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Black Sheep, Scapegoats and Family Systems Therapy (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, in an effort to understand more about how black sheep and scapegoats are created, we looked into some of the theory behind “triangles” in families. We explored how Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory, thought that families fall into these key triangular patterns of relating to try to reduce tension. That by focusing on a “problem child” or black sheep or scapegoat, other family members can avoid looking too deeply into their own problems, or the tensions in their other relationships.

For all of us, black sheep included, Bowen felt it was vital to try to “detriangle” and gradually extract yourself from these habitual roles. To stop reacting automatically, and to start seeing the patterns themselves.

He believed that with “emotional neutrality” and the ability to spot these family patterns, you can keep yourself from slipping into your previous role, no matter how strongly you might be ‘invited’ into it by others.

And that’s another key: the ‘invited’ bit.

For even though family scapegoating can start up when you’re a child, many systems theorists suggest that if it’s continuing in your adulthood, then at some level you might be a part of perpetuating the process, too. Even if you don’t realize it. Even if you don’t want to.

So how can you start to undo some of that?

Some questions for your therapist within might be:

How might I, even unwittingly, have contributed to keeping this pattern alive?

What’s my part in this, however small?

When did it start? How old was I?

What else was happening in the family at the time?

Are there other family tensions, now, which this might deflect attention away from?

Am I doing anything that could be helping to keep me stuck in this position?

When does the scapegoating feel worse – when does it ease – and what seems to help?

Bowen recommended to ‘detriangle.’

This means staying in contact with your family, where possible (and where safe), and to try not to let anxiety dictate your actions. To gradually navigate a path back from “emotional cutoff” with your family. And to slowly start building relationships with individual family members again.

One to one.

But he also suggested staying wary of slipping into new triangles (which can be especially tempting, if you’d like nothing more than to finally tell someone just how nasty so-and-so was to you in the scapegoating process).

He advocated speaking for yourself as much as possible, using ‘I language’ and explaining your own thoughts, feelings, reactions and hopes to others, rather than pointing fingers at other people in your family by structuring your sentences around ‘you’ or ‘they.’
(For instance: “I feel hurt when you say that,” rather than “you always gang up on me”).

And he advised to try remembering this systems perspective. To remind yourself that the scapegoating is not necessarily just about you specifically, as painful as it might sometimes feel, but that it’s also a pattern that the family learned in order to deal with tension.

And a pattern that, with time, and with your efforts to de-triangle, can also be un-learned.

So that’s some of what family systems theory has to say about black sheep and scapegoats.

But what are your thoughts? What’s worked for you?

Feel free to share your ideas so we can learn from one another (and perhaps, like the sticker suggests in the photo above, we can create a place where black sheep are welcome).


Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She is the editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.

Black Sheep, Scapegoats and Family Systems Therapy (Part 2)

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

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APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2010). Black Sheep, Scapegoats and Family Systems Therapy (Part 2). Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Oct 2010
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