Being the scapegoat child to a narcissistic parent means feeling very unimportant. You may have even felt like you did not exist to this parent. Psychologically speaking you would not be wrong.
It is very painful for a child to attach to a parent who does not see nor care about the child’s existence. The rule is that the parent is more important than the child. Therefore the child’s resulting anguish at feeling devalued and deprived is inconsequential.
In this arrangement, the child avoids experiences that reflect their importance. Such experience contradicts the narcissistic parent’s rule that they are unimportant. The child can feel worse in such moments. They have to painfully know what they are missing out on. The injustice of their arrangement and its permanence can agonize them.
One of the ways a scapegoat child risks feeling important is in their gifts. We all have gifts. Whether it is singing, writing, athletics, connecting to others, etc. When someone outside the family sees and celebrates the scapegoat child’s gifts, the child is in a difficult position. They need to protect themselves from the pain of knowing what they are missing. And the child risks the narcissistic parent’s vindictive attack if their gifts evoke that parent’s envy.
In today’s post, I describe how the scapegoat child survives this ordeal. The child has to deny their own gifts. They may learn to celebrate others’ gifts instead of their own. Both strategies protect the child. The scapegoat survivor may unconsciously continue to deny their gifts by finding relationships with people like their narcissistic parent. I will discuss how survivors can recover their gifts in safe relationships.
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. My online course on Recovery from Narcissistic Abuse offers a strategy that corresponds to these 3 pillars and provides a community within which to do it via an accompanying private facebook group. You can check it out by clicking here. Today’s blog falls under Pillar #2: Making sense of what happened
If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. This e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems. You can find the link to the book by clicking here. Also, you can check out my new book ‘Growing Up as the Scapegoat to a Narcissistic Parent: A Guide to Healing‘ on Amazon.
Why it’s dangerous for the scapegoat child to own their gifts
#1 Being important when you’re not supposed to be
The scapegoat child’s gifts threaten the arrangement with the narcissistic parent. The child is assumed to be – and treated as – less important than the narcissistic parent. The child getting recognized as special or gifted is not part of this equation.
There are two ways the narcissistic parent enforces this disparity. The parent’s self-absorption denies the child of the recognition that they matter. By extension, their gifts do not matter. This context makes the child’s recognition of their gifts feel all the more painful.
Sarah was eight years old and trying out for her softball little league team. She remembered coming to the plate where a coach was pitching to the players. The goal was to see how well the players hit to see who would go to which team. Sarah had only played tee-ball before this and was a decent but not great hitter then.
She got to the plate and the first pitch she saw she crushed into the opposite outfield. “What just happened?” she excitedly asked herself. The coach said, “Wow!” and said he was going to throw another one. <<Pop!>> the ball rocketed off her bat into centerfield and over the outfielder’s head. And so it went. She had no idea this was in her.
As the tryout practice was wrapping up, her coach said, “Well I guess we know who’s going to be the #1 pick in this year’s softball league draft,” as he nodded to Sarah. Sarah was over the moon yet felt a tinge of worry. These were unfamiliar feelings. She was not used to being singled out for good reasons. She was the scapegoat child in her family. Her father was wholly disinterested in her except when he criticized her something. Her mother was volatile and prone to yell at Sarah at the drop of a hat.
Sarah looked towards the dugout and saw her father there to pick her up. The coach came over to him and said, “Your daughter is something else! She hit the ball out of the park all practice.” He looked at Sarah and she felt intensely uncomfortable. Something was wrong.
As they walked to his car, Sarah found herself offering herself up for his critique. “Dad, what did you think of my form when I was hitting the ball? Was it OK?”. This gave her father something she unconsciously knew he required. “Well, your elbow kept sagging down. You need to make sure to keep it up.” Sarah stopped and tried to mimic the form he described and said, “You mean, like this?”. “Yes, exactly,” she said.
From that moment on, Sarah found herself obsessing over whether she had the right batting stance or not. So much so, that she was too preoccupied to hit the ball like she did during tryouts. To stay less important than her narcissistic father she had to present herself as faulty to him. This let him feel superior as the one who could tell her how to fix herself.
Sarah felt tension at being recognized for being able to hit in front of a parent who denied her importance. The gulf of how her coach responded to her versus her father’s typical indifference towards her was distressing. She coped by sacrificing her gift into something that needed correction by her ‘all-knowing’ father. She lost her right to enjoy this gift but restored the order required in her family.
One of the ways a scapegoat child can keep their morale up in such a dreadful situation is to Tell themselves that the parent will eventually recognize their importance if they follow this rule. In this way the child can protect their wish that their parent will love and value them. This business of having to be and seem less important is just what has to be endured first.
#2 Evoking the narcissistic parent’s envy
The second danger of the scapegoat child owning their gifts is Making the narcissistic parent envious. Envy is a feeling of inadequacy due to seeing someone possess something you do not. Next, is the desire to destroy that person’s possession so you feel more adequate. This is a frequent experience for narcissistic people.
