People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) don’t have healthy identity mechanisms. Narcissism forms because the normal psychosocial development process is interrupted by some type of trauma. As a result, the child fails to develop a sense of autonomy and, instead, is filled with shame and self-doubt. This eventually leads to the failure to develop a healthy sense of self.
The child comes to believe their true self is hopelessly flawed, and they bury it deep inside. But they need to be able to interact with the world around them, and for that, they construct a frail, false self-image. They fill it with all of the concepts they believe are desirable but which they don’t possess. These are things like superiority, perfection, omnipotence, and omniscience.
The problem is that the false self-image cannot support the child’s self-esteem. For that, they need other people, and they need them to believe that they, the narcissist, is special and better than others.
But they are human, and like all humans, they make mistakes. That’s why they need a scapegoat in their lives. They need someone they can blame for everything that goes wrong. They can’t possibly blame themselves, as that could bring down their entire house of cards. It could ruin their carefully constructed false self-image.
I was that person in my family. My narcissistic mother blamed everything that went wrong on me. If I hadn’t come along, her life would have been wonderful. I ruined everything, according to her. But what about the scapegoat? What kind of person does the narcissist focus on to play that role?
How Does Narcissistic Abuse Affect a Child’s Psychosocial Development?
Psychologist Erik Erikson defined eight psychosocial stages of human development. Each stage presents a conflict and the important events associated with that stage. If the development proceeds normally, positive outcomes are achieved.
Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Human Development: A Summary Chart (Note: The Outcome Listed Presupposes Healthy Development)
|Infancy (birth to 18 months)||Trust vs. Mistrust||Feeding||Hope|
|Early Childhood (2 to 3 years)||Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt||Toilet Training||Will|
|Preschool (3 to 5 years)||Initiative vs. Guilt||Exploration||Purpose|
|School Age (6 to 11 years)||Industry vs. Inferiority||School||Confidence|
|Adolescence (12 to 18 years)||Identity vs. Role Confusion||Social Relationships||Fidelity|
|Young Adulthood (19 to 40 years)||Intimacy vs. Isolation||Relationships||Love|
|Middle Adulthood (40 to 65 years)||Generativity vs. Stagnation||Work and Parenthood||Care|
|Maturity (65 to death)||Ego Integrity vs. Despair||Reflection on Life||Wisdom|
They can ultimately end up with role confusion as adolescents, which results in numerous problems, including substance abuse and other delinquent behaviors.
What are the Roles in a Narcissist’s Family?
According to sociologist Alina Costin, in the narcissist’s dysfunctional family, there are roles that each member plays. These include the following:
- The Caretaker/Rescuer/Enabler: This person tries to keep the family together. They put the needs of others ahead of their own, and they try to solve everyone’s problems. This role often develops in response to the scapegoat role.
- The Hero/Golden Child: This is the responsible, dependable child. The narcissist often grooms them to believe they are superior. They are the ‘good child,’ and while that seems better than the scapegoat role, this child is never allowed to develop their own independent identity, as you can see in the video below. This role develops in response to the dysfunction as the child tries to cope. They often become like parents.
- The Scapegoat/Black Sheep: This person is a rulebreaker who externalizes the family’s dysfunction. They speak out, and that is part of what brings the wrath of the narcissist down upon them. The narcissist must discredit them. Unfortunately, this person often engages in self-destructive behaviors.
- The Lost Child: This is the invisible child who just tries to get by without attracting attention. They stay away from the drama and often withdraw from reality altogether. The role forms when they try to take themselves out of the equation. They frequently immerse themselves in TV, books, or other types of fantasy outlets.
- The Mascot/Clown: This is the member of the family who uses humor to alleviate tension and negativity. They use it to mask the problems in the family. The role develops when they try to distract from the problems and shift the family’s attention to themselves. These individuals can easily become codependent.
Which is Better – the Scapegoat or the Golden Child?
It might seem, at first glance, that it would be better to be a golden child. After all, the golden child is showered with attention and love, even from the narcissist.
The reality is, however, that the narcissist often grooms the golden child to be their prodigy, as it were. They tell them they’re superior, special, and entitled to everything they want in life.
The narcissist won’t let this child do anything for themselves, and they tell them that other people should do everything for them. As a result, it’s not uncommon that the golden child will become a narcissist themselves.
