Thursday, January 28, 2010

Scapegoating as a Source of Stress and Confusion in Families

Continuing the discussion of ways in which people defend against confusion, based on my book, Lethal American Confusion. In the book I dealt with confusion in governments and large organizations. Here in the blog, I'll apply those ideas to ordinary life.
Today's post is just below the END OF INTRODUCTION line.


Some key points:

1. Many confusion-defenses fail to reduce confusion, or actually make it worse.

2. This sets up a vicious cycle: Confusion sources--> Defenses--> Failure to resolve sources-->More defenses, etc., on and on

3. One of the most common --and malignant-- defenses is

Find-An-Enemy-and-Lose-Your-Confusion. When you find-an-enemy, you bury your own confusion about a given issue, and project it onto the other side: not we, but they are confused. Of course the other side thinks the same about you.
Scapegoating can sometimes be a form of Find-an-Enemy defenses against confusion.
 END OF INTRODUCTION

TODAY'S POST: Scapegoating as a cause of confusion in families.


Scapegoating is one of the most difficult and painful patterns that develop in families. This pattern generates confusion about where the problem lies: is it "in" the scapegoat, or "in" the family, or "in" both?
Here is an excerpt from my e-book Stressed Family, Strong Family. The entire e-book is available free of charge from this blog in a December 2009 post. This excerpt might help some families with scapegoats sort out the possible causes and consider ways to ease the stress.

I have not removed some cross references to other sections of Stressed Family, Strong Family. You can find those other sections or chapters in the complete copy in the December 2009 post.



SCAPEGOATING
This is one of the most serious patterns that can develop in a family or classroom. Scapegoating means that all the problems in the family or class get blamed on one child. Or the family blames one of the parents for all their troubles. People might say: “If only Stan would straighten out, our family (class) would have no problems.” Or “Everything would be fine if only Sarah didn’t get into trouble all the time.”
Some scapegoats are always in the “hot seat” because they have a mental or emotional problem.
The youth (or young adult) is depressed, hyperactive, suicidal or homicidal, or in trouble with the law. Or they might be psychotic, hearing voices, feeling like people are out to get them. In some of these families, the rest of the family has not had therapy to help them understand the scapegoat’s condition. And sometimes no one helps the one in the hot seat.
If one of those serious conditions exists, and all the problems in the family get blamed on the scapegoat, this is a somewhat different situation from the usual scapegoating pattern. In this case my suggestions about scapegoating may not work. You will need to talk to a counselor or therapist to find the best approach. You can use my suggestions if the counselor agrees, but the ideas here cannot take the place of expert help.
I would like to set aside those serious mental illnesses. We will look at the other families who get stuck in a scapegoating pattern. Any family can slide into this pattern--they may not even notice. They think every family has a problem kid or parent.
Causes of scapegoating
What causes scapegoating to develop? Often the parents have conflicts they have not dealt with. But the parents don’t argue with each other about in-laws, money, sex, work, etc. They fight about how to discipline one of the kids, who has become the scapegoat. Therefore the parents don’t deal with their own adult conflicts. Sometimes one parent really would like a divorce but feels they can’t. Sometimes the reason is that the problems with the scapegoat are so pressing that the parent can’t bring themselves to leave the other one saddled with all the care and anguish.

