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Cutting Ties With Scapegoating Family: A Trauma-Informed View

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In this week’s article I share one of the biggest myths about going no contact with family and how I handle issues related to ending contact with scapegoating family members in a trauma-informed manner.

I recently put up a poll in the Community section of my YouTube channel for my subscribers who have gone ‘no contact’ with family. We had 245 votes on this poll and the results were as follows:

  • 27 percent of people who participated said that they ended contact with their entire family abruptly.
  • 23 percent said they ended contact with only specific family members abruptly.
  • 33 percent said they ended contact with their entire family slowly or gradually.
  • 18 percent said they ended contact with specific family members slowly and gradually.

This type of data is important because although it is obviously not peer-reviewed research, it is an informal form of what we call qualitative research, meaning the data reflects people’s lived experience. As a researcher myself, I value qualitative research because it reflects the thoughts, feelings, and stories of those who have actually lived the experience being studied.

I receive messages from adult survivors all over the world and have heard (and read) many stories of child and adult child psycho-emotional abuse, including as related to what I eventually named ‘family scapegoating abuse’ or FSA. I therefore have an abundance of potential data points to draw from when I create my research-related surveys. Based on past research I’ve done on going no contact with family, this informal poll (above) mirrors results from more formal qualitative research studies I’ve done on the subject of ending contact with scapegoating family members.

A simple poll like this can be helpful to FSA adult survivors because for many people, the thought of having to cut ties with family can understandably bring up many fears, concerns, and a sense of being ‘different’ or alone. Alternatively, for those FSA adult survivors who have a clear idea of what happened to them in their family-of-origin, the hope they feel regarding the possibility of going no contact with abusive family members outweighs any uncertainty or doubt.

When You Know You’re DONE

I make a point of telling my FSA Recovery Coaching clients that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to end contact with family members, nor is there a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ time. A client who is ready to cut ties might begin a session by saying, “I’m done!” Knowing, and being able to say, “I’m done” is significant in that such clients may have remained in contact with harmful, scapegoating family members longer than what was good for them, no matter how often I might have reflected their distressful family connections back to them and/or expressed my clinical concerns (specifically, that engaging with abusive family members is counter-therapeutic).

I have a lot of clients that are therapists themselves and they really do try everything they can think of to remain connected to their family in some fashion so as to maintain connections with beloved nieces and nephews, etc. When my therapist clients say they’re “done,” they are also saying that they have used every tool and approach available to them as a clinician and they are still being harmed by members of their family-of-origin – sometimes by their entire dysfunctional or narcissistic family system.

The Number One Myth Regarding Cutting Ties

This leads me to one of the biggest myths about going no contact with one’s family-of-origin: It is a myth that adult survivors of any type of family abuse end contact because they’re “selfish” or “spoiled” or “narcissistic” or just pissed off and having a ‘hissy fit’ (aka an attention-seeking “tantrum”). That’s not what’s happening here.

I hear from FSA adult survivors who contact me from all around the world to share their family situations and their decision to end ties with family. It’s very rare that someone is not experiencing some genuine sadness that they were pushed to the point of having to end contact. They’re also feeling appropriate anger, or what I call “righteous rage,” along with disenfranchised grief and a host of other deep and painful feelings. However, the truth is that the only way that those who are in the ‘scapegoat’ role in their family can gain traction in their psycho-emotional healing is to significantly limit or end contact so that their traumatized and over-activated nervous system can settle down.

What No One Tells You About Ending Contact With Abusive Family: About the Emotional Aftermath – Watch This Free Video on my FSA Education Community Substack Site

It’s important that people realize that scapegoated adults who end contact with family are rarely making such a decision lightly. Such a decision is typically made after experiencing much anguish and trauma for a good many years. Even after the decision to cut ties is made, it’s still a long healing process, given the state of one’s nervous system after being repeatedly harmed and traumatized by family scapegoating behaviors.

Establishing a Healing Container for Trauma Recovery

A primary symptom FSA adult survivors experience both before and after going no contact with family is rumination: Ruminating over and over again on people, situations, and events that harmed them and wondering “What if I had said this or that?” or “What if I’d stood up for myself sooner?” when in reality, standing up for yourself when you’re being scapegoated by family is when you are most likely going to realize you need to limit or end contact because your dysfunctional or narcissistic family system simply cannot tolerate the new, healthier, more boundaried you.

When I have clients come to me who are obviously experiencing significant psycho-emotional distress, I explain to them that we need to make a healing container where their entire nervous system can start to settle down. I explain to my clients that family scapegoating trauma symptoms such as rumination can be the result of an over-activated amygdala and the jumble of distressful feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations are actually responses to ‘triggers’ brought on by engaging with scapegoating family members.

As a trauma-informed psychotherapist and clinical coach, I follow SAMHSA’s Six Principles for Trauma-Informed care when working with clients who are struggling to end ties with abusive family members. It is important that the client not feel judged or shamed for still being in contact with family. There may be cultural or financial considerations or other issues like trauma-bonding that are preventing my client from cutting ties with scapegoating family members.

