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… the cycle

Need help overcoming scapegoating?  Click Here to Book a Counselling Appointment

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!

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

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  • lallala

    what an invaluable insight!! thank you! i recognize that since i was a child, my abusive father has always used me as a scapegoat for his own fears and issues. he would dump everything on me. now as an adult, i kept replaying this trauma with ‘friends’ and co-workers. now that i am fully aware about this dysfunctional dynamic with people, i am able to continue my inner soul work, and build healthy boundaries from these sort of people! THANK YOU!

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

      Lallala – Thanks for the positive feedback – glad this article was helpful to you. All the best in your healing journey.

  • Susie Donovan

    Thank you Glynis for your enlightening and liberating article and thank you Pipkins2t for your beautiful metaphors which also spoke very deeply to me.

    I’m in my mid 50’s and only waking up to this dynamic in my life. I feel very very sad that it has taken me so long to get an adequate answer to this cycle of abuse in my life, as when I was being scapegoated as I child I knew I wasn’t doing anything more than honouring my truth and getting attacked for not buying into the myths of those around me.

    Bit by bit – and with a lot of help from often well-meaning others, I forgot that ‘knowing’ and lost (i.e. buried) my deep frustration and anger about how I was being treated.

    In my teens and twenties, I used the Christian doctrine of unconditional forgiveness and turning the other cheek to help me forget.

    In my thirties and forties, I accepted the New Age belief that I needed to take 100% responsibility for everything that showed up in my life – and learnt to see my circumstances as a mirror to my inner being, and therefore my fault.

    But in my 50’s, my feelings of anger and frustration have resurfaced. Maybe it is menopause, or watching a dear friend leave a painful marriage, or the toll of decades of comfort eating and other ineffective self-soothing strategies on my poor body, or the stress and strain of trying to hold boundaries to others that are black belts in denial and counter-attack. Whatever it is that has brought my anger and terrifying shame back though, it is a blessing, as I am finally taking notice and truly engaging with these feelings and therefore myself.

    After reading your artickle, I have decided that my solution/answer/belief system for at least the next 2 decades of my life is passionate, courageous, outrageous, un-relenting, un-compromising, disciplined self-love – a self-love that walks away from raging waves and triple serves of coconut yoghurt. I’ll give it a good shot, get some expert help and see how I go…

    Muchos muchos gracias for all your help!

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

      Thank you Susie for your insight and honesty. All the best to you!

    • Pipkins2t

      Dear Susie,

      As I read your post I found that I had tears in my eyes. You write so eloquently and the truth of your story resonates throughout your words. Self compassion are two simple words, yet they offer a soothing balm for the distress that we have encountered. Like a child who fears the application of a medicinal ‘cure’ I find the practice of mindful compassion extremely challenging. Such basic concepts such as self love, self acceptance, self compassion elude me, despite my copious reading/learning on such subjects.

      I am heart warmed to read that you are accepting the anger and frustrations that have returned with vengeance, demanding that they be acknowledged, listened to, loved. I believe you are right Susie, that each emotion, regardless of its purpose or cause is a signal from out own ‘soul’ that something is not quite right, that something needs to be felt, heard, spoken. At the root of so many of our fears and emotions lies a simple truth; we feel betrayed/ rejected/worthless as a result of the actions of those we ‘love/d’.

      In an odd way when we feel betrayed/ rejected/ worthless we feel connected to our families of origin. We feel connected to our abusers. We may consciously/subconsciously choose to reconnect ourselves to our abusers.

      Like you Susie, I made a pledge to myself that I would try my best to ‘find/create a life that I deserve’.

      May life gift you and yours as many blessings as your heart can hold.

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

        Thank you for your ongoing insight, wisdom, realism, support and eloquent words Pip!

  • Pipkins2t

    Susie, your words have given me cause to try to identify a feeling that I find difficult to articulate, but here goes none the less.

    There is an expression that you are no doubt familiar with which is ‘ to hold an open door’ in other words provide opportunity for ‘others’ to come into your life/thoughts/experiences. For others to choose to enter your world with an open non judgemental and listening heart.

    My door has been open for over 10 years, possibly even longer, and I am still sitting in my metaphorical arm chair, beside a warm open fire, watching and waiting for that door to open wide and for ‘family’ to re enter my world, share in the life I have lived & created, for then to sit alongside me and ask me to tell them ‘my story’.

