This article describes very clearly what it is like to be the family scapegoat in a toxic and abusive family dynamic.
This is a form of emotional abuse. Not only does it involve gas lighting where your experience of reality is denied and twisted, but it also can include collusion from all the family members. While they may not be as active at scapegoating, if they choose to be convinced and don’t take the time to reflect on what is really happening they are colluding with it.
How hard though is it for the person set up as the scapegoat to recover? The sad truth is very hard and this may take a lot of work and self-reflection. When these behaviour patterns get set into us in childhood we can take a lifetime to undo them.
If any of the points are resonating with you though, don’t give up hope. Because while it is hard work to recover, its worth it to find your authentic self and what you are truly capable of.
I come back to forms of emotional abuse again and again as I believe it is the least understood and acknowledged form of abuse.
Emotional abuse exists in all other forms of abuse, sexual, physical and neglect but it also occurs without these other signs and that is why it is so hard to recognise from the outside.
Even the victims may not realise what has happened to them, especially when it occurred in childhood. It can take years to come to terms with and recognise the relationship between the emotional abuse and low self-esteem, depression and anxiety that the adult who was emotionally abused in childhood may experience.
Low self-esteem involve being made to feel that the victim isn’t as important as everyone else, that their needs don’t count. Their abuser’s needs are put before their own and it may be done so subtly they don’t even know it has happened. It’s hard enough to realise it is happening as an adult, much more in a child.
The child victim may be very helpful and easy to deal with, after all they have already been taught their needs are less important than others. This is why they so often get missed. As they grow up, they may be sensitive to what they see as selfish behaviour in others. After all, they never put themselves first, how selfish that other people do so. This view can be a symptom of the abuse they don’t even realise they have suffered and they can be very judgemental of other people because of it.
They have been conditioned to the fact that they shouldn’t put themselves and their needs first. But really, we all have to do that. Even parents who are doing all they can for their children can’t be totally selfless all the time. After all, if they don’t look after themselves then what impact can that have?
Emotional abusers expect others to put them first and they have an array of tools to manipulate, shame and bully their victims into making this happen.
It is not a personality flaw to put yourself first, it doesn’t make you bad or selfish. It is part of self-care. What is damaging and abusive is to expect others to put you first as well and to be resentful and coercive when it doesn’t happen.
This article describes really well what happens with imposter syndrome.
In my experience it is very linked to emotional abuse; not just from parents and guardians but also siblings.
Siblings who resent the attention that another sibling gets can cause great damage with their jealously. When you end up feeling insecure and paranoid because of doing well at something it doesn’t help you grow into a confident and secure adult.
Gas lighting takes away a persons ability to trust in reality and they can end up blaming themselves for the appalling behaviour of another person.
“If I was better/smarter/slimmer/kinder/quieter/cleverer/etc then they wouldn’t be so upset and frustrated with me”.
Other people can get pulled into it as well and can see the victim in the way the perpetrators wants them to so they miss the abuse that is happening.
This isn’t limited to gender roles either, despite the most common examples being reported as men abusing women. It also isn’t limited to partners; its a form of abuse that can occur with any type of relationship. Family, friends, work. I have worked with sibling abuse in this form and also adults who were raised by parents who did this.
It takes the victim time and space to trust their own perceptions again; to stop self blaming. They may never heal completely, but it is possible to bring about a lot of change.
I come back to gas lighting a lot as it is a form of emotional abuse I feel people need to be more aware of.
There are two things in this post that particularly strike me.
1 – being told how you feel. I wonder if people notice how common this is in everyday conversation, not ones that are necessarily deliberately manipulative. For example someone is telling an experience to a friend and will be answer with “you must feel..” or “you will be feeling…”. The more aware of it the more I notice it, both inside and outside my counselling room. What is it that makes us want to define someone else’s feelings rather than give them space to share them? Is it because listening might be too painful? Does this type of interaction which is incredibly common add to the lack of awareness of gas lighting and other forms of emotional abuse?
