A family that is dominated by a dysfunctional or narcissistic parent may result in its members living under a set of unspoken ‘rules’, rules which benefit the parent at the expense of their children’s well-being. The research I conducted on what I named family scapegoating abuse (FSA) suggests that dysfunctional families that scapegoat are also governed by a specific set of rules. This article reviews ten rules that I have identified as being evident in families that scapegoat one of their own. [Scroll down to watch my video on these same 10 Rules. Be sure to check out the FSA Recovery Affirmations I include in the video’s description.]
How a Dysfunctional Family System Functions Like a Cult
In my article, Recognizing Narcissistic Family Abuse, I discussed the unique features of a family dominated by a parent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and how such families mirror a cult system.
Recently I came across a paper published by Jose Fernandez Aguado (originally presented to the International Cultic Studies Association, aka ICSA), in which broad areas of relationship between dysfunctional families and cults is explored. The author also highlights three concepts from family systems theory (boundaries, rules, and roles) to illustrate how the dysfunctional family weakens its members via the harmful effects of cult-like group dynamics. I strongly encourage you to read Dr. Aguado’s well-researched and clinically grounded work.
For those of you who are waking up to the fact that you have been chronically and systemically scapegoated by your family-of-origin, it is critical that you understand that you were likely the unwitting recipient of a projective identification process fueled by intergenerational trauma and accompanied by a ‘scapegoat narrative’ (the ‘story’ the family has about you, as established by the power-holders in your family). This projection process is pathological in nature in that it is akin to a shared group ‘psychosis’. (To learn more about what I named family scapegoating abuse (FSA) and the projective identification process, read my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed.)
Once you understand the ways in which a dysfunctional or narcissistic family system functions like a cult governed by its own set of rules (rules that are often unspoken and covert), you will also understand why the family ‘story’ about you is unlikely to change, no matter who or what you become. This is because the negative story attached to you is benefiting one or more people in your family, a story that is supported (and made possible) by the below ten rules.
10 “Rules” the Scapegoating Family Lives By
In the family that scapegoats one of their own, there is abuse and a simultaneous denial of the abuse of the FSA victim. This system of denial is made possible by unspoken rules that govern family members – rules that may have been passed down for generations like a toxic, poisonous recipe.
I suggest you take a moment after reading each ‘rule’ and ask yourself if this has happened, or is happening, to you in your family-of-origin.
1 – You must not contest or challenge the power-holding parent’s view of reality – and their view of you – no matter how false or damaging.
Family systems that scapegoat are ‘closed’ systems that avoid new information or input from “outsiders,” information that might jeopardize the position of the dysfunctional or narcissistic scapegoating parent and the established system homeostasis.
2 – You (as the family ‘scapegoat’ or ‘identified patient’) must earn the right to be loved by your parents and other family members. (For a good many of you reading this, that day has never come.)
My research on family scapegoating revealed that the FSA adult survivor typically believes that something must be wrong with them for their family to treat them with such contempt and hostility. “My entire family treats me this way – it must be something about me that causes them to scapegoat me!” is a refrain I often hear. Sadly, many scapegoated adult survivors are still attempting to adjust and “fix” themselves so as to earn their families love – This is particularly the case if a parent is a malignant narcissist.
3 – You must submit and defer to the family power-holder(s) and their view of reality and events.
The typical scapegoated child learns to survive the rejecting, shaming, and blaming environment they found themselves within by adapting to their environment in the best way that they can. Part of this adaptation will include their adopting the views of the family power-holder – including the ‘scapegoat narrative’ confirming that they are fundamentally flawed and “bad”.
4 – You must not contest the unjust (and at times irrational) behaviors directed toward you within your family system, no matter how harmful or abusive.
The scapegoated child or adult child is punished in a variety of ways if they attempt to defend themselves or put a stop to their own maltreatment. Such punishment may involve one or more family members participating in a “smear” campaign, whereby the child/adult child is defamed to others within and outside of the family. Other forms of punishment include being shunned by family; being excluded from family events; and being removed from wills and trusts. This is particularly the case for scapegoated children or FSA adult survivors who were sexually molested or physically assaulted by a parent or sibling.
5 – As the scapegoated family empath, you must carry unrecognized intergenerational trauma for your family, along with associated ‘toxic shame’.
