Enmeshed family scapegoat

Are You The Family Scapegoat? Signs You May Be, And What You Can Do About It

“Being blamed for things that are not your fault can be unfair and possibly toxic if left unresolved. If you are suspecting this is happening to you, make sure to stand up for yourself to take care of your mental health. If you feel that support from a licensed therapist would help you, don’t hesitate to reach out for the support you deserve.” - Ryan Smith, LPC, NCC

Tolstoy once said: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its way."

Dysfunction in the family unit can take almost as many forms as a snowflake.  The painful edges of toxic family dynamics fall in slightly different places for everyone,  and each individual carries their pain with them throughout life. 

A scapegoat is defined as a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings and faults of others. The word's origin is an ancient Jewish tradition in which a goat was symbolically sent into the wilderness to atone for the people's sins.

Starting To Believe You're The Family Scapegoat?

Address Your Concerns Now. Schedule A Session With A Family Therapist Online.

damage could be more severe when it occurs within the family unit, the first place where we learn to love and trust others.

Here are the signs that you might be the family scapegoat and some steps you can take to heal and communicate with your dysfunctional family about your feelings.

Feeling ignored

If you're the family scapegoat, the family may not be giving you their undivided attention. They may prefer to freeze you out.

They may even go so far as to humiliate you in front of others. However, they could have difficulty acknowledging and accepting your thoughts, resulting in their negative behavior.

Believing you are not praised often

But family scapegoats may find that their achievements are potentially dismissed or belittled. The idea that you can be successful contradicts their theoretical narrative of your incompetence.

You may even realize that you may not have heard praise or compliments from your family.

Over time, scapegoated children might give up trying to succeed at anything. A lifetime of discouragement instead of rewards and praise could take its toll. They accept the family's narrative of their flaws. This can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem and crippling self-doubt.

You Are Portrayed In A Negative Light To Others

Hearing insults and disparaging comments can be discouraging, and you may feel even more so discouraged if your family may have painted you as an unlikeable person to others. If you're the family scapegoat, you may find that your character is possibly publicly attacked at every opportunity. Your family may want to convince others that you are not worthy of respect in a potential effort to not admit themselves of their role in the family's dysfunction. They may not want to run the risk that outsiders might align themselves with you.

You Are Isolated From Others

Your scapegoaters may not want you to receive any support or encouragement from outside the family unit. They might try to isolate you from friends and loved ones.

They might begin by separating you physically from your support system. Then, they could try to separate you emotionally by creating conflict and spreading rumors. They may attack the character of your friends or loved ones to make it potentially less likely that you will seek out their support.

Scapegoaters might want to make you feel powerless, and depriving you of support is one of their most effective tactics in accomplishing this.

The Flaws Of Others Are Projected Unto You

Let's say your mother has a bad day, and as a result, she forgets to take your brother to a doctor's appointment. She also forgets to pick up milk at the store. Instead of admitting her forgetfulness, she might lash out at you. She theoretically tells you that you are lazy and disorganized that you never remember to do anything.

What's Happening Here?

This kind of projection alters the truth of a situation to fit the person's needs projecting their blame onto you. The scapegoater may see nothing wrong with it because they may not believe they negatively affect your mental health.

You Are The Family Punching Bag

The family scapegoat may bear the brunt of the family's pent-up frustration. You might feel singled out for all the ridicule made into the butt of every joke. It may not take long for outsiders or other relatives to follow your family's behavior because they may not be aware of what is happening.

At times, you may feel like you're going through life with a warning label attached to you. New friends and potential in-laws might get a clear message about your flawed character as portrayed by your family's perspective. As adults, family scapegoats may seek out dysfunctional relationships similar to what they encountered as children.

Growing up as a family scapegoat might affect your mental health; however, it is possible to heal.

Know The Truth About Yourself

The first step to recovery is rejecting the labels that your family has placed on you. You're not difficult, weird, crazy, or bad. Perhaps you sense problems more keenly than others. Or perhaps you have a unique way of looking at the world.

These differences do not make you wrong or bad. Refuse to buy into the story that your family has created.

Recognize And Forgive The Flaws Of Your Family 

As you reject the fabrications about you, you also reject the feelings of guilt and shame that accompany them.

Recognize that most of the guilt belongs to your scapegoaters. They have used you as a target for their bad feelings. At the same time, you are not doing yourself any favors by carrying around anger and resentment for your family's unfair treatment.

