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Family Scapegoating Abuse, Trauma, and Structural Dissociation

When FSA adult survivors are chronically traumatized within their family-of-origin, they can develop a form of dissociation known as structural dissociation, whereby the personality lacks integration and expresses itself through ‘parts’. But it is never too late to experience your innate wholeness…

The research I conducted over a ten-year period on what I eventually named family scapegoating abuse (FSA) suggests that it is often the family empath or highly sensitive person (HSP) that ends up in the family scapegoat / identified patient role.

Because children who are emotionally sensitive tend to have stronger reactions to adverse life events, they will be profoundly impacted by toxic family dynamics, resulting in their possibly developing complex trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms. If the toxicity and trauma experienced is chronic and severe, structural dissociation within their personality may result.

How Structural Dissociation Develops

When FSA adult survivors are chronically traumatized within their family-of-origin, they can develop a form of dissociation known as structural dissociation, whereby the personality lacks integration and expresses itself through ‘parts’.

As discussed in my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, the child victim of FSA is dependent on their scapegoating caregiver(s) to survive. Instead of seeing the caregiver as acting in scary, harmful, and unjust ways, the child will turn the (suppressed) rage or hatred they feel toward the caregiver against themselves, as this is a psychologically “safer” thing to do, given the dependent position they are in. This is how the ‘false’, or ‘survival’ self, with attendant self-alienation, first begins to develop.

As the child continues to operate from their ‘survival self’ within the threatening, traumatizing environment they find themselves in, various survival ‘parts’ may begin to take hold within their psyche, parts which are rooted in the trauma responses of ‘fight’, ‘flight’, ‘freeze’, ‘fawn’/’submit’, and ‘attach’ (“cry for help”).

These non-integrated survival parts of the child’s personality are emblematic of structural dissociation. The personality has, in a sense, fractured into different ‘parts’ as a means of coping in a hostile, frightening, and shaming environment. There also remains a functioning, ‘normal’ part that “keeps on keeping on” as it goes about the business of ‘normal’ (everyday) life, such as school, household chores, socializing, etc.

How Structural Dissociation Manifests in Adulthood

In my FSA Recovery practice, a client with structural dissociation may have difficulty regulating their emotions and will report experiencing chronic feelings of emptiness within. Previous mental health providers may have diagnosed them as having Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, an Anxiety or Depressive disorder, or Bipolar disorder, although they may not relate to the diagnosis given as it fails to capture the full scope of what they are experiencing.

Nearly all trauma survivors will have dissociative symptoms, and experiencing structural dissociation does not mean that you have Dissociative Identity Disorder (having several distinct identities that seem to exist and operate separately from each other).

As a trauma-informed clinician, I am likely to assess for structural dissociation if a client reports experiencing some of the following symptoms during the intake process (or later on during treatment):

  • Feeling disconnected from their body, like they are outside of themselves or “far away”
  • Feeling separate from everything around them
  • Feeling like the world around them is distant or unreal
  • Unable to make decisions
  • Feeling chronically numb and emotionally detached
  • Compartmentalizing information
  • Frequently losing / misplacing things
  • Finding themselves somewhere with no idea as to how they got there
  • Operating from two or more streams of consciousness (e.g., showing up in therapy as distinctly different people from week-to-week)
  • Lack of motivation and stamina (leaves tasks uncompleted; self-sabotages)
  • Feeling confused about their identity (“I don’t know who I am”)
  • Doing things they have no memory of doing later
  • “Zoning out” (escaping) via addictive / self-destructive behavior
  • Isolating and counter-dependency (lacks trust in others and fears doing so, which can look like paranoia)
  • Somatic symptoms (e.g., migraines; unusual tolerance to physical pain)
  • Experiencing partial amnesia (gaps in the recall of events; unable to remember personal information)
  • Having several distinct identities that seem to operate separately from each other (as with the very rare condition, Dissociative Identity Disorder).

The ‘Normal’ or ‘Taking Care of Business’ Part

In structural dissociation, each ‘part’ can have its own unique personality with its own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This can result in the appearance of instability and emotional dysregulation as the adult survivor swings rapidly between different states of being – one minute happy, excited, confident, or hopeful; the next minute depressed, empty, helpless, or numb.

With that said, most FSA adult survivors who struggle with structural dissociation have a strongly developed high-functioning, ‘normal’ part that helps them to carry on with the routine and necessary aspects of their lives. This part may be incredibly competent and efficient, as it exists separately from the parts that feel little, vulnerable, hurt, shamed, helpless, and sad.

