When Getting Better Feels Like ‘Selling Out’ After Narcissistic Abuse

when getting better feels like ‘selling out’ after narcissistic abuse

Does taking good care of yourself feel like a chore that you better do ‘or else’?

Do you feel bossed around internally to do what is expected?

Do you feel ‘lazy’ or worse unless you are doing something meant to improve yourself?

Sometimes a narcissistic parent takes a deceptive approach to abusing the scapegoat child. Instead of outright telling the child they are worthless the parent attacks the child supposedly on the child’s own behalf. They claim the child does not know how to act “properly”. That these behaviors are going to get them “in trouble” in the outside world if they are not “corrected” by the parent. 

The scapegoat child is in a vulnerable position because they need to bond to their parent. So the child will work to do or not do what the parent attacks them for. A narcissistic parent may attack the child for not doing things that are generally positive. They may rage at the child for not putting their plate in the sink after dinner. Or scream at the child for being 2 minutes late for dinner. 

A child in a loving home is not scrutinized in such a manner. Foibles like being a couple minutes late or leaving the dinner table without putting the plate in the sink are not capital offenses. As a result, the child gets to come to their own conclusions about the importance of, say, being tidy or punctual. 

The scapegoat child has to be tidy and punctual or face the narcissistic parent’s rage. Whatever the child has to do to avoid their parent’s wrath will also feel coerced. At some level the child hates having to meet the narcissistic parent’s unreasonable demands while having no say in the matter. 

Later the scapegoat survivor can feel like they are betraying themselves when they do today what they used to be forced to do. The trouble can be when those things are otherwise good to do. So the survivor can find the expectation to be on time as unbearably oppressive. Or the prospect of cleaning their home can feel enslaving. The survivor may try to stay loyal to themselves by not doing these things. 

In today’s post, I address the impact of a narcissistic parent who masks their abusive treatment as something that is for the child’s own good. For example, yelling at the child for not having proper table manners at dinner. This sets the survivor up to later resent doing things that are otherwise good to do. They can feel like they are betraying themselves. Recovery eventually allows the survivor to see how they were betrayed in what the parent did to them not what they are doing to themselves. I will use an extended case example to illustrate. 

Narcissistic Abuse That Is – Supposedly – For Your Own Good

A narcissistic parent needs to feel superior to the scapegoat child. Otherwise that parent can come into contact with their own feelings of worthlessness. So they see the scapegoat child as full of the flaws that the parent – supposedly – does not have. 

One way a narcissistic parent asserts their superiority is attacking how the child takes care of themselves. The parent scrutinizes the child for the slightest mistake in table manners. In attitude and action they rail at the child for being so “lazy” or “sloven”. They accuse the child of not brushing their teeth before bed. They infantilize their teenager by asking if they washed their hands after leaving the bathroom. They essentially treat the child as being incapable of caring for themselves. By extension the parent is superior to the child for – supposedly – knowing better.

Limit the Narcissistic Parent’s Wrath by Any Means Necessary

The child is in a no-win situation that they must survive. They already feel deprived of the basic respect, appreciation and love that all children need from a parent. This puts the child in an ongoing state of dis-ease within. Something essential is missing in their world but there is no help. Against this backdrop, the parent’s contemptuous attack can feel unsurvivable. The child is already under-nourished and is now being attacked by whom they would expect nourishment. 

To cope, the scapegoat child must find a way to limit their parent’s hostility towards them. If the parent targets the child’s inability to take care of themselves then the child must find a way to do this. They command themselves to keep their elbows off the table at dinnertime, make their bed in the morning, and wash their hands. The child has to boss themselves around internally to not give the parent a reason to attack them. This gives the child hope of being spared their parent’s scathing disapproval. Without this hope the child would feel too anxiously vulnerable to function.

Somewhere within the child they register that they are being forced to do these things. Like all human beings, they take great offense at the denial of their basic human freedom. It is far too unsafe to voice this offense to the narcissistic parent. Only further attack or invalidation would occur. So this well-founded resentment has to be made unconscious. 

