Are You The Family Scapegoat? Signs You May Be, And What You Can Do About It
By: Amy Gardner
Updated August 05, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
Tolstoy once said: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its way."
Dysfunction in the family unit can take almost as many forms as a snowflake. The sharp painful edges fall in slightly different places for everyone, and each member carries their pain with them throughout life. Nowhere is this more evident than the case of the family scapegoat.
A scapegoat is defined as a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings and faults of others. The origin of the word is an ancient Jewish tradition in which a goat was symbolically sent into the wilderness to atone for the people's sins.
Needless to say, making a person the "scapegoat" for other people's flaws in this way leads to many problems. But the damage is even more severe when it occurs within the family unit, the first place where we learn to love and trust others.
Here are the signs that you might be the family scapegoat, and some steps you can take to heal.
Signs You Are The Family Scapegoat
You Are Ignored
If you're the family scapegoat, no one in the family wants to hear what you have to say. That's because a scapegoat is often the most sensitive member of the family, and frequently the whistleblower when it comes to obvious dysfunction. For these reasons, your family members are uncomfortable when you speak up. They would prefer just to freeze you out.
When you persist in speaking your truth, you find that your family members do everything they can to discredit you. They may even go so far as to humiliate you in front of others. That's because they are unable to accept the fact that anything you say might be true.
You're Not Praised Very Often
In a healthy family, members feel proud of each other's achievements. But if you're the family scapegoat, you may find that your achievements are dismissed or belittled. The idea that you can be successful contradicts their entire narrative of your incompetence.
You may even come to the shocking realization that you have never once been praised or complimented for anything.
Over time, scapegoated children might give up even trying to succeed at anything. A lifetime of discouragement instead of rewards and praise takes its toll. They accept the family's narrative of their flaws. This can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem and crippling self-doubt.
You Are Portrayed In A Negative Light To Others
It's bad enough that you have to hear the insults and disparaging comments. But it's even worse when they are shared with people outside the family unit, too. If you're the family scapegoat, you find that your character is publicly attacked at every opportunity. Your family wants to convince others of your worthlessness so that they don't have to take responsibility for any of the dysfunction. They don't want to run the risk that outsiders might align themselves with you and take your side.
And rest assured, no one will ever hear about your positive qualities or successes - only your flaws and failures.
You Are Isolated From Others
Your scapegoaters do not want you to receive any support or encouragement from outside the family unit. They will do whatever they can to isolate you from friends and loved ones.
They will begin by separating you physically from your support system. Then they will separate you emotionally by creating conflict and spreading rumors. They may attack the character of your friends or loved ones to make it less likely that you will seek out their support.
The goal of the scapegoater is always to keep their target powerless. Depriving you of support is one of their most effective tactics in accomplishing this.
The Flaws Of Others Are Projected Unto You
Let's say your mother has a bad day, and as a result, she forgets to take your brother to a doctor's appointment. She also forgets to pick up milk at the store. Instead of admitting her forgetfulness, she lashes out at you. She tells you that you are lazy and disorganized that you never remember to do anything.
What's Happening Here?
It's common for scapegoats to find that they are blamed for behaviors exhibited by other family members. This kind of projection can be so blatant that it seems ridiculous. And yet the scapegoater sees nothing wrong with it.
You Are The Family Punching Bag
Need someone to pick on and make fun of? Others may not look further than the scapegoat. You are singled out for all the collective ridicule, made into the butt of every joke. It doesn't take long for outsiders or other relatives to take note of your role and to be drawn into the dynamic.
At times, you feel like you're going through life with a warning label attached to you. New friends and potential in-laws get a clear message about your flawed character. As adults, family scapegoats often find themselves seeking out dysfunctional relationships similar to what they encountered as children.
Growing up as the family scapegoat leaves lasting scars. However, it is possible to heal.
Know The Truth About Yourself
The first step to recovery is rejecting the labels that your family has placed on you. You're not difficult, weird, crazy, or bad. This is just the narrative that your family members have created to excuse their dysfunction. Perhaps you sense problems more keenly than others. Or perhaps you have a unique way of looking at the world.
These differences do not make you wrong or bad. Refuse to buy into the story that your family has created.
