Family Scapegoat: When You Get Stuck Trying to Outrun Someone Else’s Shadow

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The ‘black sheep’ is often the family scapegoat

by Glynis Sherwood MEd


If you are known as the ‘black sheep’ of your family, you probably don’t wear that title happily.  Being the black sheep is painful because you are viewed as an outsider – someone who doesn’t fit –  in your own family.  It’s usually a shaming, blaming and otherwise stigmatizing position to be in, as black sheeps are typically made to feel bad about themselves by other family members.  As the black sheep you may feel like you are forever trying to outrun a dark shadow.


The thing you need to know is that you may be the family Scapegoat.  The family scapegoat is the fall guy for other people’s troubles.  If you are the family scapegoat, then the shadow you are trying to run from is not yours, but your family’s.  Specifically, the shadow of your family’s criticism – which you may have come to believe; your family’s rejection – that makes you question your lovability; and your family’s shame – which can severely undermine your self worth..


Scapegoating occurs in families where one family member is falsely blamed for the problems of individual members or the group – such as abuse, neglect, addiction or mental illness.  Scapegoating enables the family members who point the finger to operate under the illusion that all is well with them, and that any family problems originate with the person targeted for scapegoating.  This is a primitive, and sometimes unconscious, psychological defense known as “projection”.


Projection occurs when one person attributes another person with their own feelings, thoughts or behaviors.  For example, being told you are ‘selfish’ by a self-centered family member, when in truth you have made consistent efforts to be considerate.  Another example is being treated like you are stupid, mentally fragile or incompetent, when you may be one of the highest functioning members of your family.


Scapegoating usually starts in childhood.  Often a sensitive, vulnerable or independent child will be singled out to be the target of chronic blame and criticism.  Frequently it’s an adult who does the targeting, but it can also be a sibling or other caretaker.  The impact of this targeting on the scapegoated child is that they come to believe they are inadequate, defective or unlovable.  Scapegoating’s shadow further causes psychological harm as it shames the target, normalizes bullying, and prevents the development of healthy family relationships.


4 Ways Scapegoating Harms Targets – And How To Get Past the Pain

      1. Self Identity:  Strong Inner Critic = Low Self Worth

        Scapegoating causes targets to question their identity, and possibly their value as human beings.  Self worth is instilled in childhood through the nurturance of parents and other caregivers.  If this support is absent and the target mostly receives messages that they are bad, defective, etc., they grow up with an abusive ‘Inner Critic’, who undermines their ability to see who they really are.

        Solutions:  Learn to recognize when the Inner Critic gets activated.  It is this voice that makes you doubt your adequacy and lovability as a human being, leading you to feeling anxious or depressed.  Note the trigger for activation.  Was it something going on within yourself, such as a negative attitude or belief you have about you?  Or was negative thinking triggered by an relationship dynamic, social situation or work?Ask yourself “Is the thought or belief true?” and “Who’s voice does that really sound like?”  Hint:  It’s usually the voice of a scapegoater.  Look for evidence to the contrary to negative thinking.  In other words, proof that you are at least adequate, and likely a decent human being, with many positive traits. Identify and focus on those traits, especially when the inner critic gets going.  Make sure you have identified at least one example of exceptions to negative beliefs. These exceptions are solid evidence to the contrary of the belief system that makes you question your self worth.
      2. Shame:  Am I the ‘Bad Guy’?

        Closely related to identity and self worth, are experiences of shaming that many targets of scapegoating are subjected to, leading them to feel worthless or defective.  The good news is that the shame they are experiencing usually has nothing to do with them, but is more of a reflection of the ‘bad’ feelings of the scapegoater who, in order to alleviate themselves of responsibility, attributes their problems to the target. The bad news is that shame is very difficult to overcome on one’s own, as the target has usually bought into the false belief that on a fundamental level they are ‘bad’, and therefore irredeemable.Solutions:  Use the steps outlined in #1.  If you are struggling with Shame, and don’t know how to get over it on your own, consider working with a psychotherapist who understands Scapegoating dynamics and how to heal from the hurt.
      3. Anger:  Molten Lava No More
        Most targets on some level, feel anger in response to being abused by scapegoating.  Sadly this anger is often misdirected towards themselves.  This anger can also range from a barely discernable feelings of resentment, to complete rage towards others who have mistreated them.  Anger is a normal response to being abused.  However you neither want to deny it, turn it on yourself, repress it, be consumed by it or unfairly turn it on others.Solutions:  If you feel angry in response to scapegoating ask yourself “What is this anger trying to tell me?”  “What do I need to feel, think or do in response to this anger to help myself feel better?”  Anger, like other emotions, is a messenger.  Anger’s job is to tells us that something is wrong and needs to be confronted, changed or avoided.  Once we understand this, we can then decide our course of action, usually whether we need to confront, stand our ground or withdraw from a situation.
      4. Scapegoating and Relationships:  Who Can I Trust?  Who Should I Choose?
        People who have been scapegoated often have a hard time finding lasting intimate relationships or friendships. Due to having been bullied, targets wrestle with low self esteem and/or difficulty trusting others.  They often feel fearful when it comes to getting close to others.  As scapegoating is about constant fault finding by others, it sets up the target to feel anxious about relationships as s/he never feels emotionally safe, secure or loved.  It can also lead to choosing unsupportive friends or partners because these kinds of people feel ‘familiar’. Unfortunately choosing ‘the devil you know’ leads to more anxiety, insecurity and self doubt. Targets often lack reference points as to what a healthy relationship should look like.Solutions:  Take your time getting to know others to discover if you can trust them over time.  You need to learn to recognize, choose and feel attracted to people who will love and appreciate you for who you are. Identify any individual family members with whom you think you might have a chance of building a healthy relationship with.  Do not spend time with critical, blaming, or unsupportive people, even though you may be drawn to them as they are the ‘devil you know’.  Focus on building your self esteem by realistically identifying your good qualities.  This will likely take a lot of practice.  However, in the long run, your ability to synchronize your inner with outer acceptance will be a strong antidote to anxiety.

Scapegoating and the Journey of Adulthood

Scapegoating interferes with healthy psychological development from childhood to adulthood.  The goal of any human being is to grow into a self assured individual who is capable of positive relationships.  Scapegoating interferes with this healthy growth.  Through individual understanding and action, including standing up to false, negative beliefs, learning to choose supportive relationships and limit or eliminate unhealthy ones, targets of scapegoating stand a good chance of reclaiming a positive relationship to themselves and others.

photo credit: marcandrelariviere via photopin cc 


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

Need help overcoming scapegoating?   Visit my Scapegoat Counselling web page

Counselling is available by Skype Video 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.