Dysfunctional family systems are ‘closed’ systems that resist integrating information that threatens the accepted family narrative. Family members who have scapegoated you will rarely accept responsibility for their actions, despite how egregious their mistreatment of you has been. Acknowledging that they have treated you in an unfair, unjust, cruel, or abusive manner would require a great amount of humility, along with a large dose of ego strength – two ingredients that dysfunctional or narcissistic family members controlling the family system’s ‘scapegoat narrative’ seldom have. Below are five reasons why you are unlikely to ever receive an apology from your family for their shameful treatment of you. Y
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If you are someone who survived your dysfunctional, toxic, or abusive family dynamics by ‘fawning’ and submitting, saying “I’m sorry” may be second nature to you. In fact, you by now may have realized that your willingness to take responsibility for anything that anybody is upset about is a trauma-based survival response that is no longer serving you today as an adult.
Or perhaps you survived your toxic family dynamics via a ‘fight’ response. Saying, “I’m sorry” to another when warranted may feel a bit harder for you as it could make you feel less safe and more vulnerable emotionally. However, this can generally be worked through during the recovery process as you begin to feel stronger and develop insight into how your ‘fight’ response helped you to cope in a stressful, threatening environment.
The Scapegoating Family and DARVO
If you are currently focusing your time, energy, and resources on recovering from family scapegoating abuse (FSA), you are no doubt used to examining your behaviors, motives, and actions as you learn to take full responsibility for how you are showing up in the world.
While it is commendable that you hold yourself accountable for the mistakes you’ve made, you may feel confused, angry, or sad that family members who have scapegoated you seem unable or unwilling to own their behavior, apologize to you, and make a sincere amends for the sake of healing and preserving family relations.
In fact, you may find that not only are family members unwilling to apologize, they may become highly defensive, aggressive, or combative when you confront them on their maltreatment of you. They may ignore you, punish you by ‘shunning you’, or dismiss your concerns. Alternatively, they may aggressively attack you and villainize you to your face or via a covert smear campaign (i.e., they may spread untrue stories about you in an attempt to make people lose respect for you or question your integrity or sanity).
This is especially likely to occur if the person in your family driving the ‘scapegoat narrative’ about you is a narcissist. To learn more about victims being re-victimized by their offender, read Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s article on DARVO (‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender’).
Why Your Family Is Unlikely to Ever Apologize to You
The research I’ve conducted on family scapegoating abuse revealed five primary reasons why family members will rarely apologize for scapegoating one of their own. For most FSA adult survivors, the sense of injustice experienced from not having the harm done to them acknowledged can become a ‘stuck’ point in their recovery, which I discussed in a recent article.
Reason One: Your family is dominated by someone who holds a lot of power within your family system (typically a dysfunctional or personality-disordered parent, or someone who controls the family resources, such as a wealthy grandparent). In order to remain aligned with this family power-holder, siblings and other relatives will need to “drink the Kool-Aid”, i.e., they must adopt and promote the story this dominant family member has about you, including your supposedly being a “loser,” “selfish,” or “crazy”. (To learn more about narcissistic family systems, read my article on narcissistic family abuse).
Reason Two: Your family is unconsciously participating in something that is akin to a shared psychosis fueled by a family projection process that is based on the narrative that there is something wrong with you (the scapegoated child / FSA adult survivor). Specifically: My research on FSA revealed that scapegoating is particularly intense in families who unknowingly suffer from dynamics rooted in unaddressed intergenerational trauma. My research also suggests that when these traumatized family systems are also controlled by a parent who is a malignant narcissist, the scapegoating can be particularly extreme and severe due to the fact that such parents are chronically self-absorbed and lack insight and empathy.