My client must first and foremost work with me to establish a sense of inner and outer safety, including in regard to a safe healing container for us to do our work in. If, after every family engagement my client feels depressed, anxious, traumatized, and unsafe, that will be important information to consider when discussing ending contact with family. I will continue to psycho-educate my client while following trauma-informed principles until eventually they can see for themselves that continuing to engage with family who abuse them is counter-therapeutic.

Feeling Pressured to “Forgive”? Read My Article on Radical Acceptance Versus Forgiveness

Setting the Intention to Heal From FSA

Think about if you have a container that’s going to support your healing or are you reactivating your nervous system over and over again by engaging with people that are scapegoating you. Notice if you’re in a highly dysfunctional situation that’s not serving you, and remember that gaining awareness around painful family dynamics takes time.

Set the intention that you are going to try to make a safe space for yourself one way or another and remain focused on cultivating emotionally “safe enough” relationships with people who can genuinely love and care for you.

If you are still in touch with abusive family members and are having trouble ending ties, just know that there will be a time when perhaps you can make decisions that will benefit your long-term healing and growth and it’s okay if you’re not there yet. It’s okay if you’re not done or need to take time to make a plan where you have the resources to take care of yourself if you’re financially (or otherwise) dependent on scapegoating family members at this time.

To learn more about family scapegoating abuse, read my introductory book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed.

13 thoughts on “Cutting Ties With Scapegoating Family: A Trauma-Informed View”

  1. Annie

    I am coming up on a year of no contact with my narc mother and narc golden child sister. I do still grieve the good times we once shared (were they faking it?) but I know deep down that it wasn’t my fault we”re estranged, so generally I have peace, because I have integrity. They lied about my son, and me, and tried to turn my kids against my husband and me via gaslighting. I had no choice. I think it happened because my mother is old, has some savings, and my childless six-figure-salaried sister is so materialisric she wants it all. I stayed home with my kids and could really use some inheritance, but not by allowing them to run roughshod over me. Plus, even if I allowed it, there’s no guarantee I’d get my share anyway. I always knew something was amiss. I regret not figuring it out sooner. I’m in my early fifties.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

      I hear this so often, Annie – children being turned against their own (scapegoated) parent by toxic family members. I’m relieved to hear that you are not hanging on in hopes of receiving an inheritance; I do see this sometimes, and while it is understandable, it rarely benefits one’s recovery from FSA.

  2. SM

    Last October my mother died. Relatives surrounded her in her final moments, yet I was uninvited. I wrote this, and hope it captures how sad this all is.
    Dying With Mom
    A vigil has formed around you,
    Some beguiled,
    simply waiting,
    a bit befuddled,
    as to why they are even there.
    But that’s your gift.

    Is greed holding your hand?
    How about hate?
    I guess it doesn’t matter,
    as long as YOU stay in
    the center,
    Of the darkness until
    your last breath.

    And then I remember that
    picture of a teenage
    girl seated on
    the kitchen counter
    talking on the telephone,
    her personality just shining on through.
    I want that girl to be my mother,
    I don’t know where she went off to.

    But the picture is
    Now gone,
    You threw it away,
    I gave it to you on
    Mother’s Day.

    will bathe in the dirty bath water
    you leave behind
    And cry.

    The rest
    Will light a candle
    And wonder why they ever
    sat in your darkness
    For so long.

    This is what assumptions
    And hate do
    Whether served up
    With a side of reluctance
    Or poured on freely
    The result is the same.

    Just how should one feel
    When they are
    Convicted of terrible things
    From conclusions drawn
    Without the advantage
    Of a rational judge
    or Impartial jury?

    And why are YOU there?
    And you? And you?
    What voice inside
    Has beckoned you
    What is it
    holding you there,
    Is it love?

    Are you wondering,
    If you’ve successfully
    Eluded the kaleidoscope of
    dark and fractured innuendos?
    Will it pass hands now,
    and aim its loaded gun
    right at you?

    But don’t fret.
    As long as you are drawn
    Into a club full of darkness
    You will never be alone.
    But admission in,
    Comes at a cost,
    But being left out,
    Does too.

    ~Susan M

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Thank you, Susan – powerful and poignant. A searingly insightful, truth-telling poem that I hope many will take the time to read. Are you already on Rhonda’s private facebook group for scapegoated daughters? A lot of creative expression is shared there…

  3. Elizabeth

    Rebecca, you’re smart to not tell people to break ties with their abusive family. That probably most often makes people shut down. Having said that, that’s exactly what the first therapist I saw at 24 advised me to do. She told me, after several sessions, my “family was evil” and to avoid them for the rest of my life.

    It was shocking to hear yet essential for me to be told. No one else in my life apparently saw or understood. Because of my background, I’m not a woman who shares things freely. Yet as hard as she told me it was to get me to open up, I still must have. I told her when I went to Christmas dinner while seeing her, one of my older brothers whispered in my ear he didn’t want to invite me over to his house but he did it for our dad. I sat there stunned. Then, maybe a half hour later, my dad asked me how Dave was in front of everyone to humiliate me. Dave was the alcoholic friend of another older brother I recently had gotten away from which everyone knew. I stood up and said, “I’ve had enough.” I get my coat and left. I was hungry, it was extremely cold and dark, and I drove around for a long time before I finally found a restaurant that was open, a Dennys, and sat at the counter to eat my Christmas dinner alone. There were other people there at that counter but I didn’t say a word to them.