However, even while everything seems fine on the surface, parts that are rooted in the traumatized self can be activated in the psyche when ‘triggered’. This can lead to unexpected and (at times) regressive and uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that can be highly painful and confusing to the high-functioning FSA adult survivor.

Complex Trauma and Dissociated Parts

I searched long and hard for a complex-trauma treatment method that would help both me and my FSA adult survivor clients. My search eventually led me to the work of Janina Fisher, who was an early colleague of trauma researcher and author Bessel van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score). If you haven’t yet read Fisher’s book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, I strongly encourage you to do so (I use Fisher’s workbook, Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma, with the FSA adult survivors in my practice as well).

In addition to the seminal work of Bessel van der Kolk, Fisher’s understanding of trauma has been informed by the work of various respected trauma researchers and theorists, resulting in her adapting a Structural Dissociation model as the basis for her trauma treatment methods. 

This Structural Dissociation model theorizes that trauma (including complex trauma) results in the personality splitting off into a “going on with normal life” part, while non-integrated trauma-based parts of the personality form as coping mechanisms in response to overwhelmingly stressful or harmful environmental or relational experiences. These (unconscious, traumatized) parts are driven by the fight, flight, freeze, fawn/submit, or attach (“cry for help”)’ responses.

Per Fisher, traumatized clients with structural dissociation symptoms identify with one part or another at different times to the exclusion of their other parts, believing that they are that part, rather than a larger, ‘whole’, integrated self that contains all the parts.  Such clients may feel anger (a ‘fight’ / attack response) one minute and an urge to flee / escape (the ‘flight’ response) the next. Their internal world feels chaotic and confusing, and is distressing for not only the client, but sometimes their therapist as well!

A Healing Pathway for Structural Dissociation

Drawing upon Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model (IFS) and from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Fisher teaches her clients how to “unblend” from their parts by helping them see their parts through their ‘noticing’, witnessing, and non-attached mind. 

Using this mindfulness-based approach, Fisher then assists her clients in getting to know and befriend their (traumatized) parts so that these parts (which are regressive in that they exist as the age they were when first traumatized) can join the client’s adult Self and eventually receive from the client what they so desperately needed when they were young: Love, compassion, understanding, nurturing, and acceptance.

Via this method of first witnessing, then integrating, their traumatized parts, the client’s personality gradually re-integrates, resulting in their being able to experience a sense of internal wholeness, inner continuity, and stability. This in turn helps the adult survivor to feel safe within themselves, giving them the strength to mourn their various losses and begin to come to terms with their traumatic memories.

If you found this article helpful, consider sharing it with others via the social media icons, below. Have something to add to the conversation? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

15 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Dear Rebecca, thank you so much for this. I’ve ordered the two books by Fisher. I’ve always felt completely dissociated from my body and am hoping that these books will help me understand this better. Another thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve always found myself in relationships with women who have serious addiction issues that have deeply impacted these relationships in very negative ways. I wonder about this also. I’m truly grateful for you and your work!

  2. Thank you Rebecca for this post. I appreciate your research and generosity. Since deciding to go no contact with my bullying siblings five years ago, I have felt parts of myself awaken. It was like getting out of prison. I had a sense of enormous relief and freedom. When I wrote my impact statement last week, I said that I had lived a half-life and now I can be whole.

    Of course, my experience is more complicated than simple joy and relief. I also experience intense rage and a painful inner loneliness and tidal waves of grief over a closeness I never had with my family of origin. It is as if I am reconstructing my past through a filter of truth. I lived so long in denial (self-protection).

    As a Buddhist, I practise self-compassion daily. This has helped me through difficult feelings. Of all the emotions, rage is least comfortable for me. I try to push it away, even though I know that I need to allow the rage in order to heal. My father was the primary source of abuse, the reason everyone else developed unhealthy coping patterns. I believe he was mentally ill. He had fits of extreme and violent rage. His anger did enormous lasting damage. So, anger is truly scary to me.

    How do other people feel? Is anyone else experiencing rage? How do you continue to love and accept yourself through those difficult moments?

    With warmth,

    D

    1. Hi Debbie, there are many golden nuggets here for those who take time to read your comment. In answer to your question: Rage became evident to me first via my body – it literally began burning up like a furnace in response to triggers (although I didn’t understand this at the time, as I did not know about complex trauma then). My face would become so red from the burning that it would actually peel after.

      In my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, I refer to this rage that we as adult survivors experience as ‘righteous rage’ and for most survivors, it is important (even critical) that this rage be consciously accessed and explored during the healing and recovery process. Indeed, the body really does ‘keep the score’! Thank you for your comment – and question!

