12 Steps to Breaking Free from Being the Family Scapegoat


Scapegoaters are insecure people driven to try and raise their own status by attempting to lower the status of their target


by Glynis Sherwood

Did you grow up having doubts about your self esteem or personal worth?  When things went wrong in your family, did you tend to be the fall guy?  Do you find yourself encountering recurring disrespect from friends or colleagues?  Do you feel unsure of yourself and/or have difficulty experiencing trust in relationships?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these statements, you may have been scapegoated by your family.  The term ‘scapegoat’ refers to a family member who takes the blame for difficulties in the family.Scapegoating is a form of bullying.  Family relationships profoundly impact our identity and how we view ourselves.

How to Tell if You Have Been Scapegoated:

  1. You are held responsible for family problems, conflicts or challenges, even if they have nothing to do with you. Other people blame you for their actions.  You may end up feeling a lot of shame for being ‘the bad guy’, and/or anger for being blamed for negative family dynamics.
  2. You are attacked and disbelieved if you tell the truth and ‘blow the whistle’ on negative and/or inappropriate family dynamics.
  3. There has been a history of one or more family members being verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you.  Other family members seem to accept or look the other way when you are bullied or aggressed against like this.  You may feel like the ‘black sheep’ of the family.

  4. You find yourself repeatedly being accused of behavior the scapegoater is engaged in. For example, a family member repeatedly yells at you, and then accuses you of being abusive, or being thoughtful and then told “all you care about is yourself”.

  5. You act out the negative ‘expectations’ of scapegoating such as not living up to your potential, or getting into relationships with abusive people because your self esteem is has been damaged.

  6. Being the mentally healthiest family member, but being accused of being sick,bad, etc.

  7. Occupying the role of family outcast, and being treated with disdain or disgust by family or yourself.

  8. Your achievements are belittled, minimized, criticized and rejected.

What’s Going On In Families That Scapegoat

Families that are shame or fear based are not healthy.  Often in these families you will find evidence of abuse, neglect, addiction, betrayal, mental illness and insecurity.  Dysfunctional families either lack insight or find it threatening, and actively repress it through scapegoating those who want to understand and change negative dynamics.  Scapegoating is a “projection defense” that allows scapegoaters to keep up appearances. In other words, by making the scapegoat look bad, it takes attention off the real problem.

Many families who resort to scapegoating are headed by narcissistic parents who lack personal awareness, and empathy for their target, as in their eyes, the target is there to serve their false image.  So the purpose of scapegoating is to allow families to carry on unhealthy behavior patterns, and maintain myth of normalcy, without having to look inward or take responsibility for a toxic environment.  To the outside observer – and possibly the Scapegoat – these families seem crazy making and delusional.

Who Gets Picked to Be Scapegoat

The Scapegoat doesn’t get picked randomly or by accident.  Usually they are either sensitive, unhappy, vulnerable, ill and/or the outspoken child or whistle blower.  In other words, the scapegoat is the child
who refuses to look content or stay silent in the unbearable atmosphere created in the family home.

How Scapegoating Impacts the Target

Scapegoats almost universally experience low self esteem or lack of self worth.  The major problem is
that they suffer from an Identity Disturbance, as the target confuses the myththat they are bad, with the truth.  This is usually a lie and the truth is that Scapegoats are being abused by being taught they are ‘bad’.  Scapegoats tend to struggle with chronic insecurity, as they never feel safe or believe they are loved.  They can also fall into a‘Victim’ role, and unconsciously repeat their scapegoating by gravitating towards unhealthy behavior or relationships at work, school and their private life.

Scapegoats often have trouble feeling safe in relationships – especially intimate relationships – due to the betrayal of trust in their family.  They can also have challenges managing emotions, and find they either feel overwhelmed by feelings and anxious, or shut down and not know how they are feeling.

How To Break Free From Scapegoating

  1. Understand that what you have come to believe about yourself as family Scapegoat – i.e. that you are bad, weird, inadequate or defective – is not the truth.  In fact it’s likely a lie that was created to prevent family members from acknowledging their own troubles, thereby avoiding taking responsibility for both their behavior and the need to change.

  2. Locate and trust your ‘Inner Owl’ – that wise part of you that knows you have been mistreated and will no longer willingly allow this abuse from others or yourself.

