Ask the Therapist – June 2019 Question:
Should I Cut Ties With My Scapegoating Siblings?
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I am a 29-year-old woman and eldest of a family of 3 kids. My father has always been absent, and my mother has always been cold, detrimental, belittling. I wonder if my siblings are scapegoating me.
For my whole childhood and early youth my mother tried to isolate me from girlfriends and boyfriends. She would find ways to talk badly about me behind my back, saying I was frail, not stable, a jerk and so on. From time to time I would find out, but my mind just would erase that and I never confronted her for it. My father would witness all of that and never say a word.
I have been a ‘parentified’ daughter, taking care of my two younger brothers, and even my father since I was ten years old. I would cook, dress my brothers, tidy up, buy groceries. When my brothers grew up, the attitude didn’t change: I was a female, and had to take care of the males of the family.
When I was 7 years old, my mother told me she had an illness, it was a “secret”, nobody could know about it as it was shameful for her. She was often ill in bed with a fever and a constant cough. When I was 17, I asked for help from a teacher, and I found out my mother had a rare hereditary illness, which I was a bearer (my brothers too). The information was confirmed afterwards by a special clinic I sent my mother to. Yes, I fought for her to take care of herself. My father witnessed all of this in silence.
During my childhood I witnessed financial abuse from my father. My brothers and I had a right to an inheritance. My father and his brothers hid the will so they could inherit all of the estate themselves. Unfortunately, my father and his brothers could not reach an agreement on the shares of the inheritance. They started fighting and launched a lawsuit, which froze the estate. Nowadays, I know nothing more about it. All of this happened in front of my brothers and myself. My mother would always say that our father had done all of this just for the good of us children.
During my twenties I had abusive partners, eating disorders, depression, poor coping mechanisms (OCD, obsessive-compulsive-disorders). Sometimes I would ask my parents for help, but they would just ignore or shame me for the problems I was experiencing.
Nonetheless, I studied very hard and landed a good job at 22. As soon as I could, I moved out of my parents’ house. As I left the house, I was called names, isolated, I received the longest silent treatment ever. I began to suffer severe, recurring tension headaches. I struggled to grasp all of that hate towards me. I tried to confront my mother, but she would not explain anything to me. I told her that I felt she did not love me at all. But all she could say was “you’re wrong”.
Some years passed and my parents found out I was in a relationship with a woman I loved. After 6 months of the silent treatment, they would come to my house to subject me to insults and shame. My mother said she would rather have a dead or ill daughter, than a gay one. After they were done (and I was unable to react), the silent treatment continued, and I fell into the worst depression ever, which brought me to suicidal thoughts for the first time. I went into therapy, even thought I was struggling financially (I had just bought a house and had a mortgage and was living alone). I was blessed enough to find a very good therapist who opened my eyes about the abuse and urged me to cut ties with them, which I did. I was so full of rage and wished my parents died.
Today, I have been no contact with my parents and extended family (patriarchal, homophobic, racist abusers, as well) for a year and a half. I have to say, nobody really tried to contact me anyway. I feel better. I am trying to learn to take care of myself and to cope with my tension headaches. I have a wonderful girlfriend, a house, a job I love, and good friends.
However, I don’t seem able to make peace with my brothers not contacting me anymore. They are 24 and 18 years old. I have tried to explain my position to them, and thought they got it. Anyway, I have not heard from them for 6 months. I have invited them over, but they won’t come. I still have their Christmas presents. They still live with my parents.
My question is: should I let them go? I love my brothers a lot, but they seem to be avoiding me, or not caring. One of them (the 24-year-old) is very cold. He seems to have no feelings, and drinks way too much alcohol. But I can see his wounded self behind the wall he has built since early childhood, and he has always been quite loyal to me. The other one has been struggling with social anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts. I think he has been abused the worst because he did not do well enough in school to satisfy my mother’s standards.
I told them that despite my decision to cut ties with the family, I don’t want and don’t intend to cut ties with them, and that I will always be there for them, no matter what. I don’t know what to do about my brothers. I want them in my life, but I don’t want to put my sanity at risk anymore – this is my number one priority now. And I don’t want to be the one to run after my loved ones anymore, now I want people who reciprocate.
Thanks very much for your question. First of all, in spite of not being given support or care by your parents, and contending with ongoing emotional abuse, you are a true survivor and thriver. That says a lot about the strength of your character. Now onto the issue of family and siblings who scapegoat.
It appears you were off to a challenging start in life with an emotionally negligent father and abusive mother, and sadly your relationship with your family remains challenging and painful, with your parents being ring leaders of these difficulties. Your experience is not uncommon, and sets up any child or young person to feel insecure and anxious, due to ongoing abuse by the very people you should be able to rely on to have your back. I can completely appreciate that going no contact with your parents is a necessary survival strategy for your peace of mind.
You’ve dealt with tremendous betrayal by both parents, but especially by your mother who has slandered and discredited you behind your back. How hurtful this must have been for you, to discover that your mother was undermining your relationships with other children and young people you were hoping and needing to befriend. Given that you were just child, it’s understandable that you felt at a loss about how to deal with this abuse of power. It also sounds like the shock of this betrayal – coming from your own mother – made it additionally challenging to stand up for yourself, for shock is a traumatic response that can be quite immobilizing.
