The following article was written by Dr. Erin Watson, who is serving as this month’s guest blog author. Dr. Watson is a clinically-trained recovery coach and educator helping people rebuild their energy, identities and confidence after experiencing severe attachment wounds. She has a Doctorate in Family Relationships and Human Development and a clinical background in trauma therapy and family therapy. She currently specializes in helping people rebuild after the damaging effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse and Abusive Narcissism.You can connect with Dr. Watson via her Instagram: @drerinwatson.
If you missed it last week, you can also check out my video on Betrayal Trauma and Family Scapegoating Abuse, Scapegoating as Family Betrayal.
*Trigger Warning: The examples in this story are all from actual people who have been scapegoated. They are shared with permission. However, they may be upsetting to read, especially if they hit close to home.
What Hurt You the Most?
Many scapegoats have lists so long that we have become numb to the injustices we faced. Things that should rightfully emotionally paralyze us become like grocery lists of trauma that we rattle off to therapists. How do we pick the wound that wounded the most?
Was it the time your mother said she didn’t want to be your mother? All the times your dad backed her up even when she was clearly in the wrong and you were clearly in agony?
The time your brother said you didn’t deserve love or family? Or when he accused you of being a cruel monster even though it was him that had repeatedly emotionally attacked you and never once apologized?
What about all the times your sister called you “ungrateful” even though you had flown across the country to hold her newborn all night while she slept; you who had tended to her when she was injured, showers and all; and you who had given her the literal shirt off your back because she wanted to wear it right now!
Maybe it was the time your other sister screamed at you to “get out of [her] life” because you returned some children’s toys she had lent you…that she herself had requested you return. According to her, returning them meant you were “rejecting her love.” After all, “We were the ones who loved and cared for you the most! Why can’t you see that?”
The main message is invariably the same: You just aren’t appreciating them enough. You just weren’t taking their toxicity with a smile and a thank you. It must have been quite a sacrifice for them to love you. You deserved this.
How can we assess the depth of this pain? Many of us had to shut off the emotional faucet long ago just to survive.
Clients have told me that when they share pieces of their stories with friends or professionals, they are often met with stares, shock, horror, and full-on mouth agape disbelief. Families can’t be like that! Can they?
And yet here I am writing this article. And here you are reading it, nodding along.
Many of us turned our emotional faucets off because in order to get through life we also had to believe that families couldn’t be ‘like that’. We may have even believed that there was something about us that caused our family to treat us poorly. Something we could change. Modify. Fix. So we distanced and dissociated from these wounds.
But something remained lurking, trying to get our attention. A drip. Drip. Drip.
When We Begin to Gaslight Ourselves
At some point, you go back through your life, adding up the small things. Little things that may seem innocent or innocuous at first, but when combined over a lifetime become like invasive plants snaking through your foundation, cracking the concrete and slowly dismantling the safety and sanctuary of your home.
These incidents hit you in a flash: Walking down the dairy aisle at the grocery store and remembering how at age 10 your mom bought the special yogurt for your sibling even though it was you that had been begging for it (and then told you you weren’t allowed to have any). How confusing for a 10-year-old. If mommy “knows best” and mommy “loves and cares about you more than anyone,” how do you make sense of that experience? You wonder about this silently, turning your confusion inward.
Or when you are wrapping a gift and the memory tunnel takes you back to age 7 when your sister opened all your birthday presents (and bit you!) but you were spanked in front of your friends and sent to your room for getting upset at her. Does no one else think that is backward? No one came to your defense so you think, “I guess I was wrong to be upset.” You punish yourself, too.
Now the floodgates open. The sink is overflowing.
When your mom didn’t finish knitting the outfit for your baby because she “didn’t have the time”…but finished everyone else’s handmade gifts. When she started using your letters to prop up her bedroom fan instead of responding, but took your siblings out for tea. When she held a party for everyone’s graduation but “oops — forgot about yours” and laughed it off like “haha how silly. Wasn’t that funny?”
Soon you are face down on the floor. Drowning. Today is a write-off.
In our isolation, we know that if we were to share some of these family experiences with a friend, they may turn up their nose and say, “Oh wow that’s messed up” but then move on. Because, as they will tell you, “We all have a little dysfunction in our families.” No family is perfect, after all.
So why are you face down on the floor? Why haven’t you moved on as quickly as they did?
And that’s when it happens; that feeling creeps in. The feeling that you have no name for, and can’t put a finger on, but is always sitting there in the back of your emotional closet going, “Why did that hurt me so much? I felt so knocked over by that moment…why? What is wrong with me?”
