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Healing From the Injustices of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)

justice scales and gavel on wooden surface

In the twenty years I have been working with adult survivors of family scapegoating abuse (FSA), one issue that typically becomes a ‘stuck’ point in their recovery journey is the sense of grave injustice they experience in regard to the wrongs done to them within their family-of-origin – Injustices that have never been acknowledged or validated. By anyone.

If you prefer video education, you can watch my video on family scapegoating abuse and injustice here.

The ‘Injustice’ Dream of an FSA Adult Survivor

*The following is a dream that an FSA research participant shared with me several years ago, a dream which succinctly sums up the plight of the scapegoated family member:

I dreamed a group of hooligans – criminals, it seemed – were going to sue me. They sent someone to serve me with a notice of their intent to file a lawsuit against me. I was served with this notice while I was walking to my car in an underground parking lot. I somehow knew they were going to serve me and I decided I had to get away from them before they could force me into participating in something that would negatively impact my life, because I knew I had not done anything wrong – Whatever they were suing me for was a made-up pack of lies.

The person attempting to serve me was now chasing me through the parking lot, but somehow I got away and the next thing I knew I was hiding in a hotel room. I called someone on the phone for help. I knew intuitively that if I was served and drawn into this unfair lawsuit that my life might be destroyed.

I remember thinking in the dream that everything I had worked so hard for – from my humble beginnings to running a successful non-profit geared toward serving the socially disenfranchised and disempowered – might be taken away from me, and many other people would also be unfairly impacted (those that my non-profit served) .

I thought to myself how unfair it all was as the entire lawsuit against me was based on lies. I knew I had committed no crime and was innocent and they were the ‘bad actors’ in this scenario. What stories had they made up about me?

I wondered if I would have to hide out for the rest of my life to escape my accusers. I thought about my pets waiting for me at home – Who would take care of them in my absence if I were forced to flee my home in order to protect myself?

I suddenly felt both enraged and helpless at the same time, for I seemed to have no voice and no say in what was occurring. I had not done anything wrong, yet I was going to be forced to defend myself, just the same, via this lawsuit. How could I defend myself if I did not know what my supposed ‘crime’ or violation was?

Next thing I knew I was in some sort of conference room with my attorney, the opposing side (the lawyers representing the criminals accusing me), and the judge. I was crying uncontrollably and unable to share my side of things, except to say, “I worked so hard to become whole, now they want to break me again.”

Even in my distraught state, I knew that by crying I was not representing myself well and the judge would not be able to understand me, but I just couldn’t seem to stop the flood of emotion I was experiencing. It was like I was in some sort of Kafkaesque nightmare. How could such an unfair, unjust thing be happening to me when I had not done anything wrong that I was aware of?

FSA Research Participant, 2011

The Kafkaesque Nature of Being Scapegoated By Family

The reference to Kafka by this research participant was a most astute one. Franz Kafka (one of the foremost novelists of the early 20th century) is known for creating stories featuring characters who are helpless before tyrannical forces. These characters eventually succumb to despair due to their inability to experience justice, no matter how earnestly and sincerely they pursue it.

I remember reading this dream for the first time and thinking to myself that it reminded me of Kafka’s novel, The Trial.  (The events described in The Trial succinctly capture Kafka’s views on the dangers of totalitarianism, which he wrote during the outbreak of World War I).

In this story, the main character, Josef K., is arrested and prosecuted by a mysterious, invisible, inaccessible authority. In a confounding plot twist, the nature of Josef’s crime is never revealed to him (or to the reader). 

The novel’s literary climax is centered around the complete destruction of Josef K., with Kafka depicting Josef’s bewildered, then nightmarish, confusion as he begins to understand the extent of his own disempowerment.  

On the eve of Josef’s thirty-first birthday, a couple of men go to his apartment to execute him. He is led out to a small quarry and the two men kill him with a butcher’s knife. Josef summarizes his situation with his last words: “Like a dog!”

Getting Past the ‘Stuck Point’ of Injustices Done

Given that what I named ‘family scapegoating abuse’ (FSA) is a poorly understood and extremely under-researched systemic phenomenon, it is no surprise that victims of FSA rarely receive the support, compassion, understanding, and competent aid / treatment they are entitled to and deserve. Until there is more awareness regarding the profound consequences of being rejected, shamed, and blamed by one’s family, survivors of FSA will need to ‘swim upstream’, to some extent, in regard to fighting for their own recovery from this particular form of psycho-emotional abuse.

