Are You The Family Scapegoat? Signs You May Be, And What You Can Do About It

Updated November 18, 2021
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. One such member who may feel the most pain is if they identify themselves as a scapegoat.

A scapegoat is defined as a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings and faults of others. The word's origin is an ancient Jewish tradition in which a goat was symbolically sent into the wilderness to atone for the people's sins.

Starting To Believe You're The Family Scapegoat?
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damage could be 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 and communicate with your family about your feelings.

Signs You Are The Family Scapegoat

Feeling ignored

If you're the family scapegoat, the family may not be giving you their undivided attention. That's because a scapegoat may be the most sensitive member of the family and potentially a whistleblower when it comes to obvious dysfunction. For these reasons, your family members might feel uncomfortable when you speak up. They may prefer to freeze you out.

When you persist in speaking your truth, you may find that your family member might try to discredit you. They may even go so far as to humiliate you in front of others. However, they could have difficulty acknowledging and accepting your thoughts, resulting in their negative behavior.

Believing you are not praised often

Typically in a healthy family, members feel proud of each other's achievements. But family scapegoats may find that their achievements are potentially dismissed or belittled. The idea that you can be successful contradicts their theoretical narrative of your incompetence.

You may even realize that you may not have heard praise or compliments from your family.

Over time, scapegoated children might give up trying to succeed at anything. A lifetime of discouragement instead of rewards and praise could take 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

Hearing insults and disparaging comments can be discouraging, and you may feel even more so discouraged if your family may have painted you as an unlikeable person to others. If you're the family scapegoat, you may find that your character is possibly publicly attacked at every opportunity. Your family may want to convince others that you are not worthy of respect in a potential effort to not admit themselves of their role in the family's dysfunction. They may not want to run the risk that outsiders might align themselves with you.


You Are Isolated From Others

Your scapegoaters may not want you to receive any support or encouragement from outside the family unit. They might try to isolate you from friends and loved ones.

They might begin by separating you physically from your support system. Then, they could try to separate you emotionally by creating conflict and spreading rumors. They may attack the character of your friends or loved ones to make it potentially less likely that you will seek out their support.

Scapegoaters might want to make you feel powerless, and 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 might lash out at you. She theoretically tells you that you are lazy and disorganized that you never remember to do anything.

What's Happening Here?

It's sometimes common for scapegoats to find that they are blamed for the behaviors of other family members. This kind of projection alters the truth of a situation to fit the person's needs projecting their blame onto you. The scapegoater may see nothing wrong with it because they may not believe they negatively affect your mental health.

You Are The Family Punching Bag

The family scapegoat may bear the brunt of the family's pent-up frustration. You might feel singled out for all the collective ridicule made into the butt of every joke. It may not take long for outsiders or other relatives to follow your family's behavior because they may not be aware of what is happening.

At times, you may feel like you're going through life with a warning label attached to you. New friends and potential in-laws might get a clear message about your flawed character as portrayed by your family's perspective. As adults, family scapegoats may seek out dysfunctional relationships similar to what they encountered as children.

Growing up as a family scapegoat might affect your mental health; 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 might be struggling with any number of issues, such as potential insecurities. They may even have been family scapegoats themselves. While this knowledge does not make the experience less painful, compassion can help you let go of destructive anger and talk with your family about deserving respect and fairness.

Learn To Know And Love Your Positive Qualities

You may have been hearing about all your negative traits for a 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 can harm your future relationships. So it's worth it to learn to love those things about you that are good.

Identify your attributes: character qualities, admirable actions, and beliefs that make you a person of value. Write down these positive attributes and take time to look at them whenever you have negative thoughts about yourself.

Setting this down on paper gives you the assurance you need if others around you distort the truth. While you may not ditch away from the negative self-talk, you can try to control the part of you that heavily criticizes you for being human. The reason why your positive qualities exist might be because you are using them to fend off the negative part of your personality. So, by accepting both the good and bad, you may discover how to move forward with resolve and purpose. 

Starting To Believe You're The Family Scapegoat?


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. Retraining your brain for self-love can take time and work. A professional therapist can guide you 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. Your old habits are a part of who you are. You cannot simply remove them, but you can manage them. Learn from what you perceive as past mistakes, and look at tomorrow as another day to be better.

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. Try to let go of feeling that you need the opinions of others for you to become a better person. Although, you may find it hard to separate from your family completely. If you think there is a chance for them to understand you, consider taking the risk and talking with them about how they unfairly made you a scapegoat. However, if you feel that your family is unwilling to accept you for who you are, you can think about spending more of your time with those who care about 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.

If you are looking for more help, then consulting the resources at ReGain and their therapists may help you get started on living a fuller, freer life.

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