How do you begin recovering from family scapegoating abuse (FSA) if you must live with, remain dependent upon, or continue having ‘light contact’ with ‘rejecting, shaming, and blaming’ family members? Whether due to age, illness, disability, finances, religious / cultural imperatives, or family values, for FSA victims and survivors who are unable to limit or end contact with those who maltreat them and cause them harm, recovering from the damage caused by systemic family abuse can seem daunting, to say the least…
Recovering from the pain and trauma of what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) is challenging enough for those who are able-bodied and independent. The process of recognizing that those who say they love you are in fact causing you harm is a mind-bender to begin with and can take time to process and accept. For those who are scapegoated by family they are still dependent upon, the process of reclaiming one’s dignity, self-respect, and mental and emotional health can seem insurmountable.
Here’s a typical message I receive from readers of my articles on family scapegoating abuse: “I recognized myself immediately after reading your articles (or book) on FSA. However, I suffer from a debilitating illness and am on SSI – The only way I can make it on my income and meet my basic needs is to live with my parents. I appreciate they’re willing to help me but the scapegoating hasn’t stopped; in fact, I get the strong sense that my parents and some other family members think I’m faking my physical problems. Not only that, my adult children are very close to my parents and I’m not sure what to do with that. I wish I could leave but right now I can’t. I live in a rural, isolated area and so for now I’m stuck in this situation. How can I possibly get better when they’re still scapegoating me and I can’t support myself independently right now?”
Although this person’s situation might seem hopeless, it is indeed possible to begin the process of recovering from family scapegoating abuse even when you are in a situation that prevents you from limiting or ending contact with those who persist in keeping you in this dysfunctional family role. Below are twelve client-tested strategies for minimizing the damage caused when having to engage with those who engage in scapegoating behaviors designed to keep you feeling wrong, ‘bad’, or hopelessly defective.
12 Self-Care Strategies for Living With Scapegoating Family Members
The below self-care strategies focus on helping you dis-identify from the ‘scapegoat story’ and prevent you from spiraling into toxic shame:
1. Trust your perceptions
One of the biggest psychological traps that impede FSA recovery is doubting your observations, experiences, senses, and ‘gut feelings’. This is especially true for those who as children were told things like, “You’re imagining it!”; “You’re too sensitive!”; “I didn’t mean it that way, you’re taking what I said too personally”; or even, “You’re crazy – That never happened!”
Such statements constitute gaslighting, which is a form of psycho-emotional abuse. Specifically: Gaslighting is a form of covert manipulation that uses various tactics to distort the truth so that the victim questions their own reality – even, at times, their sanity. If you saw it, felt it, heard it, you need to trust your felt-sense experience and not allow someone else to dictate your reality.
Interested in knowing more about Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)? Check out my book on Amazon or any major online book retailer.
2. Refuse to take on the shame that comes with being scapegoated
Easier said than done, I know, but it really IS possible. Nobody has a right to define you or malign you. If they do, then the shame of that egregious and unloving behavior is on them, not you. When those who say they love you denigrate you, defile you, devalue you, and disregard you, they are actually denigrating and defiling themselves. Remember this the next time somebody speaks ill of you to your face (or behind your back) and make a decision not to take on the shame that in reality belongs to THEM, not you. Remind yourself, “Just because they’re family doesn’t give them a right to mistreat or abuse me”. Be clear on the fact that people who love each other do not treat each other in cruel and unkind ways.
3. Dis-identify from the ‘scapegoat story’ that only serves to keep you down
One or more family members have a ‘story’ about you, and that story is designed to cast you in the role of ‘damaged’ (wrong, bad, crazy) person while the one(s) telling the story adopt the role of ‘healthy’ (right, good, sane) person. As I write in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role:
The scapegoating parent (who is typically the ‘power-holder’
in the family system, and therefore in control of the family
narrative) often has a ‘story’ about their child that they are
quick to share with anyone who will listen – a story whereby
they are ‘good’ and their (scapegoated) child is “difficult,” a
“problem,” “bad,” and somehow innately defective.
This distorted narrative designed to elevate the parent andRebecca C. Mandeville, MFT
demean the child is shared within and outside of the family,
resulting in siblings, extended relatives, and friends of the
family viewing the scapegoated child through this same
distorted, negative lens.
While on the surface it may not seem to make much sense, this strangely common narrative that the scapegoated child / adult child is “mentally ill” is typical in families where aggressive, dominant family members seek to de-power and discredit the victim of their deliberately hostile behaviors. It’s a defensive maneuver designed to establish the “sanity” of the abuser, and the “insanity” of their victim. After all, who would believe the report of a “crazy” person?
