“I could not ask for forgiveness for something I had not done. As scapegoat, I could only bear the fault.”
―The Scapegoat (Novel)
Note From the Author: This introductory guide was created in response to requests from clients in my FSA Recovery Coaching practice, my social media followers and FSA Newsletter Subscribers, and readers of my international blog on family dysfunction and scapegoating (‘Scapegoat Recovery‘), which was originally created for the popular online Mental Health Resource Center, Psych Central. It is offered in advance of a longer, more comprehensive research-based book I am working on regarding what I named Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA).
To learn more about my online (secure, telehealth-based) counseling and coaching services and to subscribe to my blog, visit scapegoatrecovery.com.
Were you bullied or rejected by a parent, sibling, or other relative growing up? Have you ever been the target of a ‘smear’ campaign by immediate or extended family and been left feeling frustrated, angry, helpless, or confused? Have you reached out for understanding, help, or support and been told, “You need to let it go and get over it, it’s your family, it can’t be that bad”?
My name is Rebecca C. Mandeville. I’m a Psychotherapist, trauma-informed Recovery Coach, and Family Systems expert specializing in helping people recover from the mental and emotional damage caused by growing up in a dysfunctional family system.
In this introductory guide for understanding what I named (for research purposes) ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ (FSA), I offer psycho-education, self-assessment tools, and practical steps and strategies designed to provide a way out of the ‘scapegoat trap’ for those who are ready to leave it for good. In these pages you’ll discover:
- How to determine if you’re the ‘family scapegoat’
- Why scapegoated individuals have difficulty finding help
- How complex trauma (C-PTSD), and ‘toxic shame’ impede recovery
- Why the family ‘Empath’ can end up scapegoated
- How to establish boundaries if your trauma response is ‘fawning’
- How to recognize false family narratives
- How to recover and realign with your ‘true self’
As it is also my intention to increase insight and understanding within the Mental Health field regarding the painful reality experienced by those who find themselves in the ‘scapegoat’ role in their family-of-origin, I also present an overview of family scapegoating abuse (FSA), including experiences and clinical symptoms common to the FSA adult survivor; FSA’s relationship with complex trauma (C-PTSD); and basic recovery principles that have worked well for clients in my Psychotherapy and Recovery Coaching practices over the past 20 years.
If you’ve been scapegoated by your family (particularly if the scapegoating began when you were very young and is chronic), 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.
You may have no idea that your psycho-emotional distress is due to your being trapped in the role of ‘identified patient’  in your family. Alternatively, you may know you are in the ‘scapegoat’ role but you’re not sure how to change these dysfunctional family dynamics so you can be seen for who you actually are.
Many readers of my articles on family scapegoating have written me to express the intensity of emotions they experience when recognizing themselves as family scapegoating abuse survivors. Typical comments include, “I didn’t know there was a name for what I’ve gone through – it’s like you’re writing about my life!” Also, “Now that I understand what may have happened to me, I have hope that perhaps there’s a way for me to recover.” Once a lovely woman in her eighties wrote me to say, “Thank you for helping me to understand what I’ve been experiencing for most of my life. I can now live the rest of my life with some peace, however long that is.”
My understanding of family scapegoating and its damaging effects is based on countless hours spent working with both individuals and families in residential treatment settings and in my psychotherapy and coaching practices, as well as my qualitative research on family scapegoating dynamics and how the targeted child or adult child is negatively impacted.
This guide is also informed by my own experiences of being in the ‘family scapegoat’ role myself – a role ‘inherited’ from my mother, who shared with me that she was severely scapegoated by her maternal grandmother in early childhood during an honest and revealing conversation we had recently.
I have also benefited from reading personal messages and comments in response to my articles and social media posts on Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA). These painful and honest sharings from hundreds of people around the world have also illuminated this work.
