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What Family Scapegoats Need to Know About Structural Dissociation

family scapegoat abuse and structural dissociation

When Adult Survivors of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) are chronically traumatized in their family of origin, they can develop something known as Structural Dissociation. Structural Dissociation can develop as a result of Complex Trauma associated with early childhood abuse. In this article, I share several signs of structural dissociation that FSA Adult Survivors and Mental Health providers need to be aware of to ensure successful treatment of this most egregious form of ‘invisible (psycho-emotional) abuse. If you would like to hear a more comprehensive discussion of FSA and Structural Dissociation, you can watch my latest video instead.

Please also note my new FSA Recovery Coaching Single-Service Consultation offering, which I added due to the prohibitively long waiting list for weekly sessions.

Early Trauma and the Development of Structural Dissociation

In last week’s article, I spoke about the six clinical consequences of FSA that I consider significant when I am first assessing someone new to my private practice. It must be stressed that clients who enter my private Recovery Coaching practice may or may not know that they are in the ‘family scapegoat’ role. Some are very aware that this is the case and others actually have no idea that they are suffering a particularly damaging and insidious form of family abuse.

As mentioned in this article, one of the most severe clinical consequences of being scapegoated by one’s family can be the development of Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms. As a trauma-informed clinician, I am aware that complex trauma can lead to the client experiencing structural dissociation, particularly if the scapegoating (or any form of family abuse) began at a very early age.

Early Trauma (ET) is trauma that can begin as early as infancy (and some people in the transpersonal field believe it can even happen In Utero). When a child is being neglected, rejected, maltreated, or abused by their caregivers (typically the parents), it is too threatening to see the people taking care of them as not doing a good job of it.

Specifically: It is not possible for the child to be able to grasp the fact that they may be being treated in unjust, harmful or scary ways. A very young child will typically not even have the language, the words, to describe what they are experiencing to themselves, much less to someone else (especially if it’s very early trauma, which is typically pre-verbal).

There’s simply no way for the child to grasp their true position, this being that the ‘big people’ taking care of them may not like them; may not want them; or may actively hate them. Instead of the child being able to hold within their psyches such huge feelings as rage for the way they’re being mistreated or abused, the safer thing to do is to turn it on the self. This in turn can lead to ‘toxic shame’ and the child developing a ‘false’ or ‘traumatized survival’ self, accompanied by a pervasive belief that “something is wrong” them, as discussed in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed.

This ‘false’ or ‘survival’ self (as opposed to the functioning, ‘getting on with normal life’ self that will also be present) will invariably split off into ‘parts’ that helps the child to survive their threatening, non-nurturing, or actively rejecting environment, and it is this splitting off into ‘parts’ that is referred to as structural dissociation.

Structural Dissociation Symptoms

It is important to note that structural dissociation is NOT the same thing as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Much like narcissism and many of the things we talk about in Psychology, dissociation exists on a continuum, from mild dissociative symptoms to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and structural dissociation exists somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

It can be helpful to remember that these non-integrated, split-off ‘parts’ are actually helping the child to survive. I therefore will emphasize to my client that it is not a bad thing that their survival ‘parts’ exist. In fact, if you’re an FSA Adult Survivor, these ‘parts’ (which include trauma responses such as ‘fawn/submit’ and ‘freeze’) may be why you’re still here now.

I will also invite my clients to thank their survival ‘parts’ and that it’s okay that they still have these ‘parts’ (which can also be thought of as ‘sub-personalities’ or ‘younger selves’) until they become more integrated and they have more awareness and more choices in how they’re going to respond to their environment and to how people are treating them.

The following symptoms of structural dissociation are largely sourced from the work of Janina Fisher, Phd (author of ‘Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma‘). It is these symptoms that alert me as a trauma-informed clinician to the possibility that there may be structural dissociation going on with my client:

  1. Feeling chronically numb and emotionally detached.
  2. Compartmentalizing information.
  3. Frequently losing or misplacing things.
  4. Finding themselves somewhere with no idea of how they got there.
  5. Operating from two or more streams of consciousness. For example, showing up in therapy as distinctly different people from week to week (not to be confused with DID, which is two or more distinct IDENTITIES).
  6. Lack of motivation and stamina, e.g., the client might leave tasks uncompleted; they might self-sabotage despite their best intentions to get something done.
  7. Feeling confused about their identity: For example, a client might say to me, “I just don’t know who I am,” or “How could I be 65 years old and still have no idea who I am?”
  8. Doing things they have no memory of doing later.
  9. Zoning out; escaping via addictive behaviors, self-destructive behaviors – just not being able to be present with oneself and needing to escape, which could be associated (when we relate it to complex trauma) with the trauma-response of flight.
  10. Isolating from others and what we call “counter-dependency”. Counter-dependency is where you lack trust in others; you fear trusting, and it can look like paranoia but it is an understandable response to having your family of origin – your parents or other members of your family -betray you repeatedly. Alternatively, I also see FSA Adult Survivors who trust too much when they have no good reason to trust someone.
  11. There will be structural dissociation at times via somatic symptoms. For example, very painful migraines; stomach cramping; nervous ticks, etc. – which may have been going on since childhood. Alternatively, the client may exhibit an unusual tolerance to physical pain because they are so dissociated from their body.
  12. Experiencing partial amnesia, e.g., gaps in the recall of events; unable to remember personal information at times, and time gaps.

