Is it still hard to be kind to yourself despite ‘knowing’ you are not as bad as you were told as a child?
Do you still feel blocked or scared when you try to do what you are good at?
Do you wonder why it’s so hard to feel safe in the world even though you are no longer in immediate danger?
Adult scapegoat survivors of a narcissistic parent can find it very hard to see and treat themselves positively. “How can experiences from childhood still be impacting me today?” they may wonder. They may even conclude: “There must be something wrong with me that I can’t just ‘get over it’.”
If this experience resonates with you then today’s post will explain why the effects of being a scapegoat child last into adulthood. But the reason will not just be because things were really bad back then. There are two ways adult scapegoat survivors carry their relationship with their narcissistic parent into the present. I will describe these two ways in depth and use case examples to illustrate. This is the first in a 3-part article series. In the second part I will explain how to psychologically leave the relationship to a narcissistic parent.
Today’s article is based upon the theory and research of Dr. Lorna Smith Benjamin. The concepts I describe are laid out in greater detail in her book:
Benjamin, L. S. (2006). Interpersonal reconstructive therapy: An integrative, personality-based treatment for complex cases. Guilford Press.
Our Early Worlds are Shaped by the People In It – For Better or Worse
The people who make up the child’s world determine the emotional contours and possibilities the child can experience. No one has a greater influence than the child’s parents.
As a very small person in a very big world, a child needs a big person to depend on for food, protection, and love. The child’s physical and emotional needs can initially only be met by their parent. So the young child is incentivized by survival to stay close to that parent.
The parent’s responses will largely determine what the child’s life feels like. If the child’s parent was responsive and available to them then their world will seem friendly and providing. And if the child’s parent was unresponsive and frightening then their world will seem uncaring and dangerous.
A child cannot swap out the world they’re in if they do not like it. Evolution says that it is more important to stay close to the parent they have because that yields the highest odds of survival. The child has to do this regardless of the quality of relationship the parent offers them. They are programmed to see their parent as the only one who can supply what they need.
Meanwhile, the child is developing an internal map of who they are in relation to their parent. You could say that the child internalizes their parent. Next, the child populates their internal map with the behaviors, thoughts and feelings that bring the child closer to their internalized parent. When the child engages in these actions, thinks these thoughts and feels these feelings they are close to their internalized parent. When the child acts, thinks or feels otherwise they are more distant from the internal parent. The child pursues closeness to the internal parent whether that makes the child feel good or bad. Closeness means being somebody to someone. Distance risks being nobody to no one.
When Closeness to a Parent Means Suffering
In a good-enough upbringing the child generally feels close to their parent. That closeness is not contingent on the child meeting the parent’s needs. The parent is content for the child to explore their own world and come back for nurturance as the child sees fit. This kind of stance tells the child that their parent is there for them as needed.
A child with this kind of history will have an easy time relating to their internalized parent. They feel close to their internalized parent when they do what makes themselves happy. Their internalized parent wants what is good for them.
Scapegoat children of narcissistic parents have to manufacture a feeling of closeness. The child has no consistent experience of feeling safe with and cared about by this parent. They have been used to embody the worthlessness that the narcissistic parent feels in themselves yet cannot tolerate.
So, being close to their internalized narcissistic parent hurts. The child’s internalized parent endorses feelings of shame and despair, thoughts of being undeserving and defective and actions that are self-defeating. When the child engages in these experiences they feel closer to their internalized parent. So this pain becomes self-reinforcing for the child and later the adult.
Two Ways a Scapegoat Child Stays Close to Their Internalized Narcissistic Parent
The scapegoat child and later adult survivor stays close to their internalized narcissistic parent by either treating themselves the way their parent treated them or living as if the narcissistic parent is still around and in charge.
When Scapegoat Survivors Treat Themselves the Way Their Narcissistic Parent Treated Them
Many scapegoat survivors live with intense self-criticism. Their narcissistic parent may have criticized and berated them to make them feel worthless. By criticizing themselves later in life, the survivor is treating themselves the way their narcissistic parent treated them. There is often a hard-to-define quality that makes the survivors feel like they are doing what they are supposed to be doing when they attack themselves like this. That quality is the closeness to the internalized narcissistic parent that self-attacks create.
Mike grew up with a narcissistic father who regularly attacked him for committing supposed offenses. These offenses amounted to not being able to read his father’s mind and do his bidding. When his father came home from work in the evenings it was a matter of when not if he started yelling at Mike. Typically the offense was around not doing something his father had asked him to do. Oftentimes Mike could not recall his father asking him to do anything but that did not matter. Mike would have to sit through his father’s tirade about how “selfish”, “irresponsible”, “inconsiderate” and “immature” Mike was.
Mike’s father also had qualities that Mike admired. His father could be funny when he wanted to be. He was charismatic to people outside the family. And he always “seemed” to know what to say or do. Mike’s mother did not have much of a presence in Mike’s life. She was quiet and avoided conflict. She would not protect Mike from his father’s abuse.
