by Glynis Sherwood MEd
‘No Contact’ is not a welcome choice that family scapegoats make to push family away, but rather a decision of last resorts they are driven to in order to protect themselves from ongoing abuse by family members who refuse to respect
healthy relationships, limits or behavior.
What is ‘No Contact’?
Simply speaking, ‘No Contact’ is a deliberate choice to end all communication – either in person, by phone, email, , text or otherwise – with verbally, emotionally and, sometimes, physically abusive family members, and possibly those who support their position. Sometimes ‘No Contact’ is final, as when a target determines that a line has been crossed that negates any further communication, such as threats or physical abuse.
More typically amongst scapegoats, ‘No Contact’ is open ended, meaning it will be retracted if their abusers acknowledge mistreatment and make a commitment to not engage in abusive behavior again. Unfortunately this is rare and unlikely, but demonstrates the hopefulness, desire and mental health on the part of the scapegoat to improve and hold onto family relationships. The fact that scapegoating families are willing to deny the truth about abusive behavior is a statement about the psychological dysfunction of the family system as a whole.
Why Scapegoats Choose ‘No Contact’
Scapegoats have usually tried repeatedly – often over years or decades – to maintain and improve relationships with difficult family members, only to be continuously put down, lied about, shamed, blamed, and abused verbally, emotionally and sometimes physically in spite of their efforts. On top of that, if they try to stop scapegoating behavior, they tend to be punished repeatedly for attempting to break free of their role as the ‘family problem’. Scapegoats are frequently told they are creating family problems by ‘blowing the whistle’ on abuse. The cruel irony here is that scapegoating often escalates in response to targets trying to bring an end to it.
Due to this kind of vicious circle dynamic, many scapegoats choose ‘No Contact’ as a last resort to distance themselves from ongoing mistreatment. They rightfully fear habitual abuse at the hands of their family, and are driven to escape the trauma of unrelenting harm. Scapegoating is the ultimate abuse of power and a dehumanizing experience, as targets are considered to have few or no human rights by family members who mistreat them. When understood from this perspective, ‘No Contact’ is an essential psychological survival strategy.
Other reasons scapegoats go ‘No Contact’ include when abusive behavior is escalating, they are dealing with addicts who are not in recovery, or they are motivated to protect partners, children, other family members or friends from abuse. As can be seen by these examples, ‘No Contact’ is an act of desperate self preservation by scapegoats who want healthy relationships with their family, but desire more to flee the humiliation, hurt and craziness of ongoing mistreatment.
By saying ‘No’ to scapegoating, targets are escaping the nightmare of never being allowed to be right – especially when they are.
Saying ‘No’ to Abuse
By choosing ‘No Contact’, scapegoats are saying ‘No’ to making themselves available to be abused. They are escaping the repetitive nightmare of never being allowed to be seen as loveable or worthy members of a family that frames them as the bad guy. They step off the path of false blame for family dysfunction. They say ‘No’ to projection of guilt, shame and inappropriate behavior onto themselves by their accusers. Scapegoating, like other forms of abuse and bullying relies heavily on denial and projecting the problems of one or more group members onto the target. By saying “I won’t do this any more”, targets are resigning from toxic patterns of abusive family dynamics. They are refusing to falsely claim responsibility for other people’s problems. In the end they are choosing basic sanity and peace of mind.
How to Go ‘No Contact’ & What to Expect
The decision to go ‘No Contact’ is highly personal one. It’s a statement by the target that s/he has the right to not participate in being an object of degradation or humiliation by family members. The decision to go ‘No Contact’ can be a private oath sworn in silence, or communicated more openly to one or more family members. The important issue for targets is to be clear about their intention in communicating openly – or not. There are pros and cons to both choices.
To Communicate or Not Communicate ‘No Contact’?
If a target decides to disclose their decision to go ‘No Contact’, they are being direct with others about their purpose. While this creates clarity regarding intent, it will also likely result in the escalation of scapegoating behavior, albeit from the safer distance of ‘No Contact’. Scapegoaters become defensive when their abusive behavior is being openly identified, though have no problem abusing their targets – the ultimate form of hypocrisy.