So the scapegoat has become the problem that draws attention away from the parents’ problems.
Any kid caught in the middle of parents’ fights is apt to get into trouble or have temper outbursts or other problems. Those symptoms confirm everyone’s belief that the scapegoat is the sick one. They see is the problems with the scapegoat, but not the other problems in the family.
Arguing and blame patterns go along with scapegoating
You can look on scapegoating as a severe form of the blaming pattern: all the members blame the scapegoat for all the problems and painful feelings in the family.
In a family I saw years ago in the office, Josh got blamed for all sorts of things. This went on for years during his childhood and teen years. His parents had conflicts in their marriage and took some of those out on Josh.
When he was about nine or ten, he would wake up in the morning determined to stay out of trouble that day. But sooner or later something would happen. He would get blamed by one of his parents for something he didn’t do. Or a brother or sister would “set him up” by blaming him for something they had done.
Parents will usually believe the brother or sister. Then they punish the scapegoat for something a sibling’s misdeed. This makes the scapegoat even angrier.
Of course, Josh did things for which he deserved blame. This would happen even when he was trying to behave. So he got punished, both fairly--for what he did--and unfairly, for things he didn’t do. After a while he quit even trying to behave. Even when he did something good, the parents didn’t believe he was sincere. They just figured he was trying to butter them up, to con them. His parents suspected he was being good so that they wouldn’t punish him when they heard about yet another misdeed.
This mistrust of the scapegoat hurts everyone. Parents and often teachers stop seeing any of the kid’s good points. Strengths get lost. The kid gets to the point where he or she gives up, and shows fewer and fewer strengths.
Parents or teachers don’t deliberately scapegoat one kid. This pattern is a cycle, like the other cycles we’ve seen. Maybe the scapegoat is a kid from an earlier marriage. Maybe he or she reminds the parent of some relative they hate. Somehow the scapegoat gets into the role of “the only problem in this family.”
A scapegoating cycle breeds tragedy. If a scapegoat does not have a mental illness to start with, he or she will often develop one after a few months or years of this pattern. Depression, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual acting out, rage outbursts, school failure, and delinquency are common reactions.
Back to Josh: He used his brains to earn praise and support from teachers. This is unusual, because many family scapegoats get into the same trouble at school. Josh’s teachers may not have realized how vital their support was. It helped him survive the hell he felt in his family life. He went on to college, escaping from the family web. He did well, and became a psychologist working with kids and families. He sometimes tells a scapegoating family about his own experience, so many years ago.
His parents have long since stopped blaming him, and feel very proud of his accomplishments. But the sad memories from childhood will never fade for Josh.
Too many scapegoats lack the abilities Josh had; they end up as scapegoats in school and in the community. I once had a letter from an adult prisoner who had read my description of scapegoating. He said that he recognized exactly what had happened in his own family. He took his anger out on the community and wound up with a long jail term.

What to do:
1.    Look at your family or class. Ask yourself, what other problems do we have? Do we have problems we overlook in our focus on the scapegoat. Make a note of those problems and talk about ways to work on them together.

2.    If you don’t see any problems except those of the scapegoat, ask someone who knows your family or class. Do they think the scapegoat is getting blamed too much for whatever goes wrong?

3.    If the answer is yes, talk to the family or class about this. Tell them that you see that the scapegoat has been getting too much of the blame. Say that you expect everyone to follow the rules, and to admit it when they do something wrong. They need to stop blaming the scapegoat for their own misdeeds. You will also expect the scapegoat to admit it when they do something wrong.

4.    You need to spell out clearly what is OK and what is wrong for everyone in the family or class.

5.    If you don’t have a system of rewards, even such a simple one as saying “Thanks” to your kids, then start doing this. You will need to give fair rewards to everyone, the scapegoat included, when they follow the rules.

6.    Some scapegoating families don’t trust anyone outside the family. They may not even trust a counselor until they really get to know them. One of the family members may have to go to the counselor by themselves at first. After the counselor hears about the scapegoating pattern, he or she may ask the entire family to come in.

7.    If you have lost sight of what’s right about the scapegoat, look at the next chapter, titled “370 STRENGTHS.” That long list might help you find some good qualities you have overlooked.

8.    Parents need to take a look at the other problems that got pushed aside in the focus on the scapegoat. If your marriage or partnership is in trouble, get some help with that.     If there are in-law problems, begin to tackle those. These problems won’t take care of themselves, and they will take a lot of work. If they were simple, they would not have gotten pushed aside.

9.    If you’re a teacher, are you getting frustrated “teaching to the test?” This pressure to make the school look good creates stress for teachers, administrators, and students.     Are you taking your anger out on the kids?
    Ask yourself the tough questions: What can teachers do to support each other? How likely is an easing of the pressures you are feeling? Do you need to change careers?
    You and the other teachers can find kindred souls on the Internet. Check out the teachers’ chat rooms and other resources.

When a parent is the scapegoat
This is a difficult situation, often involving an addicted parent. The same ideas apply. Look for other problems hidden behind the anger and fear swirling around the scapegoat. But that scapegoated parent will need to get help for his or her own problems. And the family needs to stop scapegoating. The family with a parent scapegoat will usually need a therapist.

