It’s natural to experience an elevated sense of anxiety when a threat arises. Then your system quickly calms down when the danger subsides. Hypervigilance happens when this feeling becomes your normal and your system has an impaired ability to calm itself.
If you grew up in a home with emotional abuse and neglect your system became flooded by these episodes of arousal because of the constant threats. Both abuse and neglect can make a child feel unsafe because of the lack of protection and care.
Symptoms of hypervigilance
A child who faces attack or has to look after itself does not get a chance to relax. Therefore, hypervigilance can lead to the emotional dysregulation many of us experience. It’s so exhausting to live in this state all the time that sometimes we explode.
It also leads to isolation because you’re less likely to feel triggered when you’re by yourself. Hypervigilance makes it hard to form connections. You can barely carry on a conversation without wondering how this person is perceiving you or whether they are safe.
So you wear a social mask and try to appear normal. It’s why you feel most alone in a room full of people and often can’t wait to leave a social situation so you can let your shoulders down.
It leads to numbing out with drugs and alcohol. Feeling nothing seems better than living with the constant flood of cortisol (stress hormone) that comes with this elevated sense of threat.
If you startle easily or overreact to stimuli, that may be a symptom of hypervigilance. When a siren goes off, do you clutch your heart, stop dead in your tracks, and fight to recover while everyone else hardly notices?
Hypervigilance causes disease and illness in the body because of the toll this endless state of stress takes. It’s one of the reasons those of us with six or more ACEs (adverse childhood events) can see our lifespans cut short by 20 years.
How to cope
What can help heal hypervigilance is being kind to yourself. Love yourself in spite of your heightened state of arousal and remind yourself it’s not your fault. Negative self-talk only makes things worse.
Focus on your breathing to help you stay present and grounded when you start to panic during a conversation or other social situation. Give yourself grace and leave to regroup even if it’s only for a few minutes.
Talk to someone about how you feel, whether it’s a trusted friend, trauma-informed coach, or other counsellor. Join a support group for people suffering with these symptoms such as ACA or another one that suits you.
Move, go for a walk, or otherwise shift your energy to get unstuck. Changing your scenery and getting into your body and out of your head can offer relief from the pain of hypervigilance.
Since Brene Brown gave her famous talk, the pop culture difference between shame and guilt has become that the latter makes you feel bad for what you did. The former makes you feel bad for who you are.
As a result, it’s believed guilt can help us by pointing out what we need to do differently. Shame, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities and offers no self-improvement benefits.
As a survivor of complex PTSD, I can attest to the way shame immobilizes you. It attacks you in waves and makes you feel “flooded” with feelings of self-loathing. These so-called emotional flashbacks can strike at any time and make it difficult to enjoy life.
Since undergoing neurofeedback treatment, I’ve experienced a lessening of these attacks. The shame of PTSD has been replaced by ordinary memories that no longer make me hate myself.
I now know firsthand how it feels to be free from both shame and guilt. My newfound memories allow me to experience past mistakes without pummeling me with self-criticism and self-loathing that allows no hope for change.
For this reason, I disagree about the helpfulness of guilt feelings though I do agree that shame and guilt differ in key ways. As Robert Augustus Masters writes in Emotional Intimacy: “Feeling guilty about something enables us to do it again.”
How shame and guilt manifest
Guilt has to do with action, knowing what we’re doing is wrong but doing it anyway. Guilt can inspire rationalization that allows for repeat offences. For example, an abuser feels guilty about his offence but that rarely stops him from recommitting.
In fact, another pop culture psychology figure Dr. Phil stated boldly that “the best predictor of past behavior is future behavior.” So, in contrast to Dr. Brown’s claim, guilt makes us more likely to repeat than to curb bad behavior.
Guilt makes the addict say, “I’ll never drink or use again.” (She will). It also makes the weight watcher declare she’ll start her diet tomorrow – after this decadent dessert. All guilt does is stop us from enjoying the thing we’re going to do anyway.
Guilt makes us an enemy of ourselves by witnessing as we self-sabotage. It’s more active than shame which seems to come out of nowhere, burying us in immobilizing self-hatred.
It’s true that guilt focuses on what we’ve done wrong while shame exposes our perceived inherent “wrongness”. But contrary to popular current belief, neither guilt nor shame offer any self-improvement value.
Both shame and guilt ensure nothing changes and we stay mired in our patterns of self-sabotage. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are the keys to releasing old habits and transforming into the person you’re meant to be in the world.
