Recovering from the traumatizing aspects of family scapegoating abuse (FSA) is an individual process and each FSA adult survivor’s healing journey will be unique. But no matter the recovery route you take, you will want to first ensure you build a strong foundation for recovery by addressing symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD, also referred to as complex trauma).
Family scapegoating abuse is a chronically stressful dynamic that destroys your sense of safety and security within your family-of-origin. The painful and confusing experiences associated with being the target of a systemic-wide negative family narrative are impossible for a child to integrate emotionally, and are psychologically traumatizing. The unrelentingly stressful experience of being in the ‘family scapegoat’ role can eventually lead to the development of complex trauma symptoms.
If you are an adult survivor of FSA, you may be struggling with a variety of symptoms, such as feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, rage, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. You may also feel numb, isolated, disconnected, and fear putting your trust in others.
Recovering from family scapegoating abuse is a process that must be worked through over time. After working with literally hundreds of FSA adult survivors in my psychotherapy and coaching practices, and interviewing hundreds of FSA research participants, I can say with certainty that healing from the emotional ravages of family scapegoating abuse is possible, provided that complex trauma symptoms are effectively acknowledged and addressed.
Building the Foundation for FSA Recovery
Most clients who come to me for help with FSA-related issues have no idea that they are suffering from complex trauma symptoms. However, the fact of the matter is, if your family-of-origin has ostracized you and behaved in rejecting, shaming, and blaming ways – perhaps for years (or even decades) – you are unlikely to feel safe within your own body and within your primary relationships.
To begin the process of recovering from family scapegoating abuse, your symptoms of complex trauma must be adequately assessed, then addressed. This is because you must reestablish a sense of inner safety and stability within yourself and your body.
Step One: Creating a Safe and Stable Healing Environment
To develop feelings of emotional and bodily safety and security, it is critical that you do all you can to create a predictable environment where you are protected from further psychological and emotional injury. This will help you to develop inner emotional stability as you begin to relax and trust that you are safe from unexpected attacks and other types of harm.
You must also identify and minimize ‘triggers’ or it will not be possible to calm your body and ease your mind. Understanding what triggers you in regard to family interactions will allow you to better manage your complex trauma symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or rage, and may require you to limit or temporarily (or permanently) end contact with severely triggering, abusive family members.
The purpose of this step is to create a space you can recover and heal in, a space that does not allow you to be continuously re-traumatized due to scapegoating dynamics. This step will also assist you in overcoming any emotional dysregulation you are experiencing as a survivor of FSA.
Step Two: Acknowledging and Coming to Terms with Traumatized ‘Parts’
This step reflects an old tagline I used to use on this website: “To begin to truly heal, our pain must be both acknowledged and validated.”
In this second step involves your exploring traumatized, split off, ‘survival’ parts of your personality so that you can begin the process of integrating them into your conscious, adult identity (refer to my article on structural dissociation to learn more).
This step will likely require you to work with a trauma-informed Mental Health professional who understands family systems and the damaging effects of being the “family IP” (identified patient). This step addresses both complex trauma symptoms and the reality of the damage done to you via family scapegoating abuse dynamics and events, and therefore is the foundation of FSA recovery.
A skillful pacing of treatment is warranted during this step, as you do not want to find yourself in a situation where you are overwhelmed with painful feelings or experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, etc. Although you may feel desperate to heal as quickly as you can, when it comes to healing from complex trauma, going slow is both necessary and advisable.
Step Three: Noticing “Triggers”
When engaging in trauma work and reclaiming traumatized parts, you need not feel you must “dig up” every traumatic memory. You need merely pay attention to “triggers” by noticing your body’s reactions to life events and trust that it is remembering, even if you consciously cannot.
For example, you might have arranged to call an elderly parent every Sunday and be confused as to why you feel avoidant, anxious, or nauseated. The approaching phone call is the “trigger”; your physical symptoms are your body’s way of “remembering” the past scapegoating abuse.
Step Four: Integrating Somatic Interventions
It is important to note that modalities used for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not necessarily effective for the treatment of complex trauma (C-PTSD). I therefore advise my clients that they make sure that modalities used to treat PTSD, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), have been adapted by the practitioner to treat complex trauma. Somatic-focused therapies, such as sensorimotor therapy or other therapies that integrate somatic interventions, can be particularly helpful for the treatment of complex trauma symptoms as well.
Life Beyond Complex Trauma and FSA
By establishing a strong foundation for addressing complex trauma via the above four steps, it is indeed possible to fully recover from the effects of family scapegoating abuse and live a fulfilling life that is rewarding and purposeful.
This does not mean that you will not sometimes feel sad, angry, anxious, or depressed about what happened to you in your family. You will not experience a complete absence of thoughts and feelings related to family scapegoating abuse. However, you will be able to choose who should and should not be in your life based on the quality of your interactions, versus being ruled by complex trauma triggers, duty, fear, or guilt. This will allow you to feel in control of your life and your emotional and relational experiences, versus continuing to be victimized by soul-deadening scapegoating family dynamics.
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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).