    When I told Joan about what happened when I saw her next, she asked me if anyone called me that night or the next day to see how I was. I told her no. She then asked, “You mean they didn’t call to see if you’d committed suicide yet?”

    I needed someone to help me first understand and then deal with the torment which would never change. She was right in identifying my family as evil. There was no hope in me to waste on them; I had to go on alone if I was to survive. And so I did.

    I’m about to turn 60 in the spring. I thank God I met Joan, that therapist, and remember her in my prayers from time to time.

    That’s how important the truth is.

    1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

      Hi Elizabeth, I have had cases where I did need to advise a client nearly immediately that they needed to end contact with family due to abuse – including physical assaults. I have found, however, if I start out this way there can be resistance and/or the client ‘runs’ due to fears I may insist all family contact end. When they can come to this decision on their own (with my input and support) the client typically will have the strength, courage, and conviction within themselves to see it through to the end. Each case is unique, which is why I avoid a ‘cookie cutter’ approach when it comes to helping FSA adult survivors. I’m glad your therapist Joan realized what you needed to hear and that you have been able to break away and rebuild your life. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      1. Elizabeth

        What you said makes sense. Even I was stunned to hear there was such a thing as divorcing your family. There was never any reference to it in friends, TV, books, etc., at least none I was aware of at 24.

        But in my case I held no hope things would improve. After the initial shock wore off, I realized what Joan said made sense. And things making sense were in complete opposition to what I thought and felt whenever I was around my family. When you’re constantly resented and unloved, you’re struggling to keep a sense of yourself even within your own mind.

        Plus, unlike perhaps others you see, I wasn’t invited to many family functions so there wasn’t much conflicted feeling inside of me. It’s hard to be torn when nobody’s often pretending to pull you towards them.

        It’s only been within the past year I finally figured out how to describe the feeling I always had growing up around these people: I felt like I had no future. Being in their presence made me feel pinned up against a wall where I couldn’t even imagine life outside of that moment. So it’s no surprise I’ve struggled with setting goals my whole life. You have to be able to envision yourself in a future when you have goals. I’ve had a hard time seeing myself in the vague future. Now, I’m simply happy to be in the present and do what I set out to do.

        Wow, I’m so glad I survived what I look back on as something I’d never wish upon an enemy. The fact I endured so many things as just a little child makes me realize it’s even more amazing. We have quite a claim on our lives, and hence our future, when we push through things many adults would find impossible. Therapists can be lifesavers, at least in my case. No matter how long it takes to reach the point of understanding your situation and how to get out of it, it’s a wonderful thing to find your way to freedom from despair.

        1. Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, CCTP

          You touch on something here that relates to a video I am releasing this Saturday: Traumatic Invalidation – something something that makes it difficult to pursue and realize life goals, or share our thoughts and ideas, etc. I think you are already subscribed to my channel but if not, the handles is @beyondfamilyscapegoatingabuse. Our guest author will also be addressing invalidation and FSA in this weekend’s blog post.

  4. Debbie B

    Thank you again, Rebecca. I stopped contact with my siblings five years ago, interrupted briefly when my mother died… at which time there was fresh trauma all the more hurtful during grief. My nervous system remains prone to activation, but it has settled down a lot. The quality of my life is greatly improved by simply feeling safe. Our father was mentally ill and extremely abusive. The legacy of the unaddressed trauma continues to harm not only my siblings but their children. All of this is and always will be painful, but I am 100% certain that I made the right choice. This is the only way I could have a peaceful life and begin to realize my potential as a human being. I send compassion to everyone else experiencing this horrifically painful experience and the most difficult choice anyone could make.

  5. Jack

    It’s something I never imagined I could consider or do. Yet I’ve totally removed myself from my older sister (the golden child) after recognising how toxic she is. Appeal after appeal for her to be respectful amounted to a higher level of cunningness on her part in order to keep me the family scapegoat.

    E.g. clasping her hands together ‘Mother Teresa like’ in front of an audience including a councillor and another sister. Leaning forward saying “all we’ve ever done for you is love and care for you”. knowing the opposite is true.
    Fortunately my reply was on topic. “My love for you and your love for me is not the reason we are here today.
    Unfortunately, it turned out the councillor was not able to keep my elder sister respectful to the meetings agenda. That was to discuss the hideous abuse I’d endured within our family at the hands of the abuser she glorifies on a daily basis. The lesson I’ve learned is to maintain dignity and remain calm and on topic.

    1. Jodie H

      Hi Jack, My name is Dazie, I’m in a similar situation with my older sister who is the golden child and has traits of narcissism. I’m on the verge of going no contact but I’m scared. I’ve always been physically, emotionally and psychologically afraid of my sister even though I know there’s nothing she can do to me. I can’t figure it out. I’m 60 years old and still so afraid of my sister. Ugh. I just don’t know if I can mentally take having contact anymore. I was just wondering are you still no contact with your sister?

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