Rebecca C. Mandeville is a psychotherapist, family systems expert, and the author of the self-help book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.
Since publishing my first book on what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA), many readers have written me with questions regarding family scapegoating and the challenges faced when attempting to recover from it’s damaging effects. In today’s post I answer five critical questions about this most insidious form of systemic psycho-emotional abuse.
Understanding Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)
Over the past few months, I’ve had many readers of my blog articles write to me privately or in comments to the effect of, “I can’t believe what I am reading – It’s like you’re writing about my own life!”
Many of those writing to me express the intensity of emotions they experience when recognizing themselves as FSA survivors. Typical comments include, “At last, there’s a name that describes what I’ve been experiencing”, and “Now that I understand what may have happened to me, I have hope that perhaps there’s a way for me to recover.”
Often those reaching out to me to share their experiences of being scapegoated also have a lot of questions about family scapegoating abuse as related to their experiences of painful and damaging family betrayal.
Below are five of the most frequently asked questions I am asked by clients and readers, along with my responses (in brief), that are critical to understanding scapegoating abuse and it’s effects on the targeted family member:
1 – What Is the ‘Family Scapegoat’? ‘The Scapegoat’ is one of the roles ‘assigned’ to a child growing up in a dysfunctional family system (I say more about this process in my answer to question 2). The scapegoating typically (but not always) begins in childhood and often continues into and throughout adulthood, although the role may be passed around to different family members at times.
Because family scapegoating processes can be insidious and subtle, many adult survivors do not realize that they are suffering from a most egregious (and often chronic) form of systemically-driven psycho-emotional bullying and abuse, with all of the painful consequences to body, mind, and spirit.
More specifically: Children and adult children who are caught in the ‘family scapegoat’ role are the ‘identified patient’ in their family. As such, they are often the targets of ‘shaming and blaming’ distorted family narratives (aka ‘smear campaigns’) and can end up rejected and discarded by those who were supposed to love them the most: Their own family-of-origin.
2 – Why Do Families Scapegoat? Research suggests that parents who are mentally ill or emotionally unstable (including those who have a personality disorder, such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder) are far more likely to scapegoat their own child than a psycho-emotionally healthy and stable parent.
Such parents may attack their child to release their pent up frustrations and deep feelings of abandonment, ‘toxic shame’, or self-hatred. They might engage in ‘splitting’ behaviors as well, e.g., they might pit one sibling against the other to create a camp of ‘allies’. Parents that ‘split’ will also tend to see one child as ‘good’ (the ‘golden child’) and another as ‘bad’ (the ‘scapegoat’).
In Family Systems theory, scapegoating in a dysfunctional family system is understood to be fueled by unconscious processes whereby the family displaces their own collective psychological difficulties and complexes onto a specific family member. This does not mean that all acts of scapegoating (i.e., rejecting, humiliating, blaming, and shaming) a child are unconscious – rather, the projection process fueling the scapegoating of the family member is unconscious (and, per my own clinical experience, is often rooted in, and fueled by, multigenerational trauma) .
This process of projection, shaming, and blaming serves to divert attention away from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems via casting the targeted family member into the role of ‘scapegoat’. It is sometimes the case that families who scapegoat one of their own are oblivious to the fact that they are engaging in psycho-emotional abuse and will become highly defensive if this is pointed out.
Despite the fact that the ‘family scapegoat’ role is common to dysfunctional families, there is surprisingly little research or literature available to both lay-person and clinician describing family scapegoating’s features and effects on the targeted child / adult child. As a result, family scapegoating is seldom recognized as abuse warranting clinical intervention and treatment.
3 – What Are the Effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)? Many FSA adult survivors fail to realize that they have actually suffered from psycho-emotional abuse growing up, and even their therapist or counselor might miss the signs and symptoms associated with being in this most devastating dysfunctional family role.
Specifically: Adults seeking assistance from a mental health professional may find that the genuine pain and distress they are experiencing is minimized or even invalidated (e.g., “But they’re your family, of course they love you”; “Family connections are so important, it can’t be that bad”; “It’s best if you forgive, we need to maintain ties with our family to be healthy”), which only serves to reinforce the scapegoated adult’s fear that they are somehow fundamentally to blame for their strained (or non-existent) family relationships.
As a consequence of having their family relational distress and abuse symptoms go unrecognized, many adult survivors of FSA suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, depression, unrecognized grief, and anger management issues. They may have been diagnosed in the past with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and even Dissociative Identity Disorder with Psychosis.
In addition to the above disorders, FSA survivors may have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Agoraphobia. Others may be diagnosed with a personality disorder (Borderline Personality Disorder, especially), or an attachment disorder. They also often present with codependency and/or addiction.
4 – Can Family Scapegoating Abuse Lead to Complex Trauma?
Yes. It has been my observation that in addition to being diagnosed with one or more of the disorders listed above, many family scapegoating abuse survivors are suffering from symptoms of undiagnosed, untreated Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), which I will be addressing in a future blog post.
More specifically: As related to my ongoing work with adult survivors seeking to recover from family scapegoating abuse, it is my experience that the rejecting, shaming, and otherwise non-nurturing, harmful, and abusive family environment my clients grew up in (and had no means of escaping from) has actually contributed to their experiencing symptoms of Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD – which is also known as complex trauma disorder) secondary to chronic parental / family psycho-emotional (and at times physical) abuse. Betrayal Trauma may be a contributing factor to C-PTSD symptoms as well.
5 – What’s One of the Biggest Obstacles to FSA Recovery? Scapegoated adults often don’t realize how their familial distress has been negatively impacting nearly every area of their life, including their mental and emotional health, relationships, work, and their ability to realize their most cherished goals and dreams.
More specifically: Scapegoated adults often feel debilitated by self-doubt and ‘imposter syndrome’ in their relationships and in the work-place, and blame themselves for their difficulties. They often will develop 'fawning' behaviors, whereby they seek to please others and avoid conflict at any cost. They may also struggle in regard to creating and experiencing a sense of life mission, passion, and purpose, and find themselves succumbing to feelings of futility, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and despair. In extreme cases they may feel that taking their own life is the only way to end their pain.
What the FSA victim may see as ‘family conflict’ is often unrecognized mental and emotional abuse. To compound matters further, the FSA victim typically doesn’t realize how being the target of family scapegoating is affecting their ability to succeed and thrive in their personal and professional life.
It may not even occur to the FSA victim that they may need to limit or (in extreme cases) even end contact with abusive family members who refuse to take ownership for their damaging behaviors – especially if there are cultural and/or financial considerations that seem insurmountable and impossible to overcome.
While being scapegoated within one’s family-of-origin is recognized as being harmful, the negative effects are most often categorized as mental and emotional exclusively. However, being in the role of the family scapegoat can also result in the targeted child being physically bullied, sexually abused, or denied medical care. We as a society need to acknowledge this and stop putting our heads in the sand so as to avoid overwhelming and unpleasant realities.
Learn more about family scapegoating abuse and how to dis-identify from the false family narrative so you can release the 'scapegoat story' for good!
Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed
Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role
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