Recognize And Forgive The Flaws Of Your Family Members
As you reject the fabrications about you, you also reject the feelings of guilt and shame that accompany them.
Recognize that most of the guilt belongs to your scapegoaters. They have used you as a target for their bad feelings. At the same time, you are not doing yourself any favors by carrying around anger and resentment for your family's unfair treatment.
Learn to understand the reasons behind the scapegoating. Your parents were most likely struggling with their insecurities. They may even have been family scapegoats themselves. While this knowledge does not make the experience less painful, a little compassion can help you let go of destructive anger.
Learn To Know And Love Your Positive Qualities
You've been hearing about all your negative traits for an entire lifetime. It can be overwhelming to break free of the image that's been built up for you over the years. But your feelings of low self-esteem are sure to harm your future relationships. So it's worth it to learn to love those things about you that are good.
Identify your attributes: qualities of character, admirable actions, and/or beliefs that make you a person of value. Write down these positive attributes and take time to look at it whenever you have negative thoughts about yourself.
Setting this down on paper gives you the assurance you need when others around you distort the truth. In this way, you can gradually tame the negative self-talk and ditch the negative image of yourself that you've always had.
Treat Yourself With Kindness And Love
It may feel awkward at first because you're not used to it. But you are just as deserving of love as anyone else. So treat yourself that way. Replace critical thoughts of yourself with language that shows compassion, kindness, and acceptance. Of course, old habits die hard. Retraining your brain for self-love can take time and work. A professional therapist can guide you as you go through this process.
Part of self-love is giving yourself the time you need to heal. Understand that it took you a lifetime to become this way in the first place. Change doesn't happen overnight. Forgive yourself for having a bad day or occasionally slipping into old habits.
Let Go Of The Need For Validation From Others
No matter how much you try to explain yourself, others have not walked in your shoes. Let it be enough that you know what you've been through. Let go of expecting others to understand. Above all, let go of the expectation that your abusers can admit their mistakes and build a more loving relationship with you.
In fact, many scapegoats find that the only way to move to a healthier future is by breaking off contact with the abuser. While it may be necessary, the severing of these ties will bring its grieving process. As much as it might hurt to give up on these relationships, it hurts less over the long term than constantly banging your head against the wall, wondering why they can't understand.
Freeing yourself from these expectations means that you can get to know your true self, without the scapegoat label. Growing up as the family scapegoat may leave you feeling like there's no hope. It can impact your future relationships and endeavors, and eventually get passed down to other generations.
But it doesn't help that way. With a little help and guidance, you can break the cycle. You don't have to be the family scapegoat forever. You can overcome your past and press on to a better future.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Why do families choose a scapegoat?
Narcissistic parents chronically avoid taking responsibility for their own faults and actions. Instead, they blame other people for what is truthfully their own battle. This happens in a process known as projection.
Projection is a very common defense mechanism. This involves projecting your own insecurities and struggles onto other people. We all do it to a certain extent, but it is a particularly common behavior among narcissists.
Sometimes making someone the scapegoat is easier than doing all the personal emotional labor that it would require to solve the rest of the family’s issues. Sometimes families choose one person to blame for problems that truthfully exist within the entire family unit. Often that person is a child because it is more likely that the child is highly sensitive to the mood swings or psychological issues of the rest of the family.
When a dysfunctional family seeks therapy, the family scapegoat may also be referred to as the identified patient (IP). The identified patient could be a child or adult, but he or she is usually a child.
This person outwardly manifests family secrets. If they live in a dysfunctional family, their symptoms might be more obvious than the “elephant in the living room,” or the real problems happening within the family home. Usually, the identified patient does this unconsciously, and they do not realize that they are showing symptoms of a much greater problem within the whole family system.
In other words, the mental health problems of the family scapegoat are only one symptom of a greater problem, which is the breakdown of the whole family system and the mental health relationships between every member of the family.
For example, a family might seek out the help of a psychologist because one of their children is showing symptoms of a personality disorder. When they seek out a counselor, they do so under the pretense of getting help for this one child. But upon further interrogation, the therapist may find that the scapegoat is dealing with childhood trauma as a result of emotional abuse from a narcissistic parent. The abusive parent or generational traumas are the true issue within the family, but rather than acknowledge that deeper problem, it’s easier to project all the issues onto one child.
