If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these statements, you may have been scapegoated by your family. The term 'scapegoat' refers to a family member who takes the blame for difficulties in the family. Scapegoating is a form of bullying. Family relationships profoundly impact our identity and how we view ourselves.
How to Tell if You Have Been Scapegoated:
1. You are held responsible for family problems, conflicts or challenges, even if they have nothing to do with you. Other people blame you for their actions. You may end up feeling a lot of shame for being ‘the bad guy,’ and/or anger for being blamed for negative family dynamics.
2. You are attacked and disbelieved if you tell the truth and ‘blow the whistle’ on negative and/or inappropriate family dynamics.
3. There has been a history of one or more family members being verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you. Other family members seem to accept or look the other way when you are bullied or aggressed against like this. You may feel like the ‘black sheep’ of the family.
4. You find yourself repeatedly being accused of behavior the scapegoater is engaged in. For example, a family member repeatedly yells at you, and then accuses you of being abusive, or you are thoughtful and then told “all you care about is yourself.”
5. You act out the negative ‘expectations’ of scapegoating such as not living up to your potential, or getting into relationships with abusive people because your self-esteem has been damaged.
6. You are the mentally healthiest family member but are accused of being sick, bad, etc.
7. You occupy the role of family outcast, and are treated with disdain or disgust by family or yourself.
8. Your achievements are belittled, minimized, criticized and rejected.
What’s Going on in Families That Scapegoat
First of all, scapegoating is cruel. Families that are shame or fear based are not healthy. Often in these families you will find evidence of abuse, neglect, addiction, betrayal, mental illness and insecurity. Dysfunctional families either lack insight or find insight threatening, and actively repress it through scapegoating those who want to understand and change negative dynamics. Scapegoating is a “projection defense” that allows scapegoaters to keep up appearances. In other words, by making the scapegoat look bad, it takes attention off the real problem.
Many families who resort to scapegoating are headed by narcissistic parents who lack personal awareness and empathy for their target. In their eyes, the target is there to serve their false image. So the purpose of scapegoating is to allow families to carry on unhealthy behavior patterns and maintain a myth of normalcy without having to look inward or take responsibility for a toxic environment. To the outside observer – and possibly the Scapegoat – these families seem crazy making and delusional.
Who Gets Picked to Be Scapegoat
The Scapegoat doesn’t get picked randomly or by accident. Usually they are either sensitive, unhappy, vulnerable, ill and/or the outspoken child or whistle blower. In other words, the scapegoat is the child who refuses to look content or stay silent in the unbearable atmosphere created in the dysfunctional family home.
How Scapegoating Impacts the Target
Scapegoats almost universally experience low self-esteem or lack of self-worth. The major problem is that they suffer from an Identity Disturbance, as the target confuses the myth that they are bad, with the truth. The truth is that Scapegoats are being abused by being taught that they are ‘bad.’ Scapegoats tend to struggle with chronic insecurity, as they never feel safe or believe they are loved. They can also fall into a ‘Victim’ role, and unconsciously repeat their being scapegoated by gravitating towards unhealthy behavior and/or unhealthy relationships at work, school and in their private lives.
Scapegoats often have trouble feeling safe in relationships - especially intimate relationships - due to the betrayal of trust in their family. They can also have challenges managing emotions, and find they either feel overwhelmed by feelings and anxious, or shut down, numb and not know how they are feeling.
How To Break Free From Scapegoating
1. Understand that what you have come to believe about yourself as family Scapegoat – i.e. that you are bad, weird, inadequate or defective - is not the truth! In fact, it’s likely a lie that was created to prevent family members from acknowledging their own troubles, thereby avoiding taking responsibility for both their behavior and their need to change.
2. Locate and trust your ‘Inner Owl’ – that wise part of you that knows you have been mistreated and will no longer willingly allow this abuse from others or yourself.
3. Recognize that feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame belong to the perpetrators, not you as the target! You are simply a dumping ground for their bad feelings. To change this, you need to start standing up to the notion that you are at fault. You will likely have to begin with yourself, learning to question and reject seeing yourself as ‘bad’.
4. Get to know your true self. Identify exceptions to the negative stereotype you have been saddled with. In other words, pinpoint what is good, likeable or at least adequate about you - your character, values, actions, etc. Write down your good traits – you will need to be reminded of this alternate universe, which is the truth about yourself, especially if you start to fall back into the habit of feeling bad about yourself again. Understand that getting better – and feeling better - is a learning curve, and you may slip a few times before you gain solid footing.
5. Figure out what you might be doing – consciously or unconsciously – that gives scapegoaters the idea that it’s OK to abuse you. Determine how to change any behavior that draws you into the Victim role.
6. Stop trying to win the favor of abusive and uncaring family members, co-workers or ‘friends.’ Anyone who engages in this type of inappropriate behavior has personality problems, especially a parent who did not love their child.
7. Don’t expect abusive family members to apologize or make amends. They will likely blame you more if you attempt to hold them accountable.
8. Start asserting your right to be treated respectfully with family and other people who try to abuse you. E.G., “The way you just spoke to me now is not acceptable, and I never want to be talked to like that again”, or “If you want to have a relationship with me, you will stop the manipulation, angry outbursts, name calling, accusations, etc.” Know that you may not be heard or respected by aggressive people. The point is that you hear and respect yourself! Don’t do this until you are ready to follow through with your commitment to yourself. Remember that you cannot change other people and they are not likely to want to change themselves.
9. Accept that you may never have a healthy relationship with your scapegoater(s). This may involve limited or no contact with those who are determined to continue in their dysfunctional patterns of abuse and disrespect. You probably will experience feelings of grief. Work through the painful feelings, and get support. The pain of rejection from your family can be excruciating. This pain, however, is much less harmful than continuing to allow yourself to be abused by anyone.
10. Get in the habit of treating yourself with kindness, caring, compassion, appreciation and acceptance. Practice viewing yourself as a person of worth and lovability. This will likely feel weird at first as it is unfamiliar. But even though it is unfamiliar, treating yourself in a loving manner is never wrong.
11. Understand that it will take time to learn how to love and appreciate yourself. You have been trained to be overly self-critical and may believe you are defective or to blame in some way. Be patient as this false image gradually crumbles. Get counseling to help you overcome this painful legacy, and find your true self - the strong, valuable person you are meant to be.
12. Practice what you preach with others… Break the cycle!