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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- Release obsessive, ruminating thoughts that keep you stuck in the past: Like it or not, 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. Instead, keep your focus on becoming empowered via your healing and recovery process, and 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.
- 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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Rebecca C.Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP, is an internationally recognized expert in Family Systems. She is a psychotherapist, certified complex trauma professional, researcher, author, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She specializes in helping victims of ‘invisible’ family abuse reclaim their life narrative so that they can live freely and joyously as their true self. Rebecca is the author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed – the first research-based book on what she named family scapegoating abuse (FSA).