Family Scapegoat Grieves Family She Never Had – Ask the Therapist – August 2020
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Seven years ago I moved out from a man who was so much like my father that I was deeply triggered and went on a deep journey to understand the mind-boggling lies and strange landscape of unreality that this man created. What a gift, really, to discover narcissism and to finally understand the mind warp that was my father.
I am the oldest of eight children. My mother, I now know, enmeshed with me and put me up on a very rigid pedestal. She needed me to raise all her kids so she made me out to be very good, always fair, to never have any needs or emotions. I was praised and given attention by her for being what she wanted. I thought it was love and, in some ways, it was.
Meanwhile, my father beat us, moved houses and schools every year so we never had community support, and was especially cruel to my 3 brothers. I went to 14 different schools by the time I was in high school. Because I was smart and did well academically I graduated a year early, at 16, and moved out. My parents were getting a divorce and I sided completely with my mother as she had been a fairly good parent — if a deeply codependent one.
I moved as far away from my family as I could get. I was sick of being a babysitter and confidante, then being beat up by my father for standing up to him on behalf of my younger siblings. When I landed in Boulder Colorado, I was newly divorced and had a 18 month old son. Thanks to the very enlightened town I ended up in I discovered 12-step programs like Adult Children of Alcoholics and CoDA. I found an incest survivor group and began to process my father’s sexual abuse. Eventually, I found an excellent counselor and began a process of inner work that continues to this day.
I realized that my mother’s enmeshment had damaged me as much as my father’s cruelty and I began to learn boundaries. At one point, in my 40s, I shared with my sisters that my father had sexually abused me. To my surprise, my family thought I’d made it up! I thought that his more than evident cruelty would have convinced them (one brother had his nose broken when he was bashed in the face with a two-by-four) but no. As much as this hurt, I was still too far away to be overly bothered by my family, so I worked through it.
Then my mother (now married for the fourth time) became very ill and almost died. She and I were very close and had even worked through some of our issues so I really wanted to be with her and to help care for her. My step-father needed help as she was bed-bound and asked me to come out. So, I quit my job and cashed in my retirement, put my household in storage and drove to Ohio to live with them. I had always felt, deep down, that I “should” live near family. Yes, I could go out into the world and live away from them but I had a secret belief that I was not a valid person away from them. I had been the family “hero” who had stood up to my father’s beatings and taken his abuse instead of my mom or sibs so I expected to be welcomed as I was now doing the very hard job of caring for my mother.
Instead, I found that I was only the hero in my mother’s eyes and that my sibs resent and envy me. I see now that the scarce family resources of love and attention were taken up by me, my sister just younger than me (we were the working unit known as “the girls”), and my mom’s favorite son. There was very little to trickle down, and I hated the straitjacket of domestic duty that smothered me, but all my sibs saw was that I was “the favorite.”
I was really uneasy. I’d left my very conscious and loving family of the heart to come to do my duty only to discover I had moved into a very toxic household. My step-father, whom I saw every summer for about 15 years and was trusted by me, hit on me twice, and when I politely declined, became toxic and punitive in a very passive aggressive way.
When I turned to my 3 sisters who live in Ohio for support and guidance I discovered none of them believed me. Again! I was demeaned and belittled and made fun of. I became the family joke. “Oh, yeah, everyone always hits on her..” Wink wink, Nudge nudge. This despite the very scary evidence that my stepfather was unstable and had tried to overdose mom on sleeping pills and other alarming things I was witness to. My forays into community resources got me nowhere as it was just my word ( a non-resident) against his (lived in that small town a long time.)
My money ran out and when my former job came open a year later, I drove back. I was driving ahead of the COVID 19 closures so I was not able to say good-bye to my mother as I had moved out of the household after the sexual advance. So, I went from Hero to Zero somehow over my long years away. And not even my closest sister “got it” that I was just as neglected, expected and abused as everyone. Sadly, or maybe not, maybe it’s better, I don’t want to have anything to do with my family now. I feel so let down and betrayed. There is almost no reason to stay in touch. How do I now deal with feeling orphaned and betrayed? I don’t really have a family, not like I thought, and I don’t now know how to relate. Do I even have to?