A ‘No Contact’ stance tends to elicit angry denunciation of the target’s decision by scapegoaters, and becomes fuel for more false outrage, blaming and framing the target’s choice as further evidence of their ‘badness’. On the other hand, if the target chooses to not communicate their decision to go ‘No Contact’, their silence may be ignored or, greeted with more scapegoating behind the scenes. In other words, regardless of the target’s choice regarding disclosure, the malicious gossip mill will probably keep running in an attempt to continue vilifying – and controlling – the target. Targets must weigh the pros and cons of silence versus disclosure regarding their decision to go ‘No Contact’.
Once the decision to go ‘No Contact’ has been made, it’s very important for scapegoats to not back peddle. This can be challenging in the face of direct or indirect pressure from family members, or their allies, to revert back to their assigned role as the ‘family problem’. Scapegoating tactics, such as trying to make the target feel guilty for the tension that ‘No Contact’ creates may also be used in an attempt to force the target back into their place in the toxic family system. Scapegoats must hold their ground for their own peace of mind, but also to demonstrate the limits they are prepared to set in order to be treated civilly by others.
In the end, ‘No Contact’ is a powerful and healthy position for many targets to take. It communicates a powerful message that the target will no longer participate in victimization dynamics. It is a positive, courageous and assertive choice to take control of one’s own identity and relationships. At the same time, it can create some space to be open to – and aware of – any signs of positive change in the family, and to discover who might be on their side.
What ‘No Contact’ Costs Scapegoats
Loss: ‘No Contact’ can be one of the most heart wrenching choices a scapegoat can make. In spite of a legitimate decision to move away from abuse, ‘No Contact’ represents a break from and, sometimes, the permanent loss of family. As most scapegoats are mentally well, they experience normal, healthy grief in the face of this loss. Scapegoats have been deprived of the one thing they come into this world deserving – to be wanted and loved by family, especially parents. It’s heartbreaking enough to have endured the betrayal of scapegoating, and then have to give up on holding on to hope by going ‘No Contact’. This takes tremendous courage, and scapegoats deserve understanding and support.
Scapegoats can also experience a ripple effect of estrangement generated by a malicious gossip mill, whereby extended family relationships are damaged or lost due to buying into the scapegoat myth. This creates a greater sense of loneliness for scapegoats, especially at traditional family times such as Christmas. For people who grew up in scapegoating family systems holidays were often conflict filled, and can be emotionally triggering, due to these kinds of traumatic associations.
Scapegoat survivors who go ‘No Contact’ may also no longer be able to look forward to including family members in important milestones such as weddings, births, graduations, new jobs, etc. And scapegoats who go ‘No Contact’ may become more vulnerable if they have no one to turn to if the going gets tough, such as times of serious illnesses, job loss, divorce, or financial problems.
Ongoing Abuse & Narcissism: Many scapegoats come from family systems that are character disordered –often narcissistic – meaning controlling, self centered, unloving, unsupportive, discontented, mentally unhealthy people are at the helm. It can be very hard for scapegoats to escape the negative scrutiny of these families who rely on having someone to blame for their problems, and fear the loss of control of their target, who serves a psychological ‘need’ in the narcissist to never feel bad about themselves. The scapegoat fits that so-called ‘need’.
Narcissists have a fragile sense of self due to an ‘external locus of control’, which translates into relying on others to reflect back to them that they are lovable and worthy people, as they are unable to do this for themselves. In other words, narcissists are dependent on others seeing them favorably in order to feel good about themselves. But underneath, narcissists have unconscious fears of inadequacy which break through when they are not being put on a pedestal, they are being criticized or asked to take accountability for negative behavior. When this happens, narcissistic rage arises, and the scapegoat is made responsible for this unhappiness.
Narcissistic family members lack insight, and do not see themselves as liable for their own behavior. As their egos are fragile, and they do not have the strength for self reflection, they need a fall guy to take away their pain. Denial and minimization of personal responsibility, blaming others, and rage are the main defenses of narcissistic people.
Scapegoats who leave narcissistic family systems often experience ongoing harassment. This can be through direct confrontation, or abuse behind the scenes, such as malicious lies and gossip.
