As a licensed Psychotherapist specializing in Family Systems, I have worked with many clients who struggled with being in the family scapegoat role, yet they did not realize how this was negatively impacting nearly every area of their life. They often presented in my practice with anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem, but blamed themselves for their symptoms, not realizing how being the target of family scapegoating behaviors had affected their ability to experience well-being and contentment in their lives.
Family scapegoating is far more common than people realize. ‘The Scapegoat’ is one of the roles given to a child growing up in a dysfunctional family system, and can have a lasting negative effect. Many family scapegoating abuse victims/ adult survivors fail to realize that they have actually suffered from a most insidious form of psycho-emotional abuse growing up, and even therapists and counselors can miss the signs and symptoms associated with what I named (for qualitative research purposes) Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) as well.
In fact, the genuine distress experienced by adults who are targets of family scapegoating is sometimes minimized or dismissed by Mental Health providers due to a lack of awareness of just how damaging this form of familial abuse can be. For example, a client seeking help with their family situation might be told things like, “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”; “It’s important you don’t do a ‘cut-off’, you’ll just be repeating unhealthy family patterns”, which only serve to reinforce the client’s fear that they are somehow fundamentally to blame for their strained (or non-existent) family relationships.
Common Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) Experiences
Below are 16 common experiences reported by my scapegoated adult clients and FSA research survey respondents:
- You may identify as being ‘codependent’ or ‘highly sensitive’ and ‘empathic’; alternatively, you may be understandably self-protective because of hurtful dynamics with your family and will not tolerate any mistreatment from others; you may be quick to cut people off if they behave disrespectfully or inappropriately toward you.
- You may have difficulty expressing your feelings because at a very young age you learned to be careful about revealing too much of yourself as it would be used against you by family members. You may have been told that you are “cold”, “insensitive”, “heartless”, “selfish”, and that you cannot love, including by a scapegoating parent. As a result of stuffing down (repressing) your feelings, you may experience various physical ailments, struggle with addiction and/or codependency, anxiety, depression, and/or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
- You are made to feel solely responsible for the quality of your relationship with a parent, primary caregiver, dominant sibling, or others in your family; if there are ‘problems’ in the relationship it is viewed as being your fault, no matter what.
- If you attempt to share your side of the story or disagree with the version a dominant family member is putting forth (including via a ‘smear campaign’) you are labelled ‘a liar’, ‘crazy’, and/or ‘emotionally / mentally ill’.
- One or more family members have been physically, emotionally, or mentally abusive toward you (including ‘gaslighting’ you, i.e., denying, distorting, and twisting events to show themselves in a better light at your expense).
- Extended family members or even non-family members are informed that you are a troubled, ‘problem’ child that is difficult to deal with and cannot be trusted or believed.
- If you try to inform others within or outside the family of the abuse you are experiencing (as a child, or years later as an adult), you are not believed and the abusive family member will deny their behavior (often via a ‘smear campaign’ whereby you are once again “a liar” or emotionally / mentally defective).
- You are objectified and dehumanized in various ways, e.g., you are labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘too sensitive’, ‘dramatic’, ‘a liar’, and are even described in those terms to others – in your presence (e.g., “Janie was such a difficult baby, she has so many emotional problems”) – even to perfect strangers.
- You may be accused of ‘faking’ a genuine illness by scapegoating family members (nuclear and/or extended); this may be done to your face or via a covert ‘smear campaign’ designed to discredit you.
- You blame yourself for any relationship difficulties you experience as an adult, fearing that there is something innately wrong with you and that you are somehow damaged and defective. This, along with being treated as ‘less than’ and defective by your family, may contribute to intense feelings of desperation, hopelessness, and despair.
- You feel uncomfortable around your family-of-origin (separate, different, ‘not part of’); you feel trapped in a role of some kind, feel stifled and constricted in your interactions (e.g., a sense of having to ‘walk on egg shells’), and are not able to be your ‘true self’ around your family – You may wonder who your ‘true self’ even is.
- You may have difficulty forming healthy attachments and trusting, loving connections with others – and you blame yourself for this. You may be attracted to addicts, narcissists, or abusers, know it’s unhealthy, but continue to make self-damaging relationship choices.
- You have struggled with anxiety, depression, and/or ‘imposter syndrome’, and may suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as unrecognized disenfranchised grief. (read my articles on the FSA survivor’s experience of C-PTSD and disenfranchised grief to learn more).
- You are ‘the client that cannot be helped’, i.e., you have consulted with various health professionals but no clinician or counselor is able to help you figure out why you feel the way you do or get to the heart of the matter so that you can heal at a deep, core level. Talk therapy, mindfulness-based practices, and/or medications help a little, but not much (unless the healing professional understands you are suffering from dysfunctional family system abuse).
- Your family minimizes or ignores your personal and/or professional accomplishments. No matter how highly regarded you may be outside of your family-of-origin, to your family you are essentially a “fake” and have somehow managed to fool everyone by pretending you are something that you couldn’t possibly be (e.g., a successful, healthy, high functioning, respected in your profession, etc).
- You may have had no choice but to reduce or limit contact with one or more family members to protect your own mental / emotional health, yet you question yourself for this decision and/or feel guilty, ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’ for distancing yourself from your family.
How many of the above experiences do you relate to? Were you surprised that these experiences are often associated with family scapegoating abuse?
Children and adult children who have been scapegoated by their family are at much higher risk of experiencing ‘toxic shame‘, low self esteem, anxiety, depression, ‘disenfranchised grief‘, and even trauma symptoms (including Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) throughout their adult lives.
They may also ‘act out’ in anger at the unfair treatment they experience repeatedly as the scapegoated child / adult child and be further mischaracterized and pathologized by their family as a result. Due to the damage to the emerging self, the growing child may struggle to identify wants and needs, and struggles to form secure attachments with primary figures in their life.
As an adult, the scapegoated individual may lack the confidence to pursue goals and dreams, and has difficulty forming lasting, trusting attachments with others. The scapegoated child / adult child 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.
Being the target of family scapegoating abuse can have devastating effects. If you are currently seeing a therapist, you might wish to further explore how you might have been negatively impacted by being the target of family scapegoating abuse (my FSA self-test is available in my 50-page introductory eBook – the link is available via my profile, below).
To learn more about 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 (you may find the link below in my profile).