Scapegoat Recovery – 5 Ways to Stop Suffering & Live Your Best Life

Peace of Mind w Text


by Glynis Sherwood

Scapegoating is an insidious form of family bullying that is destructive to both the target and family alike. Family should be a refuge for all, but becomes destructive through three main mechanisms – hostility, betrayal and ostracization of the scapegoat. Scapegoating creates an adversarial atmosphere of winners and losers, where loyalty is for sale to s/he who will submit to the will of the main bully/bullies.

Targets of family scapegoating are blamed and shamed inappropriately for the problems in their family. They endure ongoing, multiple losses and harm to their sense of self from this form of abuse. Foremost, targets experience tremendous grief through rejection by family, as well as loss of self worth by being shamed, invalidated and abandoned. Scapegoating causes high levels of anxiety as the target never feels safe emotionally in the family, and can lead to depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress. Damage to self worth can cause relationship and vocational problems as well.

Many targets endure decades of ongoing abuse as they futilely try to find a way to fit into the family that betrays them. The truth is that few scapegoats will ever receive the acceptance and love they need, and many find they need to distance themselves from family in order to preserve their sanity and dignity, and get on with their lives.

How to Recover from Scapegoating and Rebuild Your Life:

1. Acknowledge the Impact
Identify the personal cost of mistreatment by your family – fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, grief, self doubt, rage, insecurity, relationship problems, work difficulties, addictive habits, sleep disorders, etc. Do not minimize the harm to you, especially if you feel guilty or desire to reconcile with abusive family members. Scapegoating is a deliberately alienating experience, designed to harm you. Sadly, healthy reconciliation rarely happens, not because you have done anything wrong, but because perpetrators won’t allow you to stop being the scapegoat.

2. Develop an Accurate Point of View
Understand what scapegoating is and isn’t. It’s abuse, not a misunderstanding nor a negative reflection of your character. Even if you have made interpersonal mistakes, you are not responsible for the bad behavior of family members, no matter how much they try to blame you or claim that they are the ‘victim’. Choosing to exercise self control and not act abusively is a fundamental adult responsibility we all share. People who choose to abuse family members are doing this deliberately, even if they rationalize their behavior to themselves and others.

Have Realistic Expectations
Give up on false hope that scapegoaters will become reasonable or caring – if only you can make them understand. This rarely occurs, and is draining, frustrating and futile. Scapegoaters often have inflexible personality problems, such as narcissism, that reinforce their lack of insight and bad behavior.

3. Make Peace of Mind Your Top Priority
Your peace of mind is likely on shaky ground due to being scapegoated. You have been under attack – mentally and emotionally assaulted – likely repeatedly. This causes psychological injury. In order to recover from this injury, make your mental health your top priority and safeguard it at all cost.

Decide what you must do to help yourself feel better and create emotional safety. Do you need to limit or end contact with abusive family members? If you decide to maintain contact, clarify your ground rules with yourself. In other words, Who to stay in touch with? How? Where? When? What to discuss? What’s off limits? Who to tell about your boundaries?, etc.

Once you have decided on the relationship boundaries you need to set and keep, turn your attention back to yourself. What do you need to do now to help yourself feel better and begin to heal?

You will likely be experiencing some difficult emotions, such as fear about setting limits, or grief over the loss of family you never had. Take time to understand and experience these feelings, no matter how difficult, as they point to your true needs. Mourn the absence of family support and love that was your birth right. This loss probably led to feelings of extreme loneliness, and may have impacted negatively on past and current relationships, or your ability to reach your potential. Cultivate supportive friends who understand and appreciate you. Compassionate relationships are a significant buffer to the backlash that can come from scapegoaters who don’t respect healthy limits.

Complicated Grief
‘Stuck’ grief occurs when you not only have trouble accepting loss, but doubt your ability to survive after admitting the loss to yourself.  In other words, complicated grief is a form of denial.  In scapegoating situations, denial of grief and loss is fortified by clinging to fantasies of better relationships with abusive people, if you can only get through to them.  This unrealistic hope makes you vulnerable to self blame and depression as you discover that no matter how caring, gracious or forgiving you are, the scapegoating still persists. Believing that you can’t survive without abusive family members because you can’t cope with the truth of loss is a set up for chronic repressed grief, depressed mood and low self worth.  Complicated grief is the mind’s way of warding off the reality of the loss inherent in family abuse.  As you are not dealing with the reality of the abuse and loss, you cannot do the work of mourning, which is necessary for the heart and mind to return to healthy functioning.