Learn to understand the reasons behind the scapegoating. Your parents might be struggling with any number of issues, such as potential insecurities. They may even have been family scapegoats themselves. While this knowledge does not make the experience less painful, compassion can help you let go of destructive anger and talk with your family about deserving respect and fairness.

Learn To Know And Love Your Positive Qualities

You may have been hearing about all your negative traits for a lifetime. It can be overwhelming to break free of the image that's been built up for you over the years. But your feelings of low self-esteem can harm your future relationships. So it's worth it to learn to love those things about you that are good.

Identify your attributes: character qualities, admirable actions, and beliefs that make you a person of value. Write down these positive attributes and take time to look at them whenever you have negative thoughts about yourself.

Setting this down on paper gives you the assurance you need if others around you distort the truth. While you may not ditch away from the negative self-talk, you can try to control the part of you that heavily criticizes you for being human. The reason why your positive qualities exist might be because you are using them to fend off the negative part of your personality. So, by accepting both the good and bad, you may discover how to move forward with resolve and purpose.

Starting To Believe You're The Family Scapegoat?

Address Your Concerns Now. Schedule A Session With A Family Therapist Online.

Treat Yourself With Kindness And Love

It may feel awkward at first because you're not used to it. But you are just as deserving of love as anyone else. So treat yourself that way. Replace critical thoughts of yourself with language that shows compassion, kindness, and acceptance. Retraining your brain for self-love can take time and work. A professional therapist can guide you through this process.

Part of self-love is giving yourself the time you need to heal. Understand that it took you a lifetime to become this way in the first place. Change doesn't happen overnight. Forgive yourself for having a bad day or occasionally slipping into old habits. Your old habits are a part of who you are. You cannot simply remove them, but you can manage them. Learn from what you perceive as past mistakes, and look at tomorrow as another day to be better.

Let Go Of The Need For Validation From Others

No matter how much you try to explain yourself, others have not walked in your shoes. Let it be enough that you know what you've been through. Try to let go of feeling that you need the opinions of others for you to become a better person. Although, you may find it hard to separate from your family completely. If you think there is a chance for them to understand you, consider taking the risk and talking with them about how they unfairly made you a scapegoat. However, if you feel that your family is unwilling to accept you for who you are, you can think about spending more of your time with those who care about you.

In fact, many scapegoats find that the only way to move to a healthier future is by breaking off contact with the abuser. While it may be necessary, the severing of these ties will bring its grieving process. As much as it might hurt to give up on these relationships, it hurts less over the long term than constantly banging your head against the wall, wondering why they can't understand.

Freeing yourself from these expectations means that you can get to know your true self without the scapegoat label. Growing up as the family scapegoat may leave you feeling like there's no hope. It can impact your future relationships and endeavors and eventually get passed down to other generations.

But it doesn't help that way. With a little help and guidance, you can break the cycle. You don't have to be the family scapegoat forever. You can overcome your past and press on to a better future.

If you are looking for more help, then consulting the resources at ReGain and their therapists may help you get started on living a fuller, freer life.

Treat Yourself With Kindness And Love

It may feel awkward at first because you're not used to it. But you are just as deserving of love as anyone else. So treat yourself that way. Replace critical thoughts of yourself with language that shows compassion, kindness, and acceptance. Retraining your brain for self-love can take time and work. A professional therapist can guide you through this process.

Part of self-love is giving yourself the time you need to heal. Understand that it took you a lifetime to become this way in the first place. Change doesn't happen overnight. Forgive yourself for having a bad day or occasionally slipping into old habits. Your old habits are a part of who you are. You cannot simply remove them, but you can manage them. Learn from what you perceive as past mistakes, and look at tomorrow as another day to be better.

Let Go Of The Need For Validation From Others

No matter how much you try to explain yourself, others have not walked in your shoes. Let it be enough that you know what you've been through. Try to let go of feeling that you need the opinions of others for you to become a better person. Although, you may find it hard to separate from your family completely. If you think there is a chance for them to understand you, then consider taking the risk and talking with them about how they unfairly made you a scapegoat. However, if you feel that your family is not willing to accept you for who you are, then you can think about spending more of your time with those who do care about you.

In fact, many scapegoats find that the only way to move to a healthier future is by breaking off contact with the abuser. While it may be necessary, the severing of these ties will bring its grieving process. As much as it might hurt to give up on these relationships, it hurts less over the long term than constantly banging your head against the wall, wondering why they can't understand.

