From Toxicity To Triumph

Estrangement Grief Narcissistic Parents

Facing Family Ejection: The Stark Truth About Speaking Out About Scapegoating

“I still have dreams where I can’t speak.

I’m with my family of origin and I’m trying to tell them what I know, what I have found out: the abuse, the covert narcissism, the martyr complex, the scapegoating. “I see it.” I am saying. “You haven’t gotten away with it.”

But my voice only comes out in a whisper.

How apt that they stole my voice by curating a narrative about me that discredits me before I even open my mouth. And now, even in my dreams, it disappears from me.

But they haven’t gotten away with it. Because I’m writing to you. I’m sharing. I’m telling the truth even though the people I wish would hear it the most will never listen.”

This is how the letter begins.

I received this letter from an old instructor of mine from way back when I was training in family therapy. While they long ago retired from their teaching role and recently closed up their private practice, they reached out to me in the hopes I might share their story. In their words: “I hope it is healing for me, and healing for your readers”. 

Because they wish to remain anonymous, they suggested I use the name “Janice”. Please note, like their name, small details have been changed to protect their privacy and identity. 

Janice’s letter continues:

“This feels more like a diary entry than any article for you to post…which makes me nervous because I’m still finding my way between maintaining “professional objectivity” and “personal insight”. As you know, I studied family dysfunction and trained clinically for years before I even understood that I was living out exactly what I was helping clients through.

I often wonder where the line is between helping someone professionally and objectively, versus showing them that I truly get it. Is knowing I’ve been through it too, liberating? Does it facilitate connection? Does my story prove that I genuinely understand? Does it validate and enable people to be fully seen in ways they have never been seen before? Does it help people put words to the confusing pain they have endured for a lifetime? I hope so. Because I don’t want to make a misstep here. I worry about deviations because as a scapegoat I have been trained to never make a mistake.

I was taught to stay in line; to never do anything that could in any way affect someone else. Unless, of course, it was worshipping my narcissistic parent or catering to my equally toxic siblings.

I know I am ‘allowed’ to carry other people’s burdens. I know I am ‘allowed’ to pick up their shame and blame myself for it so that their load is lighter. I know I am expected to stay small and not rock the boat because it would inconvenience them or dismantle their whole system; the system that protects them from self-reflection no matter the cost to me.

I know I am ‘allowed’ to be perfect. What I was not allowed to do was be me. So I am not sure how to be real.

How much of my realness is OK? How much of myself is this world going to accept before it spits me out too?

In my experience, my mere existence seemed to be a problem for my family. Unless I was taking care of their needs or making them feel good, I was an issue. A sneeze that was too loud. A voice that was too excited. A smile that was too happy. Whatever it was, if it wasn’t for or about them, it was simply too much.

When I pulled back or stayed quiet to stay safe, then I wasn’t showing enough interest in them. I wasn’t reacting right. I wasn’t honouring them or being enthusiastic or grateful enough. I wasn’t appreciating them and ‘all they did for me’.

I was simultaneously too much, and never enough. How perplexing.

I never learned that my personality was wanted or desirable. I never learned that my ideas had merit. I never learned that it was Ok to have boundaries. I never learned that my needs mattered. I never learned that I was allowed to succeed or feel joy. I never learned that taking up space and having value was my inherent right. All I learned was that somehow, somewhere in my day — often when least expected or least intended — I was going to “upset someone”. Following that, I would then be reminded of how much “everyone found [me] to be such a problem”, and that I better atone. I better take responsibility. I better beg and beg and beg for forgiveness. I better do better.

Under no circumstances should I ever consider speaking up for myself. Nor should I question why no one else ever stood up for me either. That would be just another offence on my part to add to the injury that I somehow caused.

Learning About Your True Self

But then I met real, true, honest, loving and lifesaving friends. And I saw myself through their eyes. How could they enjoy my company when I was led to believe that just using my natural tone and cadence of voice was “irksome”? How could they love me when I was repeatedly questioned whether my friends “actually liked me”? How could they tell me how loving and wonderful I was when I was constantly punished for “always offending people, hurting them, or being rude”?

