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What is scapegoating?

Scapegoating within families is rarely talked about but many of my clients have described this process in their families. 

What exactly does it mean? Well, in ancient tribal societies, a goat was chosen to represent the group’s collective sins to appease an angry god. By casting the animal out, the tribe symbolically guaranteed itself a clean slate. Naming a scapegoat and blaming him or her or them for the crisis at hand facilitates a sense of unity (us versus them) and someone to blame. 

Within a family, one member becomes the target of accusations, blame, criticism or ostracism. While it’s happening, family members are often unaware of what they are doing and would deny it if confronted with their behaviour. Becoming the scapegoat can be a temporary role (and family members may rotate in and out of it) or a permanent one. Often, scapegoating begins in childhood and continues into and throughout adulthood.

Am I being scapegoated?

Some of the red flags are as follows:

    • You are held responsible for family problems, conflicts or challenges, even if they have nothing to do with you. Other people blame YOU for THEIR actions.  Until you realise what is happening, you may end up feeling a lot of shame for being ‘the black sheep’ and/or anger for being blamed for negative family dynamics.
    • You are attacked and disbelieved if you tell the truth and ‘blow the whistle’ on negative and/or inappropriate family dynamics.  
    • There has been a history of one or more family members being verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you.  Other family members seem to accept this, look the other way or join in when you are bullied or aggressed against like this.  
    • You act out the negative ‘expectations’ of scapegoating such as not living up to your potential, or getting into relationships with abusive people because it ‘feels’ familiar and your self esteem is has been damaged.
    • You are the mentally healthiest family member, but are repeatedly accused of being mentally unwell, over sensitive, bad, selfish, difficult, etc.
    • You may be successful in your adult life but your achievements are dismissed, belittled, minimised, criticised and rejected by family members.

The “golden child”

In addition to the scapegoat, there is often a “golden” child, the favourite who fulfills the parents’ expectations perfectly. In the case of a narcissistic parent, this child is often just like them and is high in narcissistic traits, lack of empathy etc. This favourite is disinclined to look past what the family mythologies tell her, unaware about how he or she’s been affected by the narcissistic mother.

How does scapegoating affect an individual?

The effects of scapegoating can be catastrophic and last well into adulthood. We tend to experience our family life as “normal” even if this is far form the case  and often blame ourselves rather than others for how we are made to feel. Very few people have even heard of scapegoating within families but my work with clients shows that it is not uncommon.  Once an individual can recognise the patterns and can label the scapegoating, what can they do? My next blog looks at this topic.

Contact Me

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541


Book a counselling session today!

See also: A Toxic Family, Signs of a Toxic Family, Ways to Cope with a Toxic Family