Freeing yourself from these expectations means that you can get to know your true self, without the scapegoat label. Growing up as the family scapegoat may leave you feeling like there's no hope. It can impact your future relationships and endeavors, and eventually get passed down to other generations.

But it doesn't help that way. With a little help and guidance, you can break the cycle. You don't have to be the family scapegoat forever. You can overcome your past and press on to a better future.

If you are looking for more help, then consulting the resources at ReGain and their therapists may help you get started on living a fuller, freer life.

The narcissistic family's scapegoat: Survival and Recovery

Today’s blog post describes why a malignantly narcissistic parent has to scapegoat a child, why certain children get picked as the scapegoat, the impact of getting scapegoated and how to use therapy to recover from this especially pernicious form of abuse. This article extends recent posts on the roles played in families dominated by a narcissistic caregiver.

Sometimes a client comes into therapy telling horrific stories of the chronic and systematic abuse. They recount how their caregivers criticized, humiliated, hurt, degraded and derided them at every opportunity. What’s made this suffering most destructive is the abuser’s conviction that it was what the child deserved. There is no sense of recrimination, accountability, nor guilt for what they put this child through. Rather there is an inscrutable self-righteousness in their cruel attitudes and behavior towards the victim. Without fail, there is also a concerted effort to keep this abuse private from the world at large. The adult child recalls seeing the abusive caregiver charm people outside the home and keep their demonic cruelty behind closed doors. All the better to discredit the victim’s credibility if they ever come forward to report the abuse.  Welcome to the world of the narcissistic family’s scapegoat.  

Why does a narcissistic family scapegoat a child?

When a family is dominated by a malignantly narcissistic parent a tremendous strain is put upon the family system. A malignant narcissist needs a victim. They are only satiated when they feel superior to and in control over someone else. That makes anyone close to such a person a potential target. In a family system, the collective strain of the malignant narcissist’s need for a victim gets relieved when a single person is selected. The other members can breathe a sigh of relief – psychologically speaking – and join the malignant narcissist in blaming the selected child for all the family’s unhappiness.

If the malignant narcissist has chosen their enabling spouse correctly, then they enjoy unchecked authority in the family. Usually, a child cannot be scapegoated without the implicit permission of an enabler parent. The ringleader of abuse in the family requires that everyone sees things how she sees them. If she sees the scapegoat as the abomination then her partner and other children better agree with her. She uses any means necessary to coerce the enabler parent and the scapegoat’s siblings into agreement. These other parties are enticed by having the favor of the narcissistic parent and deterred by the wrath that will follow if they dissent.

A malignant narcissist loves the sense of power in making others suffer. In other words, they harbor sadistic intentions. They are exquisitely envious of those who do not put them first. Envy is an emotion that drives one to want to spoil the good they see because they do not have it. Lastly, they lack empathy for others. They do not see the fact that their child is suffering as a reason to stop their behaviors.

Chet* was a therapy client. His mother, Nancy, seemed to have cruelty in her heart from an early age. She told her classmates in fourth grade that she had cancer “to get attention”. Her younger brother one time accidentally broke a ceramic doll of hers and was bleeding profusely. Her face turned to a snarl and she screamed at him for breaking it. She became a special education teacher after college and curated an image of a nurturing, patient and kind woman. Meanwhile she would select one student in each of her classes to harass, control, and undermine. At one point her principal brought her up on disciplinary charges for “mistreating” one of her students. She transferred to a different school district and was able to continue her clandestine cruelty against new students. In relationships, she ensnared men into taking care of her monetarily and emotionally while complaining that they never appreciated all that she does for them. She married a man who was passive in their relationship and quickly set about triangulating with her ex-boyfriend. She would yell at her husband nightly that he was not communicating enough with her. His response was to grow more accomodating and ingratiating to her. She decided that she wanted to be a mother and gave birth to a son. Her son – Chet – was willful, loving, good-hearted, playful and tough. She hated him for these qualities. Three years later she gave birth to a daughter – Nathalie – who was much more compliant and admiring towards Nancy.