Some families have a series of scapegoats
Some families or classrooms will have one person in the hot seat for a few days, weeks, or months. Then the focus shifts to another. The shift in a family may be from one kid to another kid, or (infrequently, in my experience) from a kid to a parent or teen. You can handle the situation in the same way as above. A counselor or therapist can help you untangle the binds that keep everyone snarled and snarling.

What if you are the scapegoat?

If you are the scapegoat, you will have a difficult time changing the pattern. The rest of the family or class may mistrust whatever you do when you try to make things better for yourself. I advise you to talk first to a counselor for guidance.
Otherwise you may find that family or class undermines your efforts. They may feel suspicious of anything you say. They may not be able to hear your views. Even if you make a genuine effort, they may think you’re conning them for some hidden purpose. (And you may have done that in the past.) The counselor can help figure out what to do and say.
Remember: trying to “straighten out” or “clean up your act” can take a long time. The family may do things that end up provoking you back into the old ways. (They may not realize they are provoking you.)
They may continue to blame you for everything. They may not even notice when they do this. But they may be able to “hear” this from a counselor who gains their trust.

If scapegoating has gone on for a long time, or if mental illness, drugs, or alcohol are involved

If the scapegoat is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they and the family need to get involved in AA, Alanon, Narcanon, Alateen, etc. And you know what I will say next: therapy! The longer the scapegoating has been going on, the more effort you will need to put into changing.
    The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill gives families hope, courage, and knowledge.

Scapegoating combined with physical or sexual abuse

One of the most destructive of all patterns in a family is the scapegoating of a physically or sexually abused child. A victim of physical or sexual abuse will often misbehave, take out their anger on others, or develop depression or other signs of emotional distress. The family may not see that the beatings are feeding the misbehavior. No one may know about  the sexual abuse. And they don’t see that the scapegoat is getting blamed for everything.
Sexual abuse is usually hidden; only the victim and the abuser know about it. (Occasionally a parent, or one of the other kids may know or suspect.) The victim may misbehave or get depressed as a way of handling the anxiety about the abuse. If their behavior leads to scapegoating by the family, this creates extreme stress. Most people can’t imagine the daily hell the child or teen suffers through from a combination of abuse and scapegoating.

Suicide or homicide by scapegoats

By now you can understand why some scapegoats try to kill themselves or someone else. Their anger, loneliness, depression, despair, or self-blame can become unbearable. Finally they lash out at themselves or someone else. Some may suffer a psychotic break from the stress in the family and at school.

Bullying and Scapegoating

A youth being bullied and a scapegoat have a lot in common. In the last few years, schools have begun to pay more attention to the destructive pattern of bullying. Both the student being bullied and the bullying schoolmate have emotional problems, sometimes severe enough to require professional help. Your school should have an anti-bullying program you can turn to. If not, the counselor or assistant principal should be able to assist you in finding a path to help, perhaps together with other parents and school staff concerned about bullying. Bullied kids have in some instances carried out their suicidal or homicidal thoughts.

If You Need Help Finding Strengths in a Scapegoated Child
A child who is coping with scapegoating has had to develop the ability to survive in the midst of pain and heartache. No surprise: Some scapegoated, triangulated kids grow up with a lot of empathy for the underdog. That’s a Group 4 strength, in the next chapter. I’ve mentioned above a scapegoat who grew up to be a child and family psychologist. He can really feel what kids are going through.

27 comments:

  1. Good article we need more info like this about a seldom addressed problem, scape goating.

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  2. Here is how it works. I was the straight "A" Golden Child in my family until 8th grade when problems climaxed between my parents. The Scapegoat role began at age 12. My younger sister got left at school and my mother was embarrased and blamed me and I ended up with stitches and a lifelong scar on my upper lip. By high school I was cutting school and running away from home. At 15 I was labeled "incorrigible" by the Courts. One night, at 15, I took my youngest sister out in a cab and when we returned the house was on fire. My mother was nowhere to be found all night long, but I was blamed for the fire because I wasn't home and dropped off at the JAIL the next day to be "dealt with". My family talks about me like I'm a dog and then deny it when confronted. Last year I confronted them so they later bragged about how they went all Thanksgiving weekend without discussing me (I wasn't invited). CRAZY!! Anyway....
    The Scapegoat must have two characteristics in order to be able to perform their function:
    1) They must be the strongest.
    The Scapegoat has to bear the sins of the entire family. They have to survive, alone, in the "desert" without the comfort or support of the family. So they must be strong in order to carry the burden.
    2) They must be the most loving.
    The Scapegoat sacrifices themself for the benefit of the family. Again, this is somewhat subconscious, but on some level they know they are doing this. They give up themselves so the family may appear to be "OK".
    If YOU are also the family scapegoat - Wear the badge PROUDLY!! It means you are special. It means others are jealous of you. AND it means YOU my friend have integrity and independent thought. Remember, Jesus was a Scapegoat. Love always, Laura Jane Fetner :-)