Family ‘scapegoats’ all have these moments. And we all question the validity of our perceptions and feelings about these moments. Because having our painful family experiences discredited and denied by others is the one reaction we can count on as a constant. So much so that we even do it to ourselves now.
Such incidents hurt you and knocked you down because you were betrayed. Your dignity and humanity were denied.
Betrayal Trauma Is Complex
One final betrayal after a lifetime of these betrayals often happens when we speak up or advocate for family healing and accountability. Instead of being heard, validated, and supported, we are cast out, exiled, set aside and smeared in the eyes of those we thought we could trust. We are kicked out or we have to decide to leave.
It is understandable, then, when faced with losing family by necessity or abandonment, that we go back over our memory banks, count up what’s in them, and may even question and blame ourselves despite all facts and figures adding up to a monstrous sum of abuse and neglect. A lifetime of betrayals from others teaches us to betray ourselves.
Betrayal is at the heart of being scapegoated. Betrayal is the constant in all the examples shared in this article. When exploring our scapegoating histories we see that our trauma doesn’t just come from the hurtful actions, the cruel words, the painful neglect and humiliations, or the psychological wounds wielded out by family members. Our trauma extends beyond tangible incidents: It permeates our psyches and our physiology.
Family scapegoating abuse is characterized by repeated injustices, hypocrisies, unfairness and deep moral wounds that poison our core reservoir of self-trust, trust in others, and trust in the world. This is the foundation of betrayal trauma.
Dr Jennifer Freyd (2008) describes Betrayal Trauma as occurring when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being. Rogers (n.d.) further goes on to explain that we feel betrayed because what happened to us is not an act committed by our worst enemies, but acts that have been carried out by those we love and trust the most. She states, “Many often use the expression ‘I’ve been stabbed in the back’ to describe an act of betrayal, and it couldn’t be closer to the truth.”
Healing from betrayal trauma is complex because it means acknowledging that deep injustice has occurred with little to no chance of repair or accountability from those that harmed us. We might talk about specific incidences of family betrayal while being careful to not face or feel them too closely in an attempt to maintain emotional distance to protect our hearts and souls.
But betrayal trauma doesn’t care about your emotional distance; it simply takes hold. Betrayal trauma seeps into the corners of recovery that “talking it out” cannot reach; where simply sharing our story offers no immediate sanctuary or peace because there isn’t any assurance we will be validated or believed. Another betrayal, born out of the recovery journey itself, only adds insult to injury.
It is also challenging to recover from the betrayal trauma scapegoated family members experience because it is a profoundly lonely reality. By definition, ‘family scapegoats’ don’t have siblings who band together and say, “Me too. You’re not alone.” Scapegoats don’t have a parent who says, “I see what is happening. I’ll protect you.”
For victims of family scapegoating, there is no unified front against the abuse that acknowledges and validates that you are right about what’s happening. There is no guarantee that others see it and will try to keep you safe in the storm.
So of course that feeling with no name continues to linger. Of course you are face down on the floor. Because the greatest wound you suffered wasn’t the neglect, cruelty, and abandonment itself; it was the neglect, cruelty, and abandonment by the very people that were supposed to care about you the most. It’s being faced with the harrowing questions: If they can do this to me, how could the world ever be safe for me? If they can’t accept me, how could anyone else? If they can’t love me, am I even lovable?
Betrayed By “Love”?
We assume by default that parents love their children. We assume it’s built into the experience of parenting: Like a car without an engine, a parent that can’t love their kid simply wouldn’t work, right? And yet, throughout their lives, it is as if scapegoated children and adult children are sitting in cars without engines.
Imagine knowing the car you’re in has no engine, yet being constantly told, “It’s a car so it must have an engine!” In other words, your parents must love you because they are your parents. Don’t ever question that. You should be more grateful. After repeatedly having your self-doubts and self-blame reinforced by those around you who should have been sticking up for you (but didn’t), of course you would wonder, “Is this what love is? Is this all I deserve?”
Because the car seems in tip-top shape to outside observers, speaking up and telling someone, “This car doesn’t have an engine” can also end in mockery. “Silly girl. I was told she had an imagination. I was told she was dramatic. I guess they were right. Can’t believe anything she says…” Now you have no one to reach out to because you were discredited before you even had a chance to speak. This, then, constitutes yet another layer of betrayal.
Scapegoated children and adult children also experience social betrayal each time they share their experiences of being maltreated by their family and are not supported and believed. Eventually, they are left with very few options: Due to having their trust repeatedly betrayed within their family of origin, by their community, and by society, they do not feel a sense of safety and trust with others. They will therefore frequently shut down, isolate, and not let people in. They may also continue to question their sense of reality and grapple with their sense of self-worth, courtesy of their scapegoating family.
