Sunday, September 21, 2014

ostracism and being the scapegoat in the alcoholic family

name of art: "Scapegoat Healing"
(meant as healing art for scapegoat victims)
© Lise Winne
for sale as a fine art archival print HERE

note: a much more thorough post about scapegoating in both alcoholic and narcissistic families is on my main blog HERE
What scapegoating sounds like is on the Walking on Eggshells post HERE (towards the end of the post #3).

My experiences in various Alanon and ACOA meetings is that they are full of scapegoats and ostracized family members. In one I went to, between a third and a half of the attendees either had no relationship with their family members or barely any contact with family members (aka very strained, superficial relationships). 

It was shocking for me to learn this! And also upsetting and baffling.

In most of the Alanon meetings I have attended, the people in them are gentle, quiet, reasonable, responsible, respectful souls. The attendees that show up every week for years and years are community leaders, teachers, therapists, yoga instructors and nurses with altruistic motives, people who have worked very hard on themselves to do the right thing, to go way out of their way to help others without expecting anything in return. In short, they seem like the most empathetic members of society. When I think of the people in these groups, I think of the doting nurses in hospitals who allay your fears, and make sure you are comfortable as you transition through a scary and emotional time. Some even seem downright saintly. And these are the hated black sheep of their families? I was aghast! How did it end up this way?

Scapegoating (in terms of the family) means being bullied by the entire family. The family picks on one of its members, blames that person for everything that goes wrong in the family, desperately goes on fault finding missions to explain away abuse, and (mis)interprets the victims feelings in an ugly way to further convict and bully (more explanation coming soon).

So, as it turns out, the most bullied members of society are in the helping professions: nurses and school teachers as evidenced by this NPR broadcast here.

The scapegoating of these kinds of members of society actually makes sense when you research why. Alcohol destroys the part of the brain that is in control of empathy (NBC article here). The disorder associated with a lack of empathy is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (the other Cluster B disorders may be evident as well -- alcoholism mimicing these disorders has been well documented in psychiatric literature). Borderlines, Narcissists and the Anti Personality Disordered (all Cluster B) constantly indulge in situations where all blame for life events and relationships that go wrong are heaped onto someone outside of himself, usually a scapegoat. For the sake of convenience, I will use the term "narcissist" to refer to the Cluster B personality disorders.

The documentation for narcissists who pick a child to be his or her favorite (usually labeled a golden child who can do no wrong), and another child to be a scapegoat (who is the least favored and can do no right) is well established in psychiatric literature also. The golden child is someone who is chosen by the narcissist from the group of family members, someone who has similar values and traits to the narcissist parent (so naturally this favored child would resemble the narcissist the most: i.e. a child who most exhibits a lack of empathy, feels entitled and has abusive tendencies ... and with further nurturing of these qualities, the narcissist parent, in effect, creates another narcissist who bullies his other siblings). The Scapegoat role is assigned to the child who has the least amount of traits of the narcissistic parent (usually a sensitive empath). Since alcoholic brain damage mimics narcissism, the narcissist chooses a scapegoat in the family who is the most sensitive and empathetic and heaps all blame for what has gone wrong on this member (while convincing other family members who share similar bullying characteristics to help in ganging up on the scapegoat). And who are the most empathetic members of society? Nurses, school teachers, yoga instructors, home health aides and the like. 

As this Psych Central article by Erika Krull, MSED, LMHP states, it is also the act of setting up boundaries and telling the truth which leads to a situation where one becomes the scapegoat:

Going against the grain in an alcoholic family could make someone a hot target. If one person tries to speak the truth about an alcoholic and put up boundaries, that person quickly can become the black sheep. Family members often will air out the truth-teller’s dirty laundry; whatever positive standing they might have within the family could be knocked down. Rumors and negativity may even spread beyond the family group. If that’s the price for helping an alcoholic family member, why would anyone do it? It takes courage to stand up to an entire family, and many people aren't sure they have it.

And indeed, the scapegoat is usually the truth-teller, the family member who is the healthiest emotionally, the member who wants a more functional relationship based on honesty rather than denials, lies and sycophantic behaviors, the one who can no longer accept abuse and speaks out about it, the one who feels empathy for other abused members, is the one who is unconsciously chosen to be the scapegoat by the other family members.

In this blog post by licensed therapist, Kellen (from Kellevision), a family drops off their problem child at the therapist's office to be fixed. It turns out the child is the family scapegoat and is acting out. The acting out is actually deemed to be a normal response to the domestic violence, physical abuse, blaming and shaming going on in the family. So in order to fix the child, the whole family needs to be in counseling:

The entire family ostracizes her because of her "anger problems". Her only problem is that she is clearly carrying the anger for all the other children at the situations and conditions of violence and chaos they have experienced. Like a typical scapegoat she is the truth teller, complaining vociferously about her mother's boyfriends and the problems they create for her and her siblings. She confronts Mom. She says what the other children stay quiet about. This allows the other children to sit and smile and look like angels by comparison. She grabs her sword and shield and does battle against the things that are wrong in her family. She openly defies her mother and the two of them are locked in a power struggle ...