Reason Three: Those who have harmed you in your family may be incapable of experiencing (or demonstrating) genuine empathy. They may in fact be threatened by your empathic nature. I say this because my FSA research indicates that it is typically the ’empath child’ that becomes the target of family scapegoating behaviors. This child often finds themselves in the role of either ‘family caretaker’ or the ‘family identified patient’ – or both. If you happen to be the empath (adult) child in a family that is affected by intergenerational trauma, your ability to feel and exhibit (or express) emotion – and your ability to perceive deeper and perhaps unpleasant truths about those in your family-of-origin – can be highly threatening to the system. Like it or not, emotions of any type can make a tightly controlled family feel out of control, and what the system cannot control, it will reject and possibly ‘eject’. (For a powerful example of this type of parental rejection, I encourage you to watch the Academy Award-winning film, Ordinary People).
Reason Four: As incomprehensible as it may seem, family members who mistreat you via scapegoating behaviors do not see anything wrong with their behavior. In fact, they are often committed to treating you as ‘less than’ within your family-of-origin. Apologizing for their shabby treatment of you would require family members to acknowledge the fact of your abuse, and that this abuse (like all acts of abuse) was undeserved. As your scapegoating family members likely have no interest in viewing you as anything other than ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or otherwise defective (which supports and justifies in their minds their cruel treatment of you), why should they acknowledge the harm they have willingly caused?
Reason Five: One or more members of your family are benefiting in some manner from the distorted ‘scapegoat narrative’ attached to you. These are the people who would lose power, status, or control if you were to be viewed in a humane, holistic manner in your family, i.e., as a whole person possessing both strengths and weaknesses, (versus your being “crazy,” “a liar,” etc). These benefits may not seem obvious upon initial examination, but after working with FSA adult survivors for over 20 years in my psychotherapy and coaching practices, I can assure you that this is nearly always the case. (For example, you may have been called “unstable” and “a liar” by a parent or sibling who sexually abused you when you were young. The benefit to them is that you are discredited and would not be viewed as a reliable reporter if you were ever to expose the abuse to someone within or outside of the family.)
Reclaiming Your Life Despite Painful, Unchangeable Realities
I tell each person who comes to me for assistance with family scapegoating issues that recovery and healing is indeed possible, even if your family never acknowledges the mental and emotional pain they have caused you throughout your life.
However, it is no walk in the park, and you will no doubt need to move through many painful feelings, including ‘righteous rage’ regarding the injustices you have experienced, as well as grief over your many losses, including lost family connections if you choose to end contact to protect and preserve your emotional and mental health.
Eventually, if you stay true to the course and do not give in to feelings of hopelessness and despair, you will find yourself moving into a state of ‘radical acceptance’ regarding your family situation. It is from this place that you will be able to affirm whatever difficult choices and decisions you have had to make to ensure that your life is free from abuse.
You will also be able to radically accept that the apology you deserve for having been subjected to family scapegoating abuse (an apology that you may have repeatedly fantasized about or ruminated over for years) will likely never come.
To learn more about radical acceptance and family scapegoating, read my article, Radical Acceptance and Family Scapegoating Abuse Recovery.
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15 comments / Add your comment below
I received a fauxpology, which feels even more confusing than just having the apology withheld. Now it’s on me to decide whether to forgive, which feels like an insane amount of pressure. This happened more than two years ago and I have since cut my dad out of my life for not respecting my boundaries.
How do I deal with this dangling apology that feels so inauthentic but that I can’t prove? It’s re-traumatizing because it’s just like lack of closure around the covert/emotional/narcissistic abuse that is somewhat acknowledged by my mom and sister but not fully validated because they can’t or won’t deal with the truth of our dysfunctional past!
I guess it’s the same. I can’t wait for closure to happen. I need to create it for myself. How long do I have to spend in therapy going over and over what happened while the rest of my family lives in blissful ignorance?
Hi Celeste, I had not heard the term ‘fauxpology’ before – I may need to borrow that in future. I hear this from many FSA adult survivors with elderly parents. One client of mine recently received a fauxpology from her dying (likely malignant narcissist) father. She felt numb and detached hearing it. It did not feel sincere or authentic. Makes one wonder if it is merely an attempt to cleanse one’s conscience for self-serving reasons (such as entree through the “pearly gates”). It is yet another instance of the adult child being (mis)used for an abusive parent’s own purposes. I am sorry that this has also happened to you.