Sometimes parents prefer to view just one child as the one with the issue rather than acknowledge the brokenness within the family unit, and within themselves. It’s also easier to preserve the image and outward appearance of the whole family by putting all the blame on just one person.
What happens when a scapegoat leaves the family?
Leaving the family often does not mean that you stop being the family scapegoat. You might later find out that your narcissistic parent spread rumors about you, or he or she might let you go too easily to give you the impression that it does not even matter if you go. A narcissist will always have a different version of reality in his or her mind.
But without the presence of the family scapegoat, tensions may increase within the family because there is not an immediately available person on whom to place the blame.
The family might try to run back to you in times of crisis and expect your help, then call you selfish if you aren’t immediately available to help solve their problems.
You should always evaluate your own situation, but it might be healthiest for you to leave the family unit and let them manage the tension themselves. The scapegoat was never the real problem in the family unit anyway, so now without the identified patient, the family may be forced to look at the true root of their problems.
Tensions may also rise as they try to find a new scapegoat. Maybe the one who was previously the “good child” suddenly finds themselves being held responsible for their actions more often.
In an ideal scenario, the family would seek out therapy, and foster healthy relationships built on love and respect. The scapegoat who has left the family can (and should) seek out counseling as well in case he or she needs to deal with symptoms that can come about as a result of childhood trauma, for example, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, or a personality disorder.
It is important to note that the family scapegoat often internalizes blame for things that are entirely out of his or her control. Remember that your role within a dysfunctional family is never your fault, and it has nothing to do with who you inherently are. The fact that a scapegoat even exists is a major sign of a family with unhealthy, unresolved trauma, that could be generational, and these things are entirely out of your control.
How do you overcome being a family scapegoat?
Firstly, it is vital to recognize that it is not your fault that you have become a family scapegoat. Identifying just one family scapegoat is abuse, and abuse is always the fault of the abuser, and not the fault of the victim. There is nothing inherent about who you are that made you the scapegoat and not the favorite child. Especially if you have a narcissistic parent, it might be difficult to recognize that what you went through is abuse whether that person acknowledges it or not.
Another important point is that scapegoat traits often include honesty, vulnerability, and emotional strength. If you think about it, the scapegoat was the one who was honest enough to physically manifest the greater issues of the whole family. They were the only one who shone through smoke and mirrors of a family who tried to avert the blame and protect themselves. Withstanding those years of maltreatment and making it through has probably led to emotional maturity and resilience, as the scapegoat child often does not have the same sense of entitlement that other members of the family, or other people, might have.
The bottom line is that making one child or one person a scapegoat is abuse, and you should never blame yourself. It might be a good idea to seek out help and speak to a counselor so that you can resolve past traumas and ensure that you never repeat generational mistakes within your own family unit.
How does a narcissistic mother behave?
Narcissistic traits include but are not limited to the following:
- A narcissistic mother does not see the child as an individual, but rather as an extension of herself. This leads to a feeling of ownership, and perhaps very controlling or manipulative behaviors.
- Sigmund Freud’s narcissism clinical study finds that narcissistic traits include an inflated sense of self and serious self-aggrandizement.
- A narcissistic mother might also exhibit a severe fear of losing the affection of the people in her life and family and a fear of failure.
- A narcissistic mother also relies on defense mechanisms such as projection, which involves projecting their own insecurities and fears onto other people around them.
- A narcissist is very concerned with his or her public image, and often uses this as a reason to control their children, requesting that they make their parents proud, and lecturing or attacking them for being selfish, dramatic, or weak.
- A narcissistic parent is not affectionate, and the children of narcissistic mothers might find that the most affection they can hope for is simply conforming to the mother’s high demands.
- Narcissists love to be the center of attention and they seek it out.
- Narcissists will also exaggerate or fish for compliments.
- The children of a narcissistic mother might be the victim of blame, guilt, and criticism.
- A narcissist might be very defensive and emotionally reactive, especially if you point out their true narcissistic behaviors.
What is an example of scapegoating?
Scapegoating is blaming one person or group of people for a much biggest or more complex issue.