My research on family scapegoating abuse also revealed that it is often the ’empath child’ who becomes the target of family scapegoating dynamics. Via a projective identification process, the unconscious toxic shame associated with intergenerational trauma is deposited onto this emotionally sensitive and attuned child, adding to their overall sense that something must be wrong with them or that they are fundamentally defective. The scapegoated child will also carry personalized shame as the ‘identified patient’ in the family.
6 – You must not complain when you are treated differently than other members of your family – especially in regard to the preferential treatment enjoyed by any ‘golden child’ siblings.
Because a narcissistic parent’s psyche is ‘split’ and non-integrated, they will project the positive qualities they imagine they themselves possess onto one child and negative qualities (which are really their own ‘disowned parts’) onto the scapegoated child. Although neither child is a whole person to the narcissistic parent, the ‘golden child’ benefits from receiving special privileges and attention that the scapegoated child is denied.
7 – You must not share your truth, because your truth gravely threatens the narrative governing your family system and may be highly inconvenient to those in your family who scapegoat you. This includes your contesting any false stories or beliefs about you promoted by individual family members.
As the family ‘scapegoat’, you will find that if you attempt to defend yourself from unfair accusations or attacks, the abuse will only escalate. Specifically, my research on family scapegoating abuse indicated that FSA adult survivors who attempted to defend themselves or correct an erroneous accounting of events were deemed to be “a liar” or “crazy” by one or more family members. So if this has happened to you, know that you are by no means alone!
8 – You must stuff down your feelings at all times, especially if your feelings are perceived as being “negative” in the family power-holder’s eyes.
Feelings can be very threatening to a dysfunctional family system that scapegoats. This is because the parents’ needs take precedence over the feelings of their children, especially if one or both parents are narcissists (whether overt or covert). To acknowledge your feelings would necessitate your being viewed as a full human being, and there is no room for this sort of emotional extravagance when a parent is self-absorbed and emotionally undeveloped.
9 – You must deny painful events and painful realities, particularly those that are too difficult or upsetting for the rest of your family to face. This includes never going outside the family system for help.
You may have spent years denying the fact of your own abuse to others – and also to yourself – because this is what your dysfunctional family system demands (and requires) of you. Those of you who have attempted to point out the scapegoating dynamics negatively impacting you no doubt discovered that your insights were not well received by your family. If you tell them that your experiences have been validated by a licensed therapist, they will tell you that not only are you crazy, but your therapist (or the author of that self-help book) is crazy as well.
10 – You must tolerate poor treatment and abuse within your family to remain connected to them.
This is the ‘double-bind’ that the FSA adult survivor finds themselves trapped within. No human being should ever have to tolerate abuse, including ‘invisible’ (psycho-emotional) abuse. If this is the price you must pay to remain connected to your family-of-origin, I encourage you to ask yourself if the price you are paying is really worth it. (Watch my 10 Rules video, below, to learn more).
Did you recognize yourself or your family when reading the above rules? Are there rules you would add to this list? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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Rebecca C. Mandeville is a thought leader in understanding the consequences of child psycho-emotional abuse and family scapegoating. She is a licensed Psychotherapist; Certified Clinical Trauma Professional; and Family Systems expert. Rebecca’s book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, is the first book ever written on “Family Scapegoating Abuse” or “FSA” (a term she coined during the course of her Family Systems research). She is also a YouTube Health Partner serving as a recognized Family Systems and Complex Trauma expert via her channel Beyond Family Scapegoating Abuse.
29 comments / Add your comment below
My initial family taught me to not trust love and my current one reinforces it in a milder manner
Financial security rather than emotional security seems to have more value than it should
In our Western culture, especially! Always good to hear from you, Fred.
Terrific article. These dynamics should be taught in high school, in those years just before a scapegoated child has the agency to free him- or herself from a toxic family.
If only it were so, Stacey. In the U.S., narcissistic abuse is only just now beginning to be formally recognized in the Mental Health field (e.g., I now receive continuing education flyers on it for licensed professionals), yet not in our Court system. In this way, we are way behind places like the U.K. Same goes for recognizing complex trauma properly.