The Dual Nature of Family Scapegoating Betrayal
In my work as a Mental Health professional, I have observed that scapegoats face two distinct layers of betrayal. The first layer is the incidents. The second layer is the impact.
The “incidents” are characterized by injustice, hypocrisy and unfairness. They are the catalog of moments where your reality and the abusive person’s narrative simply don’t line up, such as when their behavior has free reign, but you need to reign yours in. Or when they can claim you “took things the wrong way” when they say or do hurtful things, but when they feel hurt by you, they insist it was intentional on your part. And, of course, the countless times facts were blatantly ignored or stories strategically severed, with only the bits supporting the abuser’s perspective being carefully sampled, shared, and passed around.
Examples of such betrayals include:
- When bystanders remain silent and compliant. Your siblings, enabler parent, extended family and even friends fail to step in or stand up for you.
- When your parents successfully convince others that you are the “crazy,” “problematic,” or “abusive” one via smear campaigns and character assassinations
- When you witness your parents treating your siblings drastically different from you. The double whammy is then when your sibling says, “Mom/dad aren’t like that. They have never done that to me,” implying you are making things up.
- When your parent love bombs you and even makes attempts at repair or apology, only to snatch the rug out from under you because what they were really doing is luring you back in to abuse you more.
- When your own feelings, perceptions, and self-expression are denied, belittled, mocked, or neglected.
- When your words are twisted and contorted and used against you.
- When your siblings confide in you in private that they see how your parent is and they agree with you, but in front of the parent they deny it all and blame you for smearing the family.
- When you try to seek closeness with a parent, even as a child, and they unceremoniously reject you.
- When the whole family contorts themselves and does emotional gymnastics to walk around the truth and sidestep reality in order to create a narrative that supports their complete denial of what’s actually happening.
- When your parent holds a socially esteemed position and is well regarded, even revered – because they treat others with the caring, dignity, and respect they did not display toward you.
- When the parents blatantly lie or alter words and stories to blame-shift and make themselves look like the victim/hero and you the ‘bad’ one.
- When they DARVO you in an argument and you lose your grounding and start to feel crazy.
- When your reputation is shot because of their lies and manipulations, and you have no way of ever repairing it or getting people to see the truth.
- When you literally exhaust yourself trying to be seen and heard and everything you do or say becomes ammunition that is tossed back at you, leaving you wrongfully convicted and sentenced with no chance of parole.
- When your siblings throw you under the bus because that is how they learned to get in your parents good graces.
- When you succeed at something and it goes against the family narrative that portrays you as being incompetent and so they come up with a number of different ways to undermine your success, defame you, and ‘smear’ your good reputation.
- When you learn they care more about what others think of them than about you as a person, e.g., discovering a scapegoating family member’s act of apparent kindness toward you was manufactured to maintain an image of ‘loving generosity’ to ensure “plausible deniability” against accusations of toxicity.
I call experiences such as the ones described above the rigged game of scapegoating, meaning the rules are different for every player and the outcome is always stacked against you. You can never win a rigged game as the target is a moving one to ensure you never have a chance at reaching it. The only way to survive this family ‘game’ is to stop playing.
The Effects Of Betrayal Trauma
That feeling lingering in your emotional closet? It’s the beginning of betrayal. It starts with stunned confusion; When your inner knowing says, “Wait a minute…the facts are clear. The evidence is right there. How can no one see this?” That feeling then slides into injustice when you expose the truth and you are seen as the unhealthy one (you might even be called “crazy” or a “conspiracy theorist”).
It invariably ends in full-blown trauma when you realize no one is going to step up or stand up for you. It has become painfully clear no one will be accountable for, or change, their hypocrisy, injustice and unfairness. Unless you take it on yourself. Unless you absorb it for them.
It’s no wonder you feel numb and paralyzed
When the brain is confronted with something it cannot process, it shuts down. It simply cannot compute or make sense of the information it is absorbing.
This is why you may have difficulty getting close to people and struggle to make decisions, stay focused, and get your life on track. This is why you may feel you are lacking energy throughout the day and experience sleep issues. A brain that is emotionally overwhelmed is also a brain that isn’t processing trauma and organizing it efficiently. That trauma just gets piled up like an overcrowded doctor’s office waiting to be triaged. Except, when you are still in the toxic scapegoating environment, nothing gets triaged because more incidents keep showing up.
