If you find yourself in the role of the ‘family scapegoat’, you may be suffering from a variety of life challenges and mental health symptoms, including relationship issues; impostor syndrome, generalized anxiety, depression, addiction, codependency, and even trauma symptoms, yet have no idea that it is related to your being trapped in the role of ‘identified patient’ in your family-of-origin.
Are You the ‘Family Scapegoat’?
Scapegoating in a dysfunctional family system is fueled by unconscious processes whereby the family displaces their own collective psychological difficulties and complexes onto a specific family member. This process of projection, shaming, and blaming serves to divert attention away from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems via casting the scapegoated family member into the role of ‘identified patient’ (Bateson, 1972). This does not mean that all acts of blaming and shaming a child are unconscious – rather, the projection process fueling the scapegoating of the family member is unconscious.
Many scapegoated adult survivors fail to realize that they have actually suffered from psycho-emotional abuse growing up, and even their therapist or counselor might miss the signs and symptoms associated with being in this most devastating dysfunctional family role.
Specifically: Adults seeking assistance from a mental health professional may find that the genuine pain and distress they are experiencing is minimized or even invalidated (e.g., “But they’re your family, of course they love you”; “Family connections are so important, it can’t be that bad”; “It’s best if you forgive, we need to maintain ties with our family to be healthy”), which only serves to reinforce the scapegoated adult’s fear that they are somehow fundamentally to blame for their strained (or non-existent) family relationships.
Scapegoating Is Abuse
Family scapegoating is a form of maltreatment and abuse that is often subtle and not noticed by others – even by those within the family. The scapegoating parent (who is typically the ‘power-holder’ in the family system, and therefore in control of the family narrative) often has a ‘story’ about the rejected child that they are quick to share with anyone who will listen – a story whereby they are ‘good’ and their (scapegoated) child is ‘difficult’, a ‘problem’, or even ‘bad’ and ‘defective’.
The scapegoating of the child or adult child is fueled by denial, lies, and reality distortion (also referred to as ‘gaslighting’). It is insidious because it is supported by power discrepancies, i.e., the scapegoating parent is believed while the scapegoated child is dismissed.
The child (or adult child) may even be accused of being a liar and/or mentally or emotionally ill – A story that the parent themselves may create and promote at the expense of their own child. In such cases, the damage to the scapegoated child’s psyche can be incalculable.
Due to the damage to the emerging self, the growing child may struggle to identify wants and needs, and will have difficulty forming secure attachments with primary figures in their life. As an adult, the scapegoated individual may lack the confidence to pursue goals and dreams, and will have difficulty forming lasting, trusting attachments with others. They may feel that they don’t have a right to be, to feel, or to express their true self-nature in an authentic manner with others due to an inner sense of self-loathing grounded in toxic shame.
The Devastating Impact of Family Scapegoating
Children who are scapegoated will typically experience unique struggles throughout their childhood and these challenges will follow them into adulthood. Because their reality and experiences were a threat to the parent that was (and may still be) scapegoating them, their sense of self was not validated in critical, fundamental ways as children; thus, they likely will have difficulty trusting their own perceptions later as adults.
As a result of having the very core of who they are redefined via the scapegoating process, the adult survivor of family scapegoating will often find themselves feeling disconnected, dissociated, hopeless, and even passively and chronically suicidal. Many scapegoated adults believe that something is very wrong with them, but they are not sure what. They often fear talking about their pain and confusion with others, causing them to be further isolated and vulnerable to depression.
Scapegoated adult survivors often have difficulty trusting others, and will often struggle to form meaningful, secure attachments – including romantic / intimate ones. Because the scapegoating ‘story’ often follows the child into adulthood and may continue even after a parent’s death (e.g., via a dominant sibling or extended family member) there may seem to be no way out other than to limit or end contact with one’s entire family-of-origin.
In many cases, the scapegoated individual blames themselves for their difficulties, and does not believe that anyone can help them, even if they did try to share their inner confusion and pain. A sense of disenfranchised grief can be particularly acute if the scapegoated adult has had no choice but to limit or end contact with scapegoating family members in a valiant and courageous attempt to establish and protect their own mental and emotional health, for few in their life will understand the reason for this seemingly rash decision, much less support it.
Healing From the Damaging Scapegoat Role
It is never too late to discover and reclaim your true identity, free of the distorted, shaming family narrative that has painted you as ‘bad’ and ‘defective’.
To ‘reclaim’ means to retrieve, redeem, recover, return to, reform, recall, to cultivate, to cry out against, to tame, to save. If you find yourself in the painful role of ‘family scapegoat’, you will be required to do all of these things as part of your recovery and healing process, beginning with the decision to release the scapegoat story and become the author of your own life, versus remaining trapped in the story created by the power-holders in your family-of-origin.
In addition to releasing the scapegoat story, one of the most powerful healing tools available to adult survivors is sharing the truth of what happened to them with others. This can be done via writing your life story and sharing it with a therapist or coach who understands the damaging nature of the ‘family scapegoat’ role, or joining a forum where you can share freely and be heard by others, as well as listen to the stories of other scapegoated adults.
To learn more about what I named (for qualitative research purposes) Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA), it’s signs and symptoms, and recovering from this most damaging form of systemic familial abuse, read my eBook The Invisible Wounds of the Family Scapegoat (link to my eBook available via my profile, below).
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Have you ever been in the ‘family scapegoat’ role? If so, what has helped you most in your recovery?
Articles of Interest
Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) p. 237 and p. 243