Anxiety and Trauma
It’s likely no surprise that scapegoats tend to suffer from high anxiety. Anxiety is the body’s threat response system that throws us into fight, flight or freeze mode. If you have been repeatedly scapegoated over many years, then you have been continually traumatized. Repeated trauma tends to create a state of permanent anxiety. It will take your nervous system time to calm down. You must distance from abusive family members in order to overcome anxiety and trauma symptoms.

Anxiety recovery takes a multi-pronged approach: Physical relaxation, paired with emotional expression and insight, and the ability to challenge anxiety based beliefs (e.g. I will always be alone; I can’t survive without my family; No one is on my side, I can’t risk getting close to anyone or they’ll hurt me, etc). Therapy can be a valuable resource for healing from the trauma and anxiety of scapegoating.

4. Untie From the Shame That Binds You
This is usually the biggest hurdle and most important healing step. Shame – or self hatred – stems from the experience of being dishonored, disgraced and condemned. Shaming happens when a scapegoated family member undergoes recurring criticism, blame, disapproval, rejection or abandonment. Often this mistreatment begins in childhood. During this process, the abused child learns ‘I am bad, unlovable and lack worth’. At the same time, the abuse is either denied, minimized or rationalized by the perpetrators. In this way scapegoats are further injured for being victimized. This false – or pathological – shame is internalized over time and viewed as the truth. The ‘Inner Scapegoat’ that takes hold convinces targets that they are fundamentally flawed because they are being mistreated.

Healing from shame requires a high level of awareness when the Inner Scapegoat has been activated – challenging negative and self-punitive beliefs, and truthfully reframing victimizing experiences. Scapegoats must consistently stand up to the idea that they are bad or unlovable. This will likely take a lot of practice. Self hatred can also be triggered by ongoing mistreatment, so it’s important that distancing from abusive family members or unsupportive friends takes place.

5. Moving On
You will have moved on once you have freed yourself from the shaming Inner Scapegoat, distanced from abusive family members, and feel optimistic about your ability to create and sustain a ‘new’ life.

A Realistic Perspective
You will no longer be riddled with self doubt or insecurity because you will see scapegoating for what it is – a lie designed to elevate the status of abusive family members while keeping you down at the same time. You will steadily grasp that you have been mistreated by people you should have been able to trust and feel loved by, due to their character defects.

Healthy forgiveness is a process of releasing or letting go of feelings of hurt, anger and resentment that stem from being wounded by the actions of others. Why is this a good idea? The emotional costs of resentment are high, and contribute to chronic anxiety, rage, bitterness, low self worth, relationship problems and stress related illnesses. Freeing yourself from pain that is preventing you from being in control of and enjoying your life is liberating and allows you to live in the present moment.

Letting go of a grudge improves quality of life, with benefits including being able to focus on the life and relationships you want to have, being at peace and creating room for happiness again. These are essential ingredients for a mentally healthy existence.

Forgiveness does not require letting unrepentant victimizers off the hook, forgetting or ignoring unacceptable behavior. It is more about letting go of anger, guilt and hurt towards scapegoaters – and yourself – so you no longer live in the prison of the past.

Read my article Forgiveness – A Key to Your Psychological Well Being for a detailed account of the ‘How To’ of forgiveness.

New Self / New Relationships
Ending or limiting abusive relationships, results in a shift in identity. Many scapegoats have lost years and decades of their lives trying to work out impossible relationships. It’s a demoralizing process that erodes self esteem, optimism and happiness. The new freedom that comes from setting healthier limits can also be accompanied by feelings of uncertainty and loss as people ask themselves “who am I now that I am no longer functioning as the family scapegoat”.

There may be feelings of grief that arise now that you are no longer in a pattern of holding onto false hope with abusive family members. You may feel lonely as family dynamics, even though toxic, have taken up much of your time. Relationships can be a challenge as you either struggle to not let pain seep in, or have difficulties with trust and intimacy. You will outgrow relationships that have abusive elements, reminiscent of your scapegoating family, paving the way to greater satisfaction.

If you feel stuck in self blame, grief, anxiety or indecision about how to handle your scapegoating family members, counselling can help. You can discover how to be more confident setting healthy limits with family, and be able to stand up for those limits, no matter the opposition.