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    1. Holy Crow - this is unbelivable - this is my life.

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    2. Hi there I was also the family scapegoat I can really relate to everything you are saying. It got to the point where my parents would not even speak to me on a day to day basis, I got regular beatings, and was not allowed to bring friends to the house. Neighbours shunned me having heard from my parents what I was 'really like'. The loneliness was unbearable and at 16 I got in with the Hells Angels and actually felt accepted for the first time in my life. Of course this was seen as rebellion by my family and helped perpetuate my label. I managed to get away from the family later and went to university I am now a Psychiatric Nurse. They have since stopped scapegoating me but I will never forget what happened.

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    3. Thank you for that
      . I am my family's scapegoat and I've decided to cut all connection just a couple days ago after confronting my myrtar mother. Right now I'm "crazy, ungrateful, and delusional.". Its hard BC noone understands just how damaging this has been my whole life. A time comes where it either ends or you do.

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    4. Wow, these people do what is called "gaslighting." You must google that term. They conveniently forget the truth when confronted with it. They deny abuse or name calling. My mother called me when she was dying and asked a bunch of questions about why I moved to the other side of the country. She asked if I left because she used extreme physical violence, mental torments, and called me names. My mother went on to say that she did not want me to be surprised that the world was "miserable." I told her "nah, I just wanted to live on the west coast." A few days later I spoke to her about these comments and my mother said, "I never said any of that." This is called "gaslighting." It is nothing short of shocking. In short "gaslighting" is the active practice of second guessing the scapegoat until he doubts himself and others doubt everything about him as well. It is how the abuser continues to abuse in the shadows while smiling and fooling everyone else in the daylight. Gaslighting also makes the victim feel that they are the crazy one worthy of all the blame. Do not fall for it. You are not that bad. Did you kill anyone? Right.

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  3. Wow, thank you for your post. Never looked at myself as being special for being my siblings scapegoat.

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  4. Thank you for your post. You have no idea how comforting that is to read. I still suffer a great deal of mental confusion about what "really" happened and what is "correct", "what I caused to happen to me", and "what I'm really like". My confusion and anxiety and attempts to resolve them have worn out a lot of therapists and 12-step sponsors, and every time one of these relationships tank, it adds to my confusion and self-blame. I would give anything to have mental clarity. I am in my late fifties and now suffer from a lot of stress-related fatigue, irritability, and body aches. I know that the scapegoating in our family is multi-generational - I can even name which of my cousins (like me) are vilified and treated with contempt and hostility by the rest of the family. I think if I could get some clarity on what "secret" the family is protecting, that would go a long way. The other family scapegoats, like me, are very sensitive and introverted, and the rest of the family is very aggressive, materialistic, successful in finance and business, and achievement-oriented. Fortunately, I have finally found a wonderful workplace where my strengths are nurtured and appreciated, and I am also an artist. I try to give back as much as I can to the 12-step and artistic communities to which I belong, and my husband is a constant source of loyalty, support, and love. I realize that for someone in my shoes, I have a LOT to be grateful for, and not a day goes by when I don't thank the Universe for what I have.

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    1. I am 47 and going through much of the same. I became a workaholic and have lost most everything for various reasons but not from my failure to work hard. I wonder if we can recover and God I hope so. It is so difficult that the average person cannot understand.
      I am sorry you have gone through this and I hope you find the answers I am also looking for. I know the "secret" or at least some and it made me more of the enemy than before so careful what you wish for....