Sadly much of your mistreatment by your parents was gender based. Even today it’s not uncommon to find abused girls taking over the caretaking job(s) that parents have abdicated in the family. Sometimes it’s voluntarily – as no one else will do it – but often it’s forced upon girls, as in your situation. You not only didn’t get to be a child, as you were thrust into a ‘parentified’ role that was not your responsibility in the first place, but you were denied the parental support and guidance that is essential to the development of secure attachment in relationships.
On top of all that, it must have been frightening for you to have a mother who was chronically unwell, but kept you worried in the dark, as she did not provide you with any understanding or reassurance regarding her situation. Furthermore, your father’s apparent dishonesty about the estate you had a right to is evidence of extremely selfish behavior that hindered both your need for parental support and your future independence.
Many abused and neglected children become adults who struggle with problems with chronic anxiety, depression, self worth and relationships. As the abuse you experienced was ‘normalized’ during your childhood, you were likely conditioned to not know how to recognize, expect or receive civil treatment from others. These kinds of early abusive relationships can prime children to gravitate towards ‘trauma bonds’, where love and abuse become entangled. I refer to this as choosing the ‘devil you know’. The formal psychological terms for this is ‘repetition compulsion’ or ‘traumatic re-enactment’ in relationships. It’s a human vulnerability we all have in response to chronic relationship abuse.
It looks to me like your parents singled you out to be the Family Scapegoat early in life. They projected their own blame and shame onto you, rather than facing their difficulties – either individually or as a couple – directly and honestly. The fact that your parents would not support your independence is a particularly cruel form of family abandonment, especially given that they would not permit you to rely on them while you were growing up.
Chillingly it seems that your parents have an ongoing campaign of treating you like an enemy rather than supporting you as their child. In addition to being misogynistic, your parents have subjected you to blatant homophobia, striking yet another traumatic blow to your attachment needs for safety and acceptance. Parental acceptance and support are core developmental needs that help shape the basis of secure identity and self worth. Thus, your parents injured you twice: first by shaming and scapegoating you for being female, and secondly for your sexual orientation. Your parent’s purpose seems to have been to tear down your character and render you feeling worthless.
I’m so glad you took yourself seriously, decided to stop believing how your parents made you feel, and found a therapist who had the foresight to advise you to go no contact with your parents. It’s never easy to go no contact, but the proof that you made the right decision is in how much better you feel now. Congratulations on your courage and willingness to treat yourself with the care that your parents withheld from you, and may have been incapable of showing you in the first place, as they sound quite narcissistically disturbed. You have built a good life for yourself that you should be proud of.
With respect to your brothers, I admire your loyalty and compassion. However, there seems to be no question that they have been negatively influenced by your parents. Sadly this is usually the case in narcissistic families that scapegoat. If children witness the systemic devaluing of a sibling, they tend to follow suit and scapegoat their sibling. This can occur for a number of reasons: brain washing (think Stockholm Syndrome); fear of being targeted or retaliated against if they don’t play along; feeling powerful by aligning with abusers; competing for the scarce resource of parental attention and approval (which is often completely missing, transient or conditional, regardless of temporary status gained). This dynamic creates tremendous abandonment anxiety in children, and sets them in direct opposition or competition against other siblings, especially the family scapegoat.
With regards to your question about whether to ‘let your brothers go’, I would advise you to ask yourself these important questions:
- What do you want from your sibling relationships and why? Get really clear about these two points and access your motivation. Is it good for you? Or for them, for that matter? We lead by example, regardless of whether people go along with or respect this.
- Is it advisable for you to be there for your brothers “no matter what”, or to focus on creating family relationships based on healthy boundaries and standards, such as respect and reciprocity? As the parentified child, you don’t want that dynamic to be repeating in your sibling relationships, even though it may feel like second nature to caretake others in the ways that your parents expected of you. In that respect, I’d encourage you to adopt taking care of yourself first as a guiding principle. You were cheated of the care and support you needed as a child. Is the concept of ‘unconditional’ love – given there was no evidence of any in your family – even desirable for you to adopt? I suspect not. We should all have baseline standards in relationships, especially when it comes to respect, loyalty and affection.
Dig deep. What’s in it for you to stay connected with your brothers? It’s normal and healthy to be personally invested in the outcome. There’s an old maxim in psychology that we teach people how we want to be treated. What is acceptable vs unacceptable behavior when it comes to your brothers? What’s your bottom line when it comes to your dignity?
- Following from #2, what’s realistic to expect from your siblings, given their own personal problems? Are they attempting to deal with their difficulties in a healthy manner? If not, you may not have a lot to work with, and boundary setting is indicated. You may be able to establish limited contact, but I couldn’t recommend more if these relationships aren’t built on a commitment to civility, recovery and healing.
I wish you all the best when it comes to your siblings and, if you decide to stay in contact, be clear and assertive about your own bottom line needs and standards. Take care!
Photo by Kylo
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd is a Counseling Therapist specializing in recovery from Childhood Abuse and Neglect, Family Scapegoating, Chronic Anxiety and Grief, Relationship Problems, and Love Addiction.
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