Well, guess what? You’re NOT crazy and there’s no reason you need to buy into these sorts of intentionally false and deliberately harmful narratives. Anyone who needs to make up such terrible and untrue stories about you to make themselves feel better about themselves is pitiable and pathetic, no matter how dominating or powerful they act within your dysfunctional family system. Say to yourself, “This is not about me, this is about them, and I don’t need to buy into it.” But you’re going to need more support than this, which is why being involved in some kind of an online support forum and/or online or in-person trauma-informed therapy or coaching is critical, especially if you are stuck at home with no immediate way out (I address this in more detail later in this article).
To learn more about how victims are victimized twice by their aggressor via tactics like gaslighting, read about Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s research on DARVO, which stands for ‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender’.
4. Recognize how ‘fawning’ behaviors both serve you and work against you
‘Fawners’ are typically individuals who were raised in a dysfunctional or abusive family system and were ‘trained’ by their primary caregivers to repress and deny their feelings, thoughts, and needs. Such children learn early on in life that their true self-expressions and natural impulses are not acceptable to those they depend on for survival and that their self-worth must be extracted from those around them in a never-ending quest to feel ‘okay’, accepted, valued, and loved. Given this sad reality, it’s important to emphasize that the maladaptive trauma response of fawning served to help the child mentally and emotionally survive a non-nurturing, non-empathic environment.
I would say 90% or more of my FSA Recovery coaching and therapy clients exhibit the trauma response of ‘fawning’. They engage in appeasing, people-pleasing behaviors and ‘go along to get along’ within their scapegoating family-of-origin. As an independent adult, the FSA survivor can learn to stop abandoning themselves emotionally via the fawning response when triggered, but what about those who are still dependent on family or feel they must remain in contact with abusive family members?
When working with such clients I must carefully assess their situation to ensure that they do not unwittingly create an even worse situation for themselves than they already are in. Meaning, if you are dependent on people in your family for shelter, food, care, etc, it’s likely not the best time to loudly assert yourself and demand to be treated with dignity and respect – something that invariably will backfire on you when you are part of a dysfunctional family system. However, fawning behaviors can encourage more abuse and maltreatment at times, so some small strategic adjustments, including in regard to personal boundaries, will likely be necessary until you can get into a less potentially volatile living situation.
5. Realistically assess your situation when it comes to boundaries
Piggy-backing on the above: If you are dependent on scapegoating family members due to disability, illness, or finances, or if you have other reasons that keep you connected to people who don’t think twice about mistreating you (e.g., fears of being cut out of an inheritance; being gossiped about or ostracized by family or your community), then you need to recognize that your options may be limited when it comes to setting clear boundaries on family abuse.
Remember, certain family members may have benefited from your not having many boundaries over the years. If everyone in your family was allowed to have opinions and express their thoughts and feelings except you, that’s a problem. But you’ll find that you have an even bigger problem on your hands when you finally stand up for yourself and make your own views known.
A family member that doesn’t think twice about giving you advice, commenting on your marriage, criticizing your behavior without being curious about the stressors you might be under, etc., banks on the fact that you’ll put up with it and won’t ‘talk back’ – especially if you’ve been a ‘fawner’ most of your life. When you’ve finally had enough and offer the same right back or quietly set firm boundaries, emotional fireworks and explosions may ensue because what’s good for the goose is NOT good for the gander. Meaning, your critical family member plays by their own set of rules, and these rules are based on their firm belief that your experiences and perceptions don’t matter or count – only their experiences and perceptions are valid and have merit.
This is an important time to be very honest with yourself and assess your current circumstances realistically. Is living with your abusers REALLY your only option? Have you left no stone unturned? Have you explored all possible resources (perhaps with the assistance of a friend or a social worker from a community mental health center or a low-fee online psychotherapy service or a trauma-recovery therapist or coach)? Do you really need your far-off inheritance that much, when you clearly are sacrificing your own mental and emotional well-being for it? These are some of the difficult questions that must be asked. Your life and sanity may be depending upon it.
6. Write down every incident of family scapegoating abuse
It’s easy to go into (and remain in) denial when you feel like you’re between a rock and a hard place. One of the ways we can come out of the numbing darkness of denial into the bright light of awareness is by writing down our experiences in detail so that we can’t shy away from ugly truths. Although it is likely to be painful, doing so will make what has been happening to you far more real, and can move you more quickly into recovery mode and the ensuing stages of anger, grief, and ‘radical acceptance’ of your true situation.
