Family Bullying: The Role of the Family Scapegoat: when your family of origin makes you sick
After listening to a client share her difficulties in dealing with toxic siblings in her present day adulthood, and with the ongoing family dynamic that continues to put her in touch with her former role of family scapegoat, I have decided to write a long blog about how this specific role is developed & maintained, and how the negative impact of this role can last long into adulthood. I won’t leave it there, however, I will also write about the first steps you can take to be free from this toxic role and make your own way in the world without the self-sabotaging behaviours associated with it. So put on your chin strap, get comfortable and let’s dig in.
While using global listening in the coaching room and with deep reflection it is evident to me that the entire family system is severely toxic and the roles and characteristics of this type of family actually serve to raise the status of some of the family members and demote the status of another. Yes that was a mouthful and a huge sentence. Make no mistake, this does not happen by chance. This is very strategic. Ultimately these flawed and abusive households have their roots embedded deep into the childhood of the narcissistic rageaholic parent. It is the narcissistic parent who is the master and creator of these family dynamics. Unfortunately when the narcissistic parent doesn’t receive the help they need to process their own wounds they choose to create a microcosm, their own kingdom so to speak, where they themselves reign supreme. These narcissistic rageaholic parent(s) do not have children for the same reason as most healthy well adjusted adults do. Bringing children into the world is a selfless act. When the narcissistic parent brings children into the world, albeit not always conscious of this reason, it is ultimately a self serving act accompanied by a sense of entitlement. The children will come to serve a function that benefits the psychological frailty of the narcissistic rageaholic parent. The children will not be living their lives to fulfill their own God given purpose, but rather the children exist for the narcissistic parent to shore up their fragile sense of self.
There are so many painful family roles within these systems, but for today I am focussing in on the role of the family scapegoat and how that role evolved within a specific environment. But first, let’s start with how issues can present in my office. For example, when I observe all fingers pointed toward one family member I can say unequivocally that a red flag goes up for me. Healthy family systems just do not do this. In these unhealthy dysfunctional family systems the only way members can survive is to cast blame and shame upon another member. This serves a number of significant functions within the family structure. The most important purpose is to convince the members within the family system into believing the massive lie that there are strict black and white ideas; such as, someone must always be blamed when something doesn’t go according to plan. Whose plan? The narcissist’s plan that’s who :). The thinking goes like this, someone must be at fault, therefore, others are blameless. Emotional maturity doesn’t look at the world in this way. In a healthy environment the members of a family leave room for the need to clarify ideas, revise thoughts, change one’s mind, share common goals and everyone helps one another to achieve their best. In an unhealthy family system punishments are rampant and come in many forms. Ostracizing, belittling, gossiping, smearing, and excluding are high on the list.
For the sake of this article, I want you to keep in mind the concepts of “blaming and shaming.” How do these get bestowed upon the victim ? Who exercises it and by what authority?
Let’s start with the root cause of the initial problem that is massively overlooked within these families. The bottom line is that the narcissist is emotionally immature and does not know how to process uncomfortable emotions without having a fit.
(Hows that for a technical term?) There is a technical psychological term, however, which is called, “narcissistic rage”. So here it is. It is the unreasonable anger due to the inadequate level of immaturity within the narcissist that needs to be resolved in order to raise a relationally healthy family. The reason for the unrest is not the children. It isn’t that so and so didn’t do the dishes, didn’t peel the potatoes, or impulsively sent a helpful video with a questionable title. The real reason for the family distress is that the narcissist, and narcissists’ in the making, suffer from severe emotional dysregulation and have no idea how to handle themselves.
Subsequently they end up handling themselves with an extremely childlike immaturity that demands the world come through for them or else. The adage goes, “If only so and so did this or didn’t do that,” then the narcissist or narcissists (in the making) wouldn’t have to get so angry. It is the ultimate in blame shifting to avoid taking ownership over one’s own emotions and faulty thinking. “So and so made me act out of control and they are the reason for my inner torment,” goes the inner dialogue of abusive individuals. This manifestation of family dynamics serve as a smoke screen as the person or person(s) raging actually have anger management problems, but refuse to take ownership. Why wouldn’t they have anger management issues? Their modelling has been horrific in how to deal with people or solve problems. In “reality” everyone makes mistakes and in healthy family system mistakes are not only allowed they are actually even encouraged. It is by mistakes that people grow, that vulnerability is fostered, and where people can share together what it is like to be truly human.
