Narcissists are master projectors. No-one is better
at looking directly at a person and seeing not who that person is, but who they wish for them to
be. When a narcissistic mother looks at her child, she is capable of seeing many things: a source
of narcissistic supply, an impediment to her lust for power, the inconvenience of a child’s
feelings and needs, a string of intolerable annoyances, unwanted limitations, and a myriad of other
possibilities. But never the actual child.
In a narcissist’s family, dysfunctional roles are the
norm, and narcissistic mothers are always the producers, directors, and casting agents for the
entire production. Children are assigned roles to play long before they are old enough to resist
them, and grow up within the confines of these limitations, knowing nothing different exists
anywhere. It is typical of parents with personality disorders to select at least one “Golden
Child”, who can do no wrong, and at least one Scapegoat, who can do no right.
When deciding (unconsciously) what child will play
each role, the narcissistic mother weighs her options on a deep, intuitive level. Which child is
the most sensitive? Which child reminds her of a hated parent, or the ex-spouse who stood up to
her, or something within herself she cannot accept? Which one asks more of her, either
intentionally, or by way of circumstance? Which child expresses unhappiness more often about the
unbearable situations the narcissistic mother creates? Which one is more vulnerable, or more
outspoken? In short, which child bothers her the most?
This child will be made her Scapegoat.
This Scapegoat will ultimately be made to carry the
lion’s share of the family’s blame, shame, anger, and rejection so the rest can more easily retain
their patterns of dysfunction. This child will always and forever be the one who is not good
enough, even when she excels at something – indeed, especially when she excels. This child will
endure more put-downs, sideways remarks and behind-the-back betrayals than the rest of the family
put together. This child will endure the wear and tear of the family’s dysfunction in a way that
will enable the others to continue looking good despite the family’s toxicity.
Because the narcissist cannot accept her faults, she
spends her days trying to convince herself that everything she does is perfect. When her
personality disorder causes distress within her family, and her children’s issues begin to reflect
this, the narcissistic mother is forced to make a choice. She must either acknowledge that she is
making mistakes that are affecting her children negatively, or she must try to convince herself and
others that the problems are coming not from her, but another source. And the latter is the option
the narcissist always and unfailingly selects. In her mind, by blaming another, she absolves
herself of any wrongdoing, and she can continue to believe - and strive to convince others - that
she is in fact, perfect. But she must first have someone to blame.
Enter the Scapegoat…
The Scapegoat is the one who assuages the
narcissistic mother’s (and ultimately, the whole family’s) guilt, shame, and feelings of
inadequacy. The Scapegoat is the shock absorber, the buffer against the harsh reality that there is
something wrong with the family picture altogether – the trash bin into which all unwanted matter
is cast. The Scapegoat role facilitates the existence of family denial. The narcissistic mother
teaches her non-scapegoat children to accept and support the scapegoating of a given child by
affirming and rewarding those children’s perceptions that whenever anything is wrong, it is to be
the Scapegoat’s fault. Children adapt quickly to these roles, and learn readily that if they do not
want to be responsible for something, they need only turn to the Scapegoat, whose case will never
be sufficiently or properly heard, and whose “guilt” is so readily welcomed. Once the other family
members have mastered this approach, they are much freer to do otherwise objectionable things
without suffering negative consequences.
For a defenceless child made to play scapegoat, the
burdens of being labeled “bad” no matter what she does are heavy. She soon learns she cannot win;
there is no sense struggling to improve her family’s opinion of her, because that simply cannot be
allowed to occur. (This is the point of hopelessness at which some Scapegoats begin playing the
role of “bad seed”, because her failures will be rewarded, whether consciously or unconsciously.)
In fact, commonly, the more the Scapegoat behaves and performs well, the more severely she is
oppressed, because doing well threatens the mother’s labelling of the child as bad. This causes the
narcissistic mother psychological distress, because it suggests that her belief is wrong, and for a
narcissist, the thought of entertaining this possibility is completely intolerable.
