I recently saw the comic Bill Burr perform – pre-Omicron days – and he talked about being on mushrooms with his friends. Now if you know much about him, he alludes to growing up in a family where yelling and unpredictable outbursts of rage from his father were just a part of growing up for him. I don’t know if either parent was narcissistic or not, but the experience he described while on mushrooms I think highlights the worst part about being the scapegoat child to a narcissistically abusive parent. He talked about how when the shrooms hit him, he went into a place that felt very dark and that nothing he thought nor said to himself would change that feeling…it just was. He went to his room in order not to rain on his friends’ parade and the feeling didn’t change. He was struggling against it to change it but none of it worked. He went to hold his wife’s hand and it didn’t comfort him. He said that he felt lonely and unloved and finally stopped trying to fight it. Then he realized that this was exactly how he felt throughout his whole childhood.
What stood out to me about this part of his act – it was a great show and a testament to his genius as a comic that he could weave such a harrowing vignette into an hour of comedy – was how he described the experience of there being someone there but that connecting to them provided him with no comfort. When he went to hold his wife’s hand and could feel nothing in doing so. That experience – I think – gets at the heart of the trauma faced by the scapegoated child to a narcissistic parent.
The child learns deep down that he has a parent there but that going to him or her will offer him no felt comfort, protection or sense of safety. So, the child is catastrophically alone in that he is around people in a physical sense but cannot feel any sense of inner connection to them. So he has to suffer his alone-ness in the privacy of his own being – just as Bill Burr was on his mushroom trip.
In today’s blog post, I’m going to explain why the scapegoated child of the narcissistic parent often endures this trauma of having nobody who can help him feel better inside. Next I want to offer some thoughts about what to do when or if state arises in the process of recovering from narcissistic abuse.
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 of 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 sits squarely in the ‘making sense of what happened’ department.
And if you’re interested in another resource on making sense of what happened, I encourage you to get my free e-book on Suriviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat.
Why the scapegoated child feels lonely & unloved and that there’s nothing to be done about it.
Let’s quickly review the psychological dynamics in play when a narcissistic parent identifies a child to play the role of scapegoat. Scapegoat just means the person on whom all of the narcissist’s problems are blamed. As I’ve said a lot on these blog posts, the narcissist starts with a core sense of worthlessness that s/he cannot bear to acknowledge and so has to relegate it to their unconscious. Next, the narcissist works – again unconsciously – to discover this worthlessness in someone else – usually someone over whom they have authority or there’s a power imbalance in the relationship favoring the narcissist. Third, the narcissist acts in ways to coercively influence the other person to identify with their cast off feelings of worthlessness. So, the narcissist may overtly or covertly undermine, criticize, invalidate, deride, or otherwise hurt the other person but in a way designed to get the other person to believe they deserve to be treated this way. That it’s the other person’s flawed-ness that makes it necessary for the narcissist to treat them this way.
When I describe this process, I realize that I’ve often done so with an emphasis on the dynamics at play but I want to focus today on the consequences to the inner experience of the child being cast into the role of scapegoat in this manner. Sure there’s the onslaught of negative feelings and beliefs about oneself that must be contended with by the scapegoated child. But if we zoom out for a second, a child has the inborn need to have an adult to turn to with his/her emotional needs, triumphs, pains, etc. And the child is programmed to expect protection, guidance, celebration, and otherwise connection. When the child has the misfortune of being born to a narcissistic parent and further misfortune to be thrust into the role of scapegoat, all of these inborn needs are at risk of going completely unmet. The child is being blamed, scolded, and devalued where he’s hoping to find love, understanding and compassion.
So the child is likely going to learn that getting closer to the narcissistic parent brings him no comfort or reassurance. No, he’s very much on his own in his life and must find a way to manage the panic, terror, anger, and despair that this cruel fact could evoke in him. Of course, I don’t mean that the young child has conscious thoughts along these lines, but just to describe the process he has to endure. That it can feel like an endless permanent state of being ‘lonely & unloved’ as Burr put it from which there’s no rescue. There is a person there – the narcissistic parent – who the child is biologically programmed to see as the only source of who could rescue them from this state of utter aloneness BUT the child feels the utter absence of love, kindness, and care being offered by that person. It goes without saying that the narcissistic parent cannot also offer kindness, respect, care and curiosity while they’re using the child to rid themselves of a feeling they cannot tolerate. And the child has to bear the cost of parent putting his/her psychological pathology first. I think that the narcissistic person’s structural lack of feeling empathy for others helps them do this without concern for the consequences to the child. I also believe that this is sensed by the child and part of what seals his fate – that appealing to the narcissistic parent’s concern for the child’s emotional well-being will do no good. The parent will be unaffected by such appeals. The child has a parent standing there but no connection is coming from him/her – that is a horrifying reality to cope with at a time in life when a child does not yet have the inner resources to cope. The child can’t say, “Whoa what’s that parent’s problem? I’m outta here. I’m gonna go where I’m wanted.” If s/he could, then the situation would not be a traumatic one. Instead the child must stay trying to eke out some connection in spite of the hopelessness felt about ever getting it.
I talk a lot more in-depth about this situation and the way the scapegoated child’s self often adapts in Module 2: How narcissistic abuse impacts the survivor’s psychology. Specificially, how the child has to relegate the awareness of this state of being alone & unloved to their unconscious and develop what’s called a ‘hopeful self’ that seeks relationship with the same parent who is unable and/or unwilling to offer them the love they are seeking.
Coping with hopelessness felt by scapegoat who has felt alone & unloved with no solution
There’s a profound dashing of hopes for the child who suffers narcissistic abuse from a parent. As I mentioned, the child’s biologically programmed to be hopeful that his parent will provide him what he needs to feel securely attached, that he is loved for the separate person he is, and the love he has to offer is valuable to that parent. All 3 of these hopes are not realized by the child to the narcissistic parent. As a result, the child faces a hopeless situation and the feeling that often accompanies hopelessness is despair. So, the scapegoated child of a narcissistic parent may be very accustomed to an inner – often very private – sense of despair at the felt hopelessness of there being anyone out there who can offer them the sense of connection they are seeking.
This post-traumatic sense of hopelessness that others can offer any sort of connection that can be felt can also make it feel dangerous to entertain hope that new people in one’s life might be able to offer a connection that CAN actually be felt by the scapegoat survivor. The task in recovery from such trauma, I believe, involves integrating what you have been through with what might now be possible. There’s no denying – only accepting – what one faced at the hands of the narcissistic parent. And it can be in the case of accepting this that the notion of hope can re-emerge and be tolerated by the scapegoat survivor. I should add that it can be very important to do this while in therapy because it offers a specific kind of relationship that allows you to describe what you have been through and what you suffered while being compassionately understood and validated by the therapist AND to work together on how the past hopelessness might be getting in the way of finding connection that feels good in your current relationships. The initial problem was the lack of offered connection by the narcissistic parent, so it can be very important to successfully come to terms with what you went through while in the context of being in a connection to someone. That has – in my experience – been very antidotal to the initial trauma of being and feeling alone & unloved.
It’s like the scapegoated child who is suffering this experience is in a maze with no way out. Recovery might be thought of as witnessing the dead-end of the maze you were in – but this time from outside the maze and while in connection to someone new – so that you get to know you’re not still in the maze and it’s safe now to entertain hope that you can find your way out and that this time you’re not alone in doing so.
I hope today’s blog post might shed some light on a feature of the experience of the scapegoated child of the narcissistically abusive parent. I think it’s a feature that often is wordless and but that is also one of, if not the most, painful aspects of having to endure this form of abuse as a child.
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.