Social Bias: In our culture there is a powerful Judeo-Christian bias against going ‘No Contact’. The unspoken credos to ‘Forgive and forget’ or ‘Turning the other cheek’ run counter to the need to protect oneself from abuse. ‘No Contact’ also threatens the myth of the good family. As a consequence, scapegoats who go ‘No Contact’ are often harshly judged and falsely accused of being insensitive, uncaring and hostile – the very behaviors their abusers engage in!
Life After ‘No Contact’
What to Expect
Many scapegoat survivors describe a sense of liberation, and most feel more at peace over time. Your nervous system will likely begin to settle down once you are out of the line of fire. At the same time, life can be challenging, especially in the beginning. It’s a shock to the system to separate from your nuclear family, and requires a process of grieving and adjustment. As previously noted, ‘No Contact’ can be particularly painful on special occasions and holidays that focus on family togetherness. Scapegoats can also feel on the spot fielding awkward questions about family, and knowing what to say.
What To Do
Cultivate relationships with extended family members where possible. Try and find out what family members may be on your side. For family members you are unsure of, you can start with low risk conversations and activities (e.g. going for coffee) that touch on your desire to build healthy relationships to ‘feel them out’. Share something that would not be devastating for you if the person you are conversing with doesn’t seem to get it or respond positively. For example, “I’d like to get to know you better, let’s meet”. If they do react favorably, when you meet you can say something like “I would like to get to know you better as you seem like the kind of person who really respects friends and family”. Again observe how they respond. If it’s positive you can go deeper over time. For example, if asked about upcoming holidays and family, if you feel safe you might say “I’ve decided to spend Christmas with my friend”.
Continue to observe how they react – positive, negative or neutral. If this goes well, then it gives you the green light to share something more personal such as “I’ve decided to spend Christmas with my friend to get away from negative family politics”. There’s a possibility that an extended family member has also been impacted by negative family dynamics and like you wants to break free or minimize contact.
Redefine the meaning of family. Where is it written that family has to be biological? Family should be made up of people whom you trust and who care about you, and vice versa. For many scapegoats, friends do become this family. Some scapegoats deliberately cultivate friendships with people from healthy families so they can get to be part of family get togethers – something that’s missing in their own lives.If your closest friends ask about your family, you should be able to be honest. “My family is abusive, and I have decided to have no contact with them for now”. Good friends won’t pressure you for details or judge you. You should feel comfortable enough to reveal whatever you wish to disclose to a true friend.
What to tell acquaintances? This is trickier, but the short answer is that you don’t owe an explanation to an acquaintance. The point here is to say something that moves you away from that topic as quickly and comfortably as possible. E.G. “No I don’t have family here”; “I spend holidays with my friends”. You can ask about their family as a segway out of the conversation “What about you/your family?”. Or you respond briefly then pleasantly change the subject, e.g. “I had Xmas dinner with my friend…what movie would you like to see”.
If you have somehow contributed to the problems in your family – intentionally or unintentionally – then own up. There’s no time limit on making amends or being a better person. Growing up in an abusive family makes it harder to know how to have positive relationships or engage in healthy behaviors. Forgive yourself, ask others for forgiveness where appropriate and move on. You are already proving to yourself that you are not afraid to strive towards being a bigger person.
Expect to feel sad sometimes. You did not ask to be born into a family that does not value you or respect you for who you are. You have lost a lot in being cheated of a loving family. But you are also a survivor who has chosen to break the silence and end the cycle of abuse. It takes courage and self awareness to break free from the toxic legacy of scapegoating. For that huge reason alone, you deserve to feel good about yourself.
Get help if you need it. If you find yourself struggling with low self worth, guilt, anxiety, fear or sadness after going ‘No Contact’, you may benefit from therapy with an experienced counsellor who can help you begin to rebuild your sense of self, overcome your traumatic past, and feel more stable, secure and at peace in the world again.
Scapegoating in Families: Intergenerational patterns of physical and emotional abuse, Dr Vimala Pillari, Philadelphia, PA, US: Brunner/Mazel, 1991
Child Abuse: Pathological Syndrome of Family Interaction, Arthur Green, Richard Gaines and Alice Sandgrund, The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2015
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in recovery from Scapegoating, Low Self Esteem, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors. I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the life you want and deserve!