In unhealthy and dark family systems, (and narcissism is part of the dark triad in the diagnostic manual) typically headed by a raging narcissist, mistakes are dealt with as follows: The narcissistic and protege'(s) never admit to any mistakes or hurtful behaviour. They rationalize that the reason they lash out is due to someone else. This doesn’t stop at how they deal with family members, but this is also how they deal with people they view as lower status in the workplace & social setting etc. They are masters of knowing who they can target and who they cannot. They are image managers and regardless of their bad behaviour they will always/always come out of the story as the victim. I will note why this heaps more abuse upon family & workplace scapegoats further in another article.
The only one allowed to make any errors are the narcissistic parent and the golden child(children) who are in fact the narcissist’s protege’. The rest of the family members do not want to experience the wrath of the narcissist and protege’ so they too join in and point fingers towards the family scapegoat. Essentially the only one who is acknowledged to be making any errors are family scapegoats. This lie is ridiculous to any rational observer, but unfortunately this is not a rational group of people. It is a group of people trying to survive the raging narcissist. The rest of the family members buy into the lie. It is a sort of self-preservation where no one will admit fault or share in any responsibility otherwise the punishment would be too great.
Just like school yard bullying may cause so many bystanders to opt out of helping the bullied child, the same dynamic is true within family systems. It is the ultimate form of family bullying. No one speaks up for the bullied child, therefore, the bystanders become guilty by either doing nothing to stop the abuse, or if they are themselves frightened of the bully, they in fact join in to administer the punishments/abuse to save themselves. In more insidious cases many bystanders engage in bullying the scapegoat in order to elevate their own status within the group. They often do this for their own power and control issues in combination with the fact that if they enjoy more status they are less likely to be mistreated themselves. Only people with a well developed sense of integrity along other support systems can they withstand these sorts of group dynamics. When imposed on children by parent(s) the results are 100% compliance to family bullying.
The family scapegoat must carry the sins of the entire household. I cannot begin to share with you how many scapegoats wind up in coaching, therapy, counselling, or any other mental health support system for that matter. The level of self- blame, self-condemnation, self-recrimination is so great clients have become suicidal, self sabotaging, and tend to repeat unhealthy patterns within intimate relationships where they expect to be treated poorly. A client of mine (whose role in her family of origin was scapegoat) was going through a divorce and her brother accused her of having an affair and not working on her marriage. This toxic sibling further busted her boundaries by going to speak to the woman’s soon to be ex-husband as well as all other family members while never fully knowing that in fact the woman’s husband had an affair and this woman spent an entire lifetime dealing with chronic lies and marital discord. She couldn’t bring herself to discuss this with her brother as she didn’t want to make her ex-husband look bad.
The transition of separation into divorce is an extremely intense and difficult time for people, therefore, it is interesting that within her particular dysfunctional family system she was met with more of the same of what she endured in her childhood, that is, siblings offloading their own pain onto her at a time when she could barely withstand the pain in her own life. It is usually the personal pain experienced by the sibling from their own life’s story that gets offloaded at the first opporuntity. Unconsciously this thinking is what drives the behaviour of the abusive sibling, “I feel terrible because of my divorce and I’m going to make you feel even worse. I feel helpless so I am going to blame you for these inner feelings within me.” In a healthy family system she shouldn’t have had to discuss anything with her brother, and yet still enjoy her brother’s love and support. So instead of helping the woman as she went through a painful divorce the brother smeared her name throughout her family of origin rendering any kind of emotional support to be cut off completely.
Scapegoats tend to allow dysfunctional controlling people into their inner circles and it isn’t until much suffering do they reach out for help and support. The challenge in the coaching room is actually to break through the scapegoat’s mantra, that they are “not good enough” or to break through their thinking that they somehow deserve to be abused because they let someone else down along life’s path. In one’s life journey everyone will let someone down as some point. It is part of the human condition. Forgiveness and self forgiveness are key pathways forward for all of us. Regardless people repeat what is familiar. The symptomology within the family scapegoat is almost classic in those who have suffered from this level of mental torture & abuse. When a person presents with apologizing for things they do not have to apologize for, taking ownership over things they have no reason to own, and essentially blaming themselves for the bad behaviour of others it is apparent that I have a scapegoated person in my office. It is as though the scapegoat is saying, “Hey you don’t have to hit me, yell at me or shame me. I can do this for you.”