Scapegoat survivors of narcissistic parents recall being punished suspiciously soon after a success. Kids who were popular at school and invited to sleep over at friends’ homes would often return the next morning to a parent irate at them. The reasons could vary but the sequence was the same. A child who announces they won a spelling contest in school at the dinner table might get criticized for their table manners a few moments later.
The scapegoat child learns to associate the parent’s vindictive attack with their successes. As a matter of protection the child must deny their gifts. Sure it is painful but it beats being attacked all the time.
How the scapegoat child copes
Although it is too dangerous to own their gifts, The scapegoat child can celebrate others’ gifts. There are several benefits to this coping strategy. It often comes naturally for such children to empathize with and promote others’ gifts. When directed towards the narcissistic parent the child can buy themselves some protection. By celebrating the parent’s gifts, the child is seeing the parent as more important. This prevents the parent from feeling envious and attacking the child.
Celebrating others’ gifts instead of one’s own is often welcome by others. It is generally a good quality to appreciate others’ gifts. A scapegoat child may have a generosity of spirit in this regard.
The challenge is the rule that the child not accept the same appreciation in return. The scapegoat child is left feeling appreciated for celebrating others’ gifts while being forbidden from being celebrated. This can leave the child feeling privately exploited and empty. They feel appreciated for what they give but not for who they are. Their only reliable sense of worth can be making others’ feel good about their gifts.
How scapegoat survivors continue denying their gifts
The scapegoat child’s wish that they have a parent who loves them can perpetuate similar relationships in the future. A child who has to deny their gifts may learn to see this sacrifice as temporary. This allows the child to believe that the parent will eventually celebrate them. Doing so, keeps the child’s morale up by convincing them that the parent still cares for them.
The logic goes something like: “I don’t do things right so there’s no reason for my parent to celebrate me. Once I do things right, then I will deserve their praise and they’ll give it to me.” This sort of belief about oneself preserves the child’s wish that their parent will and does love them.
The child can become occupied with the fantasy of the parent’s eventual change of heart. This makes the narcissistic parent’s actual punishments of the child for expressing their gifts to be something that has to be endured before the bliss of being loved. In fact, This sort of mistreatment can get associated with the supposed promise of love to follow.
In this way The scapegoat child believes that things are not what they seem. The narcissistic parent’s envy, withholding, and vindictiveness is a pit stop on the way to something much better. This is necessary for the child to believe while dependent on the narcissistic parent. It would be disastrous to know that what they see is what they get from the narcissistic parent. The parent does not have a chamber inside them full of love that the child can unlock. If they did, the child would have already received it. This can only be understood and known with enough distance from the parent.
The scapegoat survivor can later feel strongly attracted to similar narcissistic people. When they find someone who is threatened by their gifts the survivor can associate this with the promise of love. A partner who denies their gifts is offering helpful correction. With enough self modification, the partner will give them the acceptance they seek. Things are not what they seem in such relationships. The fantasy that helped the survivor survive their narcissistic parent leads them towards similar predicaments.
The path towards recovering your gifts
A scapegoat survivor needs to experience firsthand an ongoing relationship where their gifts do not threaten it. In a relationship with someone who is safe the danger of them turning away or against you is not present. Expression of your gifts does not evoke withdrawal or hostility from the other. With repetition the association between being gifted and being endangered diminishes.
I am arguing here that It is not the experience of using one’s gifts that is the problem. Rather It is the traumatic association of these gifts with the narcissistic parent’s retaliation that is the problem. In new relationships the survivor experiences a completely different calculus. They receive care and attention for being who they are not for how they meet the other’s needs.
The scapegoat survivor has to shift from valuing the promise of love to whether it is present. Instead of seeing love and acceptance as something that comes after feeling undeserving, the survivor gets to expect it now. If the survivor is not given the acceptance they seek then this is a signal to look elsewhere. This means taking the other person’s treatment of you at face value. You get to prize the actual presence of being treated well rather than its promise.
A common challenge in this process is feeling guilty for moving away from people who do not treat you well. This may seem hard to understand at face value. If you were the scapegoat child, then you had to take responsibility for the narcissistic parent’s emotional well-being. That was the parent’s entitled expectation of you. Failure to do so would result in further suffering for the child. As a result, The survivor’s decision to move away from people who mistreat them can feel like shirking one’s responsibility. Guilt is soon to follow.
A way to challenge and move past such guilt is to remind yourself that you are only responsible for your emotional well-being. This is easier said than experienced. It is important to gain new experience in relationships that endorse this point. Spend time with people who prioritize their own needs so that others are not expected to. This arrangement means that neither party has to abandon themselves to take care of the other person. Part of caring for your own emotional well-being can include expressing your gifts.
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.