Everyone has their role. But you can't see this unless you have the entire family in the room together interacting with and reacting to each other.

If this family can be educated about the parts everyone is playing and change those roles there is hope that the "problem child" won't have to keep acting out the dysfunction of the system. ... Fixing the dysfunction of the system fixes the "behavior problems" of the child.

A lot of parents are extremely resistant and sensitive to being labeled as the problem by a clinician. Some will absolutely refuse to participate in the process at all and refuse to consider any suggestion that anyone but the child has a problem ...

If I can create a safe environment with strong boundaries and clear rules which limit blaming that is the ideal. I also work very hard to explain the concept of family systems theory and be very balanced in my listening and feedback.
 -- Kellen

Kellen also has a post about what the scapegoat role is really about here.

In this article from Sober Recovery by Lynne Namka, Ed.D, scapegoating goes beyond the family and becomes a societal ill: 

Scapegoating is a serious family dysfunctional problem with one member of the family or a social group being blamed for small things, picked on and constantly put down. In scapegoating, one of the authority figures has made a decision that somebody in the family has to be the bad guy. The mother or father makes one child bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, but most often imagined) that are wrong ...

It seems as if we humans as a species seem to need someone to vent our anger on and make wrong. Scapegoating is a projection defense. It is the ego saying "If I can put the blame on you, I don't have to recognize and take responsibility for the negative qualities in myself. What I can't stand about myself, I really hate in you and have to attack you for it in order to deny that I have the same quality." 

Scapegoating is a huge social problem contributing to the hate that exists in the world. There is scapegoating of whole groups of people happening when there is prejudice or stereotyping. Unfortunately, in a larger sense, some Jewish people or other ethnic groups and minorities have been scapegoated by the less conscious members of their own culture.

Elaine Dove, a scapegoat-turned-therapist recognized that her role was the typical result of what happens "in families affected by alcoholism and/or narcissistic parenting..." She realized her role was the result of a mother who would deny anything bad about herself and a family who not only went along with it, but who was unwilling to own their contributions to the abuse and dysfunction. In order to keep the round of denials and abusive behaviors going without a hitch, they needed the scapegoat child to be the dumping ground. She got sick of being the scapegoat, took herself out of the family, disappeared, and when she went back temporarily for a family function, noticed that in her absence, a new scapegoat had taken her place (there can't be a chasm in this system if denial is going to work). She realized then that her family needed her more than she needed them, in order to keep the denials going. It was her way of healing from the traumatic experiences of being the scapegoat.

She is not the only one. In fact, there have been a lot of articles written about replacement scapegoats.

And like Elaine, scapegoats do, in fact, leave their families ... often, and sometimes forever. ACOA, Alanon and Co-dependents Anonymous are full of people who were or are their family's scapegoats. Once the scapegoat leaves their family, the other family member that is chosen to fill the role/void is, in fact, next up in line in terms of sensitivity. In this article by licensed therapist, Kellen, an intellectual family chooses an "emotional child" to fill the void:

The official Scapegoat has resigned from his position and refused to play the part any longer. So the family is desperately (though unconsciously) seeking someone else to fill the position. It seems to be moving toward the younger sister. This family values intellect and the younger sister is rather emotional. She has been labeled a "drama queen" by the family (notice the negative labeling which precedes the scapegoating).

There's just one problem. Though she may be a drama queen (and she can be a bit), she actually has a very serious and very real situation going on right now. A situation which would typically require the family to band together to support her. But it appears that the family is using the "drama queen" designation to deny the validity of her problem and, in doing so, eliminate their responsibility to support her. This tactic also denounces her emotional reaction to the problem as merely being "drama". By defining painful emotions as "drama" other family members can avoid feeling them. They avoid having to listen to her experiences and her pain. And they put her down for experiencing them. 
-- Kellen

In this article on living with addiction, Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEP says of the dysfunctional family:

... family members seamlessly slip into patterns of relating that become increasingly more dysfunctional. The children are often left to fend for themselves and anyone bold enough to confront the obvious disease may be branded as a family traitor ...

... Alcoholic families may become characterized by a kind of emotional and psychological constriction, where family members do not feel free to express their authentic selves for fear of triggering disaster; their genuine feelings are often hidden under strategies for keeping safe, like pleasing or withdrawing. The family becomes organized around trying to manage the unmanageable disease of addiction. They may yell, withdraw, cajole, harangue, criticize, understand, get fed up; you name it. They become remarkably inventive in trying everything they can come up with to contain the problem and keep the family from blowing up. The alarm bells in this system are constantly on a low hum, causing everyone to feel hyper vigilant, ready to run for emotional (or physical) shelter or to erect their defenses at the first sign of trouble ...