    Those people that I look for, wait for, prepare for are never coming ‘home’ Suzie.
    That is the reality that I need to accept if I am to live the life I deserve.

    Truth is, should they approach my ‘open door’ I would rush to barricade it for fear of their abuse. I am no more able to open myself to their words, than they are to hear my truth.

    Should any one of them approach with an open heart & mind asking me to tell my story, I would embrace them, silently leading them outside into the most beautiful garden bursting with blossom & fruits, inviting them to share the here and now with me. Together we would silently acknowledge that the past was in a ‘different lifetime’. One that I have no desire to revisit.

    They are not ‘coming home’. There will be no ‘welcome home’.

    In my journal the other evening I wrote a brief entry which perhaps sums up the range of emotions that continually swim around in my heart & soul. I simply wrote ‘ When my time comes to die, my Mum will come to guide me. She will explain everything, why things had to be the way they were. I can wait for that day, for that honest & loving answer. The day when we each open our hearts/souls to one another’s story. When we embrace one another and without having to say a word, understand that love conquers all.

  • retr0kate

    I read something today about knowing your truth. I think it’s important and something this article states- to not doubt yourself and to keep pinpointing your good qualities. Sometimes we blame ourselves when no one is left around to blame us- because we are so used to it. I also now am learning to enjoy my time alone and to enjoy my own company…and i am so grateful for the people I have in my life who support me and make me feel valued. Even if it’s just the cashier at the grocery store! I’m so glad you found a support group. I hope you think to check back and read this..i know it’s been awhile since I’ve been back- but I needed to re-read this today. Take care and know there are good people out there who will appreciate you. Sometimes it just takes time to build a support system! Keep pressing on!

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

    New Article Posted Yoday: The Scapegoat’s Guide to Surviving Narcissistic Families http://glynissherwood.com/the-scapegoats-guide-to-surviving-narcissistic-families/

  • tiggerdeluxe

    Rarely am I gobsmacked, wow thank you.

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

    Thank you for checking out my Article – I hope it’s been helpful to you.

    I’d love your feedback on my article, so feel free to comment below. Please keep in mind that the Comments section is not private, so please do not share in depth personal information, especially your identity.

    If you like what I have to say, you should sign up for my free Ebook. (In the upper right corner of the page). You’ll get valuable information on how to deal effectively with emotional distress and relationship challenges, including defeating the dreaded ‘Inner Critic”, and much more!

    If you need more support, please consider contacting me to Request a Counselling Session: http://glynissherwood.com/schedule-an-appointment/. My counselling services are available in person in Vancouver Canada and by Phone or Skype Video world wide.

  • Pipkins2t

    I hope the following words are taken the context of how individuals who are survivors of ‘ a scapegoating environment’ might feel.

    A thought occurred to me recently. A thought that caught me off guard, hit me like a steam train. A thought that brings with it feeling of guilt & shame, anger and frustration.

    Having made the decision 4+ years go to go no contact, I effectively ‘killed off’ 24 people that constituted my ‘family of origin’. Mother, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews.

    No opportunity to grieve. No place of rest to visit. No mementos. No one to share happy memories with. No one who even knew any of those 24 people. They exist in my memory. No where else in my world reflects any sense of who they were, where they made me, what may have become of them. Gone.

    Until know, I had always thought that it had been me who had disappeared, Me who had taken the decision to walk away. Survive & thrive. I walked away with a backpack laden with guilt for the decision I knew I had to make.

    I can choose to put that weight of guilt aside. Stand up and walk forward,free from a burden that I have carried for far too long.

    What hurts so deeply is that I have come to realize that those 24 people walked away from me, far greater, and faster than I ever walked away from them. Life, necessity, priorities, ego & pride distanced them so far from me that even if I did ‘turn back’, there would be no one left standing, but me.

    It simply didn’t matter enough to ‘stick around’.

    Selfishly, I wish I had a ‘reason’ to grieve. A cause that others could understand, That I had something to hold that signified a love once felt. A love lost.

    Who defines a broken heart?

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

      Pip – You have the right to grieve the love you never received from your family. It sounds like the people you ulitmately walked away from lack the ability to care. IMO, your loss of the support and sanctuary of family is a completely legitimate reason to grieve.