My mother suffered with an undiagnosed mental illness which made her incapable of experiencing empathy or compassion. My role as the family scapegoat began with me bearing the burden of my mother’s emotional neediness while displaying no needs of my own.
As I grew up and began to act out as a result of the years of emotional abuse and neglect, my family labeled me the problem child. I became a convenient diversion from the family’s real problems which were multi-faceted and generational.
Through studying the dynamics of dysfunctional family systems, I’ve learned my role as the repository for the family’s grievances is archetypal. They used me as the scapegoat for their own shortcomings, making me the problem instead of facing their need to change.
Origins of the family scapegoat
The scapegoat is first mentioned in the Bible as a living sacrifice. Rather than kill the animal, the community releases it into the wild to carry away the sins of the whole group.
Its only purpose is to bear the burden of sins that are not its own. Today, we more often see scapegoats in dysfunctional families.
The family singles out one person to take the blame for all the problems in the family. Rather than look at themselves, the family points a collective finger at the scapegoat.
This allows them to carry on in their dysfunctional patterns without changing. They pretend to themselves they’re all right while the scapegoat is all wrong.
The scapegoat is the one who tells the truth about obvious defects in the family. Rather than support, she experiences gaslighting from the rest of the family.
She may be the mentally healthiest member of the family but by banding together, the clan convinces itself, and the scapegoat, that the opposite is true.
She may not understand why the rest of the family is unwilling to admit the obvious, keeps secrets, and hides the truth. For the scapegoat, the truth will set you free, but she is part of a family system that would rather remain in chains.
Fear of change and exposure motivates the family to sacrifice the scapegoat this way. Rather than face the truth and the possibility of deconstructing the whole family system, they demonize the truth teller.
If any of this resonates with you and you believe you’ve been targeted as the family scapegoat, here are nine signs you’ve been put in this role.
1. You are punished for telling the truth.
It seems like anytime you speak the truth, your family rebukes you. They abandon or punish you when you don’t go along with the status quo.
They can’t acknowledge the obvious truths you point out and instead point the finger at you and say you are the one with the problem.
2. You are the whistleblower.
Perhaps you threatened to expose a family secret but somehow got branded the bad guy. That’s because your desire to bring the truth to light poses a threat to a family dynamic that functions in the dark.
The hardest part of being a scapegoat is that families can be exceptionally good at hiding their dysfunction. This results in further isolation when the victim is not believed.
3. Your family blames you for their shortcomings.
They refuse to examine the poor behavior you’re asking them to acknowledge. Instead, they point to your human reaction to that behavior and pretend that’s the issue instead.
A valid emotional response becomes further evidence you’re “crazy” or always stirring up trouble.
4. You’re held to a different standard.
You may notice thoughts and opinions similar to yours are celebrated when others express them. But when you say or do the same things you get maligned. In psychology, this is known as the black sheep effect.
5. You feel left out as the family scapegoat.
You may find yourself left out of family events or conversations. Because you tell the truth, they’d rather not hear from you.
At the same time, you get criticized for your absence at events you were never invited to. This provokes guilt in you even though you’re the one who has been ostracized.
6. They sully your reputation.
Family members talk about you behind your back and speak poorly of you even to those outside the family circle. Rather than face their dysfunction they’ll tarnish your reputation publicly.
This is so you won’t receive support from outside the family and they can continue in their collective delusion.
7. Your family makes you feel ashamed or guilty.
As a result of years of unjust treatment, you have internalized a false sense of being bad or wrong. This can lead to over responsibility as you try to prove your “goodness”.
You fail to protect yourself from offences against you as a means of “taking the high road”. Or bear the burden of repairing relationships that are either bad for you or not your job to fix.
8. As the family scapegoat, you receive little or no praise.
Your family downplays your accomplishments. You may have never been praised or encouraged for your achievements in life.
Without the motivation provided by a pat on the back for a job well done, you give up and fail to achieve anything close to your potential. On the flip side, you work ever harder trying to prove yourself.
9. You have a difficult relationship with your sibling(s).
You have trouble connecting with your siblings as equals. They treat you with the same disdain as the rest of the family, promoting a false narrative of you as a troublemaker, or even someone with mental health issues.
They disrespect and discredit you at every turn. And do not provide you with the support you see in other sibling relationships.
While there’s no magic number that confirms you are a family scapegoat, it’s safe to say answering yes to five or more of these signs would be a good indication.
It’s important to know it’s not your fault and you had no control over your position within the family. It’s a role that was forced on you from a young age.
Stay tuned for the next post on how to heal from scapegoating and reclaim your life from the lies your family has told you.