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Family scapegoating abuse (FSA) is a horrific form of ‘invisible’ (psycho-emotional) abuse that can occur in both dysfunctional and narcissistic family systems. This article focuses primarily on the Family Projective Identification Process that can occur in dysfunctional family systems with a high degree of trauma (including unrecognized intergenerational trauma), as opposed to the narcissistic family system, where a power-holding narcissistic family member is driving the abuse of a targeted family member, which may or may not include the unconscious defense mechanism of projection and/or the family projective identification process. Learn more about scapegoating in narcissistic family systems.
In a dysfunctional family system, FSA is most often fueled by an insidious systemic process known as the Family Projective Identification Process. Unfortunately, even psychoanalytically-oriented therapists may not be familiar with the Family Projective Identification Process unless they have received in-depth training in Family Systems theory and practice; hence, they will not be able to provide this critical piece of psycho-education to clients suffering from symptoms of FSA. In this article, I explain the family projective identification process, and why understanding this form of systemic projection can bring relief to adult survivors suffering from this form of systemic-social abuse.
It is no surprise that I am typically the third or fourth therapist that an FSA adult survivor has reached out to for help in regard to their confusing and painful family experiences. I am also often the first therapist to assess them for complex trauma (C-PTSD) secondary to the brutal betrayal trauma they have experienced within their family-of-origin.
As discussed in my book on FSA, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, the family projective identification process is at the core of family scapegoating abuse, just as it is at the core of some forms of narcissistic abuse. Yet not all family members who scapegoat one of their own would meet the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Therefore, it is critical that the FSA adult survivor understand that scapegoating is likely to occur in any dysfunctional family system in which ‘splitting‘ occurs, which often results in the development of a family projective identification process.
The Projective Identification Process
The term Projective identification was first introduced by author and psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Klein was one of the first practitioners to use traditional psychoanalysis with young children. She was innovative in her clinical techniques (such as working with children using toys) as well as her original theories on infant development.
In Klein’s Object Relations theory, projective identification is a defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously splits off part of their ego and projects it into the ‘object’ (i.e., a person or a physical item representing a person) in order to harm or to protect their disavowed part(s).
Although Klein’s theory of projective identification was based on Freud’s concept of psychological projection, projective identification takes it a step further. In R.D. Laing‘s words, “The one person does not use the other merely as a hook to hang projections on. He/she strives to find in the other, or to induce the other to become (emphasis mine), the very embodiment of projection” (R. D. Laing, Self and Others, p. 111).
Think about that for a minute. If you have been scapegoated by a parent (or sibling, etc), you have been subjected to projections born of primitive, unconscious defense mechanisms. Whether it is their repressed traumatic shame or their unacceptable, split-off aspects of self, they have now been deposited into you. And you may have been very, very young when this first started to occur. Meaning, you didn’t stand a chance when it came to defending yourself from these projections.
By unknowingly acting as a repository for a parent’s (or other family members) ‘split-off’ egoic parts, you have become, in short, a dumping ground for their toxic psychological waste. As if this were not bad enough, your parent is now unconsciously invested in your embodying the parts of themselves they hate. Ever feel like you can’t win a parent’s love or respect, no matter how hard you try or how successful you become? Ever feel like you have a thousand pounds of dense energy weighing your psyche down to the point of depression, emotional paralysis, and even suicidality? Now you know why.
The Family Projection Process
Klein’s projective identification process is critical in understanding how innocent children become repositories of a parent’s traumatic shame and self-hatred. But to understand family scapegoating abuse, you must also understand the family projection process, as conceptualized by Family Systems theorist Murray Bowen.
The projection process that Bowen observed and described in families can be applied to all human systems. When under increasing amounts of tension and stress, groups look for the source of the “problem” (as illustrated in the famous and highly regarded novel Lord of the Flies).
Cause-and-effect (or groupthink or hive-mind) thinking leads to the group identifying one person or one part of the system as being “the problem” – the source of the tension and stress. While an adult viewed in this manner might be able to hold their ground against one person, a child certainly will not. When the child or adult child of a dysfunctional family system is identified as the problem by multiple family members – all of whom have been inoculated with the ‘scapegoat narrative’ via a smear campaign in which the child is maligned and labelled ‘the problem’ (i.e., “She’s crazy!” “He’s a liar!”) – they are psychically overwhelmed and physically outnumbered, ensuring their ultimate defeat.
Whether considering a dysfunctional family system or a larger social system, Murray Bowen asserted that the end result for those on the receiving end of this type of powerful system-wide projection process would be grim, as the system could only feel relief when “the problem” was subjugated and no longer able to threaten the homeostasis of the system as a whole – similar to the doomed ‘Piggy’s’ fate in Lord of the Flies. (Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 445.)
It’s Not Personal – It’s Just Projection!
Another key dynamic of FSA revealed via my research is that the child who becomes the unwitting target of these family projection processes is usually the family empath, or what psychologist and author Alice Miller called ‘the gifted child’ in the family (and if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read about Alice’s son Martin, who is now a Psychotherapist and – in an ironic twist of fate – wrote a book about the emotional abuses he experienced at the hands of his mother growing up).
To be the family empath, or the ‘sensitive’ child, in a dysfunctional, highly traumatized, or narcissistic family system is to be the person in your family who deeply feels and sees. This makes you a threat to those who do not wish to be exposed by the light of your natural awareness. (And God help you if you later go on to be a teacher, therapist, or some type of publicly recognized healer. You will really be a threat to the power-holders in your family then.)
This is the analogy I use in my practice when explaining projective identification to my FSA Recovery coaching clients: To be the family empath or the psycho-spiritually ‘gifted child’ in your family is akin to being covered in tar. The unconscious family projections that are blown your way by the primitive psyches of your scapegoating family members are like feathers that stick all over you. Now you are energetically tarred and feathered, and it can feel like an impossible task to wash yourself clean. This, combined with their C-PTSD symptoms and experiences of profound family betrayal trauma, can create a sense of abject hopelessness in the scapegoated adult survivor.
If you contemplate the analogy above, you will see why the scapegoating abuse the FSA adult survivor experiences in their family has nothing to do with them at all – or who they are as a person. Instead, the scapegoating abuse they experience is a direct reflection of the level of dysfunction, trauma, and unconscious ‘splitting’ permeating the family system they were born into.
If you are a scapegoated child / adult child reading this, you need to know that you did nothing to make your family treat you in the shameful manner they do. Sadly, you were little more than a human projection screen, mercilessly objectified via the family projection process.
And while the above information may feel like small comfort, to many survivors of this form of abuse, it can be enough to bring a sense of hope – perhaps for the very first time – that they can indeed recover. It should also serve as a warning regarding the dangers of trying to explain to your scapegoating family members how their behavior, i.e., the family projection process, is harming you. It would be similar to trying to halt a tornado in its path by standing in front of it and yelling “Stop!” Know that you are dealing with unfathomably powerful, systemic intrapsychic forces: In attempting to confront your family system head on regarding the nature of the abuse you are experiencing, you would be going where angels fear to tread.
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