Counselling can help you grasp and feel – deep down – that you are not ‘the problem’, but rather the target of abusive family dynamics, and deserving of better treatment. When you start to overcome negative beliefs that you are somehow bad, inadequate or flawed – you can free yourself from feelings of guilt, self blame or shame. This lays the groundwork for building your self worth so you feel more sure of yourself and your relationships.


Like this Article?  Read more Scapegoating articles here

Need help with scapegoating?  Click here to visit my Scapegoat Counselling page

Counselling is available in person in Vancouver Canada or by Video worldwide.

Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in recovery from Scapegoating, Low Self Esteem, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.


  • How have you recovered from Scapegoating? What do you want others to know?

    • Susan Campbell

      After no contact and reading and understanding how dysfunctional families work/don’t work, using uplifting empowering affirmations and listening to myself to define a stronger sense of self, by sticking with my resolve the hard days became easier and fewer. I mourned for their loss all the time I was trying to fit in. I never do now. It really does get easier, life is clearer and I can use all my thoughts to concentrate on what is happening now, where as before there was this constant feeling of confusion and sadness taking up too much of my energy. I’ll never go back.

      • Thank you Susan. It’very helpful for others to hear – from someone who’s been there – that life does get easier once you make a commitment to remove yourself from abusive relationships.

    • Panda McGuaig

      I have an adult sister who has behaved the exact opposite of me no matter what I do, and who was encouraged by my mom (father not in picture) to be different than me… I did well in academic subjects at school and told to attain ‘A’ grades, she took gym and basic level classes, was told ‘C’ grades were Ok for her. I learned how to play piano, she was permitted to quit after a year of lessons. I took ballet, so she took tap. I babysat to earn money, she didn’t want to. I worked after school in a deli at the local food stores and helped get her hired, but she refused to slice the meat and would only work the cash register. I was in French Immersion (in Canada), she took no French classes. I went to University for an honours degree, she got a job out of highschool as an RMT after a short course. I had dark hair, she dyed hers blond. I wrote a lot, filling multiple journals and diaries per month, she wrote nothing. The more updates I posted on social media, the less she posted. My friends were from all walks of life, all interesting people with good hearts who were willing to include her. But she clung to one friend who was morbidly obese and in and out of the doctor’s with severe health problems. This friend was jealous of my sister, who was very slim and pretty, and consistently made her cry! If I tried to give my sister any advice… she didn’t take it because we were “different”. I strongly opposed the way my mother seemed to be placing her in my
      shadow, but I was too afraid of my mom and too isolated to do anything
      about it. As an adult, my sister spent many years complaining to me about her life (including this friend who still takes up a ton of space in her life)…. but still wouldn’t take my advice, and over the past year I realized she was just dumping her problems on me.

      When I tried to set some boundaries with her so that I could make more progress healing from PTSD (I was sexually assaulted multiple times as a teen by different men – mainly by my mother’s “friends” who she left me alone with – she never did this to my sister)… it went badly. For 2 years after her first child was born, she was calling me up and asking me to babysit that same day. 11 months later she had a second baby. Still, I always said yes *playing the scapegoat role*. After doing this at least once a week for 2 years (feeding, diapers, bathing, entertaining, you name it! And I have no children of my own so it was new to me), I finally said, “I’m sorry I can’t babysit your children last minute anymore, it’s adds to my anxiety. Now that they’re toddlers, can you please schedule babysitting with me at least 4-5 days in advance?” She ignored me, and I haven’t been asked to babysit once… in the past 2 years! I now only see her children if I arrange a time to visit them.

      In reality sister has made it very easy for me to distance myself. It has broken my heart, but I’ve had no choice. My therapist has helped me see she was treating me with rage and contempt. She was triggered whenever she heard about any of my problems, whether they were heavy – like my suffering childhood sexual abuse – or more normal – like overhearing me ask my mom for a lift to work one day when my fiance was out of town with the car (I was desperate because my job is in a rural area without public transport and my mother in law who will loan me her car was away as well).

      What I want others to know is that there is NO LOGIC to scapegoating. If you’re flying high, you’re looked down on. If you’re having a low point, you’re looked down on. So… it has nothing to do with you. You don’t need to change WHO you are. You just have to stop letting them experience who you are in life. Setting boundaries won’t change you. It will protect you. And you are worth protecting. Your healing is worth protecting.

