In toxic families, scapegoats are the family members blamed for all of the problems in a dysfunctional family. If you have ever been collectively shamed and blamed (aka smear campaigns), subjected to distorted family narratives and rejected and discarded by those who were supposed to love you most – your family – then you have been the victim of this most egregious (and often chronic) form of systemically-driven psycho-emotional bullying and abuse. As such, you might also realize that you’ve been forced to deal with all the painful consequences to body, mind, and spirit that accompany it.
Why Do Some Families Scapegoat? There are myriad reasons why a family might scapegoat their son, daughter, niece, or nephew, but it’s the fault of the person or people engaging in it, not the victim. More often than not, a parent, sibling and other family members who are mentally ill or emotionally unstable including people with a personality disorder, such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, are far more likely to scapegoat a loved one than a psycho-emotionally healthy and stable person.
The reason for this is that people who live with these disorders idealize and devalue others or engage in black-and-white thinking. As such, they might attack their loved one to release their pent-up frustrations and deep feelings of abandonment, ‘toxic shame’, self-hatred and jealousy.
They might also engage in ‘splitting’ behaviors. For example they might pit one sibling against the other to create a camp of ‘allies’. Parents or other adult family members that ‘split’ will also tend to see one child as ‘good’ and another as ‘bad’ (the ‘scapegoat’).
The very existence of these defined roles is firmly rooted in toxic dysfunction. It might even be switched and allocated to different family members at different times by those engaging in this abusive treatment, based on circumstances, life events, and changing family dynamics.
Scapegoating in a dysfunctional family system is fuelled by unconscious processes whereby the family displaces their own collective psychological difficulties and complexes onto a specific family member. It doesn’t mean that the various acts of scapegoating a family member, such as rejecting, humiliating, blaming, shaming, and ostracizing are unconscious.
Rather it’s the projection process fuelling the scapegoating of the family member that is unconscious. This projection is also often rooted in and fuelled by multigenerational trauma. It can also be orchestrated and perpetrated by family members who are genetically predisposed to such abusive tendencies and who are different to the scapegoat who may not have these genetic dispositions.
What Are the Impacts of Family Scapegoating Abuse? Many adult survivors fail to realize that they have suffered from psycho-emotional abuse and even a therapist frequently misses the signs and symptoms associated with being in this most devastating dysfunctional family role. Given that the scapegoating victim is depicted as the perpetrator by their own family, they often (wrongly) feel ashamed, grief-stricken, confused, and extremely low in confidence and self-esteem.
They might even be in denial, or instinctively 'protect' other family members by not speaking the truth of their behavior. In this complex mental state, the last thing they’re going to think is that they are a victim.
Concerningly, adults seeking assistance from mental health professionals often find that the genuine pain and distress they are experiencing is minimized or even dismissed by a therapist or doctor with statements like, “They’re your family, they love you”; “Family connections are so important, is it really all that bad?”; “It’s best if you apologize because you need to maintain ties with your family to be healthy”.
Such invalidation only reinforces the scapegoated person’s fear that they are somehow fundamentally to blame for their strained (or non-existent) family relationships. It also highlights a glaring problem with professional therapy by ‘qualified therapists’ who lack the real life experience to form an accurate assessment, and the detrimental and devastating impacts that this ignorance can have on emotional abuse / family scapegoating survivors. It's why I encourage you to get your own copy of my book Overcome Anything! which shares real life experience.
This widespread ignorance means that for many family scapegoating survivors, family relational distress and abuse symptoms go unrecognized. Yet these people often suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, depression, unrecognized grief, and anger management issues, identity crises, as well as other disorders.
For the ones who are strong and confident, and who might have been a victim of family scapegoating in young adulthood (as opposed to childhood) or have noticed that their treatment coincided with a significant change in family dynamics due to family deaths or estrangements of other family members, they might have more self-belief rooted in their soul due to different reference points earlier in their life (how things used to be) and start to suspect something is amiss with their new-found treatment. Even though it feels horrendous, being a family scapegoat can give someone the ability to see a dysfunctional or toxic family for what it is when they previously failed to notice.
The maltreatment scapegoats endure in families is often the impetus that drives them to leave the dysfunctional, toxic establishment. Meanwhile, all those others who contribute to it and remain in the family fray, continue to be enmeshed in this harmful family system. It means that scapegoats distancing themselves from their families of origin begin to heal from the abuse they experienced. In this way, there can be an upside to it given that it yields a more desirable outcome after you get through the pain and distress.
Can Family Scapegoating Abuse Lead to Complex Trauma?
Family scapegoating can most certainly lead to complex trauma. In fact, many family scapegoating abuse survivors can suffer from symptoms of undiagnosed, untreated Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Betrayal Trauma may be a contributing factor to C-PTSD symptoms as well.
Scapegoated adults are negatively impacted in nearly every area of their life, including their mental and emotional health, relationships, work, and their ability to realize their most cherished goals and dreams. In fact, scapegoated adults often feel debilitated by self-doubt and ‘imposter syndrome’ in their relationships and in the workplace, and some choose to blame themselves for their difficulties. They also might be unconsciously drawn to other narcissistic people and form unhealthy relationships because of their past treatment.
Something else that can occur is that they develop 'fawning' behaviors, whereby they seek to please others and avoid conflict at any cost. They may also struggle to create and experience a sense of life mission, passion, and purpose, and find themselves succumbing to feelings of futility, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and despair.
It may not even occur to the scapegoating victim that they may need to limit or (in extreme cases) even end contact with abusive family members who refuse to take ownership for their damaging behaviors – especially when they love them so much and might have had previously positive reference points from earlier in their life.
Breaking the Cycle
For anyone experiencing emotional abuse or family scapegoating, nothing beats real life stories from others who have survived and thrived beyond it. It’s far more effective than professional therapy. While many people become stuck in the emotional, mental, and physical consequences of this horrendous abuse, there is every opportunity to survive and thrive far beyond it. In my book, Overcome Anything! I show you how to survive and thrive. It’s my secret 8 step solution to getting beyond life’s hardest times including anxiety and depression.