Thanks so much for sharing your story and your questions. You appear to have suffered greatly at the hands of your family of origin. At the same time you possess considerable strength and perspective that has helped you survive this mistreatment and betrayal. The fact that you can reframe your father’s narcissistic abuse as anything approaching a plus, as it gives you deep insight into the heart of the problems you have been navigating, shows real insight and fortitude. I hope your capacity for objectivity also helps you rise above the pain of this very hurtful family dynamic.
Sadly, it seems that during your upbringing, your mother trained you to become a ‘Parentified Child’, meaning you took over the parental responsibilities she couldn’t or wouldn’t assume. The price all parentified children pay is the neglect of their developmental needs to be viewed and supported as unique individuals and nurtured into adulthood by guiding parental hands. Instead the process of natural and healthy maturation is disrupted. This can result in the loss of personal identity and boundaries, as well as flagging confidence and a sense of direction in life, as others’ needs and demands come to over shadow developing human beings. Parentified kids also tend to be vulnerable to anxiety, depression, compulsive overwork, relationship problems, control issues and can struggle with false guilt and shame.
There are three types of Parentification: Instrumental, Emotional and Narcissistic, all of which are boundary violations that burden a developing child by thrusting her into the parental role that the actual parent has abdicated. In Instrumental and Emotional Parentification, children are either rewarded or punished depending on how well they perform in the eyes of the demanding parent, keeping the child hooked as they are starving for parental approval, support and love. All Parentified Children suffer from the lack of parental attention to their own developmental and attachment needs.
Instrumental Parentification occurs when a parent overburdens their child by expecting her to take over some or all aspects of running a household and/or raising siblings. Emotional Parentification involves a parent excessively leaning on their child for emotional support. In this case, the child is required to become either a proxy therapist for a parent who struggles with mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety or, a confidante drawn into unhealthy triangulation with the parent against their partner, or other blood relatives, encouraging unhealthy triangulation.
Narcissistic Parentification reflects an even deeper lying pathology in the motivation of the needy, demanding parent. This highly damaging form of parentification happens when a narcissistic parent projects her unfulfilled ideals or rejected character traits onto their child, creating either an idealized Golden Child, or a repudiated Scapegoat. Golden kids become defenders of NPD parents and rationalize their abusive behavior in order to remain in favor, never admitting the negative costs to their underdeveloped sense of identity or future relationships. Golden Kids rarely risk the threat to their unhealthy attachment bond to a needy or narcissistic parent by questioning the status quo. This forced self abandonment also puts them at risk for developing Narcissistic Personality Disorder themselves.
Scapegoats, on the other hand, tend to eventually push back against family abuse and the false vilification they suffer. However the price scapegoats pay in trying to escape the abusive system is ongoing devaluation and rejection by family, and perfectionistic behavior based on the false conditioned belief that they are defective. Due to the extreme nature of the emotional abuse they are subjected to, Scapegoats are most vulnerable to developing attachment trauma disorders including Complex PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder. Through the familial conditioning of Trauma Bonding, where love and abuse become fused, Scapegoats are also vulnerable to falling into close relationships with narcissistic friends and partners, thereby replicating the very narcissistic family dynamics they are desperate to escape.
I have no way of knowing the extent to which your mother was aware that she was acclimatizing you to emotional damage in having these parentified expectations of you. Regardless, from my perspective, your mother was exploiting your need for love and approval so you could meet her unmet needs. Although this feels like love – and you say there was love there – your mother’s affection was contingent on what you could do for her. In other words, her approval was conditional on you being her caretaker, which is the opposite of a healthy parent-child love bond.
Nevertheless, your mother’s affection, even if flawed, seems to have provided some kind of counterweight to the fear, insecurity and chaos created by your father. It sounds like your father excelled in taking out his frustrations, and failures, on his family. He also seems to have not had any appreciation or respect for his children’s need to grow up in an atmosphere of stability, continuity or support, and may have even been engaging in a form of ‘Traumatic Re-enactment’ (aka Repetition Compulsion) himself, based on his own likely negative experiences in his family of origin.
Good for you for finally having the courage to step away from the parentified golden child role, to saying ‘No’ to being taken for granted, used and, ultimately, being a human shield for your siblings against your father. You sound incredibly resourceful in finding and building a supportive community as a young woman with a new baby. You seem to have possessed real clarity regarding how to help yourself recover and get back on your feet, perhaps for the first time, given the abusive atmosphere of your family of origin.