Away from his father Mike found himself intensely criticizing himself. If he was walking down the hallway in high school and said hi to a peer he would repeat the interaction in his head afterwards. Mike would hear his own voice and find it weak and embarrassing. Then he would feel disgust towards himself for saying hello in such an awkward way. He would be filled with anger at himself and shame. There was little to nothing Mike could do to reassure himself in such instances. The fact that the other person did not seem to find anything wrong with Mike’s greeting did not matter. Just as Mike’s father’s tirades towards him felt inevitable so was Mike’s criticism of himself.
Mike would often wonder at his private self-condemnation in these moments. It seemed so at odds with how people outside of his family received him in his life. He was generally well-liked and respected by these people. Nonetheless what felt more true to him were the excoriating attacks he would launch at himself.
These attacks were how Mike stayed close to his internalized narcissistic father. Given the lack of viable alternatives in his family he had to find a way to do this. His father was the only game in town and Mike had to find a way to play in it. This self-criticism did the trick.
Since self-criticism can result in feeling closer to one’s internalized narcissistic parent it can be very hard to break this practice. It is not something you can argue yourself out of. Instead the survivor needs to find and cultivate new relationships as viable alternatives to the internalized parent. In next week’s post, I will explain how the three pillars of recovery can set you up to do this.
When the Scapegoat Survivor Lives As If the Narcissistic Parent is Still Around and In Charge
There is another subtle but powerful way a scapegoat survivor can stay close to their internalized narcissistic parent. When the survivor complies with the belief that they are defective and/or undeserving they are living as though their narcissistic parent is still around and in charge. Living in this way returns the survivor to what it was like as a kid. As painful as this feels for the survivor it creates a sense of closeness to the internalized parent.
When a scapegoat child shies away from their own strength they are keeping close to the narcissistic parent in this manner. The world that the narcissistic parent was in charge of forbade the scapegoat child from knowing their strength. Thwarting your own capabilities is one way of keeping the narcissistic parent in charge today.
I want to emphasize that the scapegoat survivor does not consciously choose to keep the narcissistic parent around in this way. Rather they are governed by the unconscious demand to stay close to their internalized narcissistic parent. Failing to do this could result in being nobody to no one. Until there is a viable alternative survival requires the survivor to maintain this closeness. And acting as though the parent is still around and in charge is a means to this end.
Noah grew up with a domineering and vindictive narcissistic mother. She thwarted his attempts to be his own person throughout childhood and adolescence. If he was more than one minute late coming home from a social engagement she would scream at him for ten minutes about his “disrespect for the household rules”. He was on restriction or grounded more often than not throughout high school. Over time he stopped forging friendships outside his home. He was too weary of the unwinnable battles he had to fight with her to be able to have a social life. His parents had divorced long ago so Noah had no adult to intervene on his behalf. He developed painful ideas that he was defective and unlikeable to others. The beliefs deterred him from seeking connection outside his home thereby sparing him further conflict with his mother.
After college, Noah took a job at policy institute downtown. He initially found the role to be interesting and meaningful in its purpose. Around the same time he started therapy because he felt like his life just was not working. He always felt under pressure to accomplish his goals and this created intense anxiety most of the time. His therapist asked him about his upbringing and Noah began speaking about how his mother treated him for the first time in his life.
Initially he felt relieved to know that he was not as bad as she claimed. As the therapy wore on and he began to share all the ways he was mistreated the rest of his life started to suffer. He found it much harder to focus at work. This led to delays in his ability to meet deadlines and reprimands from his supervisors. He retreated from his friends because he did not feel like he could be honest with them about what he was going through. He stopped doing things that were healthy like exercising and eating healthy food.
Noah’s therapist understood this digression in his life as a way of unconsciously staying close to his internalized narcissistic mother. By thwarting his professional and social success he was acting as if she was still around and in charge. The players were different but the script played out very similarly to his high school years. It took some time in therapy before Noah could find the therapeutic relationship to be a viable alternative to his internalized mother. His therapist’s steadfast empathic support of him was critical in this respect.
The 3 Pillars of Recovery can help you live as though you are the one who is now in charge. These three principles help scapegoat survivors understand how they are staying close to their internalized parent, structure their lives in ways that do not reinforce this closeness and find alternative relationships that let the survivor feel connected while living as though they are now in charge. Just as it is difficult to stop the practice of self-criticism if it creates closeness to the narcissistic parent so it is with living as though the parent is in charge. Viable relational alternatives to that parent are needed before one can surrender this practice. The scapegoat survivor needs convincing that they will still be somebody to someone else. Most of this convincing happens at the unconscious level as the survivor puts the pillars of recovery into action in their lives.
In the next blog post, I will explain the healing process of moving from closeness to the internalized narcissistic parent to closeness to safe people in your life today. It is a multifaceted process that is captured by the 3 Pillars of Recovery. And not just in theory but in action.
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. I offer an introduction online course on the nature and impacts of narcissistic abuse. I also offer an advanced online course offering 8 powerful strategies for scapegoat survivors to reclaim the quality of life they deserve.