Years ago, when I first went into therapy, I was a client at a clinic that specialized in abused children, including adults who had been abused as children. Their primary focus was on sexual abuse, but they treated other kinds of abuse as well.
One of the most appalling facts I learned as a client of this clinic was that a percentage of the abusers had, themselves, been abused as children. This shocked me…I could not fathom how someone could suffer the pain and indignity of abuse themselves and then go on and do it to someone else. I had just assumed, like I suppose most people do, that if you have suffered from abuse, you will automatically have empathy for others and, because you know exactly how it feels, you will not do the same to someone else.
Well, that was a wrong-headed notion because many of the people with whom I was in a therapy group reported that their abuser had also been abused as a child, and I found that mind-boggling. Our therapist explained to us that some people, when victimized, deal with their feelings of powerlessness by repeating the abuse on people weaker than they are, therefore allowing them to feel powerful instead of powerless. It made sense in a detached, clinically-logical kind of way, but still didn’t feel right. But she was right: “…psychologists at Yale [have] concluded that 30 percent is the best estimate of the rate at which abuse of one generation is repeated in the next…One of the crucial differences between those abused children who go on to become abusers and those who do not…is whether they have the insight that their parents were wrong to abuse them.” In other words, kids who buy into the notion that they deserved the rough treatment meted out by their parents often do not see those actions as brutal or even unwarranted, let alone wrong.
This distortion of reality can have varying consequences. In the case of a person who later says “I was a handful as a kid: my parents had to be rough with me in order to get my attention,” this person grows up believing not only that he deserved the abuse he received, he believes it is the right way to parent an uncooperative child. In my case, even though I was very clear that I did not deserve her brutality, the very fact that my NM called them “spankings” instead of the beatings they really were, skewed my definition of “spanking” for many, many years. As a result, I minimized and discounted myself by believing I was “merely spanked” rather than forcefully beaten with a thin leather strap that left whip-like welts all over my tender legs, buttocks and lower back.
According to Gaia Vince in New Scientist, “As many as 70% of parents who abuse their children were themselves abused while growing up.” That, of course, leaves a further 30% of abusive parents who were not abused in childhood…like my NM.
Humans have a tendency to want to make order out of chaos. We like to categorize and pigeon-hole things in order to make them manageable, especially in our minds. It is part of our survival instinct to learn lessons from our experiences and then generalize them to help keep us aware and safe. It is also where our deplorable tendency to stereotype comes from: it is much easier to assign the characteristics of a few to the many than it is to take the time to get to know each one of the many on an individual basis. Our social consciousness has been raised to recognize some of the bigger bugaboos like sexism and racism, but we still sort and compartmentalize and generalize about other things. And those of us who live with the legacy of narcissistic parents and families are, in this respect, not so different from the normies.
We tend to presume, for example, that in any household in which there is a Golden Child, there is also a Scapegoat, but that is not necessarily true. My NM is a perfect case in point: she was definitely the GC, spoilt and coddled by her father as the only girl. But despite her position as the GC, neither of her brothers were designated nor treated as scapegoats. And my NM perceived her brothers as the favoured ones because they had more freedom and privilege than she did, something neither surprising nor indicative of favouritism in the 1930s and 40s, when my NM was growing up.
We also tend to presume that anyone who grew up as the family scapegoat will be empathetic and compassionate and find narcissistic behaviours to be anathema. This, also, is not necessarily true. Remember, as much as 30% of people who were abused as children go on to abuse their own kids and up to 70% of people who abuse their children were, themselves, abused in childhood. How many of these abusers were themselves scapegoats and, feeling powerless, went on to assuage that powerlessness by becoming the powerful, the abuser? How many of them do not identify what happened to them as abuse and so repeat it with their own kids?
I have met a few scapegoats whom I thought were peculiarly NM-like, people who emulated and even admired the powerful people in their lives, even sought out those powerful people in order to gain favour in their eyes. These people, instead of rejecting the narcissist’s power paradigm, adopt and embrace it. And while they are clear on their NM’s having hurt them (and sometimes harbouring considerable anger for their having been neglected or ignored or blamed), these people seek to heal the hole within themselves not through therapy and coming to grips with the reality of their dysfunctional upbringing, but by aligning themselves with a narcissist who will give them some semblance of the strokes they need in exchange for their loyalty and devotion.