The Multigenerational Aspects of FSA
Recovering from family scapegoating requires recognizing that being the ‘identified patient’ is symptomatic of generations of systemic dysfunction within one’s family, fueled by unrecognized anxiety and even trauma. In a certain sense, members of a dysfunctional family are participating in a consensual trance , i.e., a ‘survival trance’ supported by false narratives, toxic shame, anxiety, and egoic defense mechanisms , such as denial and projection.
It was not until I did my family genogram  as part of my Masters in Counseling Psychology training that I learned of some of the devastating, traumatic events that had impacted my family-of-origin. Similarly, many of the genograms my clients have done as part of their family systems exploration reveal sudden, unexpected deaths (including suicides); severe or chronic illness; stillbirths; mental illness (including institutionalization of a parent or other close relative); divorce; abandonment; addiction; overt or covert abuse (including abuse of children); missing relatives; emotional cut-offs; and profound financial setbacks and losses.
The resulting patterns, behaviors, and family roles that are transmitted from generation-to-generation due to the underlying anxiety and trauma associated with adverse experiences and events form a ‘matrix’, of sorts, one that acts like an energetic spider web that is seemingly impossible for the child or adult child to resist, challenge, or escape from.
For those who do ‘wake up’ and realize that there is another reality outside the one they were inoculated into since infancy within their family-of-origin, it can be a bit of a shock – similar to Keanu Reeves’ experience in the 1999 film ‘The Matrix‘ after he was ejected from the dystopian simulated reality he had unknowingly been existing within. The truth, once uncovered, cannot be forgotten about or ignored. And truth can act as a destabilizing force in families that depend on false narratives, control, and denial to maintain their equilibrium.
While disagreements and interpersonal conflicts are common in even the healthiest of family systems, family scapegoating goes far beyond this, making recovering from its impact and effects difficult. For example, more than half of those who responded to an FSA Survey I conducted have been described as “mentally ill”; “emotionally sick”; or “a liar” by a parent, sibling, or other close relative when there was absolutely no truth to this whatsoever. Naturally, being spoken about in this way can be confusing, angering, and even traumatizing to the target of such hostile and defamatory statements.
It should also be noted that a recent research study I conducted confirmed that family scapegoating can begin in adulthood, often initiated by a divorce or a change in financial circumstances. For example, many of my clients who became a target of FSA as adults report that the family scapegoating began when they were divorcing a spouse. “My own family supported my ex and not me!” is a refrain I often hear, particularly in cases where the ex-spouse was influential in the family, financially well-off, or highly narcissistic and charismatic. Is it any wonder such clients feel confused and deeply betrayed by the people they counted on to be there for them the most during a time of great crisis and need?
In addition to the challenges related to dis-identifying from the family ‘scapegoat story’ and attendant distorted narratives, it has been my observation that many FSA survivors are suffering from symptoms of undiagnosed, untreated Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) as well as betrayal trauma. Thus, trauma is an area that must also be addressed if one is to fully recover from the negative effects of being scapegoated by their family (an issue that I’ll be covering in this guide).
While being scapegoated within one’s family-of-origin is recognized as being harmful, the damage done is most often categorized as mental and emotional. However, being in the role of the family scapegoat can also result in the targeted child being physically bullied, sexually abused, or denied medical care. We as a society need to acknowledge this and stop putting our heads in the sand so as to avoid overwhelming and unpleasant realities.
How to Use This Guide
Because reading about any form of family dysfunction or relational abuse can be intense and possibly triggering (especially for those who suffer from complex trauma symptoms), it is my suggestion that you be in an environment that feels calming and emotionally safe while reading this guide.
You may also want to take breaks after reading each chapter or after completing the included FSA Self-Assessment to do some reflection and journaling, or share your thoughts or any feelings that come up with your therapist, coach, or a trusted friend.
Lastly, FSA recovery suggestions and resources are listed at the back of this book. Links of interest are also included at the end of each chapter for easy reference.
May you find this overview of family scapegoating abuse (FSA) dynamics and basic recovery concepts helpful.
Links of Interest