Something just didn’t add up. Did I manage to dupe them somehow? Was I wrong about myself? Or was my family wrong about me all along?

A friend recently shared with me that “People don’t get scapegoated or bullied because they did something wrong. They get scapegoated or bullied because they did something right.”

I think my rightness and brightness was intolerable. So in that sense, I was intolerable to my family. I was a problem for them. Because I didn’t let injustice slide. I didn’t dim my light. I kept going and kept trying and kept being me and they couldn’t reign me in. I didn’t play by their toxic rules and I didn’t accept their version of me. I questioned them. I called them out. I stood up. I have since learned that being a problem for them doesn’t mean I am a problem.

But that doesn’t mean the damage wasn’t done. No one who starts getting scapegoated as a child (in my case before age four) comes out of this intact.

There are battles I never won, no matter how hard I fought, explained, and presented facts. Hypocrisy was the rule.

As far back as I can remember, every conversation went the same way for me. Sure the gaslighting would vary, or the guilt trips would shift here and there, but the basic blueprint was always the same. Whenever there was tension it was because:

I said something the wrong way. I had the wrong tone. I should have been careful to craft my message in such a way that they could listen to it better.

Or, I misheard something and misunderstood. They would never do something like that! I took it the wrong way. It wasn’t their tone or hurtful words that was the problem, it was my ears.

It was me.

The Confusion and Emotional Weight Of Being Scapegoated: Little Things Add Up But Will Never Be Acknowledged

Even if I had every good intention, if they decided it offended them, that was on me. My brother once pulled the curtain completely to the side and fully owned it by saying, “It doesn’t matter if what you said wasn’t hurtful or offensive. I took it that way and I have every right to and so you need to apologize.

Kudos, I guess, for the brazenness. It goes to show you that when you know you will have the toxic family’s support behind you (and that I, the scapegoat, will be thrown to the wolves) you can craft and edit the conversation any way you want. Facts don’t matter.

“I Never Would Have Walked Away From My Family On My Own”

When all you’ve ever known is that you did it wrong and you are wrong, it’s really hard to put yourself out into the world and trust that you are doing right by people.

I’ve always had a massive heart. My instinct growing up was always to help, to share, to give, to fix, to guide, to heal.

I never would have walked away from my family on my own.

I would have stayed until the end, playing therapist, mediator and trash can. I would have been paid in mockery for “being on my high horse” and I would have been sent constant invoices for never being giving or grateful enough.

It wouldn’t have mattered that I was exclusively the one to apologize, that my “healthy communication strategies and boundaries” are precisely what is clinically encouraged by family therapists, and that I literally gave them the shirt off my back, money I didn’t have, and excessive amounts of my time, love, and energy. I gave everything, even when I was in agony inside and desperately needing emotional support from them that I knew I would never receive (but hoped I could earn nonetheless).

I would have stayed.

And I think the universe must have known that.

So it got me out. Kicked me out more like it.

After one too many of my truth-telling and standing-up-for-myself moments, my family disowned me. Rejected, ejected, abandoned. Whatever word suits you best. None of them are comforting or reassuring.

It turns out you can’t beg your family to get support so they can heal when the toxic system is working really well for them. It just offends them further. They see your truth as a weapon that will dismantle the system they built to protect themselves at your expense.

It’s hard to see this ejection as a gift from the universe. Still, I try very hard to trust that being released from captivity is a good thing.

I don’t think ‘choosing no contact’ feels much different. Because it’s still a last resort. You don’t choose it with joy. You succumb to it when nothing else works and you can’t go on. It’s still agony knowing you are losing family, and losing hope for ever having the support, acceptance, connection and belonging you ache for.

Does The World Have My Back?

I laugh a bit at myself and the ridiculousness of claiming the universe helped me out; What a convenient way, after all, to re-direct the spotlight and take the responsibility and accountability off my family.

The universe didn’t emotionally and psychologically abuse me my whole life. The universe didn’t gaslight me. The universe didn’t shame and blame me and make me feel guilty for a large portion of my life. The universe didn’t manipulate my siblings and triangulate us against each other. The universe didn’t spread smear campaigns about me to ensure that extended family and friends would never support me or believe me. The universe didn’t literally threaten people to not show me love or support and to “let me fall to the wayside”. The universe didn’t neglect me emotionally or mock me when my CPTSD got so bad that I lived in a state of perpetual anxiety. No, that was my family.

