Ask the Therapist – Autumn 2021
by Glynis Sherwood MEd
Ask the Therapist is an education and advice column only. It is not counseling nor a substitute for psychotherapy.
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I’ve been scapegoated by my entire birth family, but also and latterly by both of my adult children who have copied the behaviour. Their level of cruelty has been extremely difficult and punishing and it’s this level of ostracisation I’ve struggled with the most.
I just wanted to let you know that your article on Estrangement Grief was spot on in every way. You couldn’t have worded it or added more to it. My daughter, who has been back 6 times in 11 years and then cut me off again, contacted me out of the blue in an email a few weeks ago. She’s nearly 40 so she’s well and truly an adult. She was checking to see if I’ve survived the virus.
As you mention, the fantasy thinking of ‘oh she does love me really’, was quickly pushed out by the clarity of reality thinking ‘ah, this is to make her look good if anything happens and to secure an inheritance’. I didn’t respond this time. Four weeks on I would have thought if she was sincere, there would have been a follow up email. There has been no further word.
But the final realisation that I can’t go back and that I am likely to end my life permanently estranged has triggered more grief because finally, there is a door closing in sight although, and despite multiple losses spanning three generations, not what I imagined.
You are right when you point out that no one understands the pain of the scapegoat. It’s a totally alien landscape to most people, so it’s very difficult trying to explain often because unlike death, it never ends.
It’s a lot easier to come to terms with the fact that there is no way back to our abusive family, if there is anything to cling to. For me, it’s my faith. Believe it or not, out of a family of eight, I was the only one who was sent to Sunday School. One day when I was crying and told the vicar my mum didn’t love me, he very tenderly told me that God loved me. This has been my rock all through my life and it’s kept me sane.
Your article is the only one I’ve found which addresses the terrible and profound grief of the scapegoat. Just imagine how I feel when they post their happy family Christmas photos publicly on social media for my ‘benefit’. I don’t look these days, but I imagine some scapegoats do. The grief is endless, as is the punishment. But with determination, I’m hoping there is an escape route from the worst of it.
Currently I am surrounded by friends excited by the lifting of pandemic restrictions for Christmas. They are rushing out to buy presents and they tell me all about their plans for their grandchildren. I have six grandchildren who don’t know I exist so each Christmas brings a hidden, solitary grief. I honestly can’t comprehend the cruelty behind the thinking but it’s there, like someone twisting a knife all the time.
I do have a question. I wonder what your advice might be on how to deal with sudden triggers of grief, when I suddenly become overwhelmed by hurtful memories, abandonment and loss? Currently, I am flooded with memories of all the Christmasses I spent scrimping, saving and spending all day in the kitchen to give my children fond memories. In 17 years, I haven’t even received a Christmas card from either of them. They just float back occasionally, cause more hurt and then disappear again. I feel like all those Christmasses with them were a waste of effort.
At the moment, and having realised that there is no way back, this new understanding of finality has brought a new more intense level of grief to the surface. I can’t stop crying. Tears just flow spontaneously.
Thank you for sharing your story and your questions. How incredibly painful to have been ‘bookended’ by family scapegoating, first by your birth family and then by your adult children. Sounds like your feelings of hurt and betrayal run deep.
I’m glad my article on Estrangement Grief has been helpful to you. It’s so very difficult to lose family kinship ties, especially across 3 generations.
I hear how confusing and painful it is to be in this recurring abandonment relationship cycle with your daughter. Repeatedly building up hope that you are reconnecting only to be rejected is very distressing and, understandably, has led to a loss of trust regarding the motivation behind your daughter’s behavior.
It is extremely hard to come to terms with the possibility that you have reached the end of the line with your birth family and children. Deep grief, especially stemming from multiple familial losses of this nature tests the strongest people, and it sounds like sadness and mourning can feel like constant and unwelcome companions for you.
You didn’t mention whether you have other people in your life for support. Sometimes people who have been scapegoated find there may be an extended family member, or two, who understand the reality of toxic family dynamics, or at least can be non-judgemental. Other folks create their own family through friendship ties. There are also support groups online, such as the FaceBook group Scapegoat Children of Narcissist Parents which some of my clients have found helpful.
The bottom line is that it is normal and necessary to grieve the loss of family you never had, as well as the family you had and became estranged from. Estrangement grief, though very hard to experience, helps us to not only access and discharge deep pain, but also assists us to get in touch with our true needs. Painful emotions are not just the ‘messengers’ of our true and unmet needs, but also the primary source of motivation, and help us set healthy boundaries. Emotions are the through line to what we need to say both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to. So the silver lining here is that there is a purpose or functionality to this pain. Grief protects us from becoming entrenched in depression, though low mood can certainly linger for a while as a ‘stage’ of grief. Without grief, we cannot complete processing the loss, and may stay stuck in depression, like quicksand. The avoidance of grief, either unconsciously or consciously, can lead to chronic depression and/or anxiety.
