In my experience, scapegoat survivors of narcissistic abuse often find it very difficult to take the narcissist’s behavior towards them at face value. When the relationship to the narcissist feels more important than the scapegoat survivor’s own well being – as is the case when a child has a narcissistic parent – then there’s no real option to trust what the narcissistic parent is showing them. Who else do they have to go to? Instead, The scapegoat child has to come up with elaborate mental games that sympathize with the narcissistic parent.
In the process of recovery from such abuse – whether in therapy or in nurturing friendships and relationships – the survivor grows to trust that there are alternate sources of connection for them where there’s the potential to feel good, protected, respected with these other people. In my experience As these new experiences and relationships take root, it becomes much more possible for the scapegoat survivor to take the narcissistic parent’s behavior towards them at face value. Now The survivor gets to prioritize how they felt in relation to the narcissistic partner rather than think into the rationale for why the narcissist might have felt compelled to treat them this way. The scapegoat survivor is empowered to trust the behaviors that other people show them. They can then more reliably populate their lives with people who consistently show them behaviors that make them feel wanted and that things work to paraphrase David Celani.
In today’s post, I’m going to discuss the challenge for scapegoat survivors of trusting what a narcissist shows them when dependent on that narcissistic person in one way or another. Next, I’ll discuss the process of recovery where you get to shift your priority from the narcissist’s wellbeing to your own. Finally, I’ll discuss why finding longstanding, close, and supportive relationships with new ‘safe’ people is the most important ingredient to making this shift.
My name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California who specializes in helping people recover from narcissistic abuse.
Narcissistic abuse can leave us feeling lost and estranged from our sense of who we are. In individual therapy and my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse I try to offer a map that allows them to come back to the quality of life they know they deserve. Of course, each survivor must travel this path themselves but a map can be tremendously important to do this with. And there are 3 features on this map that I call the 3 Pillars to Recovery:
Pillar # 1: Making sense of what happened,
Pillar # 2: Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and
Pillar # 3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
Lastly, one can’t do this in a vacuum. It is also essential to find and participate in communities of people who can get, validate, and support you on this path. Today’s post falls under Pillar #3: living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules.
The Self-Centered World of Narcissistic Parenting
Sometimes when a scapegoat survivor reflects on how a narcissistic parent or partner domineered, devalued, intruded upon, and/or acted vindictively against them a reflex kicks in to sympathize with the “plight” of the narcissistic parent or partner more than themselves. The reflex often shows itself in expressions like “I really don’t think they intended to hurt me so badly” or “S/he had a really bad childhood themselves and they didn’t know any different.” Now the scapegoat survivor is caught wondering more about the narcissist’s intentions and history than how it felt when they were abused.
This makes good psychological sense. If you are a child to a narcissistic parent then you are also biologically motivated to love that parent, find love in return from that parent, and experience a strong bond with him or her. Someone who is pathologically narcissistic is fundamentally incapable of fulfilling their end of this bargain. Such an individual has to devote all of their psychological and emotional energy towards keeping their inflated yet very fragile self-esteem intact. This mission shifts what other people are for. Instead of other people being potential opportunities to bond with, experience mutual care, and love – other people are solely sources of admiration, subjects to be controlled, or reflections of the narcissist’s superiority. Suffice it say that in this very deep way A relationship with a narcissist is all about that person. The child born to a narcissistic parent learns that feeling connected to that parent means making the parent the center of the child’s world – instead of the child getting to be the center of his or her own world.
In essence, The child has to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a relationship that they cannot survive without at the time. I believe that healing from narcissistic abuse takes place in the context of new safe relationships. Therapy is one form of such a safe relationship. In my work as a therapist, I listen for vestiges of this initial sacrifice that the child of a narcissistic parent has to make. One of the main ways that the sacrifice of the self can live on is in the topic discussed today: the focus on the narcissistic person’s reasons or hardships that led to their abusive behavior towards the survivor. When this happens I do whatever I can to empower the survivor to focus on how they felt in relation to the narcissist rather than the person’s intentions or history. Scapegoat survivors often find it radical to consider that they can base their conclusions about another person – including a narcissistic abuser – based on how they felt in relation to that person. Most scapegoat survivors have had their own reality questioned, undermined, and invalidated so much that their own feelings don’t feel like they’re “enough” to base conclusions upon. Instead, they’ve had to do mental gymnastics to justify the narcissistic parent’s point of view on them at the cost of possessing themselves.
