As we learn more about Complex Trauma (C-PTSD), it becomes increasingly clear that family scapegoating abuse (FSA) can lead to the development of C-PTSD symptoms, which are often misdiagnosed and mislabelled by Mental Health professionals if and when the FSA adult survivor seeks therapeutic treatment and support.
Defining Psychological Trauma
When you think of the word ‘trauma’, I would guess that many associations and images come to mind. Some might imagine that trauma has nothing to do with them due to the fact they did not experience a particular event that could be considered traumatizing. Therefore, it is critical that we understand trauma from the standpoint of experts who acknowledge the reality of C-PTSD.
As a practitioner who is also certified in Trauma-Informed approaches appropriate for psychotherapy and coaching, I prefer the definition of psychological trauma offered by Karen Saakvitne, which is as follows:
‘Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or of enduring conditions in which the individual’s ability to integrate his or her emotional experience is overwhelmed (i.e., his or her ability to stay present, understand what is happening, integrate the feelings, and make sense of the experience), or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity’ (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 60).
In Saakvitne’s definition, trauma is an event or series of events that are experienced as being threatening to one’s life or sanity, leaving a person feeling so overwhelmed that they feel unable to cope. During such events (which can be repeated and chronic), the cognitive function of the brain may switch off, resulting in dissociation, which some may describe as “numbing out” or feeling “distant” or “disconnected” from events as they are occurring and also after.
As a result of this dissociative process, there is difficulty integrating these highly stressful, traumatic events into one’s experience, which can result in psychological ‘splitting’. For example, thoughts may be disconnected from feelings / emotions, or the intellectual understanding may be cut off from one’s bodily / sensory experience. Trauma is therefore associated with this lack of integration of one’s total experience of an event or series of events.
This might show up later in therapy as an inability on the traumatized client’s part to think about their stressful experiences in a coherent manner, and they may struggle to identify their experiences and feelings about all that has occurred. The traumatic events may be ‘split off’ from one’s everyday life experiences where they are ‘forgotten’ or seemingly discarded from one’s mind. In extreme cases, the client may even present with clinical signs of amnesia.
Psychological Trauma and Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)
When you are in the ‘identified patient’ or ‘scapegoat’ role in your family-of-origin, you are experiencing trauma (including betrayal trauma and attachment trauma) that is repeated and uniquely psychologically destructive and overwhelming. You may have subconsciously employed many different ways to cope with the traumatizing effects of your home environment growing up or as an adult, including dissociating, disconnecting, or minimizing or rationalizing the covert or overtly abusive behaviors directed toward you by family members.
My research on FSA revealed that the experience of dissociation and ‘depersonalization’ is common to adult survivors of family scapegoating abuse, who often report feeling disconnected from events or from the reality of their situation as a target of FSA. In cases where a client does express strong feelings and emotions at the outset of their treatment with me, the primary feeling experienced is toxic shame (as discussed in my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed) and a sense of abject humiliation, coupled by the idea that there must be something wrong with them for their family to treat them in the manner they do.
This is why many adult survivors of FSA struggle to acknowledge what has actually happened to them in their family-of-origin, as not only do they wonder if they are imagining how bad their family situation is; they also wonder if they are at fault and the cause of their own maltreatment within the family.
Another important point to be aware of is that because complex trauma is stored as emotional and bodily memories, there can be a conscious or subconscious expectation that the future will mirror the past, resulting in the experience of tremendous anxiety and trepidation when contemplating family contact (including family reunions and holiday gatherings) that others (including Mental Health professionals) may see as being irrational or fueled by paranoia.
Unaware that they are in fact trauma survivors, the adult survivor of FSA may also somaticize their psychological distress, resulting in various bodily aches and pains; depression; anxiety; or maladaptive coping behaviors such as abusing substances, including alcohol abuse and overeating. All this makes the FSA adult survivor extremely vulnerable when attempting to seek help for their psycho-emotional distress, as they will often be misdiagnosed with a variety of Mental Health issues, including Borderline (or Histrionic) Personality Disorder.
To learn more about family scapegoating abuse and its association with complex trauma, read my article, When Your Family Invalidates Your Experience of Abuse and Complex Trauma.
Do you identify with any of the points in this article? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, below. If you feel this article could help others, consider sharing it by scrolling down to the social media icons below my profile.
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a licensed psychotherapist; certified clinical trauma professional; and recognized family systems expert. Her book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, is the first book written on “family scapegoating abuse” or “FSA” (a term she coined during the course of her family systems research). Rebecca has dedicated her 20-year career in Mental Health to advocating for those whose voices are not heard due to being systemically disempowered.