You feel so bad because the narcissist has to feel so good

Cinderella might be thought of as the story of how a woman survived and recovered from narcissistic abuse.  Here you have a very kind and beautiful woman who’s scapegoated and treated like the scourge of the earth by her narcissistic stepmother and stepsisters…forced to clean up after them all and deserving of nothing good in return.  It’s clear in the movie that the narcissistic stepmother gets to feel good about herself by being able to put Cinderella down at every turn.  What’s so powerful in the film is when Cinderella and her stepmother’s reality is upended when Cinderella’s shoe fits the glass slipper and she’s transported into the world of royalty etc.  In so doing, she shows how fictional the claim that she was bad and undeserving actually is.  Her stepmother is crushed that Cinderella will no longer go along with the way she was treated in their home.  Once exposed, the stepmother’s lie can no longer be believed in the same way.

I send the message on this channel that survivors of narcissistic abuse are not as bad as they have been led to believe.  But often in the comments section, private facebook group accompanying my online course, or in therapy sessions there’s the persistent question of “Well, yeah, OK that all sounds well and good but what if I’m in fact not that great?  I mean I feel pretty bad a lot of the time and I can name lots of instances that support how I’ve been bad, so what if you’re wrong and me and my parent are right about me?”.

I think the metaphor of Cinderella applies here…when one person is cast as the one to blame for any and everything in a relationship then a lie is afoot.  The truth is a lot more likely to be that the blame was misplaced than that the person was deserving of the blame.  I think what’s satisfying about the tale of Cinderella is that lie is exposed and resolved – that Cinderella was in fact a very good and deserving person and was then treated as such when she escaped the confines of her home.

The same might be said for when survivors are told they are not nearly as bad as they’ve been led to believe. What this can mean is that there’s a middle ground that we all reside in as humans where we’re not perfect but still deserving of love and self-respect.  And in the course of narcissistic abuse that middle ground gets exchanged for an artificial arrangement where one person is perfect – the narcissist – and the other is inherently inferior – the scapegoat survivor.  This post is going to offer a tool for busting this myth that happens in narcissistic abuse.

In short, whenever one person – a narcissist – requires that they feel artificially better about who they are, there needs to be someone else to feel artificially worse about who they are – the scapegoated child or partner.  As this truth gets absorbed during recovery a lot of rooms within oneself that had to be closed might begin to feel safe to re-enter.

A word about who I am:  I’m a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco, CA specializing 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 post falls under the category of ‘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.

Why do you have to feel so bad in order for the narcissist to feel so good?

Whenever one person cannot tolerate their own human imperfections and has to offload those hated imperfections onto someone else, then act of untruth or distortion of reality has to happen.  This is exactly what happens in the course of narcissistic abuse.  The narcissist is unable to tolerate their own imperfections and has power over the scapegoat child or partner to make them suffer instead.  Doing so, conveniently protects the narcissist from their own feelings of worthlessness.  Scapegoat survivors are familiar with this kind of treatment.

But the entire premise of having to seem perfect to oneself and others constitutes a lie that the narcissist must live – and coerce the scapegoat to live along with them.  In so doing, the narcissist gets to feel artificially good while the scapegoat has to feel artificially bad most or all of the time.

How does this apply to the claim that scapegoat survivors are not nearly as bad as they’ve been led to believe?

If you found yourself having to believe you were defective or undeserving in order to share a reality with a parent or partner then you likely suffered narcissistic abuse.  And what that means is that these painful beliefs about yourself were and are artificial.  They are a product of the fiction that someone with narcissistic personality disorder must live their lives with.  And if you were under their authority or power at one point then you likely had no choice to but participate in this fiction.

This is why in therapy sessions when clients talk of how they were wrong or injurious to someone else, I listen with an ear towards how they may be overly blaming of themselves as a residue of having to insist they are worse than most other people.  As therapy proceeds a shift tends to happen where relationships are not seen as games of having to manage one person’s very fragile self-esteem but as ways for two perfectly imperfect people to come together and see what can happen.  The latter was never an option with a narcissistic abuser because they were always so fixated on needing to prop and keep themselves propped up at all times.  It’s why survivors of narcissistic typically exclaim:  “there was never any room for me in that relationship”…despite, perhaps, having been accused of being the selfish or arrogant one in the relationship by the narcissistic abuser.

I think this post can be an important to touchstone to help in the process of recovery from narcissistic abuse particularly when feelings of being bad creep up.  If you experience feelings or thoughts that seem to claim you are a bad person, you might try to remember that these claims are a product of the fiction that your narcissistic parent or partner forced you to live in.  You might gently offer yourself the truth that you are not perfect but no less so than anyone else and you are still an intact person deserving of love and respect just as you are.  Of course, it can be really helpful to find relationships that echo this sentiment to you because that can powerfully reinforce this message.

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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  1. I was one of those people who had decided to leave narcissistic relationships behind. That was when my golden child brother and my narcissistic mother came to terms that they sneaked into my notifications on my iPhone. I told them that is an invasion of privacy. They won’t stop until they learn that it’s not okay for them to sneak into my room.