attempting to lower the status of their target, who then becomes the family scapegoat.
by Glynis Sherwood MEd
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? Are you drawn to people who repeatedly hurt you, act irresponsibly or let you down?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these statements, you may be the family scapegoat. 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. Read on to discover how to break free and heal from family scapegoating.
How to Tell if You Are the Family Scapegoat:
- 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.
- You are attacked and disbelieved if you tell the truth and ‘blow the whistle’ on negative and/or inappropriate family dynamics. You are accused of being a trouble maker by pointing out reality.
- 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 this, look the other way or join in when you are bullied or aggressed against like this. You may feel like the ‘black sheep’ of the family.
- 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 you behave thoughtfully and are then told “all you care about is yourself”.
- You act out the negative ‘expectations’ of scapegoating such as not living up to your potential, or getting into relationships with abusive people because it ‘feels’ familiar and your self esteem is has been damaged.
- You are the mentally healthiest family member, but are repeatedly accused of being sick, bad, difficult, etc.
- You have been slotted into the role of family outcast, and are treated with disdain or disgust by family or yourself.
- You may be successful and accomplished career-wise and/or academically, especially in comparison to the rest of your family. However, your achievements are dismissed, belittled, minimized, criticized and rejected by family members.
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 (e.g. Narcissistic Personality Disorder) 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, making the scapegoat look bad takes attention off the real problems in the family.
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 and make them look good. So the purpose of scapegoating is to allow families to carry on unhealthy behavior patterns, and maintain the 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 the Family 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 myth that they are bad, with the truth. This is usually a lie, with the more insidious truth being that Scapegoats are being abused through the process of being taught they are ‘bad’. Scapegoats tend to struggle with chronic insecurity, as they never feel safe or believe they are good enough or 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 and anxious, or shut down and not know how they are feeling.
How To Break Free and Heal From Scapegoating
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t expect abusive family members to apologize or make amends. They will likely blame you more if you attempt to hold them accountable.
- 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 or disturbed 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.
- 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.
- Get in the habit of treating yourself with kindness, caring, compassion, appreciation and acceptance. Practice viewing yourself as a person of worth and loveability. 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.
- 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.
- Practice what you preach with others… Break the cycle
Scapegoating in Families: Intergenerational patterns of physical and emotional abuse, Dr Vimala Pillari, Philadelphia, PA, US: Brunner/Mazel, 1991
Child Abuse: Pathological Syndrome of Family Interaction, Arthur Green, Richard Gaines and Alice Sandgrund, The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2015
Like this Article? Read more articles on Family Scapegoating here
Need help overcoming scapegoating? Check out my Family Scapegoat Counselling page
Counselling is available online by Video around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Low Self Esteem, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.