I recently read a book called Deeper Dating. In it, the author says the things we hide are our greatest and core gifts.
If you’re a sensitive person, for example, you may have tried to develop a thick skin. But what if your sensitivity is your gift to the world?
Often, when we grew up without praise or encouragement from parents, we have a hard time accepting ourselves. If others failed to understand or support our core gifts, we suppress them to fit in.
But hiding core gifts in an effort to find acceptance is self-abandonment. And, besides, it never works. You come across as inauthentic and untrustworthy and you never become the person you’re meant to be in the world.
When you hide your core gifts, you attract people who will never make you feel supported because they don’t know the real you. Instead of seeking acceptance from others, the key is to accept yourself.
So, how can you begin to express your core gifts when you’ve been hiding them all along? How do you start to accept yourself when you’ve been self-abandoning for years? Here are 4 ways.
1. State your opinions.
When you disagree with someone, say so. When you stay silent or lend tacit agreement because you fear conflict, that’s self-abandonment.
You’re putting someone else’s need to be right ahead of your own need to be seen and heard. This ensures you’ll keep attracting people who don’t know the real you and you’ll continue to feel invisible.
2. Express your emotions.
If you grew up with emotional neglect like I did, you may not trust your emotions. Maybe your complex PTSD has made you dysregulated around feelings.
The first step is to actually feel these feelings instead of denying them or distracting yourself from them. Really sink into them at first by journaling and/or sitting alone with them.
Once you’ve become more comfortable with your feelings, begin to express them to others. This will help you accept others’ emotions as well. Emotional honesty is an important part of relational intimacy and shows the real you.
3. Do what you want to develop core gifts.
Do you spend a lot of time fulfilling obligations that bring you no joy? Stop that. Make sure you’re doing more of what you love than what you hate.
Of course, responsibility is part of life but resist the habit of becoming over responsible. Putting others’ needs ahead of your own is a common outcome of unmet childhood needs.
Parent yourself by taking care of your own needs first. Make a habit of asking yourself throughout the day what you need and giving it to yourself.
4. Invest in yourself to uncover core gifts.
You may resist spending money on yourself unless it provides a return on investment. But you are worth investing in and your mental health is the best ROI.
Depending on your resources, you may consider coaching, therapy, a retreat, or some other form of self care. If you spend money on others easily but have trouble doing the same for yourself, reconsider.
When overcoming a lifetime of self-abandonment, you may need help to uncover your core gifts. Invest time in self-knowledge through books or by spending more time on your own. Be patient with yourself as a lifetime of hiding takes time to transform.
My mother suffered with an undiagnosed mental illness which made her incapable of experiencing empathy or compassion. My role as the family scapegoat began with me bearing the burden of my mother’s emotional neediness while displaying no needs of my own.
As I grew up and began to act out as a result of the years of emotional abuse and neglect, my family labeled me the problem child. I became a convenient diversion from the family’s real problems which were multi-faceted and generational.
Through studying the dynamics of dysfunctional family systems, I’ve learned my role as the repository for the family’s grievances is archetypal. They used me as the scapegoat for their own shortcomings, making me the problem instead of facing their need to change.
Origins of the family scapegoat
The scapegoat is first mentioned in the Bible as a living sacrifice. Rather than kill the animal, the community releases it into the wild to carry away the sins of the whole group.
Its only purpose is to bear the burden of sins that are not its own. Today, we more often see scapegoats in dysfunctional families.
The family singles out one person to take the blame for all the problems in the family. Rather than look at themselves, the family points a collective finger at the scapegoat.
This allows them to carry on in their dysfunctional patterns without changing. They pretend to themselves they’re all right while the scapegoat is all wrong.
The scapegoat is the one who tells the truth about obvious defects in the family. Rather than support, she experiences gaslighting from the rest of the family.
She may be the mentally healthiest member of the family but by banding together, the clan convinces itself, and the scapegoat, that the opposite is true.
She may not understand why the rest of the family is unwilling to admit the obvious, keeps secrets, and hides the truth. For the scapegoat, the truth will set you free, but she is part of a family system that would rather remain in chains.
Fear of change and exposure motivates the family to sacrifice the scapegoat this way. Rather than face the truth and the possibility of deconstructing the whole family system, they demonize the truth teller.