And through all this, the body is still online. The body is continuing to feel the emotional wounds resulting from these incidents of betrayal. And the body needs to be protected in order to survive. So the brain has to come up with some stories and strategies to side-step the truth and absorb the injustices. This is why a scapegoated adult may engage in self-criticism and self-blame in an unconscious attempt to regain some sense of control. Because our core truth has not been believed, it is up to us to somehow make sense of it all, and in doing so, we may inadvertently cause ourselves more harm.
This is when the second layer of betrayal emerges: The impact of the injustices, hypocrisies and unfairness and how we make meaning of them. How we make sense of what happened impacts how we see ourselves, what responsibility we take on, and therefore what actions we take in life. This second layer of betrayal is not just about the betrayal of self, trust, and safety; it is about how scapegoating abuse betrayed our potential and hope for the future. It is about how we adapted and coped when incidents piled up and piled up and we needed to survive. Please read the below list with self-compassion if you find yourself strongly relating to one or more of these coping mechanisms:
Some examples of coping with Betrayal Trauma include:
- When you find yourself exhausted from trying to defend yourself, forgetting that those who are scapegoating you don’t actually care about the truth. They are concerned only with perception.
- When you suffer depression and anxiety because you didn’t get the life you deserved; a life you could have had if you had been raised by safe and loving parents.
- When you changed who you were because you weren’t accepted, embraced and celebrated for being you while growing up.
- When you stopped trusting your own perceptions because they were denied so often that you now have lost touch with your inner knowing.
- When you ‘stay small’ in an attempt to ‘stay safe’ by blaming yourself and making decisions out of fear and shame while walking on eggshells.
- When you give into the limiting beliefs and they eventually become true for you.
- When you put tremendous energy into trying to help your family heal but they are committed to demonstrating toxicity toward you because it benefits them.
- When you try to earn love and work harder for everything because you were taught you aren’t inherently deserving of anything, and you believe you need to suffer in order to receive goodness.
- When your current relationships mirror toxic family because you were never exposed to healthy dynamics and you were told it’s your job to repair the past instead of building your future.
Moving Forward Towards Recovery
Healing betrayal doesn’t come from forgiving the toxic family members who harmed you; it comes from forgiving yourself. Because “you are stuck in a place you do not deserve to be” (Rogers, n.d). It may be more useful to acknowledge that what you did to survive is okay. This is why a therapist who understands family scapegoating abuse may recommend you write yourself a forgiveness letter.
As the family scapegoat, you were trained to deny your feelings, your perceptions, and your truth. You were conditioned to shoulder the unrecognized psycho-emotional wounds and burdens of your family. However, letting go of this burden is not about trying to make things better with (or for) your family, correct the narrative, point out the facts, or fix your reputation. All that does is take you away from living your own life. You do not need to betray yourself and your future by carrying your dysfunctional or narcissistic family’s toxicity for them.
Realign with yourself, your truth, and the reality of what did happen to you, and how completely unfair and unjust it was. Acknowledging the facts and how these facts were indeed twisted and used against you by family is the first step toward releasing some of the pain and weight you have been carrying.
If you want to learn more about how to get unstuck from the anger, pain, grief and injustice of scapegoat abuse, you can subscribe to Dr Erin Watson’s newsletter at https://dr-erin-watson.ck.page/335b30adde or follow her on IG @drerinwatson.
Copyright 2023 | Dr Erin Watson | All Rights Reserved
9 comments / Add your comment below
Absolutely dead on for me. Thank you for your book and blog which has changed my life. I could never put a label on what my family did to me and you cleared the fog and confusion and showed me clarity. Completely life changing and empowering!
You’re welcome, KW. Dr Erin Watson wrote this article here on Betrayal Trauma – I’ll let her know you also appreciated her work on this subject as well.
Well, I came from just such a toxic and deliberately cruel family as referenced here. I cut ties in my mid 20s. But I’m feeling a sense of deja vu now because I’m 60, divorced and childless.
I recently asked the Minster at my church I’ve been a member of for almost 20 years if a few people could band together to become my Emergency Contacts/Patient Advocates should I be hospitalized and incapacitated. I know what some Hospitals did to vulnerable Covid patients who had loving and present families; they ignored their pleas and deliberately used the injurious and lethal drug Remdeservir (among other sedative type drugs when people already had a hard time breathing!) and ventilated them knowing it was lethal anywhere from 50-80% of them time. They also labeled them as DNR without permission. Our Government incentivized all this and made it especially attractive to greedy and immoral Hospital Adminstrators. There’s no reason to think things have gotten better, either.