This can happen on a small scale, for example, maybe one child in a family becomes the “Identified patient,” which means that that child receives the blame for the actions of the other children or everyone in the family. For example, maybe the whole family is suffering because one of the parents is physically abusive. Rather than resolve the issues of abuse that are plaguing the family, which could be the result of entire generations of unresolved trauma, the family instead berates one child for even the smallest of mistakes. That child might develop an anxiety disorder as a result of the dysfunctional family, then the family blames the child’s anxiety disorder for unhappiness within the house. But really, the anxiety disorder is just one symptom of a greater problem, and the family is using one child as the scapegoat.
Another common problem is scapegoating within the office or at school. Children may choose one child to bully or label as an outcast as a way to deflect their own fears and insecurities about becoming an outcast. Or maybe everyone in the office blames one person for always being distracted when there are actually bigger economic problems and issues with productivity within the whole office environment.
Sometimes this happens on a national or international level, such as politicians blaming one minority group for the woes of the whole nation. A country might have economic problems, but they place the blame on a refugee or immigrant group. This does not solve the problem, but rather deflects it.
The bottom line is that scapegoating only distracts from the real problem, and makes one person the victim of what is really a pervasive issue.
What causes scapegoating?
Scapegoating often happens when there is a greater, pervasive problem that would be very difficult to solve, so the blame is then distracted by placing the full scope of the problem onto one person or group of people.
Another cause of this problem might be a narcissistic parent or parents who don’t want to acknowledge their own problems and shortcomings. Instead, they place the blame on one child, and use that person to deflect the attention from themselves and the real problems. That way, the parent does not need to do any soul searching or emotional labor within themselves, and it is easier to just always put all the blame on one person.
The issues, psychological or otherwise, exhibited by the scapegoat are often just a symptom of a greater, more complex problem. A family might seek psychological help for the scapegoat, but fail to resolve the bigger issues within the whole family unit. It is easier to focus on the issues of one member of the family rather than doing the years of work and therapy that might be required to dissect the issues of the family and resolve them.
Blaming one person, child, or group of people might start as a simple defense mechanism as a result of insecurity, but then become a habit and a form of abuse.
Maybe the scapegoating happens unconsciously, in fact, it usually does. But it’s important for the scapegoat to understand that it is not their fault, and they don’t have some specific scapegoat traits that made them susceptible to this type of treatment.
What makes someone a scapegoat?
Some signs that you might be the family scapegoat include:
- You, your needs, and your emotions are often ignored. People may speak over you, or belittle the way you feel.
- If there is a fight, the parents almost always take the side of the “favorite child,” even if they clearly committed an offense.
- You might never receive praise or affection.
- When you are with other people, your parents or the rest of the family might portray you in a negative light, and speak openly about your flaws and issues.
- You may often feel isolated and left out.
- The flaws and shortcomings of the family might be projected onto you.
- You might never hear your parents apologize to you, or treat you as an equal.
- The family is always making fun of you or picking on you.
It’s important to recognize that, if you are the family scapegoat, it is not your fault, and this treatment is only one symptom of greater issues in the family.
In fact, being the family scapegoat may have led to you to develop extreme empathy and emotional maturity.
Scapegoat traits include but are not limited to:
- Justice seeking
- Sensitive and responsive to the emotions of others
- Very empathetic
- A caretaker for others
- Questions authority
- Behaves protectively, or puts others first
- Strong willed
- Internalizes blame and guilt and may take responsibility for other issues outside of him or herself
Why do parents scapegoat a child?
Sometimes scapegoating happens as a result of a truly narcissistic parent, who chooses a “favorite child” who acts as an extension of the parent and internalizes his or her life view, and might be easily controlled, then also chooses a scapegoat child. The narcissistic parent then uses the scapegoat child to deflect their own insecurities and shortcomings. A narcissist might also use a scapegoat child to control the public image of the family, blaming private, secret family issues on just one “problematic” son or daughter.
Scapegoating could also happen to a family that does not have a narcissistic parent, but that is dysfunctional in a different way. The private dysfunction within the family unit manifests itself in one child and his or her issues. Rather than put in the time, emotional labor, and therapy to resolve complex, generational family issues, the family rather identifies one scapegoat as the brunt and source of the problems.
This scapegoating behavior might make the rest of the family feel better about their own issues because it deflects the blame from themselves. This might start as one simple defense mechanism, then evolve into a habit of abuse.
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