Toward that end, below are some steps I use in my psychotherapy and coaching practices to help my clients come to terms with the grave injustices experienced in their family-of-origin.

  1. Acknowledge and embrace your anger as being justified and valid: Think of the anger – even rage – that you are experiencing in relation to FSA as being ‘righteous’. In fact, I refer to the anger that an FSA adult survivor experiences as being ‘righteous rage’. Be clear on the fact that your anger is a protective defense that is letting you know that your boundaries are being violated. There is nothing wrong with experiencing anger (in fact, I am more concerned when my clients deny the experience of anger in regard to their own abuse). It is what you do next in response to the anger that can determine whether it is a helpful tool or is getting in the way of your healing and recovery from FSA.
  2. Practice Self-Compassion: Nurturing yourself, being attuned to your feelings, and developing curiosity about your experiences can help to ameliorate the sense of helplessness and disempowerment that can accompany the anger and rage connected to your FSA experiences. You have the ability to help yourself – including the wounded parts of you – more than you may realize, beginning with cultivating a self-compassionate stance.
  3. What Is Most Important? Many of the clients new to my practice report that they are obsessing over the injustices done to them, and they are not sure how they will ever “get over it” (their FSA experiences). While it is important – even critical – to acknowledge the injustices done to you and the attendant anger, it is even more important that you are willing to accept the painful truth that your family is unlikely to ever acknowledge – much less effectively address or correct – these wrongs. A sobering truth, but (based on my research), one you’d be wise to accept if you are committed to making a full recovery from FSA. (Learn more about the need to accept painful truths by reading my article on radical acceptance).
  4. Recognize obsessive, ruminating thoughts that keep you stuck in the past may be rooted in complex trauma: My research on FSA indicates that this form of psycho-emotional abuse can lead to the development of complex trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms. Intrusive, ruminating thoughts are therefore not uncommon when an FSA adult survivor is emotionally activated. If you are not able to work with a trauma-informed Mental Health professional at this time, you may feel helpless to stop reflecting on the past and all that happened between you and scapegoating family members. Until such symptoms can be effectively addressed, do your best to remember that staying focused on obtaining justice will deplete you of the energy and internal resources needed to heal from the harms done to you. Obsessing and ruminating over past events – including past wrongs done to you – will only serve to disempower you further. Have compassion for the part of you that seeks justice (and perhaps retribution) while you strive to keep your focus on becoming empowered via your healing and recovery process. Believe in your ability to transcend the negative events (and people) from your past. This includes any scapegoating family members. Connect with the present experience fully and decide what you would like your future to look like. This will help you to feel like you are in control of your life, versus being battered about by forces beyond your ability to control – including past events and what your family thinks or believes about you. To help with ruminating thoughts, you can try out some of these methods from Healthline.
  5. Learn Mindfulness practices that draw you into the present moment: I mention many possibile modalities that increase mindfulness in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed. These include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Loving Kindness Meditation, and Self-Compassion practices.

No matter how difficult it is, whatever you do in regard to the injustices experienced in your family, don’t let yourself remain stuck. Decide that you will not succumb to despair as you work to transcend whatever Kafkaesque scenario you find yourself in. Reach out for professional support, if needed, as you seek to free yourself from the injustices of family scapegoating abuse.

*Any and all references to clients are amalgamations of clients or FSA research study participants that do not directly refer to any specific person, living or dead.  

Have you struggled to release anger related to injustices connected to family scapegoating abuse? Have you successfully worked through ‘righteous rage’ and released your attachment to the past? I’d love to hear from you in the comments – What you share may help others.

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19 thoughts on “Healing From the Injustices of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA)”

  1. Carie

    Have you ever seen the final episode of Seinfeld, where the four (Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer) are hauled before the court to answer for all of their little crimes over the years? This is pretty much my fantasy, except that I finally get to tell my side of the story and prove that it was the accusers who committed the crimes and lies. I have seriously considered becoming a defense lawyer because of this condition! Funny, not funny, right? Thank you for your valuable work.

