By R.C. Mandeville, MA
“Why do I feel so uncomfortable with my family?” “Why do I feel like an imposter in my life / in my job?” “I have trouble trusting people – I feel so isolated, different, and alone.” “Why do I struggle so much with self-esteem and doubt myself so much?” “I seem more sensitive than most people – Is there something wrong with me?” “I can’t handle conflict – I just don’t know how to stand up for myself.” “Why does my family say and believe things about me that are so hurtful and aren’t true?”
As a family systems expert, I often say to my psychotherapy and life coaching clients that there are no perfect parents, families, or childhoods. However, in families that are dysfunctional and/or narcissistic, it is important to recognize when actual mental and emotional abuse has been experienced in one’s family-of-origin, versus ‘sub-par parenting‘.
It is also important to explore what family role a child may have been cast in growing up (e.g., ‘the hero’, ‘the golden child’, ‘the caretaker’, ‘the clown’, etc). If you were put in the role of family scapegoat, you may be suffering from a variety of mental health symptoms, including generalized anxiety, depression, addiction, codependency, and even trauma symptoms, yet have no idea that it is related to your being trapped in this most painful and damaging dysfunctional family role.
The genuine pain and trauma experienced by children and adult children imprisoned in the family scapegoat role is invisible, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Scapegoat abuse (which is a form of systemic bullying) is a particularly aggressive form of child emotional abuse in that the power-holders in the family system – most often one or both parents – view a particular child through a lens of constant negativity, projecting all of their own repressed toxic shame onto their child.
An Act of Rejection
Scapegoat abuse is a parent’s active rejection of who their child is as a unique ‘self’, or individual. The mistreatment and abuse can be subtle and likely is not noticed by others – even by those within the family. The scapegoating parent often has a ‘story’ that they are quick to share with anyone who will listen – a story whereby they are ‘good’ and their (scapegoated) child is ‘difficult’, a ‘problem’, or even ‘bad’ and ‘defective’.
Scapegoat Abuse is supported by denial, lies, and reality distortion. It is insidious because it is supported by power discrepancies. The scapegoating parent is believed while the scapegoated child is dismissed and even viewed as being a liar or even mentally or emotionally ill – a story that the parent themselves may often create and promote at the expense of their own child. In such cases, the damage to the child’s psyche can be incalculable.
Children who are scapegoated will typically experience unique struggles throughout their childhood, and these challenges will follow them into adulthood. Because their reality and experiences are a threat to the parent that is scapegoating them, they were not validated in critical, fundamental ways as children; thus, they will have difficulty trusting their own perceptions later as adults. They will also likely have difficulty trusting others, and will often struggle to form meaningful, secure attachments – including romantic / intimate ones.
Because the very core of who they are has been redefined via the scapegoating process, they will often find themselves feeling disconnected, dissociated, hopeless, and even passively and chronically suicidal. Many scapegoated adults believe that something is very wrong with them, but they are not sure what, and fear talking about this with others. This leaves them feeling cut off, alone, and socially isolated, with no means of explaining their difficulties.
In many cases, the scapegoated individual blames themselves for their difficulties, and do not believe that anyone can help them, even if they did try to share their inner confusion and pain. This sense of isolation can be particularly acute if the scapegoated adult has had no choice but to limit or end contact with scapegoating family members in a valiant and courageous attempt to establish and protect their own mental and emotional health.
Scapegoating and the Mental Health Profession
Based on my years of clinical experience, it is my position that the reality of family scapegoat abuse has gone mostly unnoticed by the mental health profession, resulting in untold suffering for those needing help healing and recovering from this most damaging form of mental and emotional aggression within a family.
My goal is to highlight the particular signs and symptoms common to scapegoated children and adults so that clinicians are trained to recognize it and those suffering from scapegoating will have a common language to discuss complex systemic processes that can be very difficult to describe. In this way I hope to help the countless number of individuals suffering from scapegoating dynamics who have no idea where their psychic pain and emotional suffering is emanating from.
You can read more about Family Scapegoat Abuse throughout this website. To learn even more, you can download a free copy of my 25-page eBook book, In it, I include the Family Scapegoat Abuse Syndrome Self-Test as well as excerpts from my most popular article currently, ‘16 Signs That You’re The Family Scapegoat‘. I also share my basic philosophy about scapegoat recovery and how I work with clients in my counseling and coaching practices to help them release the scapegoat story so that they may reclaim and re-author their lives.
I’d love to hear from you about your experience as a family scapegoat, or anything else on this website. Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions and family scapegoating experiences with me and other readers by posting it as a comment, below.