The following is an excerpt from my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.
While repressing core parts of ourselves that are deemed unacceptable by those caring for us may be necessary for our survival while we are dependent children, this can contribute to a variety of mental and emotional difficulties, both in childhood and as an adult, that may eventually need to be examined and addressed in therapy. Scapegoated children in particular may become so thoroughly identified with a ‘shamed and blamed’ false self that they feel inherently flawed, damaged, and unworthy of love at the unconscious level.
Childhood Attachment and the False Self
As a transpersonally-oriented therapist, I place great emphasis on examining egoic driven ‘maladaptive survival responses’ (i.e., survival coping behaviors) learned in childhood, as it is these foundational responses/behaviors that most often result in dysfunctional attachment patterns and inhibit the expression of our true self (also referred to as the ‘real self”, authentic self, or the ‘intrinsic self”) as adults.
Given this, I invariably invite my FSA recovery clients to explore how such survival response patterns (which can include trauma responses) might have resulted in their living from a ‘false self’ versus their authentic center. We can then also explore how these maladaptive coping behaviors learned in childhood might be contributing to their mental and emotional distress and negatively impacting their relationships today.
This process of denying and repressing our ‘true self’ is largely unconscious – Somehow we innately ‘know’ as children of dysfunctional, emotionally immature, or personality disordered parents that our most full and vibrant self cannot be tolerated within our family system. We fear losing connection with those we depend upon for our emotional and physical survival, and so we succumb to the ‘rules’ that demand we become silent, accepting, and accommodating.
Because attachment to others is a critical aspect of our childhood development, the healthy formation of our egoic/socialized self depends upon it. We learn early on in life that we must appease our primary caregiver(s) at all cost; as a consequence, we morph and reshape ourselves into what we are expected (or demanded) by them to be.
It should be noted that this process of becoming disconnected from the true self in response to a non-accepting, non-approving, and non-nurturing family environment allows the child to mentally and emotionally survive within their family-of-origin, but is considered to be maladaptive as the child grows older in that these coping behaviors interfere with healthy adult functioning and relating.
In this manner, a false self (which includes the ‘idealized’ or ‘shamed/humiliated’ self) develops, and we become alienated from our true self. This is especially the case if we are feeling threatened or unsafe; thus it is common for children who grew up in dysfunctional/toxic/abusive home environments to live nearly entirely as a false self when they become adults, with all of the negative consequences (e.g., addiction, codependency, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, unstable relationships, etc).
As mentioned in Chapter 8, my FSA research suggests that if the rejected, shamed, or bullied child is an empath or highly sensitive person (HSP), they will typically fall into the role of ‘caretaker’, ‘helper’, or ‘parentified child’, in addition to possibly becoming the ‘family scapegoat’. Because they do not feel inherently lovable, they instead seek to be viewed as ‘valuable‘ by becoming a source of support and care for their parent(s) and perhaps other nuclear (or extended) family members, such as siblings. Such children often become the ’emotional caretaker’ and ‘feeler’ for their family, and are likely to develop the ‘fawning’ trauma response, as mentioned.
The Suppression of the True Self
In a sense, an unspoken, unconscious agreement is made in the child’s quest for acceptance, connection, attachment, and love: “If I become what you want and need me to be, you will then love me and not abandon me or reject me.” The true self is suppressed and hidden as the child learns how they must behave, think, and express themselves in order to fit in and experience a sense of belonging and acceptance. But this artificial harmony comes at great cost to the child, who has lost access to their enlivened, natural self and ‘felt-sense’ experience. Adaptive survival responses also can result in the child repeatedly finding themselves in dysfunctional, toxic, or even abusive relationships when they become an adult.
Alternatively, if we as children don’t adapt and ‘go along to get along’, i.e, if we choose authenticity over attachment and rebel against the restrictions placed on us by the power-holders in our family-of-origin, we can be seen as emotionally or mentally unstable, dangerous, and threatening, as well as “angry,” “different,” “difficult,” “needy,” “selfish,” “cold,” “unloving,” “narcissistic,” “unreasonable,” etc.
When being authentic results in our being scapegoated by our family in this way, we are caught in a ‘double bind’, i.e., the ‘Gordian knot’ I spoke of earlier, meaning we are “damned if we do” and “damned if we don’t”, which makes choosing authenticity over artifice a challenge. Whether they choose to play the role the family is comfortable with, or whether they choose to rebel, the scapegoated child will experience intrapsychic pain and conflict either way. If later the (now adult) child consciously decides to live and act authentically at some point, it may be intolerable to a highly dysfunctional family, for what the system cannot control or accept, it will reject and eject.
Ultimately, the adult child in such a situation must decide if they will sacrifice their truth to ease tensions within their family, or remain authentic and suffer the consequence of lost connection and attachment within their family system – a system that is unable to tolerate the totality of who and what they are (something I see frequently with my ‘celebrity’ clients and clients that have achieved other obvious forms of professional or personal success).
Maladaptive Responses and the Primal Wound
It should be noted that the impulse to shape and socialize a child and quell their natural, creative expression is rarely consciously chosen by the parent; rather, it is most often an unconscious reaction. Meaning, it is an automatic response, versus being conscious and intentional on the parent’s part.
Often the parent is re-enacting their past by projecting their process of lost authenticity onto their children, repeating a pattern that has likely been passed down for generations. Like it or not, our childhood attachment styles and maladaptive survival responses on some level determine our fate. This is because these survival responses, when they overpower our authentic nature, become an unconscious blueprint for how we will or will not connect and attach in our primary relationships – especially our most intimate ones.
It is therefore critical that the adult survivor of childhood abuse becomes aware of this core intrapsychic primal wound that developed in response to their shaming and rejecting environment, as it is this core wound that is fueling much of their psychological and emotional difficulties and interpersonal distress.
This is why I view recovering from family scapegoating abuse as being a process of reclamation whereby we discover, recover, and reclaim the true self lost in childhood. As we examine ourselves to see who we are and who we are not, we eventually can identify the survival responses that no longer serve us as adults, while at the same time releasing all that is false and survival-based. In this way, we can live from our center, confident within the truth of our being, free of distorted, self-negating narratives.
Existing as our true self within this innate and natural ‘Ground of Being’, we may at last stand on a firm inner foundation of ‘Self-hood’, versus the cracked and shaking inner ground inherited from our dysfunctional family system. It is from this place of deep, inner connection and constancy that we can create a rich and soulful (soul-filled) life, one that is nourished by a sense of inner passion and purpose, free of the ‘scapegoat’ identity.
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a psychotherapist, recovery coach, writer, speaker, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse, family scapegoating, and dysfunctional family systems. She has dedicated her 20-year career in Mental Health to advocating for those whose voices are not heard due to being systemically disempowered. Rebecca writes for various Mental Health organizations and her popular blog, Scapegoat Recovery. She is also the author of the best-selling book on what she named ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.