At the same time, it seems that your father made a point of crossing every boundary of civility, parenting and human decency. Unfortunately, your mother’s enmeshment with your father appears to have made it easier for him to get away with this. It must have been very hard to reveal to your siblings the ultimate betrayal of sexual abuse by your father, only to be met with disbelief. This reveals the extent to which survivors are successfully ‘programmed’ to identify with the aggressor through a process known as ‘Capture Bonding’, and come to believe that the abuse they witness or are subjected to has either not occurred, is of little consequence, is a flat out lie or, perhaps worst of all – deserved. This minimization of profound abuse at the hands of your father was likely aided by your mother’s codependency, as she was either unable or unwilling to take steps to remove you from harms way earlier in life.
The depth of your loyalty towards your mom is striking. Sadly, as the family ‘Hero’, caretaking family and putting yourself on the frontline with your father so your siblings wouldn’t have to endure his abuse, may have led you to believe for a while that this was your job, reinforced by the fact that this was also the main source of validation in your family home, putting you in a perpetual double bind. But the cost to you was great, as it deprived you of opportunity to develop the healthy sense of individual identity you were entitled to, especially earlier in life, with dreams, wishes and true goals of your own, outside of being the family caregiver.
The emotionally deprived, scary and disloyal atmosphere of your family home has demonstrated to your siblings that affection and approval were very scarce resources that had to be competed for. This is a breeding ground for resentment and victim blaming. You ‘won’ temporarily, by becoming the favorite, but at the cost of your indentured emotional and physical servitude, and hostility from your siblings.
Your stepfather’s inappropriate behavior towards you was most certainly despicable. Again, as likely per her ‘programming’, your mother chose the devil she knew not once but twice, rather than a good partner and paternal role model for her children. You haven’t said much about your feelings towards your mother, though I certainly get the impression that you felt very conflicted. Clearly your mother finally had enough and got away from your biological father, resulting in tremendous relief for yourself. You mentioned that you and your mother have worked through some of the difficulties you went through together. I sincerely hope your mother has been accountable for the purgatory she expected you to manage and endure, the harms you experienced as a result of that, and has taken steps towards trying to make amends for the childhood that was stolen from you. Only you know the answer to this, and whether this is acceptable to you.
You’ve learned the hard way that the family Hero can quickly become the Scapegoat, once you could no longer tow the line of sacrificing yourself – and your needs – to the unhealthy family system. Narcissistic families that engage in scapegoating are controlled by lies and myths and secrets. To enmeshed family members, the biggest ‘crime’ against the system is the ‘truth telling’, dismantling of the false front and unveiling of abuse undertaken by the scapegoat. It must have been very painful for you to be punished repeatedly for your years of self sacrifice and trying to do the right thing by your family. In this sense, you truly are heroic. Not for the slavery you endured, but for having the courage to try to set things right, in spite of the opposition you received from your siblings.
You clearly have been let down and betrayed from day one by your family, including your mother. The feelings of Grief you are experiencing are completely normal and understandable, given the depths of your losses. There is no shortcut for this Estrangement Grief, nor the grief that comes from the loss of the family you never had and will likely never get. I’m glad you have good support from the family you had the talent to create and your community as you come to terms with this grief and loss.
I completely understand your lack of motivation to stay in touch with your family, given the extent to which they have thrown you under the bus. I would encourage you to continue to trust your judgement regarding not investing your time with people who are not there for you, and seem to be working against you, especially given that they are the same blood relatives you have worked overtime to help over the years. You deserve peace of mind and to be treated with respect and care. Perhaps over time you may discover that limited contact with some immediate or extended family is possible. Until then, I wish you all the best.
Photo by Ricardo Gomez – Unsplash
Notes / References
- Parentified Child
- Trauma Bonding
- Love is simply and eloquently defined by Scott Peck in his seminal book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ as “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. Note the emphasis on action, not emotion. Peck continues : “When we love someone, our love becomes demonstrable or real only through our exertion – through the fact that for that someone (or for ourself) we take an extra step or walk an extra mile. Love is not effortless. To the contrary, love is effortful.” He clarifies further the role of conscious decision making inherent in love “Love is an act of will – namely both an intention and an action.” M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, Simon & Schuster, 2002
- Traumatic Re-enactment
- Capture Bonding
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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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