  3. Recognize that feelings of shame, guilt and self blame belong to the perpetrators, not you as target.  You are simply a dumping ground for their bad feelings.  To change this you need to start standing up to the notion that you are at fault.  You will likely have to begin with yourself, learning to question and reject seeing yourself as ‘bad’.

  4. Get to know your true self.  Identify exceptions to the negative stereotype you have been saddled with.  In other words, pinpoint what is good, likeable or at least adequate about you – your character, values, actions, etc.  Write down your good traits – you will need to be reminded of this alternate universe, which is the truth about you, especially if you start to fall back into the habit of feeling bad about yourself again. Understand that getting better – and feeling better – is a learning curve, and you may slip a few times before you gain solid footing

  5. Figure out what you might be doing – consciously or unconsciously – that gives scapegoaters the idea that it’s OK to abuse you.  Determine how to change any behavior that draws you into the Victim role.

  6. Stop trying to win the favor of abusive and uncaring family members, co-workers or ‘friends’.  Anyone who engages in this type of inappropriate behavior has personality problems, especially a parent who did not love their child.

  7. Don’t expect abusive family members to apologize or make amends.  They will likely blame you more if you attempt to hold them accountable.

  8. Start asserting your right to be treated respectfully with family and other people who try and abuse you.  E.G., “The way you just spoke to me now is not acceptable, and I never want to be talked to like that again”, or “If you want to have a relationship with me, you will stop the angry outbursts, name calling, accusations, etc.”  Know that you may not be heard or respected by aggressive people.  The point is that you hear and respect yourself!  Don’t do this until you are ready to follow through with your commitment to yourself.

  9. Accept that you may never have a healthy relationship with your scapegoater(s).  This may involve limited or no contact with those who are determined to continue to abuse you.  You may experience feelings of grief.  Work through the painful feelings, and get support if needed.  This pain is much less harmful than continuing to allow yourself to be abused by anyone.

  10. Get in the habit of treating yourself with kindness, caring, compassion, appreciation and acceptance.  Practice viewing yourself as a person of worth and lovability.  This will likely feel weird at first as it is unfamiliar.  But even though it is unfamiliar, treating yourself in a loving manner is never wrong.

  11. Understand that it will take time to learn how to love and appreciate yourself.  You have been trained to be overly self critical and may believe you are defective.  Be patient as this false image gradually crumbles.  Get counselling to help you overcome this painful legacy, and find your true self – the strong, valuable person you are meant to be.

  12. Practice what you preach with others… Break the cycle


Like this Article?  Read more articles on Scapegoating here

Need help overcoming scapegoating?   Check out my Scapegoat Counselling page

Counselling is available in person in Vancouver BC, toll free by Phone in Canada and the USA, or by Skype around the world.

Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in recovery from Scapegoating/Bullying, Low Self Esteem, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.  My services are available in person in Vancouver BC, or Toll-Free across Canada by Phone or Email.  I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the life you want and deserve!

  • Alice27

    I don’t think you’re being unfair. Part of the manipulation is them wanting you to believe you’re the one causing the problems. Like we are damaged somehow. Your story is a lot like mine, but I also have a sibling who can do no wrong.

  • Pipkins2t

    ” IMO, your loss of the support and sanctuary of family is a completely legitimate reason to grieve”. I don’t know how to grieve, or what I am actually grieving for. I had time to think about the process of grief, and intellectually I know a part of me would like to grieve for the ‘person’ I once was, i.e. a sister, a daughter, an auntie. That ‘person’ was a very good person, kind, loving, giving, trusting. To a large extent that ‘person’ in me has died. I am still a good person, however, very few individuals ever get close enough to see that part of who I am. I miss the open heart that I used to hold. I have a legitimate reason to grieve, yet I remain unable to identify a single focus for such strength of emotion. My experience of choosing no contact has taught me that not only did I walk away from my biological mother & siblings, I also walked away from the ‘person’ I had become in order to please them. I left the person they had created me to be behind. At times I struggle to accept the responsibility of who I am now and that the who I am now is of my own making. No excuses. No naivety. No innocence. No ignorance. No, definitely no excuses. Today I stand as *(Christian name) a mother, a friend, a lover, an employee. My identity a creation of what I choose to make of this life.
    Yes, I need to grieve for the loss of individuals, hopes & broken relationships, but I also need to find a way to lovingly let go of the sister, daughter & auntie that I once was.

