Tag Archives: Family Scapegoat Recovery

The Dysfunctional Family’s Scapegoat.

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In this article I will examine the phenomenon of becoming the dysfunctional family’s scapegoat.

I went to live with my father and obsessively religious step-mother when I was thirteen, having been thrown out of the house by my disturbed and highly unstable mother.

She and my father already had her own biological son living with them. She treated her own son, essentially, as a demi-god, whist viewing me as the devil incarnate – even at that age, (given I had the capacity to carry out elementary mental reasoning and was not intellectually retarded) I did not believe in god, and, consistent with this, refused to attend church with the other members of the household who regarded twice weekly attendance as their pious duty.

Indeed, and I write these words in all seriousness, it is even possible that my step-mother believed I was possessed by some kind of diabolical spirit – after all, soon after I went to live with her and my father, during a trivial argument in the kitchen, she began to shout at me in what she believed to be ‘tongues’. And, when I was a bit older, if one particular friend had been round to see me and she returned to the house later, she would say she knew he’d been round as she could ‘sense evil’ (actually, he was a very nice person). You couldn’t make it up.

In dysfunctional families, viewing one child as being able to do no wrong, and the other as being able to do nothing OTHER THAN wrong, is not an uncommon scenario. The latter, of course, becomes the family ‘scapegoat.’

family scapegoat

Whilst I have grown up with a profound inferiority complex, my step-brother has grown up, I think it is fair to say, puffed up with an impregnable sense of self-love, self-belief and self-pride; expecting others to admire him is his default position. Expecting others to despise me is mine. (And, in this regard, I’m seldom disappointed). This outcome, of course, would not be entirely unpredictable to anybody with an IQ above about 70.

Sadly, it invariably tends to be the most vulnerable and sensitive child who becomes the dysfunctional family’s scapegoat. It is also not uncommon that the child fulfilling the role of scapegoat has a characteristic, or characteristics, which a parent shares but represses, projecting his/her self-disapproval onto the scapegoat.

The family’s scapegoat will be blamed for the family’s deep rooted problems. Anger, disapproval and criticism will be directed at him/her, leading him/her to develop feelings of great shame, to lose all confidence and self-belief, and, in all probability, to experience self-loathing, depression and anxiety. And to expect everyone else to hate him/her too.

The motivation of the rest of the dysfunctional family, both consciously and unconsciously, for denigrating and demonizing the scapegoat is that it enables them to convince themselves that they are good and right. By telling relatives and friends that all the family’s woes derive from him/her they are also able to maintain a public image of blamelessness.

In this way, the family’s scapegoat finds him/herself not only rejected by his/her own immediate family, but, possibly, by those outside it too. S/he becomes utterly isolated and unsupported.

Also, by blaming the family’s scapegoat for the family’s difficulties, they not only evade their own responsibility but are also relieved, in their own minds, of any responsibility to support or help the scapegoat, who, because of the position in the family s/he has been allocated, and its myriad ramifications, will inevitably be suffering severe psychological distress.

Because the scapegoat is blamed for the family’s problems, the rest of its members are able to stay in DENIAL in relation to their own contributions to this sorry state of affairs; they will tend to reinforce one another’s false beliefs that whenever something goes wrong it is the fault of the family’s scapegoat – in this way, a symbiotic relationship develops between them : they all protect each other from feeling guilty and from shouldering their rightful portion of responsibility, drawing the strength of their fallacious convictions from being in a mutually reinforcing majority.

If the scapegoat is brazen enough to protest that not everything is his/her fault, these views are dismissed with scorn and derision – in this way, s/he is denied the opportunity to express them, allowing the other family members to conveniently side-step any searching questions being put to them which might otherwise produce deep discomfort.

If the scapegoat becomes too insistent about expressing his/her point of view, the rest of the family may cut him/her off from it entirely, thus totally isolating him/her.

Often, the rest of the family’s own guilt may be so profound that facing up to it would be psychologically overwhelming; in such a case there will be a powerful unconscious drive to maintain the illusion that everything is really the fault of the scapegoat – maintaining the illusion allows them to deflect blame which, more accurately, should be directed towards themselves.

It is likely, then, that they will not be fully aware that their projection of their own feelings of guilt onto the scapegoat is, in essence, a psychological defense mechanism necessary to allow them to maintain a positive image of themselves. Their views that they are in the right and the scapegoat is in the wrong become a necessary delusion.

Eventually, the scapegoat will come to INTERNALIZE (ie believe to be true) his/her family’s scathing view of him/her, and, therefore, his/her view of him/herself as a bad and unworthy person is in distinct danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

S/he is likely to develop feelings of intense psychological distress, perform well below his/her best academically and, later, vocationally, encounter serious problems with social interaction, and become hostile, aggressive and resentful towards both his/her family and those outside of it. This plays into the hands of the other family members, of course, as it facilitates their desire to continue projecting their own guilt onto the scapegoat.

As the scapegoat goes through life, s/he is likely, due to the powerful conditioning s/he has been subjected to as a child, to see him/herself as not merely unlovable, but, even, as unlikeable – unfit to be part of ‘decent’ society. Believing him/herself to be a terrible person, s/he may not even make any attempt to develop close, let alone intimate, relationships. After all, in his/her own mind, rejection would be ‘inevitable’, serving only to confirm and reinforce his/her wretched self-view.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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