The arrival of Chet’s younger sister signalled a ratcheting up of Nancy’s scapegoating of him. In therapy, Chet recalled his mother criticizing him incessantly for eating too fast, picking his nose, not using correct table manners, leaving his toys out, and so on. Anything to keep him off-balance within himself. She bossed him around to do chores for as long as he could remember. He recalled one episode at age 5 when he went to MacDonald’s with his mother and sister. After they finished eating their happy meals his mother curtly told him “Throw this away” referring to the whole table’s trash. Chet remembered feeling enfuriated at her entitlement to his servitude and knew he had to protest but in a delicate way. His sharp mind thought he’d fashioned the right response so when he got back to their table he said, “I can’t wait til I grow up and can boss people around.” Nancy responded by snarling and squinting her eyes with a black look of murderousness. She bit off these words in a low barking tone: “How dare you say that I boss you around?! After all that I do for you and this is how you thank me? You are a selfish, mean little brat. Come on Nathalie, we’re going to the car. Chet you sit there.” Chet recalled feeling a searing jolt of shame and wanting to crawl out of his skin. He learned from that moment onward not to speak back – on his own behalf – to Nancy because her retaliations felt unsurvivable.

Scapegoating a child goes against the grain (thankfully!) of most of our schemas of parenting and even humanity. For a parent to go out of their way to blame his or her child at every turn, to revel in the sense of (false) superiority they derive, and to show no remorse is antithetical to the meaning of ‘parent’.  This process is covered in more depth in the online course on freeing yourself from narcissistic abuse.

The latin root of the word ‘parent’ is ‘bringing forth’. We can think of parents as responsible for helping their children bring themselves forth into the world. They can do this in a lot of ways. They may notice and celebrate qualities of their child, take delight in the child’s displays of happiness, be available for support as needed, and show interest in what the child thinks, feels, and believes. That names just a few of how a child’s self can be ‘parented’ into the world.

A child who is scapegoated by a malignantly narcissistic parent actually has no ‘parent’ in the true sense of the word. He faces an adversary where biology tells him to expect an ally. More insidiously, a child is prone to believe their parent’s cruelty is their fault. So, the child earmarked for scapegoating faces one of the most unfair of fights. He must cope with the loss of an adult to help him bring himself forth and face the searing psychological torment of thinking he’s at fault for the loss. Thus, a malignant narcissist gets to land her ’emotional punches’ on the child with impunity and great effect.

What makes a “good” Scapegoat?

In my personal and professional experience, children selected as scapegoats – like Chet – usually stand out. They possess a presence that is palpable to others. They often have a keen sense of fairness and instinctively protest injustice. They are perceptive and can see bad character when it’s present. They are often very empathic and care about others’ feelings. They are often protective of people they care about. They can be very intelligent. Most of all, they are tough. The malignant narcissist only chooses a child as a scapegoat who can take it. The former wants to see the child suffer but not so much that they cannot keep hurting them habitually.

Chet recalls one noble act that likely sealed his fate as the child to be scapegoated. Despite his younger sister’s alliance with his mother, Chet felt protective of her at a young age. On Nancy’s birthday, Chet and Nathalie at ages 6 and 3 respectively, made Nancy dinner as a present. In the course of making meatballs, Chet recalls they decided to crunch up some graham crackers and put it in the mixture. As they sat down to eat this precociously prepared meal for a couple of kids, they giggled with each other. Nathalie asked her mother if she tasted anything different. When Nancy said she did not, Chet and Nathalie laughed harder. Nathalie told her mother: “We put graham cracker crust in them!”. Nancy stopped chewing, slammed her fork on the plate, and looked with rage at her daughter. Chet saw this and forcefully exclaimed: “Hey! Stop it! Don’t treat her like that. It was just a joke. Why are you so upset?”. Nancy looked at Chet and seemed to realize she could not continue her planned tirade against Nathalie. Chet felt good that he could stop her abuse of his sister even though nobody stood up for him when he was Nancy’s target.

The courage and protectiveness that Chet displayed, likely made Nancy aware of how much more he possessed than she did. Her systematic abuse of him seemed driven by her hatred of him for being more decent than she could ever be as a human being. She knew that she was governed by the need to be cruel while he was driven by the need to love and protect.

The hellish life of the scapegoated child

A scapegoated child knows depths of private suffering that can only be described as ‘hellish’. They are born with the biological need for care from people who hate them. It is like being thirsty and the only person who has water instead gives you sand – then mockingly laughs. A scapegoated child is attacked for some trumped-up charge, mercilessly punished and then denied appeal. They are constantly invalidated in their perspective. The family’s goal is to convince the scapegoated child that he or she is the sole reason for the family’s unhappiness. The child may come to believe that life is only worth living if he can figure out how to not be who he is.