I always wondered why I had this desire to change my name, move and start a new life away from my family. I felt this desire from teenager until middle age. Your book gave me a life changing insight on so many things including this desire to flee. I did move away from my family but I still had to see them several times a year. When I was pressured to see them, I’d be physically ill and stressed for weeks leading up to the event and completely drained afterwards. When I was with my family during my obligatory visits, I’d have to “play the game/play the role” expected of me in order to survive the ordeal. Later at age 54, I’d had enough. I was done. No more visits. Although that was just as bad because then they could confirm all the scapegoating they had on me. There is no way to win with a family like this except to get away sooner than I did and start a new life with caring healthy people.
Hi Karla, what you are describing in regard to your bodily responses sounds like complex trauma symptoms stemming from hyperarousal (governed by the sympathetic nervous system), which leads to the ‘flight’ response. These are survival responses, and likely helped you get through your childhood. I’m glad you are now creating a safe environment to heal in, and no doubt your body symptoms have settled down as a result. Glad you found my book helpful as well.
our caretakers don’t know how to talk to our souls, only we do
Oh. My. God. Yes. This is it. For years I’ve tried to find out what I have been experiencing. Thank you. Whats the first step to get help?
The first step would be to read my book on what I named (during my research) ‘family scapegoating abuse’ (FSA). Title: Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role (links to it are on my website here). It is sold on Amazon and other major online book retailers. Link to the U.S. paperback here (also comes in Kindle and hardback form). My book describes the path to healing and provides some resources as well. I hope you will find my book helpful and thank you for your comment and for reaching out.And look through my blog articles as well.
Who is willing to love themselves despite that one or both parents did not. Who has the courage to love themselves even though someone else may act like the parent who did not. For me I was unwilling to let love in so that I could conquer and eradicate feeling unloved. Seems like I made a mistake. Better to love myself and have searched for someone to love me despite some others don’t. Better to live having a weakness of wanting to not hurt when someone does not love me.
Better to be vulnerable and still have the capacity to let someone love me rather than waiting for a miracle that it won’t hurt when they don’t.
As someone who is autistic, the scapegoat in my family.
My mother has an unspoken rule for me: “Thou Shalt Not Speak Thy Mind.” If I disagree with her about ANYTHING I am told off and/or kicked out and sent home. I don’t have a job, no friends, no support; I’m epileptic so I can’t drive either, if I could I would move to the opposite end of the province I’m in and never return. Unfortunately I can’t so I have a “job”: allow her and anyone affiliated with her to treat me badly; according to people, because it’s happening to me it’s ok, if it was happening to anyone else it wouldn’t be ok. I’m essentially being treated the ways other people that are actually at fault, I’m taking the blame, it’s part of my job.
I’m not allowed to express my opinion or have emotions; the only words I’m allowed to say (that won’t result in angering her/anyone affiliated with her) are “yes”, “ok”, and “uh-huh”.
The unspoken rule includes no emotions, no feelings, and no opinions. If I break this rule I’m in trouble. It could be worse. Someone important, actually worth something, could be treated this way. But it’s just me. That’s fine. Very few therapists will take someone with autism. I have a therapist now; she thinks I’m wrong because she met mom. I guess she’s right; if it comes out of my mouth it’s wrong. I was given this message my entire life; when this happened in school I made up a song in my head about it that sums it all up: “I’m always wrong, everyone else is always right, da-da-da-dee that’s the story of my life.” I sing this song whenever I’m alone after being scapegoated.
Since nobody will help/believe me about this I consider it a job to be the scapegoat. I wish I was officially paid for it; given the consequences if I stand up for myself I consider being the scapegoat a job. I wish I was officially paid for doing.