Regarding how long you will need to be in therapy: Research on complex trauma suggests that “going over and over” past events is not necessarily healing, including in regard to neuro-biological healing. You might want to read my article here to learn a bit more about healing from complex trauma, which I propose all FSA adult survivors have. I hope you find it helpful: https://www.scapegoatrecovery.com/2022/07/18/family-scapegoating-abuse-structural-dissociation-and-complex-trauma/
Thank you so much! I actually read this one after commenting and put the recommended books on my list. I have a little one so it can be hard to find time to read, but I will get there :). Not sure where I heard fauxpology before. I thought it was from your work lol ?
NO APOLOGIES, NOT GONNA HAPPEN: My top abuser is a younger sibling who learned from my mother that I was our family scapegoat, and it was perfectly acceptable for him to complain, torment and gaslight me every day about everything and anything at all. After our mother died 3 decades ago, it became even worse with this sibling. I never could figure out why he is/was always so mad at me for no reason, and why he accelerated the verbal and mental abuse more intensely than our mother. He sent threatening emails to me indicating that I need to be dead, and these are each felonies according to the new federal cyberstalking/online harassment laws. I doubt he or anyone else in my family will ever apologize. But it is OK. I now know what is going on, thanks to Rebecca and her book. I am not safe being around these people, so I hope this helps others to know that you must stay away from them!
In Family Systems, we understand that this sort of phenomenon you describe with your sibling after a parent’s death is a way that the dead parent can be kept alive (unconsciously).
I also know from my research on FSA that when a sibling ’embodies’ the dead (or demented or otherwise disabled parent who can no longer scapegoat – this can included loss of speech following a stroke), the abuse can be particularly extreme and severe. For example, I had several FSA research participants report that they were attacked at the scapegoating parent’s funeral in the most bizarre and irrational ways – with siblings suddenly parroting the parent’s ‘scapegoat narrative’ when they never did before.
Such behavior can only be understood through the Family Systems theory lens, which acknowledges the family projective identification process (as discussed in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed), and the unconscious systemic anxiety that occurs when a parent dies due to the family homeostasis being shaken up.
It is typically impossible for the grieving family to see what is actually going on, no matter what the FSA adult survivor says or does to defend themselves, and such scenarios will usually result in their having no choice but to severely limit or end contact with their family due to being psycho-emotionally brutalized at a level that at times goes beyond what the parent ever did. Siblings that might have been ‘allies’ in the past have now turned on the scapegoated adult child. Few things could be more unjust, unfair, or tragic. I plan to get a dedicated article out about this soon. Thank you for your comment, REW.
The crazy thing is, not only have I experienced this in my family, I am going thru the EXACT SAME thing at my job. I’ve been bullied, maligned, mobbed, scapegoated and ostracized by a cohort of liars and cheaters. Mgmt has done nothing to rectify this issue in the past and now I am being targeted. I may lose my job. The fact that I am continuously in these positions of being scapegoated feels very defeating.
Hi Jessica, Sadly, your experiences at work are typical for the FSA adult survivor – something that is also validated by my FSA research. I plan to get a dedicated article out about this at some point, so you might wish to subscribe to my blog or mailing list if you haven’t already. Do know that you are not alone. And there ARE reasons for it, a primary one being that often the ‘scapegoat’ in a dysfunctional family or work system is an empath-type as well as a ‘justice seeker’ and ‘truth-teller’ who may advocate for others (or themselves) when rights are violated or inappropriate or inhumane treatment is observed. Not sure if this is the case for you, but I suspect it might be. The only solution is to find a healthier environment to work in, which may take time. Or, as some of my FSA recovery coaching clients have done: Find a way to work for yourself (which also can take time, but the rewards are more than worth it).
Very informative. I could relate to so much being said by everyone. Thanks.
