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