The child tries to make these conditions more palatable by convincing themselves their parent is right. Now the parent is doing them a favor by criticizing them in these ways. They are giving the child a map for how to properly live that the child would otherwise be lost without. 

Alexis’s father was narcissistic and kept himself emotionally afloat by acting as if he knew and deserved better than her. He relentlessly found ways to pick on her. If she cleared her throat he would make a demonstration over how “disgusting” she was. If she was speaking to someone in public around her she would later tell her she mumbles. If she got dressed for school he would often tell her to go change her clothes because they didn’t match. If they were eating a meal he would tell her that she eats too fast and is going to get fat that way. He would tell the same story about her not taking a shower for a week when she was twelve over and over. He would criticize her posture if she was just standing still. “Alexis you have terrible posture. Stand up straight.” He would always accuse her of having a messy room and say she could not see her friends until she cleaned it to isr satisfaction. He was rarely satisfied. Her father curated an image of Alexis as a sloven, messy, gluttonous and unclean kid. He got to seem like the paragon of organization, maturity, discipline and cleanliness in contrast to her. 

For her part, Alexis was confused by his treatment. She knew she was smart. She got decent grades at school. So why couldn’t she do things that seemed so basic? She could not entertain at the time that she had a father who was propping himself up at her expense. Instead she had to assume that she was stupid and prone to laziness. Her father was doing her the favor of correcting these bad qualities for her. She grew wary of her own judgment because she anticipated that he would “show” her how poor it was. 

The only hope she had to limit his wrath in these ways was to make a show of how she was following his “rules”. If he saw her going out of her way to spend hours cleaning her room he would still feel the superiority he needed but would not have to berate her to get it. Same went for her forcing herself to have good posture and asking him to evaluate it. Or eating very slowly and making sure he noticed. 

Internally, Alexis felt pushed around by this coping strategy. She had to command herself to take these measures. If she balked then she risked her father’s degrading attacks all over again. She would often feel like a “sell-out” to herself. This led to a lower self-esteem because integrity was such an important value to her. 

The Aftermath: Resurrecting Your Resentment

Eventually it may be possible for the scapegoat survivor to know how oppressed they feel. When no longer dependent on the narcissistic parent they can take stock of their own quality of life. The survivor sees how their inner life feels like a series of commands they must obey “or else”. 

These inner commands reflect what the survivor had to do to avoid the narcissistic parent’s attacks. The survivor may have an inner narrative telling them they are going to be late for work. As they wake up in the morning they grow increasingly anxious. They feel like they are running behind with every step of their morning routine. Their inner voice is yelling more and more at them to “hurry up!”.

The survivor may grow to feel like they are cooperating with their oppressor when they do tasks related to their own self-care. Getting to work on time can feel like a feeble act of obedience rather than acting out their own value of timeliness. Cleaning their home can feel like something they must do or feel like a terrible sloven person. Their narcissistic parent weaponized these tasks against them. Now it can feel like the only reason to engage in these activities is to spare themselves the inner attack they will face if they do not do them. There is no real satisfaction to be felt – yet.

At this stage, the scapegoat survivor may recover a sacred form of protest. Instead of being left free to choose how they act they had to do their parent’s bidding. The survivor can now acknowledge that their worth is based on more than obedience. 

Initially the survivor may direct their protest at themselves. It is they who are telling themselves to do this or that. They who are betraying their humanity by telling themselves to hurry up all the time. The only way to resist can often be to defy these inner commands. The survivor may show up late to work or not respond to phone calls or texts. These efforts are intended to restore their sense of freedom. 

In her mid-twenties she had obtained enough distance from her narcissistic father to reflect on how she felt in her life. Until then her inner world had to be a means to the end of limiting the dangers posed by her father. She started going to therapy because she knew her life was not working. She liked her therapist and felt her therapist liked her. They forged a bond and she began talking about what her inner life really felt like. 

“When I get up in the morning I feel like I have an endless amount of things I have to do. Clean my apartment. Start work early. Make breakfast. I know this is all normal but it feels like someone is holding me by the neck to do these things. Like if I don’t, I’ll be a disgrace to myself.”