Trauma Responses and Survival ‘Parts’

Naturally, if you’re relating to a lot of these symptoms it can feel overwhelming. The way I like to explain it to my clients is we all have ‘parts’; we all have different voices talking in our head. If we all were to say everything in our head out loud we’d all look like something wasn’t quite right with us to an observer. However, with structural dissociation, each part can have its own unique personality with its own feelings and thoughts and behaviors and there is no sense that an integrated self is present that is aware of these various ‘parts.

Trauma responses are also associated with survival ‘parts’. For example, it can be the case that you can go into a ‘fight’ response and within a couple of minutes are going into a ‘fawn/submit’ response. People who shift into different parts quickly can have a high degree of distress because it feels so chaotic and confusing to be rapidly experiencing various mood states and streams of consciousness in rapid succession.

How do I work with structural dissociation as a trauma-informed clinician? As mentioned, this will the topic of my next article. If you would like to try an exercise I teach my clients with complex trauma and structural dissocation, you can visit this chapter of my video (chapters are included in the video description; the exercise is at 19:03).

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6 thoughts on “What Family Scapegoats Need to Know About Structural Dissociation”

  1. Calista

    Rebecca, your written and video sessions are so very helpful. I am almost 70 years old, and I went No Contact with my sisters two years ago following their bizarre and abusive behavior towards me when our mother died. Last year I was diagnosed and treated for cancer, but did not tell them, because I knew they would have gloated and gossiped about me. It’s a terrible thing to feel so deliberately misunderstood and mistreated I once loved and trusted. Your articles and videos have helped me more than two decades of therapy spent trying to figure out what was “wrong with me”. I was literally abused from birth! I was unwanted because my arrival made my parents feel guilty that my older sister no longer got their full attention. My mother had my birth induced a month early, to “save her figure”, of which she and my father were very proud. Then, as a fussy, premature infant, I didn’t sleep through the night (like many babies), so they held ice cubes on my feet during the day whenever I fell asleep as a newborn, in a twisted attempt to force me to sleep at night! I only learned that last part when my mother was in her mid-90s; she laughed when she told me about it. I just grew up knowing that I had been a “problem” since birth. You can imagine the additional abuse and torment I experienced throughout childhood and even as an adult. Your videos and articles explain so much. It is probably too late for me, but please know that you are helping many younger people by providing vital information that was not widely available even a decade ago. Many thanks!

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      You provide some good (yet painful and tragic) examples of how very early the scapegoating of a child can start. It is never too late to experience more wholeness and peace, and it sounds like you’ve already come a long way in your recovery process. So glad to hear you are finding my work on FSA so helpful. And hopefully you’ve already read my book (Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed)!

  2. Diana D

    You explained me and symptoms so well, I am really blown away. I am wondering if cognitive dissonance is at play where the two streams of consciousness are colliding and erupting in distressing emotions.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Definitely, this can be a factor that contributes to psycho-emotional distress, although the two (or more) streams are typically separate and distinct, as mentioned. However, as one begins to get more awareness of these multiple streams during the course of their healing process, this can be the stage in recovery when they can feel they are going backward versus forward due to the ‘collision’ of thoughts they are now aware of and experiencing – until the ‘parts’ become more integrated.

  3. beleeme

    Very helpful info. It’s good you are sharing this to reach more people and reach the therapists too. Some people (incl therapists) struggle with the “honor thy parents” belief system. It’s completely ok not to “honor” an abusive mother. Unfortunately, my closest sibling (sister) is now starting to verbally & emotionally abuse me. I have prepared some statements to leave a conversation if it’s abusive, as I am choosing not to go “no contact” — I want contact with my adult nieces and nephews and their kids, and she is part of that. This is my choice, though, and that’s the empowering part. I can always make another choice.

  4. Lisa H

    Thank you so much Rebecca! I am learning so much from your videos. They’re extremely validating and informative. I definitely have structural dissociation from the extreme abuse within my FOO. And worse I was their scapegoat. I do body check ins often through out the day. I have so much anxiety and I still carry around alot of shame. I related to the symptoms of structural dissociation but the one that jumped out for me was the loss of time. I have many embarrassing moments that again added to my shame. I’m learning to forgive myself bc none of this was my fault. It all started in utero. Thanks again! You’re amazing!

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