So here is my first post of the year. It is about being the family scapegoat – which I have been since the day I was born. My very first memory from age two is one of extreme fear because my little brother had just fallen and was screaming. Already, at age two, I knew I would be blamed and get a beating.
Being the Family ScapegoatScapegoating is a seriously insidious dysfunctional family problem where one child in the family is blamed for everything that goes wrong – where this one child is picked on, constantly put down, and too often physically ‘punished’ (abused) for an imagined wrongdoing. In scapegoating, one of the authority figures has made a subconscious decision that somebody in the family is the bad girl or boy. The mother or father makes one child bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, but most often imagined) that are wrong in order to punish or belittle the child.
The scapegoat, the outcast of the dysfunctional family, is made to carry the hidden blame and shame of relatives who refuse to acknowledge their own problems. Dysfunctional families are steeped in shame, and cannot look at their own issues. They have poor insight into their own behaviors and problems, and will do anything to appear normal or exceptional to outsiders, despite the fact that in reality, they are terribly crippled by their fears, addictions, mental disorders, abuse, neglect and insecurities.
While dysfunctional parents dance around the obvious real problems right before their eyes, they play a toxic game with the scapegoated child. The game is called, “You are the reason for anything and everything that is bad or wrong in my life.” The scapegoat cannot escape this role, which is typically assigned by the dysfunctional parent during the child’s first years, long before a child can think objectively about messages given to them.
Some Examples of Scapegoating in the Home:
• A parent who systematically singles out one child for blame when things go wrong in the family.
• A parent who punishes one child more severely than the siblings.
• A parent who assigns undesirable responsibilities and chores to just one child in the family.
• A parent who humiliates the child in front of the child’s friends.
• A parent who routinely speaks more negatively to or about one child in the family.
There are different reasons one child is singled out to be scapegoated. Perhaps the child is vulnerable – or the child is hyperactive or noncompliant or questions authority or reminds the parent of someone he/she hates. Sometimes the scapegoated child is viewed as weak – one who cannot defend herself. At times the parent heaps on the blame because he cannot stand the child who has traits and characteristics that are similar to his own or personality traits similar to a disliked relative. Other children in the family eventually pick up the scapegoating pattern and join in taunting and hurting the scapegoated child – even throughout adulthood. In extremely dysfunctional families, the parent may goad the other children to pick on the disfavored one – or, at the very least, brainwash the siblings to see the child in the same way the parent(s) does.
Sometimes one child is favored and given special status by the parent. This child can do no wrong. So, if the favored child does something ‘wrong’ it is laughed at as funny, whereas, if the scapegoat were to do the exact same thing, punishment is swift and fierce. All members of the family are affected. Children who are scapegoated often feel insecure and develop a victim mentality. They learn that they are at the bottom of the pecking order in the family and often automatically gravitate to that role at school or at work. Meanwhile, the child who is favored often develops her own form of pathology in that she grows up feeling special and entitled. One woman told me, "For years I resented my sister who my mother adored. I wished I had been special to my mother. Now I see how messed up my sister is and I'm glad I was not the chosen one of a very emotionally ill mother and/or father."
This dynamic of making one child "good" and another child "bad" in the family is a vicious generational theme learned and passed down from parents to children.
Scapegoating is manifested in abuse. Often an insecure parent will be aggressive with one of the children to vent his own sense of frustration at not doing well in life or at having made terrible mistakes at one point in time. Aggression in families creates poor self-esteem in the children – and not just the one being picked on and abused. Aggression, the use of force against another human being, is always present in scapegoating, usually in the form of extreme beatings with an object such as a belt, enabling self-righteous discharge of aggression and blame towards another.
Some humans need someone to take their anger out on and make that person the reason for anything that goes wrong. The aggressive person, the one doing the blaming, is one who tries to dominate others – often the father. But if the mother is treated cruelly by a domineering father, she will often become emotionally and physically aggressive toward the same child the father is abusing. Aggressiveness can take several forms. The aggressive person is frequently rude and humiliating, ("What do you mean, you aren't going to do it?"), or the aggressive person can become self-righteous ("I am only insisting on this for your own good."), or she/he can resort to being manipulative ("If you refuse, what will everyone think of you?")." Scapegoaters tend to have extra-punitive characteristics. Often it is insisted that a beating hurts the parent more than the child getting the beating – which, of course, is not true. The parent actually gets a perverse satisfaction from beating the child.