I therefore encourage my clients to write down each incident of scapegoating abuse they experience within their family. Write down who said what, when, and to who. How did it make you feel when it happened or when you found out? Which family members or people outside of the family were involved? BE SURE TO KEEP YOUR WRITINGS SECURE AND PRIVATE! You might email it to a trusted friend who can keep it as a file on their end so you can then ‘double delete’ the email from your sent file and trash to remove all traces of it if you are documenting your experiences on a computer. You might also use these writings as inspiration for my next suggestion, below.
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7. Write “Anger,” “Grief,” and “Acceptance” letters – Do NOT share with family!
Many of my clients have benefited from writing letters to abusive family members THAT THEY NEVER SEND OR SHARE. These letters end up being one of the most powerful parts of their FSA recovery journey. Just the act of writing in a free and unedited manner without denying or holding back any of the long-pent-up grief or ‘righteous rage’ can be extraordinarily healing in and of itself.
This is your time to say all of the things you’ve been holding in that have been eating away at you inside. Name the behavior. Call out the abuse. Ask, “How dare you treat me this way – what gives you the right?” Write a letter containing all of the things you’ve been ruminating on or stuffing down year after year. You will feel so much better after you get it all out by naming your feelings and describing your profound anger and grief.
IMPORTANT: As with the private writings exercise mentioned above, these letters should NEVER be given to the ‘recipient’. However, sharing them with a therapist, coach, trusted friend, or 12-step sponsor is highly encouraged, although not necessary. What matters most is that you finally hear YOURSELF.
8. Identify your survival skills – what’s helped you survive thus far?
It may not have been easy, but you’ve managed to survive growing up in a dysfunctional, abusive home environment. You’re still here and you’re reading this article, so you must care about your own well-being, and you must still have some hope.
What’s helped you to survive thus far? Here’s some examples of things that have helped my clients survive family scapegoating abuse, and many have gone on to thrive:
- No longer denying the abuse: If it looks like abuse, feels like abuse, and causes damage like abuse, then it’s abuse. This truth is not negated just because the person abusing you is a family member. And never forget: Psycho-emotional maltreatment is clinically recognized as a legitimate form of abuse, with all the attendant damage (including at times the development of complex trauma symptoms / C-PTSD). Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, or be victimized twice by buying into statements designed to make you question your sense of reality, such as “You imagined it” or “You’re too sensitive!”.
- Feeling appropriate anger at the injustices done: It may take awhile, especially if you’re the ‘fawner’ type and have difficulty feeling appropriate anger, but getting in touch with a sense of ‘righteous rage’ over the injustices you’ve experienced is one of the first steps in healing from scapegoating’s damaging effects. Things you might feel angry about include your reputation being tarnished, your integrity being questioned, your character being defamed, and feeling betrayed and abandoned by your own family – the people who were supposed to love and support you the most.
- Feeling appropriate grief regarding the various losses caused by FSA: What losses have you suffered due to being scapegoated by your family? Some of these might be loss of contact with cherished family members, including nieces and nephews, and loss of family support. Also, an understandable loss of trust in others that will take time to overcome. These are just a few of the many losses an FSA survivor may have to grieve over.
- Resisting the tendency to hide and isolate (see #9, below, for more details)
- Adopting and maintaining a hopeful outlook: Example: “I may be stuck in this situation right now, but I’m determined to get out of it and one day I will live a life free of abuse.”
- Refusing to fall into shame that rightly belongs to others (refer to #2, above)
- Identifying those in your life who truly love and care about you (don’t forget your pets!)
- Envisioning a brighter future: This goes along with cultivating a hopeful attitude. SEE your life as it will be when you no longer need to be around abusive people. Who will be there with you? What will your life be like? What will bring you a sense of peace and joy?
- Refusing to buy into the bullshit: Please excuse this informality, but there’s really no other word for it. If you heard the stories I’ve heard as a family therapist over the years, you’d find it hard to disagree with my use of ‘salty language’ on this one. I’ve worked with directors of respected Mental Health clinics and Psychology professors who (per their family) are ‘crazy’; chemists who’ve made life-saving drugs who are “stupid good-for-nothings’; professional athletes who are “lazy and unmotivated”; good-hearted celebrities who are “selfish and conceited”; highly regarded psychotherapists and social workers who are “imposters” and “fooling people” – and that’s just a small sampling of what I’ve heard from parents and siblings of my scapegoated clients.
- Remembering strengths and accomplishments: You’ve made it this far. What are your unique skills, talents, and abilities that will see you through this difficult time until you can get yourself into a better, more independent life situation?
Courage is fear that has said its prayers and decided to go forward anyway.Joyce Meyer
9. Take advantage of online support – Get involved in a recovery forum
There are many forums online that focus on recovering from trauma and abuse. For someone forced to live in a seemingly untenable situation, these online communities and connections can literally be a life-saver. Here’s a few you might want to check out.
