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Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) and the Family Projective Identification Process

Family scapegoating abuse (FSA) is a horrific form of ‘invisible’ (psycho-emotional) abuse fueled by an insidious 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 the adult survivor of FSA.

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.

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, 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 ‘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 stop a tornado in its path by standing in front of it and yelling “Stop!” Know that you are dealing with unfathomably powerful psychic forces, and in attempting to confront them head on, you would be going where angels fear to tread.

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16 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you so much for naming and explaining my history. Although I am a senior citizen, my childhood experiences still weigh heavily on me. I’m sure the impact of my upbringing is the root cause of much of my depression and difficulties in my current life.

    How do I find a therapist that can help me overcome my history? What questions do I ask, what degrees should I look for?

    Thank you again for opening the door to understanding.

    1. Hi Kathi, I’m glad you found my article helpful. Do read my book (linked in the article), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, for even more understanding regarding FSA. Also, look at number 4 in this article, it will tell you how to go about finding a competent, qualified licensed therapist who understands family systems and family scapegoating or ‘identified patient’ issue. Article here: https://www.scapegoatrecovery.com/2021/09/08/10-self-care-tips-for-adult-survivors-of-family-scapegoating/

  2. I have always said that my parents are only interested in one relationship with me, the hurtful one they established when I was a child. Since I’ve cut off contact with them, I try to explain to people that they don’t want a relationship with me now. They want the old relationship, the status quo, to resume. And that is because they are wholly invested in me being the embodiment of the worst parts of themselves. I’m a separate person now. I assume they still think of me as “the problem” and as long as I live that’s what I’ll be to them.

    1. Hi Sarah – you nailed it here: “And that is because they are wholly invested in me being the embodiment of the worst parts of themselves” – Yes, this is a critical aspect of FSA – or any kind of projective identification process – that must be deeply understood before one can move into ‘radical acceptance’ of their true situation. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  3. Hi Rebecca, the article was bang on for my deeper understanding of my childhood experience, which I heavily felt but couldn’t name. I’ve been pushing back mentally on the mental and emotional abuse I endured and you nailed it so well in your writing I feel lighter today. Thank you so much for what you are doing. I want to write about it one day as the dots are connected and to help others, as well as myself.

  4. I have learned more from your articles in a short time than I have in my whole life about FSA and being a victim of it. It gives me relief to know I was never ‘just being dramatic’ or mad. The only sibling who didn’t participate was the ‘golden child’ who became my best friend as an adult. She sadly died 7 years ago but not before we talked about when I now have a name for. Thank you

    1. What a blessing that you and your sister were eventually able to transcend the typical ‘splitting’ that happens between siblings at the hands of a dysfunctional or narcissistic parent. The ‘golden child’ has their own burdens to bear, of course, in that they too, are trapped in a role. I’m so pleased you found my website and my articles. Please also read my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, if you haven’t already. You will find more helpful information in it. Thank you for writing, Angela.

  5. I have been struggling with my family of origin for years. Truly generational, my grandfather was an abuser with narcissistic personality. My mother modeled his behavior. Playing favorites with my siblings and training us to take care of her needs. My oldest sister is a covert narcissist that has continued to run smear campaigns against me to most of my family. A few years ago I went no contact with all but one of my siblings. I have 2 older sisters and 2 younger brothers. It has been painful most of my life. Reading your book is like a light switch for me. Realizing I have no means to change anything with my siblings. I’m just letting go. Have been grieving the loss but also a new freeing feeling of releasing all of them and moving on with my life. I loved the metaphor of standing in front of a tornado and telling it to stop is what you are dealing with with my family of origin. Thank you so much for your work it has comforted me

    1. J, thank you for taking the time to comment and share your story, albeit briefly. Releasing that which does not serve us – and in fact is harming us – can feel freeing, indeed. There is much wisdom to be found in simply letting go. I am glad that you are now finding some peace, and that my work on FSA has also brought you a small bit of comfort in regard to what is, for all FSA adult survivors, a tragic, unjust, and undeserved situation.

  6. I don’t think either of my parents were narcissists but my father had a drink problem and was very selfish. Due to my mother’s illness, by the time I was seven and a half, I had lived out of home for four and a half years, the first separation happened when I was 5 months old for 6 months. Neither of my parents expressed affection to me. I hated the main alternative carers. I thought they were cruel.
    I’m alienated from my three surviving siblings. Two nieces control 2 of my siblings’ families. They are very hostile to me. I see clear FSA in those two families.

    Thank you for your help. It is a completely new insight.

    1. It sounds like you were scapegoated but also experienced profound emotional neglect. And yes, scapegoating can happen in any dysfunctional family – there does not need to be a narcissistic involved, nor does the family need to be a narcissistic family system. This is one of the myths I hope to clear up with my family systems research.

      1. Thank you Rebecca. I definitely experienced profound emotional neglect. But I’m coming to see I also experienced FSA. But it was done rather subtly. In the one proper conversation I had with my oldest brother, he said, ‘You got the worst of it. At the convent, the rest of us put our heads down and did whatever we had to do to survive. But you absolutely refused to accept the injustice of it. And the nuns really paid out on you. And at home, we tormented you the way my kids tormented XXX.

        I think that is proof of FSA. ALSO, I see clear evidence that XXX is the scapegoat in my brother’s family. It’s still going on 30 or 40 years after my brother made that comment.

        I’m completely alienated from my surviving siblings.

  7. I almost collapsed when I read the first few pages of your book. I honestly thought, “No way she had to have been everywhere in my life to know these things” It immediately showed me i wasnt crazy. I have signed up for coaching because I know this would change my life. I have so many issues trusting myself. With an overbearing mom, smothering really. That has subsided since I got married October 17th 2021, and moved. But my fresh issue is after i moved out initially in 2018 i walked right into some more abuse with my narcissistic new mother-in-law. It was hell while dating my husband and we’re no contact with her but the residual disasters left on my life is crazy.

    1. Hi Dayna, you definitely are not alone. I also understand first-hand the m-i-l issue. Oh, the stories I could tell… Glad you and your husband made it through together, and so pleased to know you found my book validating – that was one of the primary reasons I wrote it. If you are comfortable leaving a review at the store you purchased ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’ from, I’d be most appreciative, but it is not necessary. Do check out other articles on this blog as well. I hope to get one out on FSA and in-laws soon, so you might want to subscribe to my Email list or blog also.

      1. I’d keel over and die if you wrote an in law book, I’d have to buy all of them hahahah and sure thing thank you!

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