This is an excellent and much needed site. Thank you for bringing this issue to light. I was caught in a family pattern of spousal scapegoating for 25 years. It was crazy making..my spouse was a master of multiple interlocking triangling..I assumed if I divorced this person the pattern would cease. Because we had children I continued to have contact with this family unit which left me vulnerable to the pattern continuing. Over the next 26 years the triangling and vilification continued with anyone who would listen but particularly with our 3 children. Eventually they picked up the pattern and her involvement was no longer required. I read everything I could. Studied family system theory. Tried navigating the family triangling by having individual relationships instead of group family contact but nothing changed. 4 years ago with all of my children being adults and my grandchildren now being drawn into the dance I did the only thing left….I walked away and severed all contact. I’ve not heard from any of them directly but the triangles and scapegoating has continued…the only change is I’m no longer volunteering to be the target.
Thank you, Stephen. I responded to your comment on Facebook. I do hope you read my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, as you will find it very helpful. You might want to watch my YouTube videos on this subject as well at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIyAJJIjX07beYqnUVIGPgw. Glad you made it through – and glad you’re here!
Good for you, my first husband was unfortunately also a narcissist I have had issues with estrangement from the children from that marriage. I have three children from my current marriage and do not see this problem with the younger three.
I know all about triangulation from my narcissistic family of origin also. I’m no contact with my ex husband and my family. It’s so hard.
I had a relative for some reason turned two cousins into golden children because of IQ tests they had as four years olds, they never asked for this or wanted this, their mother and father never wanted , this was the doing of one aunt She would only talk to the two cousins, walk right by me at family gatherings and greet them, she shunned their parents because they would not brag about the kids the way she did.
The aunt would talk to the two cousins and ignore me, she thought I was stupid because of my ADHD
I see this sort of thing in families with strong narcissistic traits. Intellectual narcissism, especially.
I’m the family scapegoat, and have been for years.
I am the oldest child, both my parents are narcissistic. My mother is the overt narcissist and is the poster child for this, completely selfish, spoiled, entitled who shows no love, warmth or caring toward her husband or those around her.
My father the narcissist who screamed, hit, belittled, punished and put me down my entire life, physically beating me up starting at age 5 and was doing it when I was 19. He has severe anger about the poor treatment he receives from my mother and has taken his anger out on me my entire life, I’m now 67 years old.
My mother did absolutely nothing when he did this to me. The sister 13 months younger than me and the golden child sister 5 years younger did Not receive the abusive treatment I did.
I moved to Arizona years ago and the family of origin lives in New Hampshire. My father has continued his campaign of hate toward me even with this distance. Hateful phone calls, hateful mail, hateful visits, any chance he got.
I suffer from OCD on a disability level, Post Traumatic stress, depression and have seen psychiatrists for years and currently am under a psychiatrist’s care. I take medicine everyday and will until I die. My self esteem is completely shattered.
The sister 13 months younger has been my closest family member and had acknowledged the abuse. Now that my parents are older, she lives there she’s taken on gaslighting me. Unbelievable. She wrote in her family Christmas newsletter how Wonderful my father was, so full of lies!!! She now pretends in front of the relatives what a happy family we are and wants me to play along. I refuse!!!
She’s now taken on the role of disciplinarian toward me, telling me who is the older sibling what she expects out of me?? Excuse me? I’m the strongest personality in the family, I’ve called them out, exposed them etccc when I’ve done this they go ballistic.
I told her my sister that her recent text to me was mean, unkind and her words NOT nice. Her reply to me was that since her message was in a text the words didn’t come out of her mouth therefore she didn’t really say them. Unreal. You can’t make this stuff up! I let her have it with both barrels. She and I are now finished.
I have made the decision to go no contact with her, and the rest of them with my husbands support. I will not attend ANY of their funerals. I’m sure I will get absolutely nothing in the will.
I’m the only person in this messed up family who gets how messed up these people are.
I love, help and have much empathy toward those around me. I’m generous, kind and have a nice family in Arizona.
I will NO be longer the family punching bag! I currently struggle with a lot of issues everyday. I’m grateful for a loving and supportive husband. I seriously need therapy and have a lot of compassion for ANYBODY who has suffered from this. It’s pure Hell.
Hi Babs, you might try searching for a Trauma-Informed Stabilization Treatment (TIST) certified therapist – TIST addresses complex trauma and was created by Dr. Janina Fisher. You can use this search feature to see if there is someone you can work with in person or online in your state. https://janinafisher.com/search/