When a child is cast as the enemy in his own family there is tremendous pressure to turn against himself. The adage – tragically – can apply: “If you can’t beat ’em join ’em”. Except that the scapegoated child has to join in the collective hatred of his existence. As discussed elsewhere, the child fears loss of attachment worse than abuse. At least getting mistreated involves contact.

People who make it through childhood as a scapegoat often have to stow away their awareness of their good qualities. The child must hide his own appreciation of who he is lest he lose whatever connection is available or get abused even worse. The narcissistic parent wants the scapegoated child to believe they are as horrible as they are being told. If the child shows a sense of self-worth or self-possession the narcissistic parent will take this as an affront to their authority. In essence “How dare my child not think he’s as bad as I say he is! He must not respect me. I will make him pay.” To avoid this outcome, scapegoated children develop a set of self-defeating beliefs about themselves. These beliefs keep the narcissistic parent from attacking even harder.

Common beliefs of adults scapegoated as children

Belief #1: “I am physically disgusting.”

Sometimes scapegoated children are more physically attractive than their narcissistic parent. Through no fault of their own, this simple fact about them can roil the parent. As the child meets positive receptions for his or her looks outside the home, he or she may feel a deep sense of fear and confusion. “Why are people saying I’m pretty (or handsome)?”. The child may be particularly wary of the malignant narcissist catching wind of this. He likely knows that something bad happens when others tell him he is handsome etc.

One way to undo the threat posed by his or her good looks is to – unconsciously – distort one’s perception of the bodily self. An otherwise good-looking kid may decide that he or she is fat, has a big nose, too many pimples, has ugly hair, etc. If the threat of reprisal is great enough from the narcissistic parent, the scapegoated child can simply take such distortions as brute facts of his or her existence. It’s not that she thinks she’s fat, ugly, etc. It’s that she just is this way. As uncomfortable as such perceptions are to live with, they are preferable to the cruelty that would ensue by the narcissitic parent who feels shown up. The psychology profession calls this phenomena Body Dysmorphic Disorder or BDD. Not everyone with BDD was scapegoated in their families of origin, but I do believe it can lead to this condition.

Belief #2: “If I am not being productive, I am worthless.”

Scapegoated children can find the narcissistic parent’s hatred too violent to withstand. One way to cope with the horrific fact that your parent hates you for who you are is to substitute the idea that they hate you for what you do. Making this shift can afford the scapegoated child enough psychological breathing space to go on functioning. The reason is that this strategy offers hope that the parent might have a change of heart if the child can just “do right”. Things do not feel as unfixable.

The drawback to this survival strategy is that the scapegoated child is thrust in to an endless loop of trying in the face of failure. No matter what the scapegoated child tries: do his chores perfectly, buy the narcissistic parent a gift, get good grades, etc. , the parent will ultimately find them to be objectionable. In this system the child may redouble her efforts to ‘succeed’ rather than surrender to the horrible reality they face. As adults they may feel ill-at-ease when not doing some activity to ‘better themselves’ in some way or another. Stretches of free time can feel foreboding because the privilege of enjoying their own company was one their parent actively worked to forbid them.

Belief #3:”I am always one mistake away from complete ruin.”

Scapegoated children often feel like their existence hangs in the balance of each moment. Something final, awful and dreadful could happen if they make the ‘wrong move’. A narcissistic parent who has scapegoated the child is already going to find them to be in the wrong. The ensuing onslaught of yelling, beating, or worse is how they terrorize the child. Somewhere in themselves, the scapegoated child knows that their fate is going to be awful: the narcissistic parent is going to thrash them, it’s just a question of when and how. The child must find a way to manage the monumental anxiety they experience in the face of such ongoing threat. One way to do this is to boil down their existence to each moment. No looking forward. No looking backward. Just what’s here right now. The looming dread of what could happen but it exists more in the shadows. The payoff to this strategy – again – is the ability to go on functioning in the face of chronic efforts to destroy their quality of life.

It’s important to note that boiling everything down to the present moment is different from being “in the now”. One can only be mindful when they feel sufficiently safe to do so. A scapegoated child is not afforded the necessary goodwill and space to be present in the mindful kind of way. This is more like taking a snapshot instead of a video. To only look at this moment rather than how they are being treated over time. To do the latter would bring to awareness how hopelessly mistreated they have been and the lack of any viable escape routes.