  2. NC

    Hi Rebecca,

    I am just reading this post after finding you today as a result of a suggestion from my therapist. I had no idea FSA was a thing and holy cow is this validating/mind blowing in so many ways. In regard to injustice and righteous rage, have you found in your research that this applies or is triggered by injustices at large? I am extremely sensitive to any type of “injustice” – large or small – and have very intense, visceral reactions to it. Plus, of course, ruminating thoughts. Just wondering if this is a way I have internalized injustice generally or if you have found others that do the same. Thank you so much for your work and helping people like me find answers to so many questions!

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      Thank you for reaching out. I do indeed mention this possibility in my book, ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’, which I encourage you to read, given you relate strongly to my work on family scapegoating abuse (FSA). The chapter in my book on the family Empath will be of particular interest to you. My book will also likely help to fill in any missing puzzle pieces regarding what happened to you in your family. Currently I am researching on, and defining, Family Scapegoat Trauma (FST) so be sure to sign up to my Newsletter so you hear about my next research survey and future book releases.

  3. Lynn

    Timing, I am @ peak FSA – I have been pretty much isolated for past 9 years when I moved towns and somehow wasn’t able to buy in the same market I was mighty confused and am even more so now I cant give it up people hate me my toenails have fallen off omg people think I’m on drugs, and I am paranoid af. Want to stop obsessing trying to be mindful; thank you for holding space for me here bless you all.

  4. andrewevolveppc

    The rumination is one of the most difficult results of scapegoating to deal with. Even though I understand fully that my family members are psychologically and emotionally damaged, the rumination can still persist.

    I found that when rumination on the injustice of things and fears for the future are running, it really helps to use the tool of gratitude. This involves saying to myself, I am grateful for this bed I am waking up in, I am grateful for my health, I am grateful for my skill set, I am grateful for becoming aware of scapegoating abuse and finding understanding of my family, I am grateful for the people who truly love me, I am grateful for being alive today….etc….I count off 10 of these, and surprisingly, the feelings of injustice and being a victim dissipate very quickly.

    Secondly I am lucky to have a trauma informed psychotherapist who practices EMDR. She has installed a ‘container’ in my mind where I can place unwanted thoughts or the people about whom the repetitive thoughts are forming.

    This is a very successful way to dispose of the scapegoaters when they are intruding in my mind, so i can just get on with my day.

    I just wanted to share these two techniques as possibilities for those suffering intrusive and debilitating rumination.

    Although these methods work well, I still continue my psychoeducation and therapy for CPTSD to deal with the core issues arising from the abuse and the other beliefs and thought patterns that no longer serve me.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      Excellent suggestions, Andrew. Thank you for adding these additional techniques. Focusing on what we have and are grateful for, versus what we do not have (justice) or what we have lost (family connection), is indeed a wonderful way to redirect the mind’s flow toward more fruitful ends. This causes me to think of Rumi’s poem, ‘Bird Wings’. If you haven’t yet read it, you must…

    2. D2

      Thank you Rebecca for your blog and your book. They have helped me through painful moments. I was scapegoated by my entire family for all of my life. It was particularly bad when I was a child, but also worsened in the final years of my mother’s life.

      Thank you Andrew for sharing your experience. I had a similar nightmare to the one described in this blog and experienced a lot of painful rumination the day after. While walking in nature, I practiced gratitude, quietly going over the good things in my life. I was surprised when halfway through my walk I noticed that I was already feeling a lot better.

      I resonate with so many of the responses on this blog. The healing process happens at its own pace. For me, it helps to take it one day at a time. Buddhist meditation has worked for me, especially the self-compassion practice called RAIN as taught by Tara Brach.

      I have three things I try when I feel trapped in rumination: 1) Gratitude focus. 2) Changing the peg: I identify the painful feeling associated with the rumination. Then I look for examples from my life in which the opposite happened and I focus intently on those experiences feeling them in my body. For example, ruminating on the FSA often evokes profound loneliness and feelings of abandonment. So I think of moments when friends showed up for me and I felt connected to them. 3) If I can’t shift my thinking, then I try to gently explore what is going on. I drop out of the storyline of mental chatter and focus on my body. If I can, I name the feeling and I accept it with as much self-compassion as I possibly can. Then I patiently ask myself what the underlying thoughts could be. This sometimes leads to a cognitive distortion such as “Nobody likes me.” Then I apply tools I learned for taking apart cognitive distortions such as examining the evidence.