An even more profound shift can happen as survivors move the narcissist out of the center of their own worlds and replace themselves in the middle where they belong. Doing so, makes the realm of relationships depend on what others show you rather than who they are in an abstract sense. A survivor of narcissistic abuse often has to think of other people as ideas because the actual people in their lives were too painful to know. So, a survivor’s narcissistic mother becomes an abstracted idea of “mom” whom the survivor thinks of as smiling and good to people. This same mother would change from smiling to people outside the family to berating and yelling at the survivor for some supposed ‘offense’ once behind closed doors. The survivor would feel trapped, humiliated, and deathly afraid. These feelings and the information contained therein could not be known by the survivor while living under the same roof as this narcissistic parent. Instead, the survivor had to think of his mother in this idea-based way but not know who she was to him based on how she made him feel. I’m drawing a distinction between the ‘thinking’ that the child of a narcissistic parent has to do to keep the faith that they have a parent who is good to them versus knowing how someone else makes us feel and whether our entire organism is drawn to or repelled by them.
Unlearning the Narcissist: Empowering Yourself After Abuse
When a survivor gets to identify and challenge the mandate to put the other person at the center of their worlds, then they get to know how other people make them feel and make decisions based on this information. The survivor gets to gradually think about the ways their narcissistic parents treated them as wrong because it felt wrong. There is way less of a felt demand to justify feeling wounded by answering all of the imagined counterarguments the narcissist might say if they saw you putting yourself first in this way. Retorts like, “Oh, you’re just being too sensitive,” or “See? You are the narcissistic one always making everything about yourself” or “When are you gonna get over it? You’re just stuck in the past”. The volume of these imagined rebukes gets turned down so low that the survivor stops even acknowledging them as the volume has been turned up on what they want and don’t want for themselves.
I’ve mentioned the quote from David Celani several times in these blogs because I think it sums the intention and the outcome of healing from narcissistic abuse. It is:
“Go where you’re wanted and where things work.”
I want to add that In order to know where to go you first have to care more about your own feelings rather than the narcissist’s. That takes time, compassion with yourself, and patience. Most importantly it happens in the form of new safe relationships. Whether in therapy or elsewhere, this repositioning of yourself in the center of your life can only happen in the context of a new relationship where doing so does not jeopardize the relationship like it would have with the narcissist. A survivor has to accrue new relational experience that tells them it’s now safe to put themselves in the center of their lives. That doing so, does not evoke rebuke, rejection or abandonment by the other person. Instead, the other person may find appreciation, positive regard, and generosity of spirit. Why is this such a critical ingredient to the process of recovery? It strikes at the heart of the trauma suffered by the survivor of narcissistic abuse. The survivor learned to fear the loss of relationship to the narcissist more than the narcissist’s mistreatment of them. So, actions that would make the survivor feel good would threaten the narcissist’s fragile sense of superiority or stir their ever -present envy and had to be avoided. In recovery, the attempt to center oneself can post-traumatically feel like it’s going to lead to abandonment or rejection just like it used to with the narcissist. So, the survivor needs to be able to take these actions on their own behalf and then experience the continued presence of the other new safe person still being there.
Overcoming Anxiety: The Path to Self-Assertion
It’s kind of like exposure and response prevention which people talk about in the world of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When someone is obsessively afraid of contamination, a therapist may accompany them with touching a doorknob and practicing mindfulness as their anxiety spikes up instead of washing their hands repeatedly.
For the survivor of narcissistic abuse the exposure is to acts of self-assertion, deservedness, and healthy entitlement – which is akin to the OCD sufferer touching the doorknob. A survivor may be inclined to do the equivalent of handwashing by criticizing themselves or otherwise putting themselves down in order to alleviate the anxiety felt from putting themselves first. A therapeutic thing starts to happen when the survivor takes these actions in the context of a new safe relationship and pays attention to the response of the new safe person and manages their felt anxiety that way instead of via self-criticism. They prevent the usual response and one’s system gets to learn that the danger of feeling good existed in the past but does not in the present with this other safe person.
So, relationships matter the most in recovery. And one tool that can help you orient yourself to new safe people is my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse. In it, I go into depth about The ways one often has to cope with narcissistic abuse by denying the ways the narcissist hurts the survivor and insisting on their goodness. Next, I detail Why it is so important to gain psychological, emotional, and potentially physical distance from your narcissistic abuser. Without distance, the process of recovery can be like trying to convince yourself that a doorknob is not contaminated while being in quarantine for covid. Of course, achieving distance is easier said than done and I go into depth on How to manage feelings of guilt for taking less care of the narcissist. I also offer A roadmap for what qualities you can look for in safe people so you’re not flying blind. Lastly, so you don’t have to do this in a vacuum There’s a private facebook group accompanying this course where you can support and be supported by fellow survivors. A sort of testing ground for new safe relationships that might make it all the more easier to do IRL.
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.