A Family Therapist’s ‘Lived Experience’
Last week I published an article describing 16 experiences common to family scapegoats (which has already been shared almost 1500 times on social media thus far). Many readers of this blog post wrote me privately to ask how I was able to “so perfectly describe” the story of their life.
Much of what I write about in my ‘Scapegoat Recovery’ blog is based on research I have been conducting on what I now term Family Scapegoat Abuse (FSA), as well as my clinical experience as a Psychotherapist specializing in helping adult survivors recover from growing up in dysfunctional or narcissistic family systems. In addition, my ‘lived experience’ as the scapegoat in my own family-of-origin serves to inform my work on this oft-misunderstood topic as well.
I was actually quite surprised by my FSA research findings, in that the stories and experiences I gathered from others who find themselves in the family scapegoat role so eerily corresponded to my own. Many of us who are scapegoated by our family-of-origin have had the experience of being told we are “crazy”; “mentally ill”; “emotionally ill”; “a liar”; “a faker” (including when suffering from a legitimate, even serious illness); as well as “too sensitive”; “dramatic”; and “weird”.
Gaslighting as Psycho-Emotional Abuse
We who find ourselves in the ‘family scapegoat’ role often report being ‘gaslighted‘ by power-holders (parents, grandparents, dominant siblings or cousins, etc) in our family system as well, e.g., “I never said that!”; “You’re imagining that”; “You’re making that up”; “You’re a liar”, etc, thereby having our personal reality or ‘narrative’ – our unique lived experience – invalidated, dismissed, denied, and negated.
These sorts of reality distortions (which are in fact a form of psycho-emotional abuse) can begin at a very young age. When it is your own parent that is cancelling out your reality, it can result in the child / adult child experiencing genuine trauma, suffering, and psychological debilitation (including Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms).
For example, I have clear memories of being ‘gaslighted’ by both my mother and my father as early as the age of four. I remember how confusing it all felt, and struggling to hold onto my own sense of reality – my sense of what was true and real – and feeling great anxiety due to being told things about ‘reality’ and myself that did not match or align with my own perceptions.
Gaining Clarity Around My Dysfunctional Family Role
My big “Aha!” moment regarding what exactly had happened to me in my family came about after I entered a graduate program to become a Marriage, Family Therapist. It was there that I first did a family genogram (based on Murray Bowen’s family systems theory) and began to see ‘the big picture’ that constituted my family-of-origin’s dysfunctional / toxic ‘dance’:
Bowenian theory, like so much of family systems theory, focuses on our human experience in relationship to others. It focuses on the patterns at play within a given family system rather than just those dynamics that are causing difficulty for one particular individual.
In this model of understanding one’s family-of-origin, we are invited to view ‘the family story’ through the eyes of each family member, versus focusing exclusively on our own personal experience and ‘story’.
From this more expansive perspective, we move beyond seeing what happened to us in our family in ‘black and white terms’ (where there are easily identifiable ‘villains and victims’); instead, we begin to understand that there are complex multigenerational processes, patterns, and behaviors at work that are often subtle, stealthy, and insidious.
It must also be emphasized that understanding how our dysfunctional / narcissistic family is operating as a system does not negate the fact that we may have been mentally, emotionally, and even physically or sexually abused by the ‘power-holders’ in our family-of-origin.
However, understanding family systemic processes can help us realize that we are not – and have never been – defective, ‘bad’, or damaged. Instead, we were trapped within a family narrative that has been playing out like some twisted, surreal drama for generations. In fact, we likely are not the first person in our family to be force-fed a lethal, toxic ‘family recipe’. For example, my genogram work revealed that my mother was terribly scapegoated by her maternal grandmother as a child, likely resulting in her own deep intrapsychic wounding (later to be replicated in me).
Paradoxically, it was when I began to understand my family as a system that was passing down dysfunctional ways of being and family patterns multigenerationally that I began to accept the truth of my own ‘lived experience’ as the family scapegoat. Part of this acceptance process required that I get in touch with deeply buried feelings, including a sense of ‘righteous anger’ regarding the injustices I had experienced at the hands of my own family, as well as my grieving all of the attendant losses (of which there were – and still are – many).
Recovery and Radical Acceptance
I write the above not with resentment, but with a sense of sadness as well as what I call ‘radical acceptance’. There is a saying from the East, “Do the clouds ask the sun for forgiveness for passing across it’s face?” What happened to me in my family happened. And there is nothing I can do about it. Nor can I change my family’s perception of me as being faulty and defective (although there was a time when I certainly tried to do just that).
Each person who has been scapegoated will find that they have their own unique pathway in regard to healing and recovering from family scapegoat abuse. There are some common elements, however, which I have been able to identify via my FSA research, as well as my own recovery journey and assisting others in theirs. I will be discussing these common recovery principles in future articles. If you’d like to be notified of my latest ‘Scapegoat Recovery’ posts, you may subscribe to this blog over on the right sidebar.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What has been the most difficult thing for you to accept in regard to being in the family scapegoat role?
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 below).
Rebecca C. Mandeville is an internationally recognized expert in recovering from dysfunctional and narcissistic family dynamics. She is a pioneer in researching, identifying, defining, and describing Family Scapegoat Abuse (FSA). She will be presenting her findings on FSA in a book to be released later in 2020. You can learn more about Rebecca and access FSA recovery resources by visiting scapegoatrecovery.com