This particular role is highly symptomatic of the ills of the family system which is usually wrought with angry self-invested narcissists manifested in hurtful behaviours toward the empathic nature of the scapegoat. Who determines the status of family members? It is usually the dominant toxic parent and subsequently, the second in command, who would be the narcissistic sibling that was groomed to be as narcissistic as the toxic parent. This grooming takes place because the narcissist sees themselves in the soon to be second in command child often referred to as the golden child. Essentially it isn’t in the best interest of the golden child to be lassoed into this role. Many experience guilt, shame and a deep knowing that what they are participating in is wrong. They know intuitively that hurting the scapegoat is wrong, but they often engage to save themselves and left unchecked they ultimately become very prideful as the role itself fosters entitlement.
Just like some Jewish prisoners of Nazi concentration camps were given command to keep the other Jewish prisoners in line they often did so as they were rewarded with food, small cash incentives, and other freedoms that the other prisoners were not able to obtain. Some went so far as to take on the persona of the Nazis’ as they punished and tortured the other Jewish prisoners mercilessly. The timing of when the golden child graduates into becoming a narcissist isn’t determined when they are a child. When young they suffer from confusion yet like the Jewish commanders in Nazi Germany they enjoy some perks in the role. For example, the family golden child may not be required to do the less than desirable chores as the scapegoat. They could be served hot chocolate or milk by the narcissistic parent while the scapegoat is left out of the equation. Things of this nature serve to keep the golden child connected to the role although confusing them at the same time. Infractions are also treated differently, in that the narcissistic parent punishes the scapegoat for minimal infractions while the golden child’s more serious infractions are overlooked. These discrepancies in parenting confuse both the golden child and the scapegoat yet the narcissistic parent somehow is able to explain it all away. Manipulation and gaslighting are paramount and both the golden child and scapegoat become significantly confused over the reality of the situation. Both accept that these scenarios must be in place as the parent knows what they are doing and that the scapegoat must deserve this treatment somehow. These inconsistencies in parenting style have an enormous impact on how children interpret the world. After all, since the narcissistic parent is not responsible for their own anger management problems they inevitably redirect the cause of their bad behaviour onto the family scapegoat. Everyone ultimately complies including the scapegoat.
It is when the golden child grows up and moves out of the family home that one can determine if the golden child will become a narcissist or not. Within the time between moving out of the family of origin home and the time that they start their own family is where the age of accountability kicks in. At this juncture it can be determined if the golden child has been poisoned by the snake of narcissism or if they have chosen to walk a more healthy and loving path. How can you tell if the golden child has become a narcissist during this juncture? The indicator of the golden child becoming a narcissist is if they continue to punish the family scapegoat. If they continue in this punishment you can be certain that they have fully graduated into the role of senior narcissist. Heaven help their children as the cycle will repeat itself into the next generation.
Very few narcissists’ can be rehabilitated, because narcissists do not believe they have anything to work on. They will attribute any concerning issue to be the fault of the other person. They do not typically go for counselling/coaching/therapy etc. as they believe they are victims in this world because other people are not listening to them, doing as they say or not making them feel extra especially important. Look out if you insult a narcissist for if you do you will experience rage like never before. They are easily angered, easily offended, easily set off due to their fragile sense of self. If you address their victim mentality while they are obviously hurting other people they have been known to get up and walk out of sessions. They are notorious “phone hanger upppers.” They walk out of rooms when someone else has something to share. They are not able to recognize how they contribute to any unhappy situation. Typically in their minds they have absolutely nothing to learn and that other people need to be fixed. A couple of their favourite sayings include, “Can you do me a favour?” as well as, “that person is nuts!” In teacher speak, you cannot teach someone who knows everything.
