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.
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.
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 psychotherapist, recovery coach, writer, speaker, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse, family scapegoating, and dysfunctional family systems. She has dedicated her 20-year career in Mental Health to advocating for those whose voices are not heard due to being systemically disempowered. Rebecca writes for various Mental Health organizations and her popular blog, Scapegoat Recovery. She is also the author of a best-selling book on what she named ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.