What is scapegoating, why does it happen, and how can we heal and move forward?

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Jun 22, 2023

What is scapegoating, why does it happen, and how can we heal and move forward?

Nobody likes to be blamed for something they didn’t do. So, why do some of us end up pulling the short straw and taking the heat for others’ mistakes or wrongdoings?

Not every family has one, but we’ve all heard of the ‘problem child’ trope. Whether it’s a sibling, distant aunt or uncle, or maybe even you, the family scapegoat is the one that ends up getting shamed, blamed, or criticised for just about everything that goes wrong. But why does this happen? And how can we stop being blamed when things aren't our fault?

What is scapegoating?

Scapegoating is the act of blaming someone – or a group of people – for something bad that has happened, even if they aren’t actually responsible. Typically starting during childhood, scapegoating is a sign of unhealthy family dynamics, which might be done to protect the overall image or reputation of a family, or as the default to always favour one or more family members (commonly referred to as the ‘golden child’, who is seen as able to do no wrong) by placing blame on one person (the ‘scapegoat’).

Family members may choose a scapegoat based on arbitrary factors that the individual cannot influence, such as picking an oldest/youngest child, basing their preferences on gender, appearance, intelligence, skin colour, or even sexual orientation – or the reason may not be apparent at all. Those who are unfairly targeting you may be projecting their own feelings of shame, rage, and blame onto you, instead of dealing with uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or behaviours. By finding someone to blame, they avoid taking responsibility.

Am I the family scapegoat?

Signs that you have become your family’s scapegoat include:

  • Being treated differently from your siblings, or other family members of a similar age.

  • Being expected to take on additional responsibilities others aren’t, that might typically be expected of a parent, guardian, or carer.

  • Sensing a lack of interest in your passions and hobbies.

  • A lack of connection, or distance between you and family members.

  • Any mistakes by you seem to be blown out of proportion.

  • Your successes are downplayed or glossed over.

  • Feeling like the butt of all the jokes, or teased incessantly for your attributes.

  • Not having anyone stand up for you or intervening when you’re being picked on.

What impact can scapegoating have?

Finding yourself the family scapegoat can lead you to unconsciously or consciously take on different roles as a way to try to cope with the situations or behaviours. This could mean that you feel pressured or expected to provide emotional or physical care for family members, to take over during a crisis, or to complete an unreasonable number of tasks. You may also strive for perfection (to avoid criticism or gain approval), or feel the need to rebel against authority (even to the point of self-sabotage).

Over time, being treated as a scapegoat can have a negative effect on you, your relationships, and what you see as ‘normal’ behaviour. It can lead to experiencing more toxic relationships due to struggling to recognise gaslighting or unhealthy behaviours. Additionally, you may have trouble maintaining boundaries, continue to accept blame for things that aren’t your fault, and view yourself in a more negative light as being told you are ‘bad’ or ‘at fault’ repeatedly can make you doubt your worth and abilities. This can result in always seeing others’ needs as more important or valid, sacrificing your own in the process.

Being treated as your family’s scapegoat can become a type of trauma. Having others overlook the good things that you do, while highlighting every mistake and placing blame for things outside of your control, can leave a lasting impact.

What causes scapegoating?

The reasons why someone may be scapegoated can vary. For example, a parent may unintentionally or intentionally change their behaviour towards their child if they remind them of an ex-partner, or may treat siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, and/or adopted children differently from one another.

Often, parents who were raised in dysfunctional families, as either the golden child or scapegoat, may continue the cycle with their own kids. It’s also possible that they may have a personality disorder, including narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder. This can lead to black-and-white thinking, as well as idealising or devaluing others.

Scapegoating often starts during childhood, leading to children thinking that they are the issue, as they don’t have the experience to recognise that something is wrong or unhealthy in their family dynamic. But, it’s important to remember that you, as the person being scapegoated, are not the problem.

How to handle being scapegoated

Just knowing and understanding what a scapegoat is can help you to watch out for the signs. From there, the following four steps can be helpful...

Learn how to set and maintain healthy boundaries

You may find that your family ignores or pushes your boundaries, either to try to retain control, or out of habit, but stand firm. Boundaries are a way of telling people how, when, and what behaviour you are willing to accept. If you allow others to push or break your boundaries, you are unwittingly telling them that your own comfort isn’t important. Healthy boundaries are a form of self-care that helps us to clearly lay out how we feel; they help us to assert ourselves honestly, and openly.

Refuse to interact

Sometimes, the best way to protect yourself from being scapegoated can be to remove yourself from the situation, but this isn’t always easy or possible. If so, doing your best to not get involved can be another option. This could mean refusing to take on additional responsibilities, saying no, or not interacting during situations where it’s likely you will be targeted.

Reduce or restrict contact

This can help you to avoid the constant barrage of negativity and blame, and can involve both decreasing how often you speak with or see them, as well as reducing how much you tell them about what’s going on in your life.

The ‘grey rock’ method

Often used when dealing with narcissists or toxic relationships, ‘grey rocking’ involves acting as unresponsively as you can as a way to divert toxic people’s behaviour away from you. This could mean giving short or one-word answers so they have less chance to turn things back on you, or showing little emotional reaction if they belittle you. Giving non-committal responses, and avoiding eye contact can also be helpful.

How to heal from scapegoating

Try to create a support network, which can help you gain a more healthy outlook. According to research, emotions are actually contagious – meaning that when we are surrounded by positive attitudes, we can feel a boost of positivity and increased energy. Unfortunately, this also means that when we are surrounded by negativity, we feel more drained and down.

Working with a qualified therapist or counsellor can give you a safe space to talk openly about your past, present, and what kind of future you want to work towards. They aren’t there to offer judgement, take sides, or criticise you, and, instead, can help you to better understand healthy boundaries, toxic behaviours, and positive family dynamics, as well as to find new, helpful coping strategies you can use throughout your life.

Visit the Counselling Directory to learn more about the various types of therapy, and find a professional who can support you.

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