Look for forum communities that assist people in moving through their anger, versus feeding it and keeping them stuck in it. A forum should feel supportive. You should not feel judged, shamed, or blamed when participating. Nobody should be telling you what to do. In a healthy online community, these things rarely happen. Walk away from forums that feel unhealthy and toxic or are not appropriately moderated or supportive.
Some forums you might find helpful:
Out of the Fog (addresses C-PTSD)
Al-Anon (helpful for fawning, appeasing behaviors – phone meetings available)
10. Ask for help – there are people out there who care (including therapists)
When people feel hopeless, they often feel too discouraged and depressed to believe they can ever be helped. However, help IS available. You may have to search hard for it, but it is there. Whether it’s a recovery book offering creative or proven suggestions; a nearby community mental health center; a forum such as ACSA (an online support community for adult survivors of child abuse); or a low-fee online therapist (such as those who work on the Betterhelp platform), somewhere ‘out there’ are one or more people who would be happy to offer you support, ideas, and reassurance.
Remember also that many therapists for ethical and social justice reasons offer ‘low-fee’ slots or even pro bono (free) sessions for clients in need. I myself offer my services at times on the low-fee Betterhelp platform for this reason. I also maintain at least four low-fee slots in my schedule (although there is typically a waiting list for these openings).
Don’t assume that because a therapist’s rates seem higher than you can afford they aren’t willing to help you. It doesn’t hurt to respectfully ask a prospective therapist if they offer discounted rates for those with financial issues – they are always free to say “no”.
11. Practice self-love – What will serve you at the HIGHEST level?
You came into this world pure and whole, beautiful and open to love, warmth, nurturing, and connection. It is sad that you were plopped into a family who can’t see you for who you most truly are (or doesn’t bother to make the effort to), but you don’t need to abandon or betray yourself as a result. In fact, you need to do the opposite: You need to slather yourself with love and treat yourself the way you deserved to be treated all along, with kindness and respect!
Where can you improve in your self-care? Do you speak to yourself in a ‘shaming and blaming’ manner or judge and criticize yourself, just like your scapegoating family member(s)? This often happens because as children we internalize the voices of important or powerful family figures, and as a result, we can end up abusing ourselves through negative self-talk and self-neglect, which only worsens the situation.
Self-care practices that have worked well for my clients who must live with scapegoating family members or on a limited income include developing and committing to some sort of spiritual or religious practice (for example, many of my clients have found great peace practicing this loving-kindness prayer); learning Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques (free online education here); reading self-help books and self-guided recovery workbooks; learning Yoga or meditation techniques through a free application; aromatherapy; healing music (such as ‘Spa Radio’ on Pandora); soaking in an Epsom salt bath with lavender oil; afternoon naps; watching favorite shows or movies (especially comedies); resuming or exploring hobbies; exercising; spending time outside connecting with nature; recovery forum participation; and spending quality time with trusted friends or beloved pets.
Don’t let this happen to you. Commit to engaging in at least three self-loving, self-nurturing behaviors every day. Do your best not to “get into the mud” with people you live with (or have limited contact with) who persist in scapegoating you. You’ll only get dirty, so try and let the insults or negative ‘false narrative’ roll off of you like water running off a duck’s back. When you feel pinned into a corner, stressed, or confused, ask yourself, “What will serve me at the highest level right now?” Whether it’s quietly retreating or risking conflict, do what’s ultimately going to benefit you mentally and emotionally, both now and down the road.
12. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the most destructive FSA dynamic you’re experiencing at this time?
- Is there any change you can make – even a small one – that would help mitigate the harm caused by this destructive dynamic? Perhaps something you know you need to do, but haven’t quite been willing or ready to?
- Are you willing to commit to ending non-self-loving behaviors (this includes blaming yourself for the scapegoating abuse – there’s nothing you did to deserve being treated as less than human by your own family)?
- If you suddenly learned you could not live with your family or receive help from them, what would you do and where would you go? Could you possibly move toward this NOW?
- Who are your ‘safe’ people – those who you can speak to honestly and who believe your reports of family scapegoating abuse?
- Are you willing to go to your ‘edge’ to improve your situation? For example, if you fear being cut out of an inheritance, is the abuse you are going through worth it? Perhaps you are paying too high a price for the money or assets that may come your way ‘some day’ by sacrificing your mental and emotional well-being.
What’s helped you to begin recovering from family scapegoating abuse (FSA)? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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Featured image by Cottonbro
Copyright 2021 | Rebecca C. Mandeville | All Rights Reserved