Belief #4:”I am defective.”

A malignantly narcissistic parent wants to drill into the scapegoat the notion that he or she is inherently defective. If a child is scapegoated from an early age, he or she may feel a deep sense that there is something wrong with them. Objectively, there is so much right with such children and so much wrong with the narcissistic parent but that is not what gets internalized for the child. The child may have natural social grace or a good sense of humor but fear social interactions. They may shy away from making friends and later relationship partners out of compliance with what feels like a fundamental truth about themselves. Similarly, they may be athletically gifted but feel overmatched in competitive situations and unable to utilize their potential.

Belief #5:”I have no skills or talents.”

Scapegoated children are forbidden to know what they are good at. To do so would be to defy the narcissist’s contention that they are good-for-nothing. As stated above, the narcissist would take the child’s possession of their skills or talents as an affront to their authority. Such children grow to know this. This belief protects them from the narcissist’s envious attack. It also protects the child from having something of value – like self-esteem or pride – and getting it ripped away by the parent. Managing such losses is a high priority for the scapegoated child. He or she can only bear so many. A low-level ongoing sense of diminishment is much preferable to the traumatic loss of a cherished sense of themselves.

Belief #6:”If I disagree, I will be hated and exiled.”

This belief is a simple observation for the scapegoated child. They know that if they defy the malignant narcissist’s claims that the child is the source of unhappiness that they will suffer an even worse fate. Scapegoated children are often threatened with exile from the family – and to great unfortunate effect. Despite how torturous the child is treated in the family, the threat of being exiled can feel even worse. Such children learn to present a compliant and agreeable persona to the family members to avoid their hatred and expulsion. The child must police his impulses, reactions, and perceptions to suppress any expression that would be taken as disagreement.

As adults, scapegoated children may find themselves paralyzed with fear when they consider dissenting in work environments or with their partners. Disagreeing with someone brings oneself into the forefront. The act delineates the self in stark relief. It is what allows for ‘dialogue’ in the true sense of the word. Martin Buber would refer to this as the “I-thou” kind of relationship where two subjectivities are brought into authentic contact with one another. A person can feel safe to disagree when they can expect to be received with curiosity, non-defensiveness, and responsiveness. Scapegoated children were not afforded such receptions. Instead they had to hide themselves at all times. The bringing forth of themselves that an act of disagreement requires was simply too dangerous.

This coping strategy can (wrongly) lead the scapegoated child to conclude that he or she cares too much about what other people think. In fact, I hear this a lot from adults who were scapegoated as children. Importantly, we all care what others think about us when we disagree. Some people have had the fortune to believe that others will think good things about them for disagreeing. People who were scapegoated have the misfortune to believe that others will think hateful things about them for disagreeing. I believe that any human being who expects to be hated and exiled by those he needs most would avoid disagreeing. In therapy, the task is not to to shed the concern of what others think of them. Rather, the task is to consider how people today probably think quite well of them when they disagree. So, still care about what others think but find a way to pay attention to the good news that people outside of their family will welcome their perspective even when it expresses disagreement.

Therapy to recover from being scapegoated

Chet was a twenty-something single successful software engineer when he came to therapy. He reported that although he is able to get done what needs getting done at work and has some friends, inside he felt miserable. He felt anxiety and dread at what others thought of him, difficulty knowing what to do in his free time, and a chronic sense of dis-ease in his own skin.

At first, Chet said he grew up in a supportive family. As a therapist, I have found that suffering at the level that Chet experienced usually does not spring from a rosy upbringing. And here went our exchange:

Me: How might your mother react when angry at you?

Chet: Well she would scream at me and slam things down. She’d call me selfish, inconsiderate, and that I don’t care about the family at all. But, I mean, she was right. She wouldn’t have yelled if I wasn’t such a bad kid.”

Me: Chet, there is no way you were bad enough to warrant that kind of abuse.

And so began Chet’s path to recovery from his malignantly narcissistic mother’s scapegoating of him. For individuals who have survived a childhood of being targetedly and chronically undermined in their development, the task of therapy is to bust the myths about themselves they were forced to believe and find it safe to know the truth about themselves – that they are a good and deserving person.

