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with Rebecca Mandeville, MA, MFT

The Invisible Wounds of the Family Scapegoat

If you find yourself in the role of the ‘family scapegoat’, you may be suffering from a variety of life challenges and mental health symptoms, including relationship issues; impostor syndrome, generalized anxiety, depression, addiction, codependency, and even trauma symptoms, yet have no idea that it is related to your being trapped in the role of ‘identified patient’ in your family-of-origin.

Are You The Family Scapegoat?

Scapegoating in a dysfunctional family system is fueled by unconscious processes whereby the family displaces their own collective psychological difficulties and complexes onto a specific family member. This process of projection, shaming, and blaming serves to divert attention away from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems via casting the scapegoated family member into the role of ‘identified patient’ (Bateson, 1972). This does not mean that all acts of blaming and shaming a child are unconscious – rather, the projection process fueling the scapegoating of the family member is unconscious.

Many scapegoated adult survivors fail to realize that they have actually suffered from psycho-emotional abuse growing up, and even their therapist or counselor might miss the signs and symptoms associated with being in this most devastating dysfunctional family role.

Specifically: Adults seeking assistance from a mental health professional may find that the genuine pain and distress they are experiencing is minimized or even invalidated  (e.g., “But they’re your family, of course they love you”; “Family connections are so important, it can’t be that bad”; “It’s best if you forgive, we need to maintain ties with our family to be healthy”), which only serves to reinforce the scapegoated adult’s fear that they are somehow fundamentally to blame for their strained (or non-existent) family relationships.

Scapegoating Is Abuse

Family scapegoating is a form of maltreatment and abuse that is often subtle and not noticed by others – even by those within the family.  The scapegoating parent (who is typically the ‘power-holder’ in the family system, and therefore in control of the family narrative) often has a ‘story’ about the rejected child that they are quick to share with anyone who will listen – a story whereby they are ‘good’ and their (scapegoated) child is ‘difficult’, a ‘problem’, or even ‘bad’ and ‘defective’.

The scapegoating of the child or adult child is fueled by denial, lies, and reality distortion (also referred to as ‘gaslighting’). It is insidious because it is supported by power discrepancies, i.e., the scapegoating parent is believed while the scapegoated child is dismissed.

The child (or adult child) may even be accused of being a liar and/or mentally or emotionally ill – A story that the parent themselves may create and promote at the expense of their own child. In such cases, the damage to the scapegoated child’s psyche can be incalculable.

Due to the damage to the emerging self, the growing child may struggle to identify wants and needs, and will have difficulty forming secure attachments with primary figures in their life. As an adult, the scapegoated individual may lack the confidence to pursue goals and dreams, and will have difficulty forming lasting, trusting attachments with others. They may feel that they don’t have a right to be, to feel, or to express their true self-nature in an authentic manner with others due to an inner sense of self-loathing grounded in toxic shame.

The Devastating Impact of Family Scapegoating

Children who are scapegoated will typically experience unique struggles throughout their childhood and these challenges will follow them into adulthood. Because their reality and experiences were a threat to the parent that was (and may still be) scapegoating them, their sense of self was not validated in critical, fundamental ways as children; thus, they likely will have difficulty trusting their own perceptions later as adults. 

As a result of having the very core of who they are redefined via the scapegoating process, the adult survivor of family scapegoating will often find themselves feeling disconnected, dissociated, hopeless, and even passively and chronically suicidal. Many scapegoated adults believe that something is very wrong with them, but they are not sure what. They often fear talking about their pain and confusion with others, causing them to be further isolated and vulnerable to depression. 

Scapegoated adult survivors often have difficulty trusting others, and will often struggle to form meaningful, secure attachments – including romantic / intimate ones. Because the scapegoating ‘story’ often follows the child into adulthood and may continue even after a parent’s death (e.g., via a dominant sibling or extended family member) there may seem to be no way out other than to limit or end contact with one’s entire family-of-origin.

In many cases, the scapegoated individual blames themselves for their difficulties, and does not believe that anyone can help them, even if they did try to share their inner confusion and pain. A sense of disenfranchised grief can be particularly acute if the scapegoated adult has had no choice but to limit or end contact with scapegoating family members in a valiant and courageous attempt to establish and protect their own mental and emotional health, for few in their life will understand the reason for this seemingly rash decision, much less support it.

Healing From the Damaging Scapegoat Role

It is never too late to discover and reclaim your true identity, free of the distorted, shaming family narrative that has painted you as ‘bad’ and ‘defective’. 

To ‘reclaim’ means to retrieve, redeem, recover, return to, reform, recall, to cultivate, to cry out against, to tame, to save. If you are the family scapegoat, you will be required to do all of these things as part of your recovery and healing process, beginning with the decision to release the scapegoat story and become the author of your own life, versus remaining trapped in the story created by the power-holders in your family-of-origin. 

In addition to releasing the scapegoat story, one of the most powerful healing tools available to adult survivors is sharing the truth of what happened to them with others. This can be done via writing your life story and sharing it with a therapist or coach who understands the damaging nature of the family scapegoat role, or joining a forum where you can share freely and be heard by others, as well as listen to the stories of other scapegoated adults.

To learn more about FSA, it’s signs and symptoms, and recovering from this most damaging form of systemic familial abuse, read my eBook The Invisible Wounds of the Family Scapegoat (link to my eBook available via my profile, below).

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Have you ever been in the family scapegoat role? If so, what has helped you most in your recovery? 

Have you been impacted by Family Scapegoat Abuse? Find out by reading ’16 Experiences Common to Family Scapegoats’ (link included in my profile, below, along with information regarding how to access my website, where you can purchase my introductory eBook on FSA.  -Rebecca).

You are welcome to reprint this post with the following attribution: Rebecca C. Mandeville, LMFT, is an internationally recognized expert in recovering from the negative effects of being raised in a dysfunctional family system. She is a pioneer in researching, defining, and describing what she terms ‘Family Scapegoat Abuse’ (FSA).  You can learn more about Rebecca’s online (video) Scapegoat Recovery coaching services and/or purchase her eBook on FSA by visiting scapegoatrecovery.com

 

 

 

 

References

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) p. 237 and p. 243

The Invisible Wounds of the Family Scapegoat


Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT

Rebecca C. Mandeville, MFT, is an internationally recognized expert in recovering from dysfunctional family systems and is a pioneer in identifying (via clinical experience and research) the unique constellation of symptoms caused by what she eventually named Family Scapegoat Abuse (FSA).

You can email her at [email protected] to set up your free online (video) consultation to see if her counseling or coaching services are right for you. You may also read '16 Experiences Common to Family Scapegoats' to further assess how impacted you may be by family scapegoat abuse, past or present..

You may also visit Rebecca's website to learn more about Family Scapegoat Abuse and access resources, including an introductory eBook on FSA.

To be notified of Rebecca's latest Psych Central posts, as well as her FSA book release date, follow her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Mandeville, R. (2020). The Invisible Wounds of the Family Scapegoat. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 9, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/scapegoat-recovery/2020/01/the-invisible-wounds-of-the-family-scapegoat/

 

Last updated: 6 Apr 2020
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.