If any of this resonates with you and you believe you’ve been targeted as the family scapegoat, here are nine signs you’ve been put in this role.
1. You are punished for telling the truth.
It seems like anytime you speak the truth, your family rebukes you. They abandon or punish you when you don’t go along with the status quo.
They can’t acknowledge the obvious truths you point out and instead point the finger at you and say you are the one with the problem.
2. You are the whistleblower.
Perhaps you threatened to expose a family secret but somehow got branded the bad guy. That’s because your desire to bring the truth to light poses a threat to a family dynamic that functions in the dark.
The hardest part of being a scapegoat is that families can be exceptionally good at hiding their dysfunction. This results in further isolation when the victim is not believed.
3. Your family blames you for their shortcomings.
They refuse to examine the poor behavior you’re asking them to acknowledge. Instead, they point to your human reaction to that behavior and pretend that’s the issue instead.
A valid emotional response becomes further evidence you’re “crazy” or always stirring up trouble.
4. You’re held to a different standard.
You may notice thoughts and opinions similar to yours are celebrated when others express them. But when you say or do the same things you get maligned. In psychology, this is known as the black sheep effect.
5. You feel left out as the family scapegoat.
You may find yourself left out of family events or conversations. Because you tell the truth, they’d rather not hear from you.
At the same time, you get criticized for your absence at events you were never invited to. This provokes guilt in you even though you’re the one who has been ostracized.
6. They sully your reputation.
Family members talk about you behind your back and speak poorly of you even to those outside the family circle. Rather than face their dysfunction they’ll tarnish your reputation publicly.
This is so you won’t receive support from outside the family and they can continue in their collective delusion.
7. Your family makes you feel ashamed or guilty.
As a result of years of unjust treatment, you have internalized a false sense of being bad or wrong. This can lead to over responsibility as you try to prove your “goodness”.
You fail to protect yourself from offences against you as a means of “taking the high road”. Or bear the burden of repairing relationships that are either bad for you or not your job to fix.
8. As the family scapegoat, you receive little or no praise.
Your family downplays your accomplishments. You may have never been praised or encouraged for your achievements in life.
Without the motivation provided by a pat on the back for a job well done, you give up and fail to achieve anything close to your potential. On the flip side, you work ever harder trying to prove yourself.
9. You have a difficult relationship with your sibling(s).
You have trouble connecting with your siblings as equals. They treat you with the same disdain as the rest of the family, promoting a false narrative of you as a troublemaker, or even someone with mental health issues.
They disrespect and discredit you at every turn. And do not provide you with the support you see in other sibling relationships.
While there’s no magic number that confirms you are a family scapegoat, it’s safe to say answering yes to five or more of these signs would be a good indication.
It’s important to know it’s not your fault and you had no control over your position within the family. It’s a role that was forced on you from a young age.
Stay tuned for the next post on how to heal from scapegoating and reclaim your life from the lies your family has told you.
If you’ve had to go no contact with toxic family, you know the strength required to protect yourself this way. Often decades of internal work go into reaching such a drastic conclusion.
If you’ve dealt with toxic family you know it’s tantamount to having your head held underwater while drowning. Instead of throwing you a life preserver, or even ignoring you, they throw you a boulder.
As a result, you can rarely become the person God (or the universe) put you on earth to become. Therefore, detaching from unsafe family becomes a matter of survival and a spiritual battle for your life.
Gaslighting abounds within the toxic family. They call you crazy for displaying normal human emotions. They deny your reality, tell you you’re wrong to feel the way you do, or reinvent the past.
If you haven’t heard of gaslighting, it’s the way your family throws you under the bus to avoid dealing with their problems. They make you the problem to maintain their dysfunctional status quo.
They deny that anything bad has happened to you. Often, they make you believe you’re overreacting or selfish for wanting to be seen and heard or have your needs met.
Social stigma of detaching from toxic family
I heard a dating coach tell his students that it’s a big red flag if someone has a troubled relationship with their family. This is an example of the social stigma attached to making the brave move to protect yourself from toxic people.
In addition to the pain and isolation of detaching from your abusers, you endure the social shame of being someone who “can’t get along with their family”.
After all, the common denominator is you, right? Your family seems to get along with each other and as they’ve told you, you’re the only one with a problem.
This is where the spiritual battle comes in. You may be the family scapegoat and that’s a biblical concept. You are the spiritual bearer of your family’s sins and they will keep piling on you until you take a stand for yourself.