I was raised as an only child–the second marriage for both my parents–in a narcissistic family. Only children are in an especially vulnerable position in narcissistic families, because they must serve as all things to one or both parents.
In families with several children, one child (usually the most sensitive) is normally chosen to be the scapegoat–to serve as the family trash can for all the narcissistic rage of the parents. Another child, usually the one most closely resembling the narcissistic parent or the one who best serves the parent’s need for narcissistic supply, may become the Golden Child–in other words, the parent’s favorite. The Scapegoat is always wrong, bad, stupid, crazy, a “problem,” etc. The Golden Child can do no wrong. Misdeeds are overlooked or projected onto the scapegoat. Golden Children may become the narcissistic parent’s flying monkeys and are even sometimes given the “honor” of helping with the abuse against the scapegoat.
I’m reminded of a book I read some years ago called “A Child Called It,” written by Dave Pelzer, who not only recovered from the horrific abuse inflicted on him from ages 4-12 by his psychopathic mother (who had been loving up until that point) and brothers (who served as her “helpers”) once he was removed from the family and placed in a foster home, he actually seemed to become stronger because of it. Today he is an author, motivational speaker, and activist against child abuse. Dave was the scapegoat of his family, and I think his mother turned against him when she realized he was the most sensitive child and probably the most intelligent one too.
But what happens when there is only one child in the family? Well, I think that child becomes both a scapegoat and a Golden Child. If I had grown up with siblings (I have older half-siblings but I wasn’t raised with them), I’m almost certain I would have been the family scapegoat. But my parents (I am including both here, even though I don’t believe my father is a true narcissist, because they worked as a “team”–he was codependent and under my mother’s thrall) needed a Golden Child too who would serve their need to show a child off as a prized possession, a status symbol of sorts: the physical proof of how superior they believed their genes to be compared to everyone else.
Being both scapegoat and Golden Child is even more crazymaking than being just a scapegoat, because you never know where you stand. You constantly feel off balance and anxious, never knowing if something you said or did will be rewarded, ignored, or punished. Life feels chaotic and unformed. You feel like you’re playing a game you never wanted to play, a game where you were never taught the rules, and most of the time you don’t even know WHAT game you’re playing, but you’re expected to play like an expert anyway.
There was no consistency in the way I was disciplined or the things I was disciplined for. I was punished often (for infractions that were usually fairly minor or even nonexistent–I was a “good kid” who was terrified of angering my parents until my teens), but that wasn’t the worst thing. The worst thing was that the next time, I might actually be rewarded for the same infraction!
I was often punished for things I couldn’t help. Acting “spooky” was one of them. As a fearful, sensitive Aspie child, there were times I would retreat inside myself when I was feeling very anxious or when there was too much ‘input’ from the world, and this enraged my MN mother, who would berate or punish me for this behavior. I had no idea what I had done or how to stop being “spooky.” It just happened. I think it enraged her because it was during those times I went “inside” that she could no longer reach me with her abuse.
Even though most of the time I was treated as if my feelings didn’t matter, I was often told how pretty, smart and talented I was. It’s my belief I was no more of any of these things than any other kid my age, but I was told I was “special.” To my young mind, “special” meant “different”–and most children, myself included, dread being different from their peers.
When I was bullied at school, the reason my parents gave me was that the other kids were just jealous because of my “superior” looks, intelligence, or talent. I was also told our genes were better than other people’s, and our family was of a higher socioeconomic status than my friends’ families. I know now this was complete bullshit, but it’s the lie I was being fed while I was growing up. I think these “compliments” were intended to isolate me from my peers even further, so I’d just be “theirs.” I never felt empowered by the “praise” I got, because of the way it made me feel somehow defective and different from other kids. In addition, I felt like I could never live up to the pedestal my parents put me on at those times. I was right–and as an adult, I am looked down on by my family as actually defective.
The most crazymaking thing of all was the times I’d be complimented and diminished at the same time. One of the most common ways I’d be demeaned was being told how “sensitive” I was. This was never meant to be a compliment; it was meant as a way to let me know how weak I was. Sometimes I was told I couldn’t or shouldn’t do things because of a combination of my “good” and “bad” qualities. For example, when I was about 10, I wanted to join the swim team. I remember exactly what my mother’s reaction was to this. She always liked to tell me what I was thinking, which is another way narcissists make us doubt our own reality and question our instincts. She said:
“You wouldn’t like being on the swim team because you’re too sensitive and you don’t like competition, and you’re too smart to be on a team with those people anyway.”
Left-handed compliment much? She always sandwiched her praise this way–between insults like a shit sandwich. This was just another way I was constantly thrown off balance and this led to my becoming an extremely anxious child and later, an extremely anxious adult.
In general, my family treated me like I was a huge burden and didn’t really want me around, so the praise I got as a sometimes Golden Child made no sense and to my sensitive child’s mind, never felt sincere. Even at a very young age, I knew I was being lied to. I knew I wasn’t loved the same way other children were loved, even though my parents constantly mouthed the words like some sort of tic.