I asked, “Does this seem familiar to you?”

She said, “Yeah. I made my whole life about goals back since I was twelve. It made life seem possible. Just get the next good grade, do the next workout, or the next chore. Seemed like that gave me a fighting chance.”

“Against what or who?” I asked.

“Seemed like me and the world,” he answered.

“It also sounds similar to how insistent your father would be on doing his bidding. You had to treat yourself in the demanding way he treated you to protect yourself.”

As treatment proceeded, Alexis felt a sense of acceptance from this therapist. She felt like she had someone who understood her on her terms for the first time in her life. This helped Alexis feel safe in looking at and questioning the commands she had formerly used to get by. For about a year in a five year treatment, Alexis expressed her protest. She worked out when she wanted to. She allowed herself to be a few minutes late to her sessions and to work. She allowed herself time where she had nothing to do. She found herself drawing during these times. At other times she felt uneasy. All of this was her protest against the inner tyranny of the commands of self-care.

Recovery: Relocating the Betrayal From Within to Without

The process of recovery for someone who has endured this form of narcissistic abuse takes time. The survivor had to grant ownership of their abilities to take care of themselves to their narcissistic parent. It can take time, new relationships, and therapy to recover one’s felt ownership of these abilities. The goal is to know that when they are, say, working to be punctual it is because they value this quality. They no longer have to do this solely to avoid a harsh rebuke from themselves or others. 

Consider the tragic scenario where someone is abducted by human traffickers. These captors regard the trapped person as their property and feel entitled to exploit them. If their captive does not comply then they face unbearable punishments. To survive, the captive must leverage their sexuality to meet the demands of their captives. The captive no longer gets to feel like they own this part of themselves. 

If this captive escapes then their relationship to their own sexuality will take time to restore. They may feel like they betrayed themselves by using their sexuality in the ways they did to survive. Initially they may avoid sexual contact with anyone. They may be too used to the inner scenario where sex means being domineered and enslaved. 

I bring up this example because in both cases something inherently good had to handed over to someone else. For the survivor of this kind of narcissistic abuse it was their right to take care of themselves. For the human trafficking survivor it was their sexuality. If and when this initial traumatic situation ends both can initially feel betrayed by themselves. They see their efforts to be on time or engage in sexual intimacy as selling themselves out. 

With time and the experience of being treated as a deserving person, the survivor redefines how they were betrayed. It is important to gain distance from narcissistic abusers in one’s current life. Living in defiance of the narcissist’s rule of being undeserving is important here too. Both pillars of recovery empower the survivor to see themselves differently.

I want to mention that my online course on recovery from narcissistic abuse dedicates several videos to these two pillars of recovery. In it you learn the importance of distance from narcissistic abusers, how to identify ‘safe’ people, and how to overcome common challenges along the way. You will also learn how to defy the narcissist’s rules of being undeserving. 

The problem was not what they had to leverage to accommodate their domineering narcissistic parent. The betrayal occurred in the parent’s dismissal of the child’s right to be treated with respect and love. As this new definition of betrayal takes hold, the survivor can feel deeper compassion and respect towards themselves. The part of them that figured out how to survive their narcissistic parent’s betrayal of them is no longer at fault. 

In the latter two years of treatment, Alexis was more used to the warmth, understanding and empathy she consistently found in treatment. She began to see herself differently. First of all, she had a more clear picture of who she was. Having been used for so long by her narcissistic parent had made it hard to know who she was. Second, she began to like herself. She saw herself to be as deserving as anyone else. 

“I’ve been thinking about what I want for myself,” she said.

“Oh yeah? Tell me.”

“I want to be around people who treat me the way I feel in here. I want to respect my own feelings and the feelings of people I care about. And there are certain goals at work that are meaningful to me. I want to reach them.”

“It sounds like that is coming from a place in you that gets to choose?”

“Yeah. I feel a lot less oppressed these days. I get why I had to treat myself that way. It was the only way to get through an impossible situation. But the problem was how I was treated NOT the way I coped.”


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.

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