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    2. I think everyone should read "The Celestine Prophecy". That book helps me understand why I react to things the way I do when no one else sees a problem. Its hard to explain but the book will clarify what is really happening and also how you can get your energy back after a draining interaction. I realized that as a child I was full of beautiful energy being a child who would disappear into the woods regularly. My family literally sucked my energy away throughout my life. I became a source and when i finally stood up their reaction was of pure rage. They don't know what they are doing, doesn't make it ok, but what they are doing is very violent even if they don't touch you. Please read the book you guys. It can help you.

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  5. That was a beautiful comment. I am a scapegoat for my family an have also become one in other social circles because it is something I have fallen into easily. It started when my father figure grandfather died and my actual father had to go in for an operation for a brain tumor. The pressure on the family was unbearable and I got the blame. My Dad also works from home and has a cleft palette and is an angry and bitter man. I am also the eldest child (female), with a younger brother. My mother sends me to therapy tells me I have problems e.g. BPD. But I have anger outbursts because my brother who I even have cared for and worried about his whole life blames me for the familys problems. Some days I want to kill myslef, some days I feel like such a defected person that I don't want to leave the house. But I will fight this.

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    Replies
    1. get help and stay with it. it works.

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    2. Here's my suggestion to other scapegoats:

      Go to college

      Overshadow the golden child's achievements

      Get isolated from the family

      Collect your free ticket out of the crazy farm.



      They think insanity is normal and normality is abnormal.

      Step one:

      You try to conform

      Step two:

      You fail

      Step three:

      You move on

      Step four:

      You start living for yourself.

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  6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HshQidqYxjg&feature=relmfu

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  7. My scapegoating sotry....
    http://scapegoatingsucks.blogspot.com/

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  8. Well here I am 53 and a parent/grandparent scapegoat. It has taken me this long to come out of denial and become aware of what all this really means. I come from a very dysfunctional
    family both parents serve alcoholics/both decesased and I was
    adopted in that mess. Both parents gone and I have forgiven them for what they did not know how to do.

    I been married for 35 yrs and my only child is 35, you do the math. Married a man I love dearly, we have had our ups and downs and overcome. I have always been the scapegoat for my husbands family, mostly my mother in law which got to my daughter and now my grandson thru my daughter. It is a very contagious disease, I'm realizing. Fotunately my family knows who to call when something needs to done or if they need help, but watch out if it turns out wrong! and watch your back because anything that goes wrong with the kids, or my husband, is my fault, afterall I am Just An In Law!!! as reminded by MIL.

    I have been in 12 Step Groups for many years, church, you name I have tried it, looking for Truth! I'm more than willing to look at myself, heck I beat myself up on a regular
    basis looking for Truth. I just wish the entire family would come along to find truth also. But, are an All Knowing Family,
    just ask them or they will be happy to tell you.

    I continue to be the Scapegoat, but I'm working on it with counselor and my 12 Step Support. I is by far the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Not sure if my marriage will survive this time, I am very tired and can't do it anymore. I truly think I deserve a live a better way, with or without my family. Can't believe I'm saying that, but I am.

    Looking For Truth







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  9. I'll apply those ideas to ordinary life.
    Today's post is just below the END OF INTRODUCTION line.
    viagra apoteket

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  10. The scapegoat in the family is the strong one that speaks the truth about the family dynamic. The family doesnt like that because they do not want to address these issues or make changes. As long as they can project all of their issues onto the scapegoat and make them the promblem, then their problems are easily solved. I'm turning the tables on my family. I've decided I don't want to be around a family that talks behind my back and calls me crazy, when in fact I'm the sanest one in the bunch. My goal is to move on and stop letting "family" take me down. I'm going to take care of myself, so that I'm not hurting and immobilzed by depression. I'm going to find support groups and a therapist to help me sort our the feelings of hurt and anger that I cannot let go of, because of the ongoing scapegoating. I am going low contact with the family for starters, but if no contact is necessary to take care of myself, then that may be necessary.

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  11. It is helpful to read other posts about scapegoating as I do not feel so alone. Been dealing with the angst of letting go over the years. Blamed for things I haven't done.
    Set up as the family scapegoat by my mother who was also an alcoholic in my teens...I seemed to be a good diversion and focal point as the eldest child in a very dysfunctional family. My parents had many marital problems and I was stuck in the middle with younger siblings to watch out for. Interesting how the scapegoat in many instances is the one who doesn't fit in.
    I understand the frustration and anger over the family attitude and have little by little stepped away from the family including my siblings into my own life. Unfortunately my parents, siblings and some extended family still treat me as the scapegoat even though I'm in my 50's...and I have very little if any interaction with them anymore. They were and are a burden I do not need.
    I have always dreamed of having a better relationship with them however the reality is that this is not possible.
    Luckily I have my husband and daughter to share the good family experiences with.