    • Desertcatn

      I feel for you, I had to let go of my family and it isn’t an easy road; still finding my way. I had a lifetime of pain lifted from my heart, this last Summer, but must maintain the no contact or the pain returns. Hang in there, I don’t know how it happens, but eventually you will heal! Best wishes!

      • http://www.GlynisSherwood.com/ Glynis Sherwood

        Thanks Desertcatn for bringing up the positive side of No Contact. Although there can be a lot of fear and sadness for people going this route, for those who believe it’s necessary, no contact frees up mental space to focus on creating the life and relationships you want and need, including the absence of abuse!

        • Desertcatn

          Thank you for your articles on this subject, Glynis, they really do help!

          • http://www.GlynisSherwood.com/ Glynis Sherwood

            Great to hear that my articles have been of help to you Desertcatn. All the best!

      • Pipkins2t

        Thank you Desetcant and anyone else who empathises with words shared here. This may sound irrelevant, however, I am certain it is not. I have two adult sons, each having treatment for mental health conditions; bi-polar & autistic traits combined with bi polar. I am a support worker for carers for those who support someone with mental health conditions. Since my last post I have pondered my words and those returned, or the perceived ‘ silence’.
        I am strong enough to hold my own pain.
        I am strong enough to begin the lessons I require in self compassion. Only then can I truly support those who are on a similar path to my own.
        I have yet to shed tears for the losses that I will always hold in my heart, however I am blessed to hold them there, for I can see how far away from ‘madness’ my sons and I have travelled.
        I hope to complete my Masters Degree in Education this year, and I am gladly relinquishing a long academic life/career in education to pursue an offer to pursue training as a counsellor/psychotherapist.
        When you have stood found yourself in the pit of despair, rejection, self loathing and confusion, you will not leave any soul who feels likewise alone, be that person your own child or stranger.
        No one in this life deserves to die alone.
        This site has been an invaluable tool in my own learning and I cannot thank those who contribute there honest and heart felt emotions and thoughts here, enough. You have all helped me through the darkest of times and helped me see just how far my sons and I have come.
        I hope to continue to contribute to this page as life unravels new paths for me and mine to travel.

  • Annette Ross

    I have been the family scapegoat. It took counseling to help me understand it and family dynamic I was born into. Sadly, always looking at myself and wondering what I did wrong and wanting to please, I realized I had surrounded myself with those who would pick up where my parents left off. I have spent the past four years trying to dig myself out from underneath the weight of being the scapegoat. Had I caused the issues? Do I owe them an apology? I was hurt, I was angry, I felt duped and unloved. I reflected on my own outbursts and wondered if I was truly who they claimed I was. I finally decided to face my actions that could have cause them pain and I made apologies. Yes, I made apologies, all I can do is face my own actions and I knew I had not been 100% in the right. When I did this, I was finally able to let go. I owned my part, my abusers did not and it was so plain to me then. I was able to walk away without guilt or questioning myself any further. My life is about me now and while my abusers may always see my as fault, the one thing I know is that they are not facing themselves and their own actions that caused me to walk away.

    • http://www.GlynisSherwood.com/ Glynis Sherwood

      Thank you Annette for sharing your experience. Both positively and negatively, when you apologized you were calling the bluff of family members who were abusing you. I agree that we all need to take responsibility for our actions, and our healing. Sadly, scapegoaters usually will not. Glad to hear you are feeling at peace with yourself due to your ability to be accountable and neither continuing to stay in an untenable situation nor hanging on to what you are not responsible for. I hope other readers here will take strength from your story.


    It doesn’t sound like you’ve dealt with these types before Tommy. Rationality doesn’t work with these folks. Usually makes the sitch worse….


    Nice!! You have trained your son well!! Sounds like you have successfully stopped the cycle of abuse with your family- SO RARE!! Pat yourself on the back a bunch!

  • http://www.GlynisSherwood.com/ Glynis Sherwood

    You are so right PJ, scapegoating can extend outside of families and infiltrate friendships. Usually this means that there is an ‘inner scapegoat’ that needs to be confronted and challenged if this pattern is to change. Seems like you are starting to make some great strides with your insights and and more assertive mindset that stems from knowing you deserve better.