And yet it’s even more complicated than that.

Because it wasn’t always awful. There were genuinely good times. There was a sister that took me in and fed me when I was homeless. My brother who connected me to people and jobs so I could get back on my feet. Another sister that used to be my best friend before she was used as a pawn and lost her light and spirit too. All siblings who have goodness in them who got wrapped up in a terrible lie and then nurtured and applauded the more they believed it.

There was kindness. And there was generosity. And whether that generosity was for show, was love-bombing, or was actually filled with care I will never know. My recovery journey doesn’t involve dissecting every micro-moment, because as you know, the reality is for most scapegoats, the abuse wasn’t grand or overarching; It was the chronic micro-moments.

It wasn’t the siblings that played evil or the parent that blatantly abused. It was the parent that knew exactly how to twist things to be the hero and victim. That crafted a genuinely convincing story by embellishing certain facts and leaving out others. The parent that knew how to latch on to a sibling’s insecurity and use it as fodder to turn us against each other. It was the siblings that were so starved for affection, attention, love and support themselves that they learned to toss me into the fire as a way to get their needs for parental connection and bonding met.

The fact that scapegoating is largely built upon micro-moments is one of the reasons no one believes us, and one of the main reasons we question ourselves. When you are subjected to a gaslight or a guilt trip here and there you can chalk it up to a bad day, emotional immaturity, or some run-of-the-mill family dysfunction. So when the scapegoat stands up and says they are being scapegoated, it sends shockwaves.

I have heard it all:

“But your family is so nice”.

Indeed! They seem picture-perfect from the outside. Their kindness and generosity to others and in specific circumstances offer them really convenient “plausible deniability”. It’s one voice against the masses. Who would believe me? Covert narcissism is…covert. It’s not an obvious display of cruelty. And why would it be? Blatant abuse would be more likely to be stopped and intervened upon. Covert abuse starts small, gets inside of you, then builds and builds right underneath everyone’s noses. It becomes the norm so that people don’t even think to question it, so the person who does question it must be the “crazy” outlier.

“I was never treated that way. They never harmed me so you shouldn’t be telling these lies.”

Exactly. This is the point and purpose of scapegoating. It’s literally built into the concept and practice itself that not everyone is treated the same way. In fact, siblings are often rewarded and loved and cared for specifically when they participate in the scapegoating abuse. Gang bullying is not an inaccurate description. The gang initiations are harmful to me but offer many rewards and riches to the siblings who sign up. Of course they don’t see it the way I do. Because they didn’t experience it the way I did.

But what I know and what they don’t, is that they were abused too. They were manipulated and neglected too. The difference is they were recruited while I was targeted. In a way, I was the lucky one. Being targeted meant I didn’t get as many mixed messages that kept me captive longer, hoping for change. I saw it clearly so I got out.

“Stop blaming and pointing fingers and start taking responsibility for your own life!”

This is a very confusing message which blatantly ignores all the steps and efforts scapegoats have gone through to recover and participate in their lives. Scapegoats have worked harder than anyone in the family, not just taking responsibility for their own lives but taking responsibility for everyone else’s lives too. People tell you to stop blaming when they don’t know how to handle the truth of your abuse. When they don’t want to face the damage done. They ask you to “take responsibility” when they don’t know how to help or hold space for all the harm caused. When they don’t want to believe families could actually do this.

What happened to you scares them. And much like your family, when they feel discomfort and they don’t know how to handle it, they turn it back on you to take care of. It’s easier for them that way. And that’s OK. Because you’re no longer in the business of managing everyone else’s feelings and comfort for them. I respond with, “Thank you for your comment and concern about my welfare.”

“You’re being such a victim”.

Yes. It is because I was victimized. That is how that works.

By “being a victim” do you mean I am (rightfully) experiencing the impacts and effects of my victimization? That I am grieving? I am feeling my pain? I am speaking my truth in the hopes that there will be societal change? I am holding guilty parties accountable? Ah! You wanted me to stay silent. Because it made you more comfortable (see above).