Which brings me to my next point. If you find yourself anchored in grief, you may be suffering from complex grief, retraumatized, or both. Depression and anxiety can misguidedly try to ‘protect’ people by blocking grief. In effect, both depression and anxiety block emotions. They are defenses against healthy pain that create the additional problems of hopelessness and helplessness found in depression or, in the case of anxiety, constant worry based rumination and fear.
Retraumatization can occur as a result of reactivating the abandoned, wounded child that resides in childhood abuse survivors. Emotional Flashbacks can take you back to the despair, terror and helplessness you experienced as a child. If this is happening to you then, if you have the means, I’d recommend that you seek counseling with a therapist who has a solid background in understanding narcissistic family abuse dynamics and treating complex trauma.
Family Scapegoating, aka Narcissistic Abuse, is one of the last bastions of socially unrecognized grief. The resistance and criticism survivors face from people who are unwilling or unable to face the harsh reality of highly imperfect and destructive families, can cause another layer of injury and loss in the target, referred to as Secondary Wounding 1. On a troubling and regular basis, survivors are typically met with disbelief, denial, minimization or blame from others, which recreates the failure of empathy and invalidation of the abusive family home, leading to a downward spiral of dissociation into the abandoned / wounded child state, where false self blame, guilt and shame – aka the Inner Scapegoat – reside. Secondary Wounding may also lead to a breakdown of trust, feelings of rage, hopelessness and/or further estrangement. Sadly, this often happens when survivors are coming to terms with their abuse history, only to be re-wounded by people they look to for support and understanding during this challenging transition.
Other survivors have told me that, just like you, social media can feel re-wounding. Especially when you witness family milestones and celebrations that you are ostracized from. Good for you for taking a ‘digital detox’ so you can protect your heart from further pain.
You mention how painful it is to hear your friends’ plans to spend Christmas with grandkids. Are your friends aware that you have been excluded from these family gatherings? If not, do you need to tell them a bit about the situation, and ask that they not dwell on this with you?
In terms of dealing with triggers of grief, loss and abandonment that can feel so overwhelming, I would invite you to treat yourself with the tender compassion that the kind Vicar showed you so long ago. It’s likely the wounded, abandoned child in you, as well as the mother you are, who are grieving these losses you are bookended by. Feel the hurt and sadness of the wounded child you were. Allow the adult in you to step in to nurture and support her. Most people who are dealing with familial trauma find that caring for the wounded child within is a practice that, over time, softens the anguish and fear. It is more complicated that you are also dealing with adult estrangement, and I hope you have some adult support in your life from people who can understand and have your back at those times when grief can feel so intense.
I’m also wondering if you need to set firmer limits or conditions with your adult children regarding the casualness with which they seem to re-enter and exit your life? Seems that the price you pay is much too steep.
You may also benefit from having a strategy for working your way through the Emotional Flashbacks associated with Complex – aka Relational – Trauma. This involves several reality testing steps to be aware of and to work your way through:
1. Slowing down and acknowledging the trigger: “I’m having an emotional flashback”
2. Grounding Yourself: “I am safe in the present, in this room. My feet are on the ground”; “The worst is over”; “Even though I feel fear, I am not in danger, etc”. Remind yourself that this is an old memory state that’s been reactivated, and can predetermine your beliefs and feelings of threat, even though this may not be true in the present. In other words, reality testing is very important as it taps into the power of the pre-frontal cortex to reorient yourself into the present, while the non linear emotional brain trying to convince you that the threat response is connected to a present ‘danger’, even when this is about memory rather than present danger. The ultimate goal is to unpair the latent threat response in the emotional brain with the present to calm down the nervous system and minimize hyper-vigilance and reactivity.
3. Comforting the Wounded Self, through caring, sympathetic and non-judgemental attention and thoughts: “You were hurt badly, and you did not deserve this”. “I am here for you and love you”; “I will love you in the way you deserve to be loved, and needed at the time, but did not get”;” I will never allow anyone to hurt you again like that”, etc. The goal here is to become the Supportive Witness that was missing during relational trauma.
4. Repeating these steps until you feel calmer, soothed, etc.
Wishing you the peace of mind you deserve on your healing journey.
Photo – Pixabay
Notes / References
- Secondary Wounding: Behind the Term: Trauma, National Registry of Evidence Based Programs and Practices, SAMHSA, 2016
Need help overcoming family scapegoating or dealing with Narcissistic behavior in family relationships? Check out my Family Scapegoat Counseling page
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Narcissistic Abuse, Low Self Esteem, Chronic Anxiety, Estrangement Grief and Relationship Addiction.
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