In a desperate attempt to reduce her mother’s active
oppression and derision, the Scapegoat succumbs to the roles of underachiever, troubled one, loser,
black sheep or troublemaker. This presents the mother with exactly what her mental illness is
making her feel she must have – an external object upon which to place blame - so that she can
continue the reassuring fantasy that there is nothing wrong with her self or her family on the
For the Scapegoat, there will be disregard and/or
punishment for doing well and a “reward” of a little less overt abuse or even occasional
expressions of support if she fails to thrive and accepts her role. Many Scapegoats have reported
that the only time they felt their mother supported them (if at all) was when the supportive act
fostered and reinforced the scapegoats’ inferiority, dysfunction or weakness. In an effort to
alleviate to some degree the distress of her narcissistic mother’s wrath, the Scapegoat eventually
gives in and agrees with the family’s assessment of her as inferior and worthy of blame. She
internalises the belief that she is inherently bad, worthless, and defective, and believes that
everyone she contacts can clearly see this and will reject her as completely her family does. She
will bring the telltale signs of deep inferiority with her to the playground, to school, to the
workplace, and into her community and relationships.
Commonly, because the Scapegoat’s psyche is weighed
down with the burden of an overwhelming sense of immutable inferiority, her early behaviour,
mannerisms, habits, speech, and even her posture will bear the unmistakable mark of a bedraggled
victim, crippled with shame and guilt. She is the one who cannot speak up, and this is immediately
obvious to everyone with whom she comes into contact. Having plenty of experience in the role of
scapegoat, she is the perfect target for abusive behaviour. She is the one others intuitively know
will not fight back. She is the easy target – the pushover - the dupe. She will be become the
outcast, the bullied one, the marginalised loner, the routinely punished trouble-maker or the
The Scapegoat is accustomed to accepting blame for
interpersonal problems, and she has been diligently conditioned to believe that if only SHE could
do better, the challenges facing relationships in which she takes part would dissolve. Despite the
fact that this is an unattainable state, she has only her family patterns to use as a template for
her adult relationships, and she easily tolerates partners who are emotionally irresponsible and
expect her to bear too many obligations or who give her the message that any difficulties are
inordinately her fault.
It is not uncommon for a Scapegoat to play a similar
role in the workplace as well. Just as children can detect who among them is a vulnerable target
for blame and ostracism, adults do the same. The Scapegoat may find herself underpaid and
overworked more than her co-workers, left out of the picture during office functions, blamed for
departmental failures, and overlooked for deserved promotions and commendations. Though the quality
of her work may often be far superior to her co-workers’, she is not likely to be chosen to
participate in the big presentation or serve as a team leader, and her employee evaluations will
reflect supervisors’ willingness to criticize her more harshly than others. She will be overlooked
at best, fired at worst.
While children, some Scapegoats respond to the no-win
situations they’ve been handed by developing destructive, defiant or offensive behaviour patterns.
This can create serious difficulties at school and work, as well as the community overall.
Scapegoats trapped in the “bad seed” role may find themselves experiencing repeated reprimands and
firings from places of employment. If a Scapegoat has developed a habit of getting herself into
trouble, her difficulties with work and relationships are more likely to take the form of conflicts
and offences related to issues such as rebelliousness and unproductive or destructive
Despite some variations in the way role manifests,
the Scapegoat never fits in comfortably, and is largely looked down upon or rejected, no matter the
vehicle or reasons given (real or imagined) for such marginalisation.
Scapegoats typically seek far more psychotherapy than
any other family member. A Scapegoat is deeply accustomed to thinking that things would be fine if
only she weren’t inherently defective and unworthy, and this often leads her to a therapist’s
office. (By contrast, narcissists can be defined almost solely by their unwillingness to seek
The Scapegoat typically considers her failings to be
the central reasons her partner has been insensitive, her boss has cheated her out of a raise, and
her siblings talk down to her. She is uncomfortable at school, at work, and in social situations,
because she believes she is inferior. Much of this thinking invites scenarios of self-fulfilling
prophecies, making it more difficult for her to see that she can reverse the patterns of
mistreatment resulting from her observable insecurities and sense of inferiority. She blames
herself, as she has been taught to. This often leads her into therapy, where she may discover the
real reason for her mistreatment in adulthood. After all, it is not her supposed inferiority that
leads her into situations where she is denigrated, reinforcing her feelings of inadequacy, but the
palpable bearing of her family’s shame and rejection. She has not been overlooked and mistreated
because she truly is inferior to others. This has happened because she has believed the lie that
she is lacking, and she has behaved accordingly, which makes her an all-too easy target.
Until the scapegoat is able to extricate herself from
the lie that she is inherently bad, guilty and wrong, she will struggle. She will attract the wrong
people, she will fail to reach her potential, and she will be her own worst enemy. The degree to
which she is able to realize that she is mistreated not because she is inherently inferior, but
because she is sending messages of vulnerability, is the degree to which she will determine the
quality of her future.