Or, is my pain reminding you of your voice and you didn’t know you also had permission to speak up? To hold others responsible for the harm they did to you? It can be scary when you realize you, too, do not need to stay silent. You may want to silence others so you don’t have to face your own emotional weight. I get it. I don’t mind being the boat that makes waves if it helps push you closer to safe shorelines.

No Longer Hiding Ourselves Or Our Voices

I don’t know whose voice I am helping to amplify in writing this. I’m not even sure it’s my own. I am not interested in “tell-alls” about my family. Scapegoats know all too well that even if everything we say has truth and merit and is backed up by receipts, we will be chastised for airing it in the first place. Not only will we be “in the wrong” for speaking of the abuse and injustice (instead of just letting it slide and hide in silence), but we also will have to face harsh backlash and baffling, non-sensical rebuttals. This is because many scapegoat families firmly believe they haven’t been abusive at all. They genuinely feel that the scapegoat is the problem, has been damaging, and that all they ever did as a family was provide the utmost love, support, and care.

It’s not to say they haven’t been hurt. A toxic family system harms everyone. But they cannot see beyond their hurt. They cannot recognize and account for the magnitude of catastrophic damage to the scapegoat. They cannot acknowledge their actions or their complicity.

We Can’t Even Talk About Accountability With This Much Fog

While scapegoating may be initiated by an abusive narcissist who might be aware of what they are doing (and certainly some scapegoat families are active and intentional bullies), in other cases, when the scapegoat system starts rolling, it wraps everyone in, cloaking them in fog, illusion and delusion that becomes so pervasive that they can’t even see the situation objectively to even read the receipts. Speaking up becomes proof of your “insanity”. Your truth, your facts, and your receipts become ‘evidence’ that you have indeed lost your way and aren’t seeing clearly. They become the ammunition used against you to further discredit you and your sanity.

As such, scapegoats have learned the hard way that talking about the abuse is the problem, not the abuse itself!

I reject that. I won’t stand for that. And I lost my family because of it.

The least I can do is not hide the reality of scapegoating now, and this is why I am writing to you. It’s happening. It happened to me. It’s damaging in ways that I can barely come to terms with; in new and unexpected ways that surprise me every day. And I hope that my realness isn’t too much for you. Here’s what I want to say to your readers: 

I hope that my realness drags your realness to the surface so that you can unmask it from their shadow. So that you, too, can see how lovable, worthy, wonderful, bright and magical you are.”

End of letter.

Dear Reader: If this letter resonated with you, I hope you feel comforted knowing you are not alone. You are loveable, worthy, and deserving of care and support. If you would like tips and strategies to work through abandonment trauma, please consider signing up for my newsletter.

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  1. What resonated the most for me in your great depictions of being the victim, is the steady drip drip of the abuse. I have likened my experience to being like Humpty Dumpty, but the king’s horses and men COULD put Humpty together again, for the purpose of being knocked down again & again. Thank you for writing this. I am in my 60s and this has been a lonely journey for me.

    1. Loneliness is one of the most painful parts. The drip drip is so accurate. Thank you for sharing that. I hope you are finding comfort and community knowing you arent alone in this journey.

  2. Your words are so validating and supportive, Dr. Erin.
    Thank you for putting these articles out in the world.

    Being the family scapegoat has truly been hell & I am cutting off family members out of necessity for my survival. The biggest challenge I have, and chronic double bind, is still wanting my nieces in my life. I have tried to protect them from their abusive father, my sister’s husband, and I am being punished for it. Dealing with the girls’ toxic parents is like being force-fed poison. Living in heartbreak….

    1. I miss my nieces and nephews as well. It is a terrible pain and loss, especially knowing they are growing up around toxicity and who will be the next scapegoat? Will they be OK? My heart goes out to you.