Scapegoating is a hostile social/psychological discrediting routine by which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves for their own failures and towards the targeted person or group. It is also a practice by which angry feelings of hostility toward an inaccessible person is projected, via inappropriate accusation, toward a child or other accessible person. The abuser is an insecure people driven to raise his or her own status by lowering the status of their target. The target receives misplaced vilification, blame and criticism; she is likely to suffer rejection from others whom the perpetrator is able to influence such as her siblings.
Bullying is always scapegoating. Physical and emotional abuse is always scapegoating. In scapegoating, feelings of guilt, aggression, blame and suffering are transferred away from the scapegoating bully so as to fulfill an unconscious drive to resolve or avoid bad feelings about oneself or one’s failures in life. This is done by the displacement of responsibility and blame onto another who serves as a target for both for the scapegoater and his supporters (the rest of family members). Scapegoating is the projection of a parent’s bad feelings about him or herself or about a hated relative onto the targeted child. It provides narcissistic gratification to him or her. It is the abuser saying:
"If I can put the blame on you, I don't have to recognize and take responsibility for the negative qualities in myself. What I can't stand about myself, I really hate in you and have to attack you for it in order to deny that I have the same quality." This distortion is always a feature of scapegoating. The displaced negative characteristics are blown out of proportion into something horribly bad.
The perpetrator's drive to displace and transfer responsibility away from him or her is not done with full consciousness – self-deception and denial are often features. In so far as the process is subconscious, it is more likely to be denied by the perpetrator if approached about what is being done. In such cases, any bad feelings – such as the perpetrator's own shame and guilt – are also likely to be denied.
The dysfunctional family cannot allow the role of scapegoat to go unfulfilled, because it serves an important purpose – it gives them a place to toss their unwanted psychological garbage. If they did relinquish the need for the role, they would have to face the problems they have found impossible to accept and address. In time, the role eventually becomes the scapegoat’s internalized false identity: “I am bad; I am wrong; I am the reason people are unhappy; I am worthless; and I am at fault for everything…” all too often become the scapegoat’s deeply-held beliefs. These self-depreciating beliefs are carried throughout their lifetime causing problems in decisions, relationships, and physical health (such as PTSD). Only counseling with a therapist trained specially in PTSD and working with adult survivors of child abuse can help alleviate some of the suffering.
The scapegoat experiences exclusion from family social events, ostracism, constant criticism, and embarrassing putdowns in front of outsiders. The scapegoat is often negatively gossiped and complained about even when not around. Children who grow up as the family scapegoat are likely to develop trust issues, resentment and low self-esteem. Children often blame themselves for such treatment and look for rationalizations for the way they are treated. They may begin to feel worthless, ugly, stupid or incompetent. They may do the opposite of overachieving and, instead, struggle academically and avoid opportunities which are deemed competitive. Adult children who have been scapegoated may struggle with explosive anger, pessimism and resentment in relationships, employment, and peer friendships.
Some children who are victims of scapegoating may try to prove their worth by becoming over-achievers in whatever the parent wants them to do, often to the detriment of their own aspirations and interests in life. Children who are victims of parental scapegoating are somewhat vulnerable to predatory groups and individuals who seek to take advantage of them. Religious cults, criminal gangs, terrorist organizations and thieves and violent or sexual predators often lure their victims by initially offering validation to people who have low self-worth.
The target's knowledge that she is being scapegoated usually builds slowly – over a lifetime. Complete realization of what has been happening usually does not occur until well into adulthood.
What Should You Do if You Are/Were the Family Scapegoat?
If you were designated the black sheep of the family, then studying this dynamic is the way to release yourself from its poison. Learn to recognize the negative family patterns of blame and shame and vow to stop doing them in this generation! Stop trying to win the favor of a parent who did not like you when you were growing up. A parent who rejects their child has some severe personality disturbance and is not likely to change. Don't expect the parent to "own" up to their mistreatment. Most likely, they will only deny and blame you again for being ungrateful.
In the case where a parent or parents refuse to own up to what they did (or possibly are still doing), children who were scapegoated should have as little to do with the abusive parent as they can when they grow up. In fact, moving many hours away to a different part of the country or to a different country altogether will enable the scapegoated child to build a better life as an adult. The ‘scapegoat’ should get into therapy and talk out her problems that have developed from being constantly abused and belittled. Therapy will help the scapegoat to learn to believe she is a valuable person in her own right. If therapy is not utilized, scapegoated children often end up in abusive relationships and possibly repeat the hateful pattern with their own child.