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  12. I am pleased that my blog has helped some readers to feel less alone. I also appreciate very much the survival strategies readers sent in.
    I've gone on to some other interests, including the risks of stress and even suicidal impulses among doctors, nurses, psychologists, and therapists.
    Some of those thoughts are on the blog: Stressed Health Professionals.
    A belated thanks to posters over the last several years.
    Bill Taylor, blog host

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  13. This is somewhat offensive to me as it seems to imply that most scapegoats started off with an emotional disorder. Why not the BRAINIEST child in the family who always gets the blame because, among other reasons, siblings become jealous. That's my situation. Did it cause emotional trauma for me in later years that I sought therapy for? You bet. I just don't like the implication that a child with an emotional handicap is the scapegoat for that reason. The problem is with the family, not the child, and all else is secondary. It didn't BEGIN because the child had an emotional disorder.

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    1. I agree! I'm also the over-achiever and the scapegoat of my family. As the eldest child, I earned my BA, MA and a law degree, have two technology patents, several businesses of my own, and most recently a technology startup that I raised nearly $1MM to fund. I was never a drug user, alcohol abuser, or was promiscuous.

      And yet, I am the "screw up" in my family. My brother, the high-school dropout, constantly tells me I have wasted my life. My mother calls me "high-functioning" as if I've managed to scrape together a life despite my handicaps. This is crazy-making in a crazy family.

      No one should assume that the scapegoat in any way deserves the blame. Many are simply the most forgiving, sensitive and loving in the family. And that's why their family targets them.

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  14. My entire family has scapegoated me. They want me to fail. Even my own daughter and son have joined my parents. Why? So many reasons. I now live away from them all and am so much happier. NO more gossip, theft, hatred, cruel words, and overall evil to be subjected to. I am alone, but it is so much better than having fake relationships with people who want you to fail. When I have been in relationship with my family, I end up getting depressed, making bad decisions, and hating myself. Leaving them has brought me healing. They think I am crazy and miserable without them. Really, I am happy and sane! And now I know I am special, thank God.

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    Replies
    1. I have just stopped all contact with family and I know what you mean about being alone but more content. It's going to take me awhile to grieve over not being able to see my granddaughter but at 7 years old, she was already staring to treat me as "other". She is taught to respect her elders except for me so our relationship was becoming painful as well. When children see parents treating their parents poorly they learn the same thing.

      "They think I am crazy and miserable without them." Same here but I helped perpetuate that because I didn't think I could be and struggled to keep them close despite of the abuse.

      I have depression/anxiety issues. Drank sometimes to cope and acted very poorly which led to even more "proof" that I was the horrible one. I hope this can help someone else to not cope this way. It just makes things worse and gives them more justification. Find a good counselor.

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    2. I started running away from home even before I started school. Before I was 12 I became successful. At 12 I ended up in state reform school for incorrigibility. Running away has only increased the distrust and alienation. I am a total misfit everywhere I go. My granddaughter loved me, until she was about 7. Her mom started telling her she didn't have to mind me. It was the most painful loss of my life. I had not seen how the relationship with her mom and my son was the same as my family of origin. I knew they were treating me badly but I didn't see the connection.


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  15. I was the scapegoat. I was ignored and hated. If I really needed something, even something miniscule, I would beg the golden child to ask my parents for it and it would be addressed immediately. My dad stood by and allowed my borderline mother to commit horrific acts of violence and mental abuse against me. I have no respect for this man. How did my mother and father hook up? They fit so perfectly. The abuser and the enabler. He would ignore my every need, lay on the couch with his deaf ear in the air while I begged for help, and he would also very often carry out the violent wishes of my irrational borderline mother as well. No matter how unjust and sadistic that these acts may have been.

    My advice is to run. Just consider how irrational one must be to treat their own child in this manner. Do not attempt to use reason with these ghouls. Just get out of there. Scapegoats are very damaged and it is important to mitigate future damage by running like hell like your childhood home were on fire.

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