The scapegoat, on the other hand, must endure the brunt of the narcissist’s anger and blame. Because of the characteristics of the scapegoat, however, they are often able to not only withstand that abuse but push back on it as well. Let’s delve into the specific characteristics that the scapegoat possesses.
What are the Characteristics of a Scapegoat?
Scapegoats have a mix of characteristics, many of which can help them build resilience against the emotional abuse they suffer at the hands of a narcissist. Other characteristics, however, can cause them lifelong problems, such as addiction and low self-esteem. Let’s take a look at 25 common characteristics of scapegoats.
1. Loving Caretaker
A scapegoat is often someone who does provide emotional or physical caretaking of a parental figure. They often take on multiple responsibilities in the family, such as cleaning, cooking, and babysitting.
The problem with their caretaking is that a narcissist will never be satisfied. Thus, they blame them for not being able to fully satisfy their needs. This often results in burnout, anxiety, and poor self-care habits.
Constantly shouldering the blame can ultimately result in the scapegoat leaving home at an early age to escape the abuse and problems with substance abuse.
2. Low/No Self-Esteem
Given that scapegoats are constantly abused, it’s easy to see how their self-esteem would suffer as a result. It is often a child with an already low self-esteem that attracts the narcissist in the first place. They are an easy target, and the narcissist has no empathy, so they attack at will.
“A child who is scapegoated by a malignantly narcissistic parent actually has no ‘parent’ in the true sense of the word. He faces an adversary where biology tells him to expect an ally.”
— Jay Reid, Psychotherapist
Your parents give you your first experiences with other people in the world. When they are abusive, you integrate that into your identity. It’s impossible for your self-esteem not to suffer.
3. Empathetic and Sensitive to Inner Turmoil
Scapegoats are often very empathetic. In fact, some are empaths. They can see and even feel the emotions of others, and they want to help.
But that kindness just puts them in the crosshairs of the narcissist. The narcissist fears intimacy and doesn’t want someone to be able to get that close to their true self.
Their fear of exposure causes them to lash out at anyone trying to help, and that is often the scapegoat in their life.
4. Efficient Problem-Solver
Scapegoats are also often excellent problem-solvers. They have developed the skills to navigate the world not only without support but, in fact, with resistance and constant attacks.
They try to use their problem-solving abilities to help resolve the dysfunction they see in their own family. Unfortunately, that’s in direct opposition to what the narcissist wants.
5. Fiercely Protective
Scapegoats often become the protector in the family. They defend their other parent and siblings from the narcissist’s emotional and sometimes physical abuse.
They know what it’s like to be scapegoated, and they try to prevent that from happening to loved ones. They may confront abusers directly, and later in life, they often turn into fierce advocates for abuse victims. Of course, they also often fail to recognize their own limits and vulnerability.
6. Highly Sensitive
Scapegoats are typically highly sensitive individuals who care deeply for the people in their life. They develop more sensitivity as the narcissist continuously abuses them.
Because of the abuse they endure, they usually become very sensitive to loud noises and other environmental stimuli.
7. Brazen Truth-Teller
More than anyone else in the narcissist’s realm, the scapegoat is a truth-teller. They call out the abuse they see, and it is that characteristic that often catches the attention of the narcissistic abuser.
The narcissist can’t allow the scapegoat to continue telling the truth about them, or they might expose the narcissist’s flawed true self. To stop them, they will begin a campaign of scapegoating to make them seem less credible.
The Scapegoat is the truth-teller in the great pretender’s sticky web of devastating lies, secrets, and pretense.
— Gail Meyers, Narcissism: Echo Apologetics
8. Internalizes Blame
Another unfortunate characteristic of the scapegoat is that they tend to internalize blame. They have spent their lifetime being blamed by an abusive narcissist for everything imaginable.
They can’t help but internalize the blame. This often results in problems with substance abuse and other self-destructive behaviors. They also frequently leave home at an early age, which makes them much more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
9. Rigid Perfectionist
You might not think that being a perfectionist is all that bad of a trait to have, but it creates some very distinct psychological problems. Worst of all is that perfectionists feel as though their self-worth is based on achieving their goals.
Here is a list of perfectionistic behaviors that can cause big problems for a person’s self-esteem:
- Fear of failure: Because perfectionists equate their self-worth with their goals, they are extremely fearful of failing.
- Fear of making mistakes: Perfectionists don’t just fear failure; they equate making a mistake with failure. As a result, they are hyperfocused on avoiding mistakes and may miss many opportunities for improvement.
