Being the Scapegoat in Your Family

E.B. Johnson
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by: E.B. Johnson

If you grew up the scapegoat in your family, then chances are you grew up hard and fast. It’s challenging being the emotional punching bag everyone is given license to punish. It’s difficult to be looked down on and dismissed your entire life, but you can turn all of that around in time. You can improve your life (and your outlook) when take a step back so that you can step into yourself and a future filled with love and acceptance.

What being the scapegoat looks like.

Becoming the scapegoat in a narcissistic or abusive family is no accident. It’s a targeted campaign to destroy someone who has been deemed — in some way — a threat to the family group. This may be through sensitivity, a type of “otherness” or a refusal to play along with abuse and injustice as it’s targeted toward you. Not all scapegoating as as overt as we expect it to be. Healing from our place as the scapegoat in the family is nuanced, and it requires recognizing the many complex ways in which our emotions and our social standing are weaponized within us in our own family groups.

Endless negativity

When it comes to the scapegoat, their family goes out of the way to portray them in a negative light. They tell anyone who listens about this person, and use whatever influence they can to detract and devalue any claims they might make. It’s gaslighting to the highest degree. It’s not enough to make you feel bad about yourself. They have to ensure this reality is maintained at all times by portraying you in a negative light to anyone who will listen to them.

Emotional detachment

Not all scapegoating involves outright emotional brutality. Sometimes, it’s a lot more covert. Rather than screaming fights and backbiting, some families punish the scapegoat among them by totally detaching from them. Instead of giving them the love and acceptance that they both need and crave, they ignore the scapegoat and dismiss them entirely. In the long-run, this does just as much damage as the constant emotional barrage of negativity.

Playing blame games

A classic sign of scapegoating, blame games are always one of the most common ways in which this family member is put-down, rejected, or dismissed. No matter what the scapegoat does, they become blamed for the general misfortune of the family. More than that, they are always seen as the villain in the family story, and this causes them to internalize a negative narrative of self.

Weaponized emotions

The scapegoat is nothing if not the emotional punching bag of the family. They get dumped on in every way possible, and take beatings in anger, sadness, grief, and rage. Everyone is free to execute their negativity on the scapegoat. If they have a bad day — the scapegoat becomes a target. If they see the scapegoat doing something they wish they had done themselves — the scapegoat becomes a target. There’s no end to the emotional punishment.

Creating isolated lives

Because scapegoating is abuse, it’s crucial that the abusers keep their behavior a secret. This is (most commonly) achieved by isolating their victim, so that they have no access to empowering support. If you’re the scapegoat in your family, then you may notice that they work hard to keep you isolated from anyone who could help you. They sabotage friendships, family ties, and even your professional connections in order to ensure you’re completely under their control.

Denying basic praise

Praise is important for the development of children within the family unit. It’s a source of connection between parents and children, and it’s also one way by which the child learns to identify their own strengths. When a child is refused praise, they get none of these things. Instead of learning how to see themselves in a positive light, they learn they are unworthy and untalented.

The best ways to recover as a scapegoat.

Are you accepting that you were the scapegoat in your family? You don’t have to resign yourself to your family’s reflection of you. It’s okay to stand in the light of your truth and to be proud of the life you’re living. To do that, though, move past their hollow misconceptions and find the strength to heal and create a life that defined on your own terms.

1. Get yourself to a netural place

There’s a lot of talk in the self-help world that runs along the lines of, “accept where you’re at and heal no matter what.” That’s really romantic, but it’s not reality. We can’t truly heal or change our lives until we’re in the right headspace, and equipped with the right tools. If you’re caught right in the middle of an emotional tempest, you’re not going to be able to stand still long enough to make sense of what’s going on. You need to be in a place of neutrality before you can engage in the process of re-building.

You need to get to a state where the past doesn’t cause you to react. You can’t heal if the mention of your mother still makes you melt-down. Before you can shift, you need to find a place of neutral knowing. You don’t have to accept anything. Just see it for what it is.

We have to move to ourselves to this neutral ground so that we can more honestly see what we’re dealing with and what we need to heal. Make no mistake — this is no overnight procedure. Changing the way we see things takes time. Give your emotions time to process. Take this time to educate yourself. Reach out to a counselor, a therapist. Open up to friends and colleagues. Fill yourself with as much knowing as you can, and in that knowing you will find the truth of your situation.

2. See reality for what it is

Because the scapegoat lives in a manufactured reality in which they are always the villain, they have a hard time seeing what’s actually going on around them. They can’t see who they really are, their strengths, or the injustices against them. They can’t see who their family really is, and without that they aren’t able to escape or heal. In order to free ourselves from this toxic attachment to toxic people, we have to find a way to step back and see things as they really are.

Paint a more realistic picture of yourself and what happened to you. Why are you holding on to the myths of your parents when you lived through their truths? You know who they are. What’s more — you know who you are too. Embrace it. Shake off their dirt and their grime and restore your true self-image.

You are defined only by what you make of yourself. Your family has no right to determine who you are or how you live. They have no right to judge you when they are the ones who gave you the tools to sink or to swim. See yourself for the strong and capable person that you are. See yourself as the threat to their abuse and their toxic norms. You were brought here to break cycles, and they know that…so they tried to break you instead.

3. Forgive yourslf before all else

At some point — as hard as it will be — you will have to learn to forgive the people who hurt you, and the things that have been done to you. Now, before you scoff, it’s important that you understand what true forgiveness involves. Your family isn’t really a part of the equation. Forgiveness is something that’s entirely centered around you. It’s the process of cutting ties with the past so that it no longer has control over you. It’s saying, “I accept who these people are and what happened to me.” It does not exonerate, nor does it dismiss.

Find a way to forgive your family and their transgressions against you. This forgiveness is not a redemption for the people who hurt you (or acceptance). It is an acknowledgement from you. And it is a commitment to no longer allow the bad things to have power over your life and emotions.

You know your family was flawed, traumatized, and broken. You know they were also abused, unloved, or otherwise damaged by parents and family who didn’t know how to give them the love they needed. Use this knowledge to empower your empathy. Having empathy makes it easier to forgive someone in a way that detaches us from the pain we caused. We don’t even have to involve our families in this conversation. Forgiveness is a private process and one we undergo entirely on our own.

Putting it all together…

Were you the scapegoat in your family? Were you targeted? Turned into an emotional punching bag? Did your family verbally brutalize you for asking too many questions? Or sticking up above the crowd? It’s not easy when our families choose us to be the scapegoats of their illness and their ire. We can escape all of that, though, and create more healed and fulfilled lives for ourselves.

First, move yourself to neutral ground. You don’t have to accept what happened to you yet, but you need to be in a state of non-reactivity before you can process it and handle it logically and effectively. Next, paint a more realistic picture of yourself. Shift the blame. The faults of your family were no fault of yours. Find a way to forgive them and see them as the broken and flawed human being that they are. Pity them. Use that pity to shift yourself into a different world. Surround yourself with chosen loved ones who support you and lift you up when you don’t have the strength to lift yourself up. Instead of chasing the validation of people incapable of love, look to yourself. You are the deepest well-spout of love in the universe. Give some of that love to yourself for a change and stop waiting for them to validate you (they won’t).

  • llison, Lori. "Scapegoating." The SAGE Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling, edited by Jon Carlson and Shannon B. Dermer, vol. 4, SAGE Reference, 2017, pp. 1449-1452.
  • Males, M. (1996). The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents. Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press.

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