... Without a rigorous program of treatment and recovery for all concerned, the dysfunctional personality styles and relationships developed in the addicted family environment will tend to recreate themselves over and over again. Sobriety needs to happen on all levels and in all family members, emotionally, psychologically and physically ...

Emotional, physical and psychological abuse is unfortunately all too often present in families that contain addiction and trauma. Abuse is part of the impulsivity that characterizes families where feelings are acted out rather than talked out. The other side of abuse is victimization...


In this blog, the scapegoat decides to stop speaking the truth or getting involved in family disputes, and decides that if the truth isn't being spoken by her, then other family members might come forward and speak the truth. In other words, the scapegoat is a kind of shield or champion for the oppressive situation where one member does all of the work of confronting and trying to make the family better and whole again, but also takes all of the blame and branded as a troublemaker by most of the other members. The blogger suggests it might be helpful to other people who have been saddled with the scapegoat role to remove themselves and be silent. However, make sure you read the comments below the blog. In situations of abuse, violence and bullying, this may simply be impossible. In my own experience in witnessing scapegoats in Alanon and ACOA, the abuse is too severe, plus the scapegoat role stays with the individual forever, whether they are silent or not, whether they are in the family or not (ostracism simply replaces the role, someone else may take on the role in the absence of scapegoat #1, but as soon as the scapegoat #1 returns to the family again, the role returns, sometimes with a vengeance).

So much of the advice in Alanon and ACOA is to work on redefining yourself as a child of God (or what ever your higher power is), not as the emotionally beat up and blamed victim of your family. You are encouraged to be more than your sick family's definitions, not to take their barbs, insults and blaming tactics into your heart and mind and let it hurt you and fester there, and to move beyond your family's definition by reaching out to others who are healthier and appreciate you more. In a way, these groups are like fellowships where life-long friends and substitute family can be found. Staying in situations where you are bullied, degraded, abused, silenced about your pain, kept from your dreams and where there is a lot of hypocrisy, double standards and lying is not acceptable (which can all be part of the alcoholic family system: more information here and here and here).

Many ACOA and Alanon attendees wear their black sheep status with pride inside the walls of these groups. Some have lost their entire families and gone through incredible grief, thoughts about suicide at one time, wondered what they were living for, wondered what they were going to do without a family. But in the end, after many years, they wondered why they put up with so much deep pain for so long. The scapegoat role is a very, very painful role. It looks and sounds like bigotry and can even border on sounding like slavery. Who needs to be approved by bullies, scapegoaters, hypocrites, control freaks, liars and people who punish you when you speak the truth? Even if they are people you have known for a good portion of your life? You simply may have outgrown your need to be in situations where you are nothing more to these members of your family than what they want from you, or how they perceive you (which may always be negative and degrading, or at best, about weakening your autonomy and rights within the relationship in some way, including having your thoughts and feelings heard).

In my own life:

I look to an uncle to keep me on track when it comes to bullying situations. He had a supportive wife and a completely comfortable life where he could have been very self-indulgent. He risked it all in the first band of Freedom Riders, the ones who saw and experienced the most violence and terror. He continued with many other protests, including The Golden RuleHe was staunchly against an addicted, inebriated society in general, and felt that alcohol was not only poison, but could change morals and honor for the worse. Events at his house were always without alcohol. I doubt that he would have submitted to domination, docility and being a willing scapegoat or sycophant just to be part of a relationship where he wasn't respected. I often put him and his example in my mind (he and I were close).

And I also look to my father. He told me many, many times that he didn't want me to be docile for anyone, that he felt I had a greater purpose and a better spirit than to submit to domination, strong-arming, silencing and manipulations. Although he said it to me many, many times throughout my life, it was as though, on his deathbed, he handed me those instructions in spades.

If you want a better world, with integrity and honor in it, you have to live it first, and look to people who have it, and surround yourself with more people who have it. As Billy Graham said: "Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened."

A visual work I thought of that depicts walking away from people who scapegoat is the Eight of Cups in the Tarot. It depicts someone in pursuit of better ideals, who willingly leaves behind comfort to face a difficult terrain or road (and in a reading, that is exactly what is portended). According to the Biddy Tarot:

The Eight of Cups is a card of change and transition. The card evokes an immediate reaction of sadness and a sense of solitude. The young man in this card has turned his back on all he has accumulated or accomplished before. He disappears by night into a barren and difficult terrain with only a cloak on his back and a staff in hand ... This individual has chosen to forsake the familiar and the comfortable in the pursuit of higher goals.

Perhaps that is the path that most scapegoats come to take eventually. 

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