But we are people cultivated to accept and be grateful for crumbs. When my brother got new shoes, he got the latest, most basketball shoe that was popular with the boys…I got ugly saddle oxfords that went out of style shortly after I was born. But when I complained, NM reminded me that there were children in Mexico…just a few miles from us…who have to go school barefoot and who would be grateful for the ugly shoes, an implication that I could be made to go to school barefoot that was not lost on me. I had to be grateful for having any shoes at all: expecting my tastes and desires to be taken into account was excessive. Conditioned to accept crumbs as children, as adults any kind of positive attention, no matter how contrived or exploitive, can feel validating to us.
Think “cult.” Think damaged people who commit themselves to a cult in which the leader gives them the messages they so desperately need to hear in exchange for their adulation. They don’t hear the insincerity of the messages because they hear what they need to hear: for the first time in their lives they feel noticed, valued, their loyalty and tokens of that loyalty, apparently valued. That they are being fed calculated, carefully doled out platitudes to keep them hooked they are unwilling to accept. You could show some of these people videos of the object of their devotion ridiculing them, multiple testimonies of a whole host of abuses by their leader, and the faithful will not waver: they have finally found a source of ego-gratification, strokes, emotional sustenance, and they will guard it jealously, even from the truth.
Now, imagine someone with that hungry mindset finding a narcissist who understands that, in order to hook the walking wounded, all s/he needs to do is check in every day or two, say something soothing that can be interpreted as compassion or empathy, and be very careful to keep any nefarious deeds tightly under wraps: just act compassionate for a few minutes every couple of days and the hurt and emotionally starved will fall at your feet. Imagine being one of those followers: no painful, protracted therapy, no agonies of experiencing the deferred pain collected over the years, no being held responsible for fixing the damage caused by others, just blessed validation and a regularly renewed sense of being understood. And if the narcissist holds him/herself up as an authority figure, someone who makes and enforces rules, the repetition of the original narcissistic relationship is duplicated and this time you win…you’re getting what feels like love from that authority figure and you will put up with anything…anything…to keep it coming.
People in the throes of this kind of relationship…whether it is with their Nparent, a religious organization or cult, or an internet guru, do not progress emotionally, they stay stuck right where they are. It is against the self-interest of the leader to see the adoring followers improve because that would mean a loss of the Nsupply they provide (and anything else, like financial support, free labour, evangelizing or bringing in new acolytes). And so the followers not only go into a kind of emotional stasis, they defend the controlling narcissist from the truth. They are the man who beats his five year old with a belt and defends himself by demeaning himself and defending his brutal parents: “A little spanking never hurt anyone. My parents spanked me every day…I needed it…and I turned out fine.” No, he didn’t turn out fine: he turned out abusing his child just as he was abused, and likely for normal childhood behaviours misinterpreted by him…and his parents before him…as defiance or wilful disobedience. They are the woman who impoverishes herself and diverts money from her children’s needs to send gifts of money to televangelists or internet gurus for the validation she feels when she receives their thanks. These are scapegoats who drank the kool aid along with any GC sibs in the household and who believe that they owe their abusive parents allegiance regardless of how they were treated and believe the same not only of their own children, but of others as well. And that includes you and any other scapegoat: you were not abused, in their eyes, but got what you deserved. If you, like them, had been a better, more obedient, more perfect child, your parents would not have been forced…by your behaviour…to treat you as they did.
You may find yourself shocked when you first come across such a person, and you may even feel blamed…and even that your abusive parent is being validated. After all, this is not some narcissist talking, it is another scapegoat! What does she see that has escaped you? What does she understand that you do not? Is it possible that your parents and their flying monkeys were right all along?
Don’t be too quick to second-guess yourself. There is nothing in the rules of narcissism that prevents scapegoats from becoming narcissists themselves. Even if the child in question was treated by the family as a scapegoat, there is nothing in the human psyche that prevents an abused child from emulating the person s/he perceives as the most important and powerful member of the household: the abuser. Some 30% of abused children grow up to be abusers; 70% of people who abuse their children were, themselves, abused. Not all of us grow up to have compassion, empathy, and understanding for those who experienced the same pain of being the scapegoat of a narcissistic, dysfunctional family.
Since only 30% of abused children grow up to be abusers, it stands to reason that the remainder develop compassion and empathy for others who experienced the same kind of treatment…we are the majority. But none of us have a brand on our foreheads that tells others where we stand, whether we have compassion for our fellow sufferers or whether we have chosen to identify with our abusers.