      1. Hi Rebecca,

        Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sorry you went through that. I am sorry for all of us. Family is meant to be a sanctuary.

        As I read your response, I started to understand my own with more clarity. My rage expressed itself as panic attacks. At a particularly decisive moment, I found myself unable to speak. I hung up the phone because I was certain that if I did not stop the conversation with my bullying sibling immediately, I would not be able to breathe. All of this was instinctual before I’d worked anything out in my head. My body held more wisdom than my mind or even my heart in that particular moment. As a side effect of the ongoing bullying, my hair had started to fall out. I still have a bald patch the size of a loonie as a reminder that I need to take care of myself. You are so right about the body keeping score.

        All of this woke me up and I decided to no longer have contact. At that time, my thinking was that with some time away from the stresses, I’d heal and want to resume contact with my siblings. But the longer I am free, the less inclined I am to give space in my life to people who treated me with such cruelty. The worst of the bullying happened when I was grieving the death of my son and taking care of my aging mother. They said nasty and untrue things about me behind my back, and deliberately excluded me from decisions and family events. They even excluded me from the family gathering after my mother’s death.

        I first found your work when I was making the decision to go no contact. One of your blogs gave me the courage to set a boundary. I have read your book three times. Certain passages are posted next to my desk as a reminder. You gave me a lifeline at a very painful time. My therapist has also been an enormous help in the healing, which is ongoing.

        Thank you so much. Thank you also to the other people who are posting comments and sharing their lives. Your courage is inspiring. May we all be safe. May we all find peace.

        Sincerely,

        Debbie

        1. Hi Debbie, comments like these mean much to me, and I deeply appreciate your telling me what my work on FSA has meant to you. So often our traumatized, ‘exiled’ parts speak to us through our body in the form of symptoms – racing heart, panic attacks, migraines, neck pain, digestive upset, etc. I just added Alice Miller’s book, ‘The Body Never Lies’ to the online shop here – This might be a good one to check out, if you haven’t already.

  3. Spot on. I guessed that this was going on with me and another family member. Thank you for explaining it and sharing. If you don’t know what is wrong, you can’t fix it. I am understanding more and more because of people like you!

    1. Thank you, Diane, for writing. I’m so glad to know that my work on FSA has been helpful to you. Understanding what happened to you is a critical first step, hence my focusing on raising awareness via my book and articles.

  4. Hi Rebecca,

    I’m 56 and I’ve spent 30 years seeking help, answers, and clarity. I have a wo derful therapist, and I’m still working for an accurate/complete diagnosis because I have known there has always been something else, the missing pieces…..

    Your article reached me today simply by the Grace of God! I hadn’t heard of you prior, and I am so thankful for you now!

    I’m so full of emotion, so I can’t find the right words, however I’m so looking forward to reading all you have written and perhaps sharing and incorporating in my therapy.

    Thank you so much!!

    1. Hi Felicia, thank you for writing. I am so pleased to know that my article showed up in your life at just the right time. Such synchronicity surely means that you are on the right path in regard to your healing and recovery. I am rooting for you and wishing you the very best!

  5. Debbie and Rebecca, as I read your posts I am lifted up and sad at the same time. Yes, family is supposed to be a sanctuary and when it’s not, you look elsewhere. I am so glad to be part of this one. Thank you for being there. xoxo

    1. Thank you, Diana and Rebecca too. I am sad that others have been through this, and yet it is deeply comforting to find I am not alone.

      Re looking elsewhere: It has been five years since I stopped having contact with my siblings. I have discovered family amongst my friends. A close girlfriend has become what I call “the sister of my heart”. I turn to her for moments of family and she is unconditionally there for me. When I suffer, she cries. When something goes well in my life, she celebrates. We are genuine with each other and safe. I have a similarly deep friendship with a guy, who I think of as my brother. He is able to give me sanctuary in the darkest moments. At a time when I thought I was horribly alone, it turns out I am not. These are both people I can turn to and know they will be there for me. I do not have to earn their love through pandering and denying who I am and accepting bad behaviour. And, I am also there for them, without fear as my most authentic self. All of this feels all the more precious because I know its true worth. This is not the family I thought I had, but it is a precious one. There is hope.

      All the best, Debbie

    1. Thank you for writing, Mat – and also for the PDF on the rescuing of inner children. I’ll be publishing a book soon that specifically addresses narcissistic family systems. Subscribe to my blog to stay notified, if you like.

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