Hi Rebekah, I am so sorry to hear of your situation. It sounds a little like my own except I don’t have the limitations of autism to have to navigate too. But the family abuse you describe is very much like my own. I have finally just left the family for good, and when I think about them, it mostly gives me feelings of nausea. In other words there is no wondering if I made a mistake. I have a couple of thoughts to share with you. Never doubt yourself, and what you are perceiving is going on. What you are feeling is real and you are being abused. It is important that you don’t let that doubt creep into your mind. The second thing is this. If you can leave… get out. It sounds like you think you can just ride it out, but what I want to suggest to you is that there are consequences to staying that you cannot anticipate that can do a lot of damage. Your mental health may decline and deeper forms of trauma are possible to develop, and it is difficult to know this until it is too late. It can also make you susceptible to abuse from others which can be devastating. That’s my advice to you from someone who has lived it all, from someone who is struggling, and yet the advice is from someone who still loves himself and will be alright. They didn’t take everything from me, but they tried. My best wishes and love to you. B
My family seemed to expect the whole world to follow these rules, cheering on anyone who mistreated me. When my first husband (I see now likely a narcissist) abused and cheated me in overt ways, my family kept right on loving and supporting him. They shy away from my current loving, respectful, supportive husband and think he’s a nut for thinking I’m sane. (He figured out what was going on in about six months saying, “No one should have to work so hard to be known in their own family.”) I began to drastically decrease contact with them about 12 years ago and now, a year after my mother’s death (NPD mother, self absorbed, enabling father) things recently got way, way worse. So…I think I’ve been aware something was way wrong since I was very young but I’ve stuck it out having bought the “family is everything” and, ridiculously, “we’re the best family” narrative for way too long, which is also cultish. My family is all about appearances – in fact my mom was a motivational speaker on how to build family relationships. (!) After they recently began to verbally abuse my adult children, I’m ready to jump ship entirely and will be looking for someone to help me through this part of the process – grief and all. Thank you for your work, Rebecca. It is just stunning to me that anyone could take something so complex, dark, and mystifying and bring it to light giving hope to so many.
Thank you, Meg. You may find my book helpful also, if you haven’t yet read it (‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’). This article addresses your divorce experience. I’m glad you now have a supportive partner. It is often a healthy spouse that can quickly see what is actually going on in the family in regard to scapegoating. We also have a nice YouTube community forming, if you aren’t subscribed to my channel yet: @beyondfamilyscapegoatingabuse. Link to article here: https://www.scapegoatrecovery.com/2021/04/24/divorce-and-covert-abuse-when-your-family-sides-with-your-ex-part-one/
Thank you so much for sharing the link to the article, Rebecca! I read through your book in a single sitting and plan to go back and study it; I have found it tremendously helpful.
Good to hear Meg, thank you for supporting my work on FSA and for letting me know it has been helpful. Much appreciated.
This is exactly what I am going back to school to get my Masters in Clinical Psychology. Specializing in grief, trauma, and scapegoat recovery. It wasn’t until ACA I finally could put a name to being the scapegoat and my sibling the golden child. There is sympathy and empathy. I can’t wait to read your book!!
Hi Kelly, How exciting to hear you are going to get your MA in Clinical Psych! Please let me know how you like my book, and I am glad to hear you are thinking of focusing on scapegoating. Right now I am working on another term I plan to define clinically: Family Scapegoating Trauma (FSA) – a consequence of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA). I hope you also will consider subscribing to my new YouTube channel.
Hi Rebecca! How can I find your youtube channel? Thank you so much for your work
Hi Emma, the link is in my menu – but here it is, I hope you subscribe. https://www.youtube.com/@beyondfamilyscapegoatingabuse
This is the most accurate explanation of my type of family I have ever read and I did over 20 years of therapy. All of these points are true for me as to what I experienced growing up. Something I would add is that if you are scapegoated you often end up gaslighting yourself. I grew up with a malignant narcissist father and vulnerable narcissist mother. My childhood was a nightmare and I have CPTSD and I have heaps of emotional damage even after many many years of therapy. But one of the hardest things to deal with out of all of it is that I was raised to believe that my family was good and normal. And the problem was me. Although my family was rotten to the core. I gaslighted myself from a very young age and told myself that my family was good and fine. I had to do that to survive. Because showing the outside world the effects on me of the abuse and neglect at home was potentially fatal to me. So I ended up pretending to myself that everything was fine as well as pretending to the outside world. One of the affects of that is that I had heaps of emotional and coping problems and because my family was ‘fine’ the reason I was so messed up was just because I was bad and a failure. Somehow defective. A belief both my parents reinforced. It’s only been recently, in my mid 40s, that I’ve finally started to invert the narrative in my own psyche and see that the world I grew up in was upside down. That the evil was in my house….in my parents, and not in me. And for the first time in my life I’ve started to feel a little bit like I can be sane, and be safe and be ok. Needless to say one way to get to this point is to have finally ended contact with almost my entire family. Even my fence sitting sister who I fooled myself into thinking was on my side but showed her true colours when my mother died last year and immediately went scurrying back to my father.