  3. Thank you for expressing so clearly what it is like to be the scapegoat in the family. I still feel damaged after years of estrangement. I will probably never feel completely whole, but at least now I’m starting to be the person I really am. I can’t believe how many years I lived being ashamed, sad, guilty, small, hated. I always wondered if they did it on purpose. It wasn’t until I started saying out loud to myself, “they don’t love you” that I could finally begin to break the chains. I think the sadness will always be there though. I wanted so badly to show them all the love I had.
    Thank you for sharing your story. It’s very hard to find others who understand what it’s all about. Take care. ❤️

    1. I also had to start saying “They didn’t love me” and then remind myself that it was their inability to love me, not that I wasn’t lovable. I am very loveable. I had to really look at all my qualities outside of the lens they saw me through. I discovered I like myself. I still have limiting beliefs but mostly due to the immense trauma of it all, and no longer because I feel I am not good enough. I see now I have immense value. I’m so glad you are discovering this for yourself too. But I am so sorry for the terrible pain of estrangement. We all need and want a family. We just need and want a loving supportive family. And unfortunately, we had to choose no family, over abuse. It’s like severing a limb that you really need and rely on, because it is horribly diseased.

    1. I’m so sorry that you identify – I wouldn’t wish this on people. And yet I’m so glad my writing has helped you feel validated knowing you aren’t alone.

  4. This is probably the most raw, thorough, and honest account of what it’s like to endure this that I’ve ever read. I think it’s such a shame that self-disclosure is so frowned upon in the mental health field. What we need is to know we are believed and understood, and that someone has experienced the depths of our grief and pain and confusion – and has survived. Thrived, I can’t personally put a ton of stock in what anyone advises I do if that person hasn’t been through the horror that this is. You are SO BRAVE and we NEED your truth!!!

    1. Thank you thank you!! I feel the same way you do – when I work with a profesional, I want to know that they get it, understand and know how to get out of the muck and thrive.

  5. I find your personal disclosure very very helpful and I appreciate your openness with your fears of saying too much. I identify with everything you say. It’s incredibly validating to know you have similar nightmares- not being able to speak (in my case scream for help and no sound comes out). I have gone nc and haven’t had this nightmare for a while, so I must be recovering. I really struggle with the feeling that I don’t belong to this community- it wasn’t that bad. I know this is self gaslighting and repeating what I’ve been told and the part of me that can counter it is getting stronger. Hearing your doubts and fears and still your fierce commitment to yourself really gives me strength. I agree it’s our brightness and strength that makes us a target – the original story of the apparently included that it was the strongest goat that was picked to be ejected from the herd. ❤️

    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement! You DO belong in this community. Our pains are all valid, there is no comparison between us. It happened and it caused damage and we all deserve to belong and recover. Thank you for sharing that tidbit about teh original story – I didn’t know that part of the story! I love it.

  6. When people say “forget about the past, move on” “accept what happened and move on”. I just about lose it. How could they possibly understand what it is like to feel like you are the last of your tribe and heal from every memory that rears its ugly head showing how crappy you were treated. I have heard all of the comments listed in your personal story from people. Since the beginning of this journey, I have healed a lot, but it is always there, a part of me that I cannot deny because it was ingrained into me over decades starting when I was a young child. I feel very alone since going no contact, but it is the best thing I have ever done.

    1. That’s the conundrum – it’s the best thing we can do for ourselves, and the most lonely, painful and isolating thing! I have also been told, “Move on, it’s in the past”! You’re so right. It’s so invalidating. PLUS it’s often a phrase used by toxic people to get you to “forget about” the harm they caused so that they don’t have to change their behaviour. “can’t we just move forward”. No – not until you acknowledge what happened, and change your behaviour. Sadly, when we say that we are seen as the “unreasonable” ones!

  7. My divorce has amplified the already treacherous and abusive patterns – it has escalated more than I can fathom, so, i essentially had to go no contact. What’s most painful is my parent is my other parents gatekeeper, who has dementia, and my siblings, despite some moments of their own clarity of their role in the dynamic, have circled back into the web of the FSA abuse. I also have nephews and it breaks my heart to not be able to see them and the guilt messages that comes with that. I find the text messages to be very triggering – they are loaded with expectations and manipulations. In your experience, what are some responses that help neutralize and to ourself, reinforce it’s our decision to engage/be present/interact and/or when their’s guilt, to not accept….

      1. Thank you so much – I am interested in learning/gaining more support in this area. I find your words so healing and empowering

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