By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT
Last updated: 5 Jun 2020~ 5 MIN READ
It would be nice to believe that when children turn into adults they are somehow magically released from the family scapegoat role. However, this is not at all the case. In fact, many individuals who come to me for therapy suffer from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to continued family scapegoating that has resulted in them feeling psycho-emotionally paralyzed and worthless – even suicidal.
What Is Family Scapegoating?
Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) is a term I created in my clinical practice to describe a constellation of symptoms associated with being the ‘scapegoat’ or ‘identified patient’ in one’s family-of-origin.
Family Scapegoating Abuse occurs when your primary caregivers or other important ‘power holders’ in the family (grandparents, dominant siblings or extended family members) single you out as being ‘defective’ and repeatedly give you the message that you are ‘bad’, ‘different’, or ‘not good enough’.
Some children experience scapegoating that qualifies as severe, traumatizing abuse. For example, I once worked with a family at a school for the severely emotionally disturbed (SED) who had had their 5 year-old son publicly exorcised three different times in front of their entire church congregation, believing his acting out behaviors were a sign he was demonically possessed.
Can you even imagine what this (now) adult child might struggle with to this day?
Below is a brief Scapegoat self-assessment (a sample taken from my full informal FSA self-test, which will be available in my upcoming book). How many of these ten signs, symptoms, and experiences do you relate to?
FSA QUIZ: Were You Scapegoated By Your Family?
- Did you grow up hearing a ‘story’ about yourself, including via ‘smear campaigns’ or subtle forms of ‘reality distortion’ (aka ‘gaslighting‘), in which you were made out to be somehow bad, different, worthless, ‘less than’, or defective?
- Were you the ‘problem child’ or ‘identified patient’ in your family-of-origin (you may even still be struggling to escape these stifling roles today)?
- Do you identify as being ‘codependent’ or ‘highly sensitive’ and ‘empathic’?
- Were you the ‘truth teller’ in your family? Was it implied that you were emotionally / mentally ill or that you were ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or a ‘liar’ when you spoke your mind and/or contradicted the ‘family story’ being promoted by one or both of your parents and/or a dominant sibling (or other dominant nuclear or extended family member)?
- Do you find it difficult to develop healthy, mutually respectful relationships with one or more siblings? Do you have a dominant sibling who now treats you in the same manner your dysfunctional / abusive parent did (perhaps taking over the ‘smear campaign’ that keeps the propaganda machine portraying you as defective alive)?
- Do you struggle with addiction or codependency (or both?)
- Do you have difficulty identifying your own wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings? Do you choose to remain silent ‘to keep the peace’ and/or avoid conflict at all cost?
- Have you struggled as an adult with forming healthy, mutually respectful, trusting relationships?
- Do you feel chronically anxious, depressed, and/or wrestle with severe self doubt, including ‘imposter syndrome’?
- Have you chosen to reduce or limit contact with one or more (abusive) family members, yet question yourself for this decision and/or feel guilty, ashamed, ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’ for distancing yourself from your family?
If you answered yes to at least three or more of the questions above and you feel that you are viewed in a distorted manner, it is possible that you are the scapegoat (aka ‘identified patient’) in your family-of-origin.
Abuse of Power is Abuse!
One of the most important things that happen when I begin to work with clients in my Psychotherapy and Scapegoat Recovery Life Coaching practices is my helping them to begin to understand that they have been imprisoned in a role given to them by the power-holders in their family system.
I explain to my clients that their personal narrative – their unique life story which each of us as human beings has a right to author for ourselves – has been taken from them and they have been given another negative and shaming story in its place – the story the dominant family member(s) has about them that has turned them into the scapegoat.
I also emphasize the fact that scapegoating is a form of chronic bullying, so there’s a lot of feelings that have to be worked through: Depression, anxiety, anger, shame, disenfranchised grief, and (unconscious ‘toxic’) shame, to name just a few.
Recovering From Family Scapegoating Abuse
Although the work of freeing yourself from dysfunctional family roles and other people’s ‘stories’ about you isn’t easy, many of my clients have discovered that they are able to release the past and the wrongs that have been done to them, allowing them to live joyful, authentic, self-empowered lives based on self-love, self-respect, clarity, compassion, and integrity.
In my own recovery process, I eventually discovered that there are many gifts that come from having gone through the confusion, isolation, and pain of being the family ‘identified patient’ – But if somebody had told me that while I was in the thick of diving into all of the anger, grief, and distress, I would have had great difficulty in believing it, and may even have felt upset by the suggestion!
When my clients express disbelief that they could ever recover from such a damaging form of mental and emotional systemic abuse, I reply, “Believe nothing, entertain possibilities.” This is because I have witnessed first-hand many of my scapegoated clients heal, recover, and go on to live rich, fulfilling lives fueled by a sense of passion, mission, and purpose. And as a ‘recovering family scapegoat’ myself, I know first-hand that healing from even severe Family Scapegoating Abuse is possible.
Needless to say, the emotional pain experienced by the scapegoated family member can be tremendous. But healing from Family Scapegoating Abuse really is possible. If you answered ‘yes’ to several of the questions in the FSA Quiz, above, you may want to share your ‘yes’ answers with your therapist, if you are working with one already.
If you’re not currently working with a therapist, you might look into working with a trauma-informed therapist who understands family systems and the psycho-emotional consequences of being trapped in this most devastating family role.
For those who are financially challenged, you may find a counselor by visiting the Psych Central home page, which links to Better Help Online Counseling services. You may write firstname.lastname@example.org to ask them about financial aid if you are limited in resources.
Family Scapegoating Abuse has devastating impacts, and most adult survivors do not have their experiences validated or acknowledged. Why would anyone treat a family member so terribly?
To learn more about FSA, it’s signs and symptoms, and recovering from this most damaging form of systemic familial abuse, read my Introductory FSA eBook (link below).