What you don’t transform you will transmit. Without intervention the sins of the forefather’s have a way of multiplying forward. Even though the best of intentions are within most of us, without serious reflection and the development of a strong emotional quotient people tend to fall into automatic patterns of thinking and subsequent behaviours. Roles in dysfunctional families can be overcome, but a tell tale sign can include a fast forward into the future for examination. For example, as siblings age and are re-united at some event or crossroads, such as, weddings, funerals etc. without personal growth most fall back into the familiar toxic relating styles with which they grew up. Scapegoat bashing resumes. I always encourage the scapegoat to never be alone with any of the family of origin members. Don’t write family members emails, or send videos to help explain your thinking without first sharing it with someone who truly loves you, and for those of you with faith also pray before you engage. It is normal to want to explain ourselves but I am observing more and more that you cannot explain yourselves to these abusive people because they don’t care what you think. I’ve heard someone say, “They need you to be awful in their minds”. So nothing you do will change their thinking. I think these strategies are paramount to your mental health and just know if you haven’t done so you can always start now going forward! It is never to late to start again.
So what can you do about it? What can you do when you are put in touch with the toxic nature of the role you were assigned in the abusive household of your childhood? Were you the scapegoat? The invisible child? Those who fall into these categories were to blame for the rage that welled up from the immature narcissistic parent and subsequent immature narcissists in the making. Essentially the emotional immaturity of the narcissistic parent was such that they didn’t know how to process their own emotions like an adult. Essentially within the dark and twisted halls of these abusive childhood homes the scapegoated child was given the “goat horns” to wear and were sent out into the desert to take away the sins of the family.
It appears that not all families truly want what is best for you. When it comes to families with addictions & narcissism combined with overall anger management issues you can be certain that your family does not want what is best for you (especially if it means it won’t be best for them). Members become highly motivated by what is best for themselves. Essentially it becomes a pecking order of the fittest and strongest. Research indicates that within these family systems the older children significantly abuse younger siblings at an alarming rate. Why wouldn’t they? They have a role model of a parent who exhibits nasty, punitive and hateful behaviours. They have learned these ways from the parent. In essence the whole family is victimized with the narcissistic parent at the helm. Younger siblings are typically the recipient of the pecking order and are often brutalized by the pain within the family system. Siblings have fought since the beginning of time. Anyone remember the story of Cain & Abel? Jealousy, competition, blame shifting, scapegoating, & power moves are common in dysfunctional families, and within families with ineffective parenting these negative characteristics are not only common they are a given. When you find yourself judged by a standard that your family of origin members themselves do not measure up you know you are dealing with a family system that is wrought with double standards, power and control issues and essentially mental abuse. Ever heard a sibling screaming and yelling that you are disrespectful while they are running you into the ground? Hey kettle are you black? So what can you do about it?
You can start to detach in the most healthy way possible. Start with identifying the lines between who you are and who you are not. Start self-differentiating. You are not who your family of origin says that you are. Remember that there is a lot of information out there on self-differentiation. Learn what it means that you are a separate-self not defined by the insecure needs of immature and underdeveloped dysfunctional family members, but by a God who breathed life into you. I heard someone say once that God makes us all “free agents.” You are a free agent. Become aware that you are making choices. Opt for self-care and detox from the mental abuse/poison your family of origin injected into your veins. Just like the child born to a meth addict has to endure the painful experience of detox you too must detox your mind from all the lies, evil intent and toxic voices in your head that were imposed upon you in childhood.
Here is the first step. Give those toxic voices in your head a name. For example, people with eating disorders are told to give their eating disorder a name in order to begin to recognize the voice that is their true self from the voice that is their eating disorder. One woman calls her eating disorder voice Ed (for eating disorder). Another person calls her scapegoated voice Secona (which stands for Self Condemnation). When you hear these voices start speaking back to them. “No Secona, I don’t believe what you have to say to me. I didn’t intend to hurt anyone. Even though they are raging at me I’m not going to allow you to punish me and I’m certainly not going to punish myself.” Now is the time to set your goals, lose that weight, finish that course, and start that new project. Put your mind on good things and surround yourself with those who truly know you and love you, and especially surround yourself with those who actually DELIGHT in you! This is how you were designed. You were not designed for the abuse and rot that smolders from a dysfunctional family. You were made to exhibit and experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, & self control. Be with those who celebrate you! Don’t even settle for those who tolerate you. I loved the fact that I could make my dad laugh when he was very sick. Who can you make laugh?
Also remember to always remove yourself from abusive and punitive people who have ranked themselves as more important than you.
Start taking control of your thoughts. Thoughts create feelings and then feelings create behaviours. You can do this. We can all do this.
Until next time,