2 – feeling that being sensitive makes you unlovable. When did being sensitive become a weakness or indeed a personality flaw? Why is this un-acceptable in society? Sensitivity to me is about being in touch with your feelings and experiencing them all, whether painful or not. Yet admitting to feeling pain, hurt or upset is deemed wrong. It should all be swept under the carpet. I see a lot of damage caused by this where clients have to fit a mould and try and be something they aren’t to meet approval from others.
I have written about gas lighting before. It doesn’t always happen within romantic relationships, its also common within families and even friendship groups. This powerful article describes what its like.
There are as many types of emotionally abusive relationships as there are types of abuse. Parent to child, partners, friends, work colleagues, but one that doesn’t get a lot of attention is between siblings.
These can be full, half or step siblings involved and while it’s usually the older siblings abusing the younger it isn’t always the case.
Name calling and belittling, being excluded, being made to feel worthless. All this things will have long lasting consequences to the victim. Low self esteem, a need to put others first, a need to never make mistakes.
What doesn’t get noticed though is quite often the underlying message of not feeling loveable. After all, if your own siblings hate you and treat you so badly there must be something wrong with you? The child experiencing this is going to internalise this sort of message very young. They are being abused by siblings they love and look up to. They don’t have the ability to rationalise that the problem isn’t them.
So they will grow up with this message embedded deep inside as a self concept, even if they never name it.
There is a good chance they will never even realise that their experiences were abusive. After all everyone knows siblings can be difficult and sibling rivalry is normal.So it may well be downplayed and minimised by other members of the family whilst the low self esteem it created has a lifelong impact.
So what can be done to help? The first step is to really reflect on where you are? Do you find yourself always trying to put others needs before your own? Do you find it difficult to be with your siblings or have lost contact completely? Do you jokingly say my sibling always hated me and try and pretend that didn’t hurt!
Starting to explore that relationship can help you look at the current and past situations from a different perspective and give you the insights to change things in the future. It may be a painful experience but hopefully it will be worthwhile.
What is emotional abuse?
Do you understand emotional abuse understand what it is? For me in many ways, it is one person expecting another to put them first – even though that could be detrimental to the other person. We all want to be important enough to another person that they want to put us first, it is the behaviour that follows comes with the expectation that can lead to abuse.
Put it another way; we would allow and encourage someone to put us first ahead of what is healthy and necessary for them or what they would really choose to do if they felt they could. Using tactics like manipulation, coercion, threats, emotional blackmail, attacking the sense of self and self-worth of another. To deliberately dismiss their values and their rights, their boundaries and autonomy.
I consider it very similar to a parent child relationship; a child is demanding and expecting of their needs to be met by their parent. However, as they age, hopefully they develop self-awareness and empathy for others and learn they can’t have everything they want no matter what the cost to others.
What happens if they don’t give us what we want?
What impact does that have on other relationships? Can they even see what they are expecting and that their behaviour is abusive? I think is part of why it’s so hard to recognise it sometimes. We have some blind spots with parent child relationships, but also, we might not just be the victim of it but we might also be the perpetrator.
Where is the line that you will or won’t cross?
For example, knowing you want to do something with your partner that they don’t want to do but finding a way to change their mind. Why aren’t you respecting their wishes? What were you prepared to do to get your own way? How much emotional pressure did you use to get what you wanted even though you knew they would be unhappy?
How often have you insisted a friend or family member put your needs first, even though they didn’t want to?
This leads to another question that is very uncomfortable to explore – why? Why can’t we accept someone saying no to us? Why can’t we accept that other people come first at times?
My experiences lead me to the conclusion that there is a great deal of insecurity and fear underlying a lot of this behaviour. Things can be changed, but recognising what is happening is necessary as a first step.
I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional abuse lately and its impact, not just on the victim but the abuser.
Once the victim of emotional abuse recognises what is happening they often cut off all contact. When this is within families, parent and child or sibling, the abuser may still be left with expectations that are now not being met by the other person.
How often does the abuser recognise that it was their actions that led to the estrangement? In my experience, very rarely. Without that acknowledgement, the situation isn’t going to change. Instead the abuser may fall into a pattern of recrimination and self-pity and end up feeling as though they are the person who is being mistreated and believe that their victim is the one in the wrong.
Until we are able to really take responsibility, its not possible to grow as individuals. Its hard when we have done things that have harmed others but necessary.