The fact that a scapegoat is clear on the fact that she was abused and is hurt and/or angry at her abuser is not proof against alignment with the abusers. If she had chosen to assuage her pain by hooking up with another narcissist, especially if that narcissist is smart enough to feed her enough crumbs to keep her bound and begging for more, the victim is going to defend…and maybe even emulate…her present narcissist while simultaneously condemning her original abuser. I have some experience with this, having been clear about the wrongness of my NM’s behaviour for most of my life, but continuing to connect with narcissistic men who abused me. Key is the fact that they did not physically abuse me (the ones who did found themselves suddenly alone), but abused me emotionally. Eager to please and win or earn their love and esteem, I was dug deep into denial with these men, certain that my performance at whatever task or responsibility that was before me would win the love I so desperately sought and fill that aching hole where my heart belonged. That is how you do it: you simply shut out all forms of criticism against the narcissist who keeps feeding you crumbs while you interpret promises of a banquet from the gesture, you just refuse to see or heed the red flags and warnings until it all crashes down around your ears.
Not all scapegoats grow up to be compassionate, empathetic, understanding people. Some of them grow up to seek out other narcissists and try to get emotional sustenance from them, refusing to see the truth and rejecting all attempts from outsiders to make them see it. They may even turn on their family and friends with hostility and cut ties, even engage in N-like behaviours themselves in order to preserve the relationship with the narcissist, a relationship that feeds them mere tastes of the love and esteem they crave…just enough to keep them craving more. Other scapegoats grow up emulating their abusers, accepting their justifications, believing their rationalizations, embracing the feelings of power and control their own abusive acts provide: they become narcissists themselves, their own need for power (Nsupply) overriding everything else.
So if you meet a fellow scapegoat and are puzzled by the person’s apparent lack of empathy, if you meet a narcissist and find it hard to believe that s/he was a scapegoat as a child, remember that as much as 30% of people who grew up abused go on to take on the mantle of abuse at their first opportunity to have power over others, to repeat the abuse their parents perpetrated upon them. From school yard bullies to jealous boyfriends to undermining or husband-seducing friends to abusive parents to nasty manipulative bosses, these scapegoats, while sharing your unhappy, upbringing, decided somewhere along the line that since they couldn’t beat ‘em, they would join ‘em.
What you may not realize is these are among the most dangerous narcissists of all. Rather like turncoats, they not only have the self-interest and lack of empathy of the typical narcissist, having been in our shoes, they have additional insights into what makes us tick. I am convinced my NexH was one of these: raised by an indifferent, resentful, manipulative mother and a distant, detached, self-interested father, he was an angry, bitter man who used his prodigious intellect to attempt to make “the big score.” His motivation was “I’ll show them!” “them” being his parents, siblings, former classmates and co-workers. He was obsessed with being better than someone…anyone…and because he was not above sabotaging or “sand bagging” someone with lies and innuendo, he was ever convinced that others were focussed on doing the same to him. Rather than take empathy and compassion away from his neglected, even bullied childhood, he took away the “do unto others before they do unto you” message. He couldn’t beat ‘em, so he not only joined ‘em, he improved and refined his narcissism until he was a malignant narcissist who was a master manipulator and admitted psychological sadist. He was not unaware of the pain he inflicted on me, he was keenly aware of it and gratified by it because it made him feel powerful. His early life as a scapegoat gave him the ability to see my vulnerabilities—they were part of his make up as well—but instead of being motivated to give me empathy and comfort, he became increasingly cruel and manipulative because that made him feel powerful and the power made him feel blameless and covered over his feelings of vulnerability.
I am not suggesting that you show empathy or give forgiveness to the narcissists you know: these people have the exact same choices you have—every time you interact with someone you have the choice of being kind or being a bitch. Narcissists have the same opportunities for choice that you and I have: with each interaction they can choose to be kind or to be cruel and it is their unwavering decision to gratify their egos by making those selfish, unkind choices that reveals their narcissism. Worst, I think, are the ones who suffered themselves as scapegoats, who know and understand your pain, and who choose to abuse you anyway.
As much as we would like to think that, in meeting someone who was abused by a narcissist in childhood, we have met a kindred spirit, that is not always the case. If we forge friendships with others based on the assumption that having been a scapegoat in childhood, a person is automatically rendered incapable of being a narcissist, we disadvantage ourselves. Narcissists are, by definition, damaged people. And not all of them got damaged by being the spoilt and coddled Golden Child.