      All of this is a lot of work, very tiring and ongoing. I am gradually ruminating less and enjoying life more, but the cycles return.

      Peace to all, D

  5. Z

    Thank you Rebecca for all your work on FSA, it’s helped me so much. That rage/helplessness is so difficult to work through. I call it impotent rage. I’ve been working with acceptance and breathing the feelings into my heart as I say out loud to the inner parts (IFS) in pain, ‘I accept this rage’, and ‘I accept this grief’. I pause and just breathe into my heart. It’s been helping. I broke up with FOO but still working through the pain and devastation. Hope this helps fellow FSA survivors.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      Working with parts (which did not originate with Internal Family Systems / IFS, but which this particular modality uses to good effect) is a powerful technique that is used often when working with complex trauma symptoms. I’ll write an article about this soon. You might also be interested in looking into Psychosynthesis techniques. They use the term ‘subpersonalities’ versus ‘parts’.

  6. Abby

    I’m not sure it helps to tell people not to ruminate. I couldn’t stop the rumination for years, and it just made me feel worse about myself that I couldn’t stop it. That said, I did finally find a way to accept that my family is the way it is and won’t change, but that took time. It was its own healing process and being prayed over helped, as did finding a good therapist (the first one was no good). You can heal from this, but it seems to happen at its own pace. At least that was my experience.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      Thank you for your comment, Abby. There is a reason I used the word ‘release’ versus ‘stop’. Ruminative thoughts indeed can be released – with practice – using various techniques, such as the ones I listed in my steps (and in my book). But I do agree: Healing is unique for each person and has its own pathway. Yet, we can get stuck on the way. Fortunately, there are tools and techniques we can use when this happens so that our journey of recovery may continue.

      1. Jennifer

        Thank you so much for this website. I am ordering your book today. I have seen a few mentions of a recovery workbook as well, but I can’t find a link to it. Is that another book you are working on? If so, do you have a time frame of when it will be released?

  7. Welton

    In some strange way, I envied the metoo women who testified against their rapists and sexual abusers. While I would never want to be sexually abused or raped or trafficked, I envied them because they had “their day in court” and were able to state what had happened to them, and be believed and recognized. While I have never been raped or beaten to a pulp or anything like that, I was scapegoated by my family and also institutionally scapegoated. My family never acknowledged what had happened. I have always wished to have some kind of recognition that what they did to me was wrong!

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      Well said. I said as much in a recent article – That FSA adult survivors do not receive this type of public support or recognition as abuse survivors as family scapegoating is seldom recognized as abuse (hence my naming it as such when I focused my research on the experiences of the family Identified Patient). Also: I noticed you had a link to your book on your original message. I’m happy to include it here and make it public, provided you give me your written permission here in a comment – I’m a stickler on protecting people’s privacy!

  8. Kristin

    The timing of this post could not be more perfect. I woke at 4 am, again, trying to come up with the words to convince my sister that I’ve been wrongly accused and to help her to understand what really happened. I knew that it was a pointless exercise, but my subconscious refuses to let it go. Then, on the way home this afternoon, I found myself ruminating again and thought that I might find solace and understanding in reading the accounts of people who had been wrongly accused and convicted of a crime, because that it is how I feel. I am grateful to be reminded by this post that the likelihood of my changing my sister’s mind is slim so I need to move on and let it go, but I will say this is easier said than done. I am having more good days lately, so perhaps time and the faith work I am doing will set me free. By the grace of God!

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT

      I’m happy to hear that this post today came to you at a needed time, Kristin. It is interesting to note that Jesus was scapegoated in multiple ways by multiple people and entities, including by his family-of-origin. Specifically,Jesus’s family believed he was mentally ill and sought to lock him away: Mark 3:21 – “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” So needless to say, you are in good company!

      1. Madeline

        That’s a good point about being called crazy. But my translation has it as His friends called Him that, not His family. I though Jesus’ family had some idea of His divinity, even if it was incomplete. Anyway, that is what happened to me too.

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