      I also want to say something specific. That “difference”? It could be manufactured. For the purposes of scapegoating. For example, I don’t believe I was significantly more intelligent than my sister as a child, or more talented at music. In later life, now that I’ve been struggling with healing from childhood sexual abuse… it now seems the abuse itself is what’s making me different. My mother abused me to isolate me from my sister. And my sister abuses me because I’m different. So, what I’ve learned is that if a person is going to go so far as scapegoat you… they will fail to be compassionate even when you are suffering most. When Glynis says the abuser won’t change… believe it. Nothing will change it. You can be dying of cancer and they will still scapegoat you (ever seen Million Dollar Baby? There’s an example of this type of abuse as an important part of the film). Nothing will ever make my sister feel compassion towards me. When I needed her to show compassion she rejected me. When I told her I felt rejected she said, “you’re not being rejected.” And that was it.

      After the past 7 months of progressively distancing myself from my sister (and my mom incidentally since they are together every day, codependent, share a car, etc.)… I’ve come to understand that she resents how I’ve been the victim of abuse. I also think her resentment is compounded because my personality is very strong and therefore takes on very little of a victim personality.

      And I do think that this is because the scapegoat is the strong one. In distancing myself, I’m recovering my strength. It was always there, I just recognize it now.

      • Panda – Your final words say it all “In distancing myself, I’m recovering my strength. It was always there, I just recognize it now.” Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    • Panda McGuaig

      I want to add that my sister doesn’t know about the rest of the sexual assaults in which our mom was an accomplice. I’ve kept them a secret because she seemed not to believe me about just the one incident, and it certainly didn’t change her relationship with our mom. She still lets my mom look after her little kids. So… in this way I’ve stopped telling the truth. And I’m no longer a defender of the weak – a defender of her kids. I don’t want to feel like my main role in their lives is to watch from the sidelines waiting for signs they’re being abused. My therapist helped me to see that with PTSD and my own trauma, that I could never be a real help in that situation, and that I could end up having a breakdown myself if I felt like I weren’t doing enough to protect them. Even worse, she suspects that if I stay in my niece’s life that they may
      hurt her to hurt me. My involvement would become a reason to scapegoat

      Essentially, the only solution is to accept that your family is abusive and you can’t stop it. When you change your role, another scapegoat will be chosen. I’ve learned that I can’t keep being a scapegoat just to protect children in the family from becoming one. That’s tough to swallow. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my niece that happened to me. But I can’t stop it from happening and I can’t wait around to see if it does.

      You must live your own life and walk away from the fire, walk away from the car crash. You can’t be a hero. I agree with Freebie – move!

  • Freebird

    A truly helpful article. It’s like you looked into the window on my life. I have recently gone NC with my entire family, including my beloved adult daughter and her family, 2 “best” friends who I realized were dumping all their garbage like anger onto me. I am now truly alone. But; I’m happy and proud of myself for the first time in my life. I have always been the one who blew the whistle on abusive, neglectful parents, husbands, and now my daughters Narcissistic treatment of me and her children and I have been punished my entire life for stepping forward and saying, “somethings wrong here! You people are all abusive and sick. Turns out I’m the only normal one out of the 20 or so “close” relationships I’ve had in my life. I’m moving to the other side of the country so there’s no chance I’ll even have to bump into any of them and I’m going to start a fresh live, what’s left of it! Even if I only live for a few more years free of all the madness, it will mean I’ve had a worthy life. Thank you, Glynis

    • Thank you Freebird. May you find the love and support you deserve wherever your journey takes you.

    • unspoiled American

      How brave you are to go no contact with your own child. I need to do this with two of my children but I’m not as brave as you. I wish you all the happiness you deserve!

  • Cyndinca – You are an inspiration. As you continue to build your confidence and belief in yourself, the odds improve that you will find people who will value the many gifts that you have to offer yourself and the world. I wish you the love and support you so obviously deserve.

  • Kim S

    I live this and have for years. My 3 sisters and my father are the scapegoaters and some my mom but not as much as the others. I had to get 4 mental diagnosis to prove I am not the crazy one and I am still being called crazy. Like that “crazy” email I wrote. But when shown to others it does not appear to be crazy. I am constantly being told how inadequate I am all the wrongs I have done, i need help and on and on. But guess what? In relationships with other family members and non family members noone ever says anything about this so called behavior or insinuates I need help etc. I do have health issues and do have disabilities and that makes it worse. But I have 4 diagnosis I have no personality disorders, no mood, no depression, no anger, no aggression etc. Nothing! And that is still not believed. They have tried to turn my now adult children against me. I also have alienation issues with my adult daughter whom that is because of my ex and at the hands of his wife. I hope that will change now that she is 18. And my ex and his wife are friends with my father and 3 sisters and that was high conflict divorce. And guess what the main scapegoater is a psychiatrist my father whom uses his profession as a mask. I am on # 5 above. No matter what I say or do or if I ignore them for a year will work.