  • http://www.GlynisSherwood.com/ Glynis Sherwood

    More great insights PJ, and what’s even better is you are starting to take action based on treating yourself more respectfully. In the end this will separate those who are willing to treat you respectfully from those who refuse to abandon abusive behavior, and you can make decisions about who belongs in your life based on that distinction.

  • Ruthie

    Keep the faith!

  • Z Sha

    I think she ruined it all trying to be too controlling. You both are equally to blame anyway. Distance yourself.

  • Rubinis_K

    I too was the scapegoat of my family. I cut off all communication with my mother, brother, and sister. Best decision I have ever made. I humbled myself and apologized for everything they have ever accused me of, yet I never received any acknowledgment of how they have hurt me. That experience showed me that they were incapable of taking responsibility of their actions and their misery and misfortunes never had anything to do with me. They truly don’t know how to love themselves, therefore will not ever be able to love me. I just simply could not allow myself to be abused any longer.

    The blessing in disguise from this experience is, after letting my family go, I was able to truly feel the deep love my husband, in-laws, and dearest friends have for me. I was so busy trying to receive love from relatives who weren’t capable of giving it, that I couldn’t appreciate the love that was so freely and unconditionally given to me by my friends, husband and his family. The love was so overwhelming and deep when I took my focus off my abusers.

    And another blessing from cutting all ties with my family was the overflowing forgiveness I now have for them. This is the most I have ever loved them. I had to release them and cut contact in order to heal, forgive, and love them…from afar.

    I hope this might help someone else who is thinking about breaking contact with their dysfunctional family.

    • http://www.GlynisSherwood.com/ Glynis Sherwood

      Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and experience Rubinis_K. I think it’s tremendously helpful for people to hear that in order to be able to recognize and receive love, you have to stop focusing on those who can’t or won’t give it to you. In essence, by taking your power back – the power to not give abusers the right to define your worth, and ironically something they will never do – it is an act of self validation that sets the stage for more love to come into your life.

  • Lady LaLa

    Thanks. My only issue is I live with my father and am his caretaker so I can’t escape it all together at the moment. But I’m no longer speaking with my abusive, gaslighting, scapegoating brother. I’m done with the toxic nature of that relationship. After my father passes away, I plan on moving far away from my family. I’ve hoped for too long that the dysfunction would improve and I know there are people out there who like me for me and don’t relish in the opportunity to criticize my every move in a hypocritically self-righteous manner. Thanks for the article!

    • http://www.GlynisSherwood.com/ Glynis Sherwood

      Sure thing. All the best. 😉

  • Wounded Eagle

    First, I would like to say that I have read through quite a few post and it has brought me a sense of security; that I am not the only one, and this sort of thing does happen to people. My life with my immediate and even some extended family and how I was ostracized and scapegoated has been happening for over 8 years… It started in the end of March 2007 when I was misdiagnosed as bipolar following a hospitalization for a marijuana induced psychosis. My extended family wanted me to accept that I was bipolar and needed to take pills the rest of my life. I tried to explain the situation and many of my extended family members do not talk to me because of this… My immediate family consisting of my mom, dad, and brother have been a trauma laden family since really I was a toddler. I remember Christmas Eve of 1988 as a 4 year old boy; mom and dad were fighting to the point of pushing, shoving, strangling and even a knife getting pulled out of the butcher’s block, until my grandpa said “you get your god damned hands off her!”… I was crying and even pushed my mom and dad back together so that they could make up and give each other hugs.
    Years went by, and there were always outburst with my mom and dad fighting. I would occasionally engage with my dad and verbally fight with him… It became a routine thing for us all to fight…. My dad has continued to tell me that “I am a fuck up, that has smoked dope and been to the god damned insane asylum!” what has made it worse is that my dad, brother and now mom are all saying that I am a problem to the family… When I counselled with a “money hungry” family therapist, she tried to tell me that a complete disconnection with my family would not be good, and ultimately that is a big “no no” in psychology… So I am at the cross roads a bit, but I feel comfortable with going ahead with a complete disassociation, because of the very stories that I have found on this blog – Thank You!