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How Projection Processes Fuel Family Scapegoating Abuse

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Family scapegoating abuse (FSA) is a systemic 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, unprocessed intergenerational trauma.

Introduction: As explained in my introductory book on Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, to be in the ‘family scapegoat’ role means that family members project their own insecurities, fears, and unconscious shame onto you – a toxic, systemic soup that typically has been generations in the making.

It’s a heavy burden to carry, one that can leave you feeling powerless and alone. But I want you to know that you have the strength within you to reclaim your power and overcome these toxic projections.

Being the target of such hurtful behavior from those closest to you can be incredibly damaging, chipping away at your sense of self-worth and eroding your confidence over time.

However, it’s important to remember that the cruel actions and harmful words family members display toward you says far more about the deep-seated issues affecting your family-of-origin than it does about you, and is not a truthful assessment of your character or value.

In fact, this belief that you’re “the problem” in your family is more often than not fueled by unrecognized, unaddressed intergenerational trauma (which we now know from research can be passed down epigenetically), which can result in various individual and systemic projection processes playing out within a given family system, including the pathological Family Projective Identification Process.

Dysfunctional Families are ‘Split’ Systems

In a dysfunctional family system with a high degree of intergenerational trauma, FSA is more often than not 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.

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 usually the first therapist to assess them for complex trauma (C-PTSD) secondary to the brutal betrayal trauma and traumatic invalidation they have experienced within their family-of-origin.

As discussed in my introductory 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.

It is therefore 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 the Family Projective Identification Process.

Watch my two-part video series on individual and systemic splitting

The Term ‘Projective Identification’

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 the dysfunctional system’s repressed traumatic shame or family members’ split-off aspects of self, these have now been deposited into you – and you may have been very, very young when this projection process 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.

Bowen’s Theory on the Family Projection Process

Klein’s concept of the 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 often 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 a ‘highly 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 can make 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, doctor, or some type of publicly recognized educator / health professional. You will really be a threat to the dysfunctional or narcissistic power-holders in your family then, as many of my clients have painfully discovered.)

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.

You Are Not the Cause of Your Scapegoating

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.

Learning about projection processes should also serve as a warning regarding the dangers of trying to explain to your scapegoating family members how their behavior, (driven by individual projections and/or the Family Projective Identification 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.


If you learned something of value from this article, consider subscribing to my Substack where I now publish all of my new FSA-related articles. You are also encouraged to share or ‘restack’ this article with others.

28 thoughts on “How Projection Processes Fuel Family Scapegoating Abuse”

  1. wlife0125

    Hello Rebecca, I read your book last night. It was excellent and right on. I’ve known from a very young age I was the family scapegoat and the empath. I was the voice who spoke up about the dangerous violent things going on in the house and was usually brushed off or verbally pummeled into the ground for expecting something to be done about it. I’ve been reading psychology and self help books since I was a kid and very aware of the dysfunction.

    They wrote me off as crazy, complete with fake letters from a mental health institution I have never been to in my life all to protect themselves from the most recent huge disaster they created.

    I don’t speak to them anymore, but still heart-breaking. You’d think I’d be happy they’re gone since they’ve caused so much damage in my life.

  2. MH

    Thank you so much, Rebecca! I have been in therapy for years (uncovering the layers of an onion) and have recreated being the family scapegoat at countless jobs. I finally ‘get it’ and see how I recreated that pattern from my family. I am still the family scapegoat (that will never change). My mom has always had a bizarre, emotionally incestuous relationship with my brother. She dodes on him, infantilizes him, and has always rejected me. No matter what I have done with my life, with careers, degrees, etc. she never accepts me for who I am and she has always been envious of me. My brother is an amazingly immature 60+ year old and is completely enmeshed with my Mom and is the apple of her eye. I think I am finally getting that there is nothing I want from my family and nothing that they can ever provide me…..

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      You’re most welcome. I’m glad my work on FSA is helpful. Are you already subscribed to my YouTube channel? I think you will find many videos you will relate to, including this most recent one I did, which briefly addresses why the FSA adult survivor can end up scapegoated wherever they go (relates to deeply embedded toxic shame) – link to the video here:

  3. Mandy

    How do I get over the extreme rage I feel toward my family who treated me this way my entire life? I have no husband, home, job or anything else to call my own. Now I’m left to caregiver for my narcissist aging father because my golden child sister lives out of state in her fancy home she shares with her wealthy husband. As the scapegoated family loser with no stable ties, I was automatically assumed to move in with dad and care for him 24 and 7. Now all this dysfunction is coming to light and I’m being gaslighted in every direction. I’m angry and sad and confused and also relieved. I finally see that I am not bad or crazy or worthless but at what price? I have nothing and no one and I feel so small and alone. I want to scream and yell at someone but alas I would be labeled yet again as crazy. I often wonder why I was even brought into existence. I guess for suffering and pain because that’s all being here has ever given me. I am 55 years old. Too late to start living the life I “should” have had and too old to care anymore. I’m just angry, depressed and raging. I wonder if it would be easier to just end it all. I think I may have breast cancer and if I do I will refuse treatment. Just doesn’t seem to be a reason to keep living. Thanks for letting me vent.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      Mandy, your feelings are shared by many FSA adult survivors, as validated by my FSA research. Are you already subscribed to my YouTube channel? I have a video on ‘righteous rage’ and another one on disenfranchised grief. These feelings are held deeply in the body and the body must be included in any trauma-informed treatment for FSA symptoms (including complex trauma). I also discuss treatment for FSA adult survivors in the clinical playlist on my channel as well. Link to my channel is in my menu here on the website. Recovery IS possible but the nervous system, trauma triggers, and the body need to be tended to by someone who is trauma-informed and understands complex trauma symptoms (which can include anxiety, depression, and a feeling of not wanting to be alive). International Suicide Hotline information is at the bottom of my home page here as well if you need to speak to someone about this.