I’m alone, disabled and on Social Security, so how do you think they’d see me?
Would you believe after a monthly men’s meeting at my church in mid March I was told the consensus was I needed to hire an Attorney? I was stunned. I called one who said that’s not a Lawyer’s role and how I needed to find someone to help me. I texted my 30 something Minister this update who clearly thought my problem was already settled. I asked him “what do I do now?” He took a day to respond. He was annoyed and asked something like was he the first person I originally asked? A non sequitur at that point in time. I told him the group should be told what the Attorney informed me.
I have health problems and apparently I’m as attractive and important to them as a Leper. I truly thought they’d band together and help me because they know I’m alone and because of our shared faith. I don’t always make it to church because of chronic pain issues but I worship at home and watch the service online. When I do go I sit in the basement by myself and watch the upstairs service on a screen because I don’t want to be exposed to the Pfizer documented “shedding” from many members who keep getting Boosters. I already have a blood clotting disorder and don’t want to die because of someone else’s foolishness. Now, the Minister’s gone radio silent seeing the last meeting was April 16th, and I’m left hanging. I have no idea if he updated them.
Or if it even matters.
I’ve not only seen this movie before but have starred in it. It still boggles my mind how many members visit the sick in the Hospital or at their home and how the ill or injured are listed in the bulletin and mentioned in the prayers. Then, when that person recovers they send a lovely card the Minster reads thanking the church for all the flowers, cards, meals and visits. We’re reminded how we’ll (hopefully) all be together in Heaven because we’re a church family.
Uh, yeah. That’s what I was counting on.
Honestly, I’m beyond offended, disappointed and hurt by this stunning show of callous indifference. I realize they’re not acting in a Christian manner towards me. This is not what Jesus would do nor any of his Apostles. I’d help anyone who needed someone to fight for their very life. That’s why I mentioned in my text to my Minster these two things: I’m in a widows and orphan type scenario and maybe God was testing them as much as He’s testing me.
Still nothing from them. No phone calls to see how I’m doing or anything.
I hate to see and hear this and I completely understand the hypocrisy from fellow “church” members. Not all who attend are actually regenerate and unfortunately many in my very own have revealed themselves to be just as gaslighting, character assasinating and exploitative as my own scapegoating and tormenting family. It’s extremely common unfortunately, for ‘narcissistic’ folks to cloak themselves further by being involved in the church for appearances sake. Truly we know this is humans and not a representation of Christ and he sees, hears, knows, and misses absolutely nothing, but I wanted to say I hear you too. The retraumatizing pain of this is extremely hard to push through when we’re alone in so many ways already. My heart goes out to you and I know sometimes just being acknowledged for the truth of these hellish circumstances on earth is helpful to us. I experience no joy in the suffering of severe scapegoating but certainly, it helps to know that God did promise that we would suffer in ways that Christ did when we truly belong to him and he was the ultimate scapegoat and people hated him so much they murdered him (and he is God) and we may not see it in this life, but God used the most wicked evil ever committed for the good of those who he foreknew would belong to him. This life has been unmanageable and made so impossible by malevolent family mobbing and frauds hiding in the church as well, you’re not alone in your experience. I pray every day for those who are experiencing insane abuse that they’re being framed for. Love to you.
As usual, your right on point. I get such a sense of relief, validation, understanding, and hope for my future from reading your blog.
Good to hear, Annette. I’ll let Dr Erin Andrew (the author of this particular article) know that you appreciated her article here on FSA and Betrayal Trauma.
I’ve been studying this for years , it takes a lot to impress me at this point. But the “combo” of Rebecca and Dr. Erin has taken my recovery to an unexpected and whole new level. Many thanks to both of you ?
Good to hear, Melissa. I’ll also be sure to let Dr Watson know you appreciate her work as well – I feel fortunate to have her as an FSA-aware (and savvy) colleague!
It’s hard to believe how strongly I relate to almost every line of this article. From my childhood as the daughter of a narcissist mother through marriage to a narcissist, I’ve been blamed as being “the problem” to friends and family. In spite of my successes as a student, friend, employee, wife and mother I still struggle to figure out why my life has been full of rejection and false accusations. Or why I cannot behave in a way that shows reality or explain the truth to the very people who should believe in and support me but agree to fault everything I say or do. Even writing this, I wonder if I’m full of self pity or paranoid. Years of therapy have helped but nagging self doubt remains. The arrival of articles on scapegoating are comforting and troubling simultaneously. I will continue to learn and sort the issues but I appreciate very much the arrival of your work in this field.