distorting and contemptible but they are better than the alternative. A child who feels unrecognized and unknown by their parent risks becoming nobody to no one. It is this threat that the child must avoid at all costs. Even the cost of identifying as inferior so their parent can feel superior.

Camilla was in therapy in her late twenties because she felt extreme anxiety when she found success in her life. In the early sessions, she explained how she always had to watch out for her father growing up. He seemed to have it out for Camilla and would never pass up a chance to find fault with her decisions. She explained how whenever she tried to share her opinion with family members they would basically roll their eyes and treat her like she did not know what she was talking about. Her father could only know her as a stupid person who did not know how to do anything right.

Her father was a history teacher at their local middle school. He fashioned himself as a scholar but never produced scholarly work. He liked to cite facts as a testament to his superior knowledge but lacked the ability to think critically and immersively about historical topics. He received average marks on his performance evaluations. He could not bear the feelings of being mediocre at his job. He would often complain about how his principal did not appreciate his gifts. Camilla noted that when he was criticizing her his spirits seemed to perk up.

Camilla was very intelligent, curious, and diligent. She especially excelled in writing critical essays on books assigned in her English class. She recalled two feelings when she had such assignments. First, she felt very capable of finding an original point of view and writing about it. Second, she felt this undefinable nervousness. Like if she did this some fabric of her universe might tear. She would put off these assignments until the night before they were due. Then she would work all night under the threat of not having anything to turn in. Once she handed her paper in she did not feel proud of what she wrote she was just relieved she finished it.

In therapy we grew to understand how this painful writing process reflected the dilemma she faced. The only way she could be someone to somebody in her family was if she was ineffectual. She was an inherently effective thinker and writer. If she displayed her wares then she would be someone her father could not recognize. The nervousness she felt at having to do something she was good at, reflected this conflict. These feelings were signalling to her that she was entering dangerous psychological territory. Beyond this rope was the agony of being nobody to no one.

The same kind of warning system would go off when Camilla approached success at her job. She was an assistant editor at a publishing company. After successfully editing her first book and receiving praise from her manager she grew nervous. She began to doubt her abilities, saw this success as a fluke, and had difficulty concentrating on editing her next assignment. She felt frustrated with herself for not being able to perform like she did with the first book. In therapy we worked on developing a sense of compassion for herself in this process. That she was seeking to protect herself from the gravest of all dangers – being nobody to no one. She grew to accept that it would take time and empathy towards herself to fully know she could be her good capable self and be somebody to someone.

The Threat of Being Nobody to No One

The scapegoat child – and all children – exist so long as they feel like they are someone to their parent. When a narcissistic parent insists on their scapegoat child being worthless then this is the only way for this child to exist. For that child to know themselves as capable would jeopardize their psychological existence.

Being nobody to no one is to not exist. But it’s worse than that because the sufferer continues existing in a certain sense. They do not feel real. They do not experience their parent as real and yet they remain conscious and breathing. Words do not do justice to how agonizing and endless such experiences can seem.

When the scapegoat child touches this experience it is traumatizing. They must avoid it at all costs. Anxieties get created to warn the child of approaching this experience again. With a narcissistic parent these anxieties will go off when the child begins to feel good about themselves. It is far better for the child to feel bad about themselves when feeling good means more trauma of this kind.

A Comprehensive Plan For Scapegoat Survivors

So what can be done to heal from the traumatic dilemma of being a bad somebody or a good nobody? First, healing is a process that happens incrementally and over time. I think the best thing any scapegoat survivor can offer themselves is compassion and patience. These attitudes were painfully missing growing up. So exercising them towards yourself can be healing in their own right.

The three pillars of recovery from narcissistic abuse can also help. I will explain how and point to a resource associated with each.

The first pillar is to make sense of what happened to know it was not your fault. For the scapegoat survivor who had to live as the bad one this can be an important first step. Reality has meant taking as fact that you are defective. Learning about the psychological disorder of narcissism and how it contributed to the abuse you survived can help you begin to question this reality. This step alone may not dispel the fear of becoming nobody to no one but it lays a needed foundation.

A resource designed for this step is my book:- Growing Up as the Scapegoat to Narcissistic Parents: A Guide to Healing. In it, I offer in-depth explanations of what leads a narcissistic parent to abuse the scapegoat child. I also cover the many ways a scapegoat child has to adapt to survive such abuse. This can yield a greater understanding of how the ways you function today are in fact reasonable adjustments to an unreasonable situation. My hope is that scapegoat survivors will take away that there was and is nothing wrong with them. There was something deeply wrong in the family system they were raised in. 

The second pillar is to gain distance from narcissistic abusers in your life today. Our nervous systems are often on high alert or in sleep mode when near a narcissistic abuser. In order to afford yourself a chance to feel calm and safe within these stresses need to be minimized. I recognize that this can be easier said than done. Scapegoat survivors were often forced to take responsibility for the emotional well-being of their narcissistic parent. This can lead to feeling like what they do or do not do will make or break their parent. So, if they gain distance from the parent they may feel like they are breaking their parent and feel intense guilt.

A resource that can help with this pillar is Module 3 & 7 in my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse. In module 3, I go into great depth on the importance of gaining distance from narcissistic abusers. Module 7 addresses the guilt that can be experienced in separating from such people. I offer some real tactics to help challenge the thoughts that underlie such guilt.

The third pillar is to live in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. Here is where the survivor gets to directly challenge the narcissistic parent’s conditions for existing to them. An example of this pillar is entertaining positive appraisals of oneself. This is exactly what used to land the scapegoat child in the terrible position of being nobody to no one. With enough distance from narcissistic abusers and understanding of what really happened there can be a different ending to breaking this rule. Survivors can learn that in new relationships with people who help them feel safe, they can think well of themselves while remaining someone to somebody.

One way to live in defiance of the narcissist’s rules is to take good care of yourself. To this end, I offer a free webinar that outlines 7 self-care strategies for overcoming narcissistic abuse. Practicing these strategies over time can strengthen your emotional and physical wellbeing. The business of healing from this kind of abuse is rigorous and good self-care is very important. Practicing such acts towards yourself can be a profound way of challenging the narcissist’s rule that you are undeserving.

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.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *