“How do I know if I’m in the ‘family scapegoat’ role?” I hear this question often from clients in my counseling and coaching practices. Reviewing the following sixteen experiences that are common to scapegoated children and adults can also be a way to determine if you are (or have been) in the ‘family scapegoat’ role:
“Am I the ‘Family Scapegoat?”
- You may identify as being ‘codependent’ or ‘highly sensitive’ and ‘empathic’. You may ‘fawn’ (people-please) to avoid conflict. Alternatively, you may have no problem setting boundaries and will defend yourself without hesitation if you feel you are being disrespected or violated in some manner.
- You may have difficulty expressing your feelings because at a very young age you learned to be careful about revealing too much of yourself as it would be used against you by family members. You may have been told that you are “cold”, “unloving”, “insensitive”, “too sensitive”, “heartless”, “selfish”, or “dramatic” by a scapegoating parent when you did attempt to express your honest emotions and experiences. As a result of stuffing down (repressing) your feelings and natural responses, you may experience various physical ailments, struggle with addiction, or codependency, anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
- You are made to feel solely responsible for the quality of your relationship with a parent, primary caregiver, dominant sibling, or others in your family; if there are ‘problems’ in the relationship, it is viewed as being your fault, no matter what.
- You have been labeled “a liar”, “crazy”, or “mentally/emotionally ill” by one or more family members. You may have distanced yourself from select relatives as a result of continued character assassination in an attempt to protect yourself and minimize personal harm.
- One or more family members have been physically, sexually, emotionally, or mentally abusive toward you (including ‘gaslighting’ you, i.e., denying, distorting, and twisting events to show themselves in a better light at your expense).
- Nuclear or extended family members or even non-family members were informed by a parent/primary caregiver that you were a troubled, ‘problem’ child and were difficult to deal with and could not be trusted or believed.
- If you try to inform others within or outside the family of the abuse you are experiencing (as a child, or years later as an adult), you are not believed and the abusive family member will deny their behavior (often via a ‘smear campaign’ whereby you are once again “a liar” or somehow mentally/emotionally defective).
- Your parent(s) may have objectified and dehumanized you in various ways, e.g., you were told you were “difficult”, “too sensitive”, “dramatic”, “a liar”, and were even described in those terms to others in your presence (e.g., “Janie was such a difficult baby, she has so many emotional problems”) – including to perfect strangers.
- You may be accused of ‘faking’ a genuine illness by one or more people in your family (nuclear or extended).
- You blame yourself for any relationship difficulties you experience as an adult, fearing that there is something innately wrong with you and that you are somehow damaged and defective.
- You feel uncomfortable around your family-of-origin (separate, different, ‘not part of’); you feel trapped in a role of some kind, feel stifled and constricted in your interactions (e.g., a sense of having to ‘walk on eggshells’), and are not able to be your ‘true self’ around your family. You may wonder who your ‘true self’ even is. This can be translated into other areas of your life, resulting in your feeling like an ‘outsider’, and perhaps causing you to behave in ways that contribute to your sense of social isolation due to being unable to trust others or take interpersonal risks.
- You may have difficulty forming healthy attachments and trusting, loving connections with others, and you blame yourself for this. You may be attracted to addicts, narcissists, or abusers, know it’s unhealthy, but continue to make self-damaging relationship choices.
- You have struggled with anxiety, depression, or ‘imposter syndrome’, and may have even been diagnosed with a trauma disorder.
- You are ‘the client that cannot be helped’, i.e., you have consulted with various Mental Health professionals but no clinician or counselor can help you figure out why you feel the way you do or get to the heart of the matter so that you can heal at a deep, core level. Talk therapy, mindfulness-based practices, or medications help a little, but not much (unless the healing professional understands you are an adult survivor of child abuse).
- Your family minimizes or ignores your personal or professional accomplishments. No matter how highly regarded you may be outside of your family-of-origin, to your family you are essentially a “fake” and have somehow managed to fool everyone by pretending you are something that you couldn’t possibly be (e.g., successful, healthy, high functioning, respected in your profession, etc). This contributes to your sense of ‘imposter syndrome’.
- You may have had no choice but to reduce or limit contact with one or more family members to protect your own mental/emotional health. You may question yourself for this decision or feel guilty, ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’ for distancing yourself from your family. Nuclear or extended family members may openly state to others that you “deserve to be an outcast” and take no responsibility for their part in the dysfunctional interactions, particularly if their actions toward you were overtly or covertly abusive.
If you relate to even a few of these experiences and the maltreatment toward you has been chronic/repetitive, you may be in the ‘family scapegoat’ role. As a consequence, you may be experiencing grave psycho-emotional distress and have trouble trusting others. You may feel isolated, ‘crazy’, angry, depressed, anxious, mistrusting, paranoid, frustrated, or hopeless. You may also suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’, codependency, or addiction. You may even feel ‘triggered’ just from reading about these experiences if you related strongly to them. If so, I suggest you take a few deep breaths and relax your body and your mind before continuing. You also may want to journal some of your thoughts and feelings regarding what aspects of these family scapegoating experiences you relate to and share these awarenesses with your therapist or a trusted person in your life whom you feel emotionally safe with.
Read an excerpt from Rebecca’s new book, ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role’ – Available Now on AMAZON.
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Copyright © 2020 Rebecca C. Mandeville. All rights reserved.