- Fear of disapproval: Perfectionists fear the judgment of others as they are afraid of not being accepted. Therefore, they orient their behavior around protecting themselves from criticism.
- All-or-nothing thinking: When a perfectionist fails to achieve perfection, they see themselves as a total failure. They don’t just acknowledge failure in one area; it’s all or nothing.
- Overcompensating: Perfectionists also engage in excessive types of behavior to prevent anything from going wrong. They overcompensate for everything.
- Excessive Checking and Reassurance Seeking: Given their other characteristics, it’s easy to see how a perfectionist might constantly be checking and seeking reassurance from other people.
- Excessive Organizing and List-Making: Their fear of failure means perfectionists are compulsive about organizing and list-making, so much so that it can interfere with actually getting anything done.
- Procrastination: Fear can sometimes be paralyzing, and that’s why many perfectionists procrastinate.
- Avoidance: Their overwhelming fear of failure can lead a perfectionist to avoid doing something altogether because they are afraid they won’t be able to do it.
10. Reacts Emotionally
Another typical characteristic of a scapegoat is that they tend to react emotionally to anything that happens. They feel a great deal of pressure because they are constantly being blamed for everything that happens.
That causes them to lash out emotionally, sometimes even though the reason is minor. It becomes a habit; they react emotionally instead of acting effectively.
11. Rebellious and Defiant
I know this is what happened in my case. I became very defensive, and then I thought that if my mother was going to blame me anyway, I should just go ahead and do the bad thing she thought I did anyway.
I also began to push back on everything she wanted me to do or wanted from me. It got to the point that if she said something was black, I would say it was white just to contradict her.
“Having a low opinion of yourself is not ‘modesty.’ It’s self-destruction. Holding your uniqueness in high regard is not ‘egotism’. It’s a necessary precondition to happiness and success.”
— Bobbe Sommer, Ph.D., Author, Psychotherapist
This rebellious streak is what can lead some scapegoats to run away from home at an early age or begin engaging in other types of self-destructive behavior. It can lead them down a very dark road.
12. Experiences Mental/Emotional Collapses
All of the pressure a scapegoat experiences can lead to a mental/emotional collapse. They become unable to function out of fear that they might make a mistake.
This might seem extreme, but it’s a distinct possibility when an individual is being blamed for everything that goes wrong. They want to please the people around them – who doesn’t? – and as such, they become very sensitive to criticism.
When they are harshly criticized by a narcissistic abuser, they can easily suffer a mental/emotional collapse. They can simply shut down to avoid any further blame or criticism.
13. Covert Narcissism
For scapegoat children of narcissists, the constant harsh criticism of a parental figure can cause them to become a covert narcissist. Covert narcissism differs from overt or grandiose narcissism in that the supply-seeking behaviors are not as obvious.
Covert narcissists still want all the same things as grandiose narcissists, and they still have convinced themselves they are superior humans. They just go about attracting attention and narcissistic supply in a different, less obvious way.
Covert narcissists, for example, may consume themselves with doing good deeds so that people will praise them for doing so. They’re not really doing good deeds because they care about charity; they just want other people to notice what they’re doing and praise them.
Scapegoat children are susceptible to this, given that their narcissistic abuser destroys their identity development and never allows them to be in the spotlight in a positive manner. In fact, the constant negative attention teaches them to avoid the direct spotlight.
14. Codependent People Pleaser
Scapegoats naturally become people-pleasers. They are trying to avoid the criticism to which they have become accustomed.
To keep the peace, they will frequently ignore their own needs in order to please their narcissistic abuser. Unfortunately, they’ll never be able to do it well enough, often enough, or with enough love to please a narcissist.
It’s just not possible, and as a result, putting their own needs on hold becomes a lifelong habit instead of a temporary solution. When they reach adulthood, they often seek out the same type of abuser for romantic partners, and they continue the pattern of codependency.
15. Exhibit Symptoms of Anxiety
It’s probably very easy to understand that a narcissist’s scapegoat will exhibit symptoms of anxiety. How could they not? They’re constantly being demeaned and devalued.