Hi Sarah, thank you for sharing your story for others to learn and benefit from. I plan to discuss self-gaslighting in an article and video soon (I believe it is Dr Ramani on YouTube that often discusses this). It is a concept I only partially agree with, and this is because of my experiences as a family therapist specializing in dysfunctional and narcissistic family systems and systemic ‘shared realities’. Children are born into their families and the reality offered them within their family system when young is the ‘matrix’ they graft on to, and the only reality they know. I am still sorting through how this ties into the idea of self-gaslighting and once I do, I will get an article out about it. There is likely a point as the child becomes older and sees other, healthier families and social systems where they do ‘self-gaslight’ so to speak, which ties into protective denial as a defense mechanism. I may come up with another way to describe this process – and possibly another term! Thank you for your comment, much appreciated.
Rebecca, I came across your book on a random Facebook post, and I just want to say what an amazing book. I have never felt more validated about my experience in my entire life. I toyed with the idea of being the family scapegoat, but I wasn’t sure as many of my family’s scapegoats are still alive. But as I read more and looked for patterns I realized that I was/am a scapegoat to them. What’s even more interesting is the person that made me the scapegoat was able to do it to 3 different generations with me being the last. I started disconnecting from “family” early which made going no contact at 30 years old a lot easier than I thought. It’s been a HARD, tough journey, but I know it’s worth it. I do want to ask, have you ever had any clients that feel or ever felt like they didn’t have an inner child? I try to look back and find that happy, peaceful child, but I can’t find anything. It all seems tainted with me having to process, adapt/adjust to my caregiver. For example, playing outside was due to her not wanting me in the house. Doing good in school was because I wanted her to brag about me. My mother (addict/alcoholic) abandoned me in her care for a few years, so I wanted to feel less of a burden as a way to show my gratitude, but it back fired. My sister was the “golden child”, so I tried to be like her, but it just caused me to be abandoned in smaller ways by my family. So I figured out early that in order to survive I would have to tend to my emotional and mental needs on my own. So I pretty much read and stayed to myself from like I’d say 12 years old until I was 19 and in college. Any insight or resources you have would be awesome! Thank you for following your purpose!
Hi Raven, I’m so pleased you found validation in my book and feel it helped you. The scapegoat role can definitely be ‘inherited’ – I mention this in my book and it becomes very clear if/when one does a family genogram (a tool developed by the great Family Systems theorist Murray Bowen). Your question is an excellent one – In fact, I am making a note to do a YouTube video on this. If you are not yet subscribed, you can find me on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIyAJJIjX07beYqnUVIGPgw (or via searching on the handle: @beyondfamilyscapegoatingabuse). I relate to what you say because it was the same for me. This is one of the reasons that I use the term ‘true self’ versus ‘inner child’. It is also one of the reasons I do not support treatment plans for scapegoat recovery that exclusively use ‘inner child’ work. I prefer to discover and work with ‘parts’ (a term used in Internal Family Systems) or ‘sub-personalities’ (a term used in Psychosynthesis – check out my coaching page in the menu here and you’ll see me discussing this as well). Thank you for the inspiration for a new video topic, and if you are comfortable doing so, I always appreciate honest reviews of my book, especially on Amazon or wherever you purchased it from.
I’ve endured FSA for decades, I’m 58 now. I realised what was going on 20 years ago when I was desperately searching online for an explanation of my parents’ treatment of me. What I stumbled on was an article about the impact of narcissistic abuse, and a reference to a book, Stalking the Soul. Yet I’ve never been able to abandon my family because I’m an empath and feel others’ pain more keenly than my own. It seems to heartless, especially since my brother died aged 22. I’ve always felt I owed it to my parents to anything I could to lessen the pain of that loss. I also feel that I’ll lose parts of my identity that are precious to me – being a good and loving dua
Hi Laura, not everyone ends contact. But to remain in contact, one does need to learn how to minimize triggers and protect their mental and emotional health, which is more challenging if still in contact with abusive family members.
Sorry for your losses
Everyone needs to know who they are
For me it’s about recognizing that I am the soul of the universe