Radical Acceptance and Family Scapegoating Abuse Recovery

woman standing on grassy hill

Many people are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s ‘Five Stages of Grief’, which are Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance. In my model for family scapegoating abuse (FSA) recovery, I use the term ‘radical acceptance’ versus ‘acceptance’ to describe a late-stage healing concept that is critical to the FSA adult survivor’s full recovery from systemic family abuse.

When an adult survivor of family scapegoating first seeks out my psychotherapy or recovery coaching services, they often have no idea that they grew up in a highly dysfunctional or traumatized family system.

In some cases, even when it should seem obvious they are scapegoated within their family-of-origin, they genuinely have no idea they are the targets of this particular form of systemic psycho-emotional abuse, and will say things like, “There must be something wrong with me, why else would my own family treat me this way?”.

Recovery therefore begins with psycho-education regarding the abusive aspects of family scapegoating and how this negatively impacts a child’s body, mind, and spirit; also, the traumatizing effect this form of abuse can have on the adult survivor’s psyche, particularly if they are still in the ‘family scapegoat’ role.

My experience working with scapegoated adult survivors over the past 20 years, along with my ongoing FSA research, suggests that the practice of ‘radical acceptance’ also plays a critical role in the adult FSA survivor’s recovery process. I therefore introduce this concept of ‘accepting the unacceptable’ at some point during the psycho-educational process as well.

What Is ‘Radical Acceptance’?

Radical acceptance is a distress tolerance skill used in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) that is designed to prevent pain from turning into prolonged suffering.

Life is not fair, and bad things happen to good people. Many feelings will arise in relation to the scapegoated adult survivor recognizing what actually happened to them in their dysfunctional family system. Over time, as these feelings are thoroughly explored and processed, the ability to ‘radically accept’ even the most painful realities often develops.

Radical acceptance does not mean that you approve of, condone, or agree with something that has happened to you that feels wrong, undeserved, unjust, or unfair. It simply means that you acknowledge and accept that you are unable to alter, fix, or change what has happened to you in the past, nor can you ‘fix’ or control the harmful behaviors or actions of other people in the present, including the behaviors and actions of those in your family who may still be scapegoating you.

No longer exhausting yourself mentally and emotionally by wrestling with an unalterable past and an intolerable present, a significant amount of intrapsychic energy is freed up that can be used to make meaningful change that promotes and supports your recovery process as you work to heal from the damage caused by being the target of family scapegoating abuse (FSA).

Acknowledging and Accepting the Reality of FSA

Another observation I have made in regard to Kubler-Ross’s five stages is that FSA adult survivors are at risk of becoming stuck in the stages of denial and bargaining due to the fact that their painful family experiences are rarely validated by others, as well as the incomprehensible nature of the abuse itself. Why would a family member wish to ostracize, shame, blame, or reject one of their own?

The FSA adult survivor may even fervently deny the fact of their own abuse or use ‘bargaining’ techniques in an attempt to negotiate their way into a different, more acceptable family reality (e.g., “Maybe I’m imagining how bad it is or just overreacting”), which only serves to keep the adult survivor of FSA ‘stuck’ and unable to fully experience their anger, rage, and grief over what has happened to them.

Some FSA survivors have already moved well beyond the denial and bargaining stages and can easily access feelings of anger or grief. They might be drawn to self-help books, online forums, and social media groups that allow them to identify and express their feelings, which can contribute greatly to their recovery.

While the above-mentioned resources can be helpful, it is important to recognize that because many FSA survivors are simultaneously suffering from symptoms of complex trauma, processing what has happened to them in their family can become particularly complicated, inhibiting their progression toward ‘radical acceptance’ and meaningful, lasting change.

Such clients may need to work intensively with a trauma-informed licensed Mental Health professional who has expertise in the area of family systems, complicated grief, and recovering from adverse childhood experiences (ACE) before radical acceptance can be experienced or fully realized.

The Practice of Radical Acceptance

In the later stages of family scapegoating abuse (FSA) recovery, some adult survivors may naturally reach a state of ‘radical acceptance’, whereby they are able to acknowledge the many twisted and unfair things that happened to them as a result of being scapegoated in their dysfunctional family system from a place of self-compassion and self-love.

Accepting what seems like an unacceptable reality is not easy, however. For most people recovering from FSA, they will need to consciously engage in a practice of radical acceptance. Below are the 10 steps to practicing Radical Acceptance according to DBT’s founder, Marsha Linehan:

  1. Observe that you are questioning or fighting reality (“it shouldn’t be this way”)

  2. Remind yourself that the unpleasant reality is just as it is and cannot be changed (“this is what happened”)

  3. Remind yourself that there are causes for the reality (“this is how things happened”)

  4. Practice accepting with your whole self (mind, body, spirit) – Use accepting self-talk, relaxation techniques, mindfulness and/or imagery

  5. List all of the behaviors you would engage in if you did accept the facts and then engage in those behaviors as if you have already accepted the facts

  6. Imagine, in your mind’s eye, believing what you do not want to accept and rehearse in your mind what you would do if you accepted what seems unacceptable

  7. Attend to body sensations as you think about what you need to accept

  8. Allow disappointment, sadness or grief to arise within you

  9. Acknowledge that life can be worth living even when there is pain

  10. Do pros and cons if you find yourself resisting practicing acceptance

In conclusion, it must be stressed that accepting the painful reality of being scapegoated by your family in no way means that you are agreeing that it was okay to be treated in a harmful or abusive manner. However, in accepting uncomfortable facts about your actual situation, you will gain the clarity and insight needed to make some extremely difficult decisions, such as possibly ending contact with nuclear or extended family members who continue to scapegoat and abuse you.

For more information and tools designed to help with the practice of radical acceptance, visit https://dialecticalbehaviortherapy.com/distress-tolerance/radical-acceptance/

If you found this article helpful, consider sharing it with others via the social media links, below.

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Rebecca C. Mandeville is a Trauma-Informed Psychotherapist and Recovery Coach, Educator, and author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed. She is a pioneer in identifying the overlapping symptoms of family scapegoating abuse (FSA), complex trauma (C-PTSD), betrayal trauma, and the devastating impact and effects of multigenerational trauma on adult survivors of dysfunctional, ‘toxic’, and narcissistic family systems.

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