  4. Kathi

    Thank you. I have been casually looking for a therapist, however I’m going to use the workbook you recommended in hopes of getting my thoughts in order first. I was in therapy for a long time, in retrospect, it didn’t help much as we kept talking in circles. It felt more like I was paying to have a friend, no guidance or encouragement. Don’t want to repeat that.

  5. Kathi

    People will say a book has changed their lives. I always thought that was an exaggeration, but thanks to your book, I’m now one of those people. Since reading your book I’ve been depressed, sad and anxious. Not surprising, as your book ripped the bandage off my emotional scars.

    My childhood was filled with constant, overwhelming fear that I would be found lacking in some way. My parents and golden child sister (older by only 23 months) would sit in the kitchen (below my bedroom) and discuss what should be “done” with me. This witch hunt caused me to be withdrawn, afraid of people in authority, devastated when someone had a bad opinion of me, and in great need of positive attention and reassurance…….even if it was phoney. I’ve been taken advantage of more times than I care to remember. My people pleasing skills/needs causes me to volunteer for things I only want to do in order to be found worthy.

    Recently, I volunteered to set up for a function at church. When I arrived at the appointed time, everything was already done. Someone who I work with frequently, and I thought of as a friend, was very short with me, the woman in charge seemed very anxious around me. This started the cycle of self doubt and fear that everyone was talking behind my back and ganging up against me. Am I not holy enough? Was I purposely set up to look bad? Do they want me to quit? Did I misunderstand the time and left other people to do the work I was supposed to do?

    Our committee is meeting tonight. I thought about skipping the meeting, but a friend has encouraged me to go with her. I was very anxious at the thought of attending. However, a different friend (who knows about your book and my struggles) was visiting last night. I was droning on about how unfair this situation is. When suddenly I got very angry and said “why do I have to keep reacting as if I’m still dealing with my parents?” I DON’T!
    Thank you!

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Hi Kathi, That is an incredibly powerful story and I hope many people visiting here read your entire comment. Since you’ve read my book, you already know that you may want to be assessed by a licensed therapist who is trauma-informed for complex trauma; if you are unable to do that at this time, I highly recommend Janina Fisher’s workbook, which I will link to you here. Noticing the patterns is an important first step; helping the brain “rewire” is another, which Janina’s book (and a therapist who works with C-PTSD) will help you do. I wish you the very best!

  6. Robert H

    My wife introduced me to this article to help me get a better understanding of the things i went through during my childhood/adolescence and even into my adulthood.
    I am glad there are people out in the world, such as you,that have the ability to put words and meaning to the things which we the people, who are afflicted with harmful issues we cannot see or understand we have, to address and resolve them.
    While i at this time have difficulties seeing how this is the issue in totality,there are facets of it which sound off the bells when i read about them. I am sure that my understanding will expand, the more i delve into myself and my past.
    The trauma which is compounded by all the issues thrust on people by other sources leads to so much confusion as to whats wrong with us ,we don’t even know where to start to fix all these things which are wrong with ourselves.
    I am starting to see after all this time, that alot of the issues i am dealing with in my life are the result of intergenerational trauma from my parents and the unhealthy societal conventions which were made normal and acceptable for them; unbeknownst to them they were and still are unhealthy and harmful in so many ways.

    Thank you for helping myself and all of those helped by your efforts to know that we are all not at fault for what happened to us, that we can heal from this and not pass it along and above all we are loved.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Thank you for your insightful comment, Robert, and I am glad you have found my work. I do write about intergenerational trauma here on my blog (use the search function on the right side-bar) and also in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, which I encourage you to read. Also, I just started a new YouTube channel. You might want to watch this video here to learn more about what I named FSA – and I hope you will subscribe!

  7. Leha

    “Covered in tar.” At 63, I have felt this invisible sticky-power my whole life. I’ve wondered how, even with knowledge of the family roles, and great efforts on my part to remove myself from the whole dynamic, I still seem to attract the stabbing feathers of psychic disdain and manipulation, and in every relationship, seem to put myself into that fawning role, while my wise mind hovers like a puff of air in a corner of the ceiling, quietly commenting, but doing nothing to save me. I know my desire for love and approval is keeping me in this role. I want out. I want the courage to no longer seek approval. I want to truly feel like an equal to others. I want the shame to stop. Knowing I didn’t deserve it doesn’t seem to break me free. How do we stop identifying with the scapegoat role? How do we stop seeing the projection when we look in the mirror? Thank you!

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Hi Leha – I just found your comment in my spam folder – So sorry for the very delayed reply. I’ll be discussing this in my YouTube videos – how to recover from FSA – and yes, it really is possible, but usually complex trauma must be addressed, along with what I named ‘family scapegoating trauma’. Link to my channel here. You may also want to read my book, ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’ – It’s available on Amazon and most major online book retailers.

  8. Dayna M

    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. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      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.

  9. Moira

    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. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      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. Moira

        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.

  10. J

    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. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      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.

  11. Angela

    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. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      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.

  12. Diana G D

    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.

  13. Sarah

    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. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCPT

      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.

  14. Kathi

    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. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCPT

      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:

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