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 getting the short straw for other people’s faults, mistakes, or wrongdoings? Here’s everything you need to know about scapegoating, why it happens, and what you can do to stop being your family’s scapegoat
Not every family has one, but we’ve all heard of the ‘black sheep’ or ‘problem child’ trope when it comes to family dynamics. 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 – even if those things are outside of their control. But why does this happen in some families and not others? 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, that they didn’t do. It’s usually done for one of several reasons: 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 exceptional or able to do no wrong – often without a specific reason) by placing blame on one person (the ‘scapegoat’). While it usually happens to just one person in a family, it can happen to more, depending on the dynamics.
Typically starting during childhood, scapegoating is a sign of unhealthy family dynamics. It’s important to remember that, if you think you or someone you care about is being used as a scapegoat, it isn’t their fault.
Family members may choose a scapegoat based on arbitrary factors that the individual themselves cannot influence, such as picking an oldest/youngest child, basing their preferences on gender, appearance, intelligence, skin colour, or even sexual orientation. The person or people 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 are finding a way to avoid taking responsibility.
Am I the family scapegoat?
How can you tell if you have been made into your family’s scapegoat? As one therapist on Counselling Directory explains, there are many different signs you can look out for to judge if you may have become the ‘black sheep’ in your family.
- Do my parents treat me differently than my siblings?
- Was I expected to take on extra caretaker responsibilities from a young age? (e.g. extra chores, responsibilities, looking after siblings, or other tasks that can fall under the parentification umbrella).
- Are mistakes I make punished appropriately? Or are they a bigger deal than seems reasonable?
- Do/did my parents notice or intervene when I was bullied?
- Do I fit in with or feel that I have strong connections with my family?
- Does my family dismiss or downplay my achievements?
- Does my family show interest in my hobbies or my passions? Or do they only know me on a more superficial level?
- Am I criticised or ‘jokingly’ teased or mocked for my attributes (temperament, abilities, preferences)?
If you find yourself constantly being blamed for things outside of your control, rarely getting praised, or persistently feeling belittled in front of others, it could be a sign that you may have become the scapegoat for your family.
What kind of impact can scapegoating have on you?
Being the scapegoat for your family can lead you to unconsciously or consciously take on different roles as a way to try and cope with the situations and/or behaviours you are experiencing. This could mean that you:
- Feel pressured to provide emotional or physical care for a parent or siblings.
- Are expected or feel pressured to complete an unreasonable number of tasks (cleaning, cooking, caring for others).
- Are expected or feel pressured to take over during crisis situations (e.g. making decisions for others, managing issues at home, or providing financial support).
- Feel the need to strive for perfection (as a way to avoid criticism or to gain approval).
- Feel the need to rebel against or defy different types or forms of authority (even to the point of self-sabotage).
Why is scapegoating harmful?
Over time, being treated as a scapegoat can have a negative effect on you, your relationships, and what you see as ‘normal’ or acceptable behaviour towards you and others. Those who have been used as their family’s scapegoat or black sheep may:
- Experience more toxic relationships, including friendships, family dynamics, and romantic and working relationships. You may struggle to recognise when a relationship is unhealthy.
- Have trouble setting or keeping clear boundaries, and may continue to find yourself accepting blame or responsibility for things that aren’t your fault. As gaslighting can be a common tactic used in unhealthy family dynamics, you may also struggle to recognise these unhelpful or harmful behaviours. One common side effect of ongoing or long-term gaslighting can include starting to doubt your own experiences, instead believing that you are ‘blowing things out of proportion’, being ‘too sensitive’, or ‘misremembering what really happened’.
- View yourself in a negative light. Being told you are ‘bad’ or ‘at fault’ over and over again can make you doubt your worth and abilities. It can also make you question if you are likeable, loveable, or ‘good enough’.
- Struggle to put yourself and your needs first. This can include trouble practising self-care, putting yourself at the bottom of your priority list, and viewing others’ needs as more important or valid than your own.
Being treated as your family’s scapegoat can act as 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 have a lasting impact on children, teens, and adults.
Who can be scapegoated?
People can become the scapegoat in many different situations, at just about any age. Most commonly, it happens to a single person within an unhealthy family dynamic, starting during their childhood. This can continue throughout their teens, into adulthood and throughout their life.