  • margaretpaine

    Great article. Coming into the holiday season, many of us try to connect with the scapegoaters and have to put on a happy face as scapegoating gets worse over the years. This year I have said no more cards or gifts or false realities for me. This is my gift to myself. I have gotten healthier over the year with no contact. Holiday season just is more trauma and PTSD and blocking me out and husbands who protect them with anger and near violence and rejection of the truth. My brother idolizes my sister who hurt me so much and throws into my face how lovely she is. I get smacked in the face with denial and deflection and blocking. So I’m saying when they get counseling well then they can get to know the real me. I know their protective split personalities will never allow for reality to happen(they have Stockholm syndrome from my abusive mother and now they idolize her) so I guess it’s really goodbye to them and hello to a healthy me I’m sad but as I stay away from them, I get how I was so horribly scapegoated. Thank you. Onto a healthier me.

    • Margaret – Sounds like you have a decent sense of limits and the courage to set them. Good for you. I hope the sadness you are experiencing begins to get smaller as you continue to treat yourself as a person of value and worth. All the best to you, especially over the coming holidays.

  • Jill – This sounds so tough for you. I’d recommend you find a counsellor who understands family abuse to give you some support as you try and navigate your way dealing with this challenging family dynamic.

  • weixin

    Goddamn I was scapegoated for 2 decades. Now I’m suicidal but seems like no one cares, the last counsellor I spoke to stopped meeting with me. I still wanna live but do I have to attempt suicide to show ppl im serious? It might actually be better if I succeeded tbh. I’m in Vancouver too btw.

    • Weixin – You are in crisis and need help. As I am only one person, I am unable to provide crisis counselling services and would encourage you to contact the suicide help line in Vancouver 1-800-784-2433. They will take you seriously and hook you up with resources. The pain you are going through was not caused by you, but you must take steps to overcome it, like everyone else who has been terribly hurt by scapegoating. It starts by standing up to the Inner Scapegoat. The hurt that others caused you is living inside you and controlling your life. It is not who you are, but the projection of others who did not know how to love you. It is these past hurts, and the way they define you, that must die – NOT YOU! I hope you will not give up on yourself, and continue to take steps towards the healing you want and deserve.

      • weixin

        Thanks Glynis. As long as there’s hope, I won’t give up.

        • Weixin – Yes, there’s always hope. Please read my articles on scapegoating as often as you need as reminders of that hope, and read through the comments to see how other people who are dealing with scapegoating are coping, surviving and, in many cases, thriving. Hang in there! 🙂

  • margaretpaine

    I have reoccurring scapegoating. It’s like stalking me! I just get calm with peaceful people and here it comes. The peaceful people are in denial of an abuser, I see the pattern then the abusers uses the nice person who’s in denial and not real, to abuse me further. I pick up this pattern more readily now and detach which is good. Spent 8 years trying to talk my sis and bro out of their denial and scapegoating. I’m exhausted. I have ptsd, a locked door right now, an abusive roomate I don’t dare go near. I go to domestic violence counseling and alanon but once again I have to move and am considered the abuser because I spoke up about the abuser. Sucks but I remain strong and more in the truth and don’t waste my time with fakers. And takers.

    • MargaretPaine – Good for you for holding your ground during these most challenging time. Hope the clouds part soon for you!

  • Angela

    Im struggling to understand why my mother scapegoats me. I know why – because of the fake tears she cries to gain sympathy, love and attention from a fairly loveless marriage but why treat a loving and giving daughter so bably?
    Im now 51 and left our country some 19 years ago to escape the hurt she would cause. My grandad abused me until i was 10. My mother when told, just ignored what i said and has been in total denial ever since. She has caused family problems so many times that i break contact for years. Yet everytime i return, within months it all starts again. This time i was wise and didnt take the bait, so my Mum turned my brother and sister against me instead.
    As always, i have gone NC but my heart breaks all over again.
    How do i accept that i mean so little to a family i have supported repeatedly over the years.