That would make anybody anxious, and it’s very common for scapegoats to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, including the following, which the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) labels as associated with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD):
- Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Being irritable
- Having headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or unexplained pains
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep
16. Experience Depression
Of course, when someone is constantly anxious, has low self-esteem, and has many of the other symptoms we’ve discussed, they can become clinically depressed. As the Mayo Clinic explains, clinical depression is more than just feeling sad over something like the loss of a loved one. It includes numerous symptoms, such as the following from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports
- Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or self-blame
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
As you can see, many of the symptoms of clinical depression overlap with the characteristics of a scapegoat.
17. Have Poor Coping Mechanisms
Many of the characteristics of a scapegoat are due to the fact that they have poor coping mechanisms. They don’t know how to process the emotional stress they are almost constantly experiencing from a narcissistic abuser.
They internalize the blame and often turn their emotional distress over that fact inward as well. They engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as using substances to numb their confusing feelings.
It’s completely understandable, given the abuse they’ve suffered. But there is a better way. They just need a little help finding that way out of the darkness.
18. Feel ‘Different’ in Some Way
Given that they are told how different they are, how broken, how flawed, how wrong, and how insufficient, it’s no surprise that scapegoats feel different in some way. They are made to feel different, and not in a good way.
How could they not feel different? They are often labeled as the ‘black sheep’ of the family. They are put, quite purposefully, in the role of someone who is ‘different.’
19. Difficulty with Regulating Their Emotions
All of these characteristics lead to problems regulating their emotions. The emotional landscape of the scapegoat is a veritable roller coaster ride of unpredictability.
Since they are blamed for everything that goes wrong in a family, they never know what’s coming their way next. That makes it very difficult to regulate their emotions effectively.
20. Feel Victimized
It’s not without good reason that a scapegoat might adopt a sense of victimization. They are being victimized by a narcissistic abuser.
They are being told they are responsible for all the bad that happens in their world, and yet, there is no logical connection to them. They don’t even need to do something to get the blame for it when it goes wrong.
21. Suffer from Complex PTSD
People who endure repeated trauma over a period of time often develop what is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (Complex PTSD or C-PTSD). This is exactly what a scapegoat is enduring over time.
They are being traumatized by a narcissistic abuser, and as such, they can develop a negative self-view and worldview, they can dissociate, and they can become preoccupied with people who were involved in abusing them. They can even develop narcissistic victim syndrome, as this video explains.
Of course, like people who suffer from PTSD, they also suffer symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.
According to Solstice, a residential treatment center, the main difference (between PTSD and complex PTSD) is that PTSD is generally related to a single event or series of events within a short period of time, while complex PTSD is related to a series of events that repeatedly occurred over an extended period of time.
22. Display Cognitive Distortions
Another common trait of scapegoats is what are called cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are patterns of negative thinking that have no basis in reality. In a sense, they are habitual errors in thinking, and they happen habitually.
|Examples of Cognitive Distortions|
23. Desperately Want Justice
Scapegoats are all seeking justice. They want to be believed when they tell the truth, and they want to be appreciated for that as well. They also want to make their abuser stop.
They try desperately to explain the situation, only to find that no one is really interested in their explanation. They feel cheated as a result of never getting the justice they desire.
24. Have Trust Issues
It’s easy to understand why a scapegoat would have difficulty trusting anyone in their life. It is often one of their closest family members who is abusing them and making them feel as though they are to blame for it.
Narcissistic abusers are very charming in the early stages of a relationship, and that compounds the sense of betrayal that scapegoats feel. It’s no wonder they would be fearful of ever getting close to someone again.
25. Experience Toxic Shame
Given the nature of the narcissistic abuse they endure, it’s easy to see how a scapegoat would incorporate toxic shame into their sense of identity. It’s one of the most damaging characteristics they develop as a result of their abuse.
— John Bradshaw, Philosopher, Counselor, Theologian, and Teacher
What’s more, toxic shame can be intergenerational. A scapegoat can pass that same sense of shame onto their children.
Narcissistic abuse leaves a disastrous legacy for all who experience it. Narcissists need a scapegoat they can blame for anything and everything. They can’t shoulder the blame for any mistakes they make, or it will topple their carefully constructed house of cards. They use every trick in the book to make a scapegoat accept blame and stop their truth-telling. This includes using their own emotions against them.
To help with that, I’ve created a 5-Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers. This free, handy guide will help you identify, defuse, and even heal your emotional triggers. If you can do that, you can stop a narcissist in their tracks. If you would like a copy, just click on the link here, and I’ll send it directly to your inbox.
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