Anyone, of any gender, intellect, sexual orientation, or background can become a scapegoat. The reasons why someone may choose to turn you into the scapegoat may seem arbitrary (e.g. it may be based on who was born first amongst siblings, a certain hair or skin colour, or general appearance) or not be apparent at all.
What causes scapegoating?
The reasons why someone may be scapegoated can vary from family to family, and person to person. 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 themselves were raised in dysfunctional families as either the golden child or scapegoat themselves, may continue the cycle with their own children. It’s also possible that they may have a personality disorder, including narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder. For some, this can lead to black-and-white thinking, as well as idealising or devaluing others.
It’s important to remember that you, as the person being scapegoated, are not the problem. Scapegoating often starts during childhood, leading to children thinking that they are the problem, as they don’t have the experience to recognise that something is wrong or unhealthy in their family dynamic.
How to stop being scapegoated
As an adult, there are things you can do to stop or avoid becoming a scapegoat. Just knowing and understanding what a scapegoat is can help you to know the signs to look out for – and to recognise them in any existing relationships (family, work, friendship groups) or dynamics you may have. Looking back on past experiences can help you to spot patterns, unhealthy behaviours or habits that may still be affecting you.
Learning how to set healthy relationship boundaries can be a great help in navigating toxic family members, as Counsellor and Psychotherapist Nicki Cawley explains.
“When we feel that a certain member of the group is toxic… [we feel] we can’t do anything to stop this or even to break away from them. But by setting boundaries you can find your way out. We use boundaries to protect ourselves and set the expectations of others. By drawing up a boundary you begin to limit the toxic behaviour and less chance of it happening.”
You may find that your family ignore or push your boundaries, either as a way to try and continue to keep control or out of habit. Stand firm. Boundaries are there as a way to tell people how, when, and what kind of interactions and behaviour we are willing to accept. If you give in and allow others to push or break your boundaries, you are unwittingly telling them that your own comfort in a situation isn’t important. Healthy boundaries are a form of self-care that helps us to clearly lay out how we feel. They aren’t a way of punishing others or an act of aggression. They help us to assert ourselves clearly, honestly, and openly.
Sometimes, the best way to protect ourselves from being scapegoated can be to remove ourselves from the situation. As Nicki explains, “Whilst being related to a toxic person has its challenges, we may need to exclude this person from our lives for our own protection and mental wellbeing.”
If separating yourself completely from the situation isn’t possible or doesn’t feel right for you, doing your best to not get involved can be another solution. This could mean refusing to take on additional responsibilities, saying no or not interacting during situations where you know it is likely you will be targeted or blamed.
Reducing or restricting contact can help you to avoid the constant barrage of negativity and blame that can happen when you are being used as a scapegoat. This can mean both decreasing how often you speak with or see them, as well as reducing how much you tell them about what is going on in your life, or how you are doing.
Often used when dealing with narcissists or toxic relationships, the ‘grey rock’ method (or ‘grey rocking’) involves acting as unresponsive as you can as a way to divert toxic people’s behaviour towards 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 berate or belittle you. Giving noncommital responses and avoiding eye contact can also be helpful.
If you find yourself struggling, try and create the kind of space and support network you would like to see if your life. By surrounding yourself with positive, supportive people, you can gain a more healthy outlook on life. 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 when we are surrounded by negativity, we feel more drained and down.
How to heal from scapegoating
Working with a 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. A professional, qualified therapist isn’t there to offer judgement, take sides, or criticise you, your experiences, or your actions. They can instead help you to explore and 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.
Counselling can help with a wide range of issues, including toxic family dynamics, childhood trauma, recovering from narcissistic abuse, bullying, low self-esteem, and relationship issues. Providing a confidential space where you can be open and honest without having to worry about the reactions of friends, family, or loved ones, just having the space to talk can have a huge effect on how we see ourselves, situations we have experienced, and how others treat us.
Working with an experienced mental health professional can give you insight and understanding into who you are now and why you think and react to situations the way that you do. Through learning more about yourself, you can develop a clearer understanding of your problems, how to navigate difficult situations and dynamics, and how you can make your mental health and wellbeing a priority.
To find out more about the types of therapy, benefits of counselling, and what to expect from a therapy session, visit Counselling Directory or enter your postcode into the search bar below to find a qualified, experienced counsellor near you.