Even if the scapegoat eventually leaves the family, they are usually still considered the cause of all the family’s difficulties, no matter how much time has passed since they last saw the designated black sheep family member, because the family’s need to place blame and project shame onto another person still exists. They typically continue to carry the disdain and disgust toward the original scapegoat for decades – until death actually.
The role of scapegoat/black sheep/whipping boy/fall guy is a timeless classic that is typical of virtually all dysfunctional families. Parents with addictions and parents with personality disorders usually scapegoat at least one child.
Coping with Scapegoating - What NOT to Do:
• Don't blame yourself or assume that you did anything to deserve the way a person with a personality disorder treats you.
• Don't accept scapegoating as normal or allow it just to "go with the flow".
• Don't persecute someone else who is being scapegoated. That is participating in the abuse.
• Don't ignore it when someone else is being scapegoated. That is condoning abuse.
• Don't try to justify your worth by becoming an over-achiever. Don't work yourself harder to earn the love of a parent or family member. Real love is a free gift; it doesn't require people to jump through hoops.
• Don't immediately trust everybody or every organization who offers you validation. Save your trust for people who will treat you well and don't have a hidden agenda of their own.
• Don't waste your time and energy trying to change another person's opinion of you. That will only lead to circular conversations. As painful as it is to admit, you have no power or control over another person's thoughts, words and actions.
• Don't retaliate or try to hurt a person who scapegoats you. Try, as best you can, to disengage from them. Remove them from your life.
Coping with Scapegoating - What To Do:
• End the conversation and remove yourself from the house whenever anybody treats you badly. Leave.
• Call the police if anybody hurts you physically. If you are young, report it to a responsible caring adult.
• Try to base your own opinion of yourself on your good qualities – learned through counseling – not on other people's negative emotions.
• Get support. Find validating and healthy friendships and relationships where people will appreciate your worth, show grace and love toward you, and encourage you to be the best that you can be.
• Escaping the family’s toxic blame through removing oneself from the family – possibly by moving away to a new town or state – is best.
• If you choose to return to visit the family after therapy and years of distance – if you believe you have healed and can handle your family’s negativity – then do so. But keep your eyes wide open since your family members will not have changed. Their treatment of you will be the same – possibly worse.
What I have done to help myself heal
After years of therapy due to a childhood full of abuse and scapegoating, I still kept finding myself in the position of scapegoat whenever I visited with my family. Whenever this happened, I felt a primal sense of desperation and pain that seemed to threaten my emotional survival. I didn't understand that when I found myself in an old familiar situation (being around my parents and siblings) I kept reacting just as I did as a child.
I looked outward to my husband for relief rather than inward to myself, because I viewed my scapegoat mantel as something only my family and/or others could undo. I was frantic to get them to see this – to get my family to love and accept me. I didn’t realize that it was something that cannot be done. It took me a long time to realize that by becoming defensive and engaging in old arguments, I was wearing my scapegoat mantle every time I went ‘home’. It wasn’t until I put time and space between myself and my family that I could heal enough to stand confidently in my own experience and extricate myself from the scapegoat role. Putting time and space between me and them – basically divorcing myself from my family – was not easy to do.
Finding a good counselor with whom I could talk about my childhood abuse (which still continues) was extremely important. Validation of me as a good person from my counselor and my husband was the key to ridding myself from a wide array of childhood traumas. The trick is to differentiate from those who are supportive and those whom we want to be supportive and are not.
Whenever anyone suggested that I was wholly responsible for my childhood abuse or family estrangement (such as my sisters), or told me that I needed to be accepting and forgiving toward them, I learned to not accept what they said and changed the subject. Over a period of many years, with the aid of supportive individuals – who did “get it” – I learned to set and guard my boundaries. I learned that I wasn't responsible for my mistreatment by my family – it was undeserved. Nor was I responsible for the dysfunction of my family.
Eventually, I realized I had to break things off with my parents and siblings in order to heal. They will never stop scapegoating me. The constant criticism, blame, and belittling will never stop. So, I have removed myself from their lives. I have built a life without them. I have found love, grace, and acceptance with my husband’s family. My husband’s family is now my family, too. As far as I am concerned they are my only family.
I believe that I have now found my path to healing and finding peace if I can only be strong enough to walk it to the end and not look back.