Therapy may begin with client’s identifying ways they are flawed. “I care too much about what others think”, “I can’t stay self-disciplined”, “I am not a good communicator”, and so on. It can be important to acknowledge these concerns while also challenging them. Scapegoated children have no trouble taking responsibility for their shortcomings – the problem lies in taking credit for their strengths. Over time – sometimes significant lengths of time – such clients can come to question their critical view of themselves. They gradually shift the focus of their inner torment from themselves to their families of origin. As this shift takes hold, the client will dare to find less wrong with themselves and look for the source of what feels wrong in their scapegoating family. Often clients who have been scapegoated are very empathic with everyone but themselves. As the legacy of scapegoating gets identified and challenged, clients can direct some of that empathy towards themselves. A massive achievement comes when clients are able to regard their own needs to be as important as others.

In essence, therapy helps client feel emotionally and psychologically safe to do, feel, and be the things that their malignantly narcissistic parent and enabling family members would have seen as an affront to their authority.

In addition to therapy, I’ve developed an online self-study course designed to help the scapegoat survivor of narcissistic abuse accomplish these three steps in his or her recovery:

1) make sense of what happened

2) put distance between oneself and one’s narcissistic abuser

3) live in defiance of the kinds of beliefs discussed in this article.

*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.  

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

4 traumatic situations that sensitive children face in the family

We have already talked about the peculiarities of the psyche and upbringing of highly sensitive children who react more sharply to the world around them. But what situations in the family affect them (and most people) the most? The psychotherapist Imi Lo, in her book published by the MIF publishing house, lists some of the harmful family arrangements that are often encountered.

Role exchange

According to the psychologist Heinz Kohut, who studied the development of the "sense of 'I'", certain needs must be met in order for a child to grow and develop. One of the mandatory steps is the "idealization" of parents. At least part of the time, children need to trust that their parents are powerful, all-knowing, and emotionally generous people they can rely on.

At an early age, they look up to their parents, admire the adults around them as carriers of strength, and gradually begin to adopt it, learning to forge their own path in life. If your significant adults were suspended, injured, or had other problems, then this stage may not have gone the way you wanted.

Research has shown that when people face difficulties, those who have internalized a strong parent image can adequately calm down without help, while those who lack reliable parent figures are easily hurt and experience negative emotions much longer. Of course, no parent is omnipotent and everyone makes mistakes sometimes. The real difference between adequate and inadequate parents is whether they have enough stability to contain - up to a point - their own stress.

Did your parents have the inner strength and extensive support network to not look to you for emotional support?

Did they have any resilience and ability to cope with life's troubles? Or did they constantly allow themselves to blame their problems on you, and you felt that you had to save them?

In her seminal book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, psychologist Alice Miller explains that parentification—the reversal of roles in parent-child relationships—sometimes results from parents using their child to meet needs that were not met in their own childhood. Such parents rely immoderately on their empathically gifted children to provide themselves with mental and emotional support, as well as to find a source of unconditional love. In fact, they made the child responsible for their happiness and well-being.

When parents lack the stability to lead the family, often their emotionally gifted child takes on the role of guardian it means serving the emotional needs of other family members, the obligation to be a companion, resolve conflicts, provide support and provide comfort.

In some situations, your gift of intuition and innate interpersonal intelligence may be the only thing that makes your family united. The burden of these responsibilities - which, in fairness, should have been borne by adults - forced you to grow up too quickly and too early. In a certain sense, you were parents to yourself, and also parents to your parents, and you had no one to rely on, no one to take an example from, and no one to learn from.

For children without protection and guidance, the world can be a terrible place. As a result of parentification, you have learned to reduce and suppress your needs in order to make room for others, while oppressing your own freedom and development. While your energy was wasted on playing the role of a family diplomat, you may have missed the time when children are allowed to play, be spontaneous, make mistakes, and focus only on their own growth and learning.


If the story of your childhood and your family life to this day were staged, what role would you play? Maybe you would be "the most responsible", "golden daughter", or maybe "sensitive", "weird" or "black sheep"? Adherents of systemic family therapy use the term "identified patient" to describe a person who plays the role of a scapegoat in a family with unhealthy relationship dynamics.

Among many childhood traumas, the role of scapegoat is one of the most harmful. The desire to point the finger at one person as the source of all evil is a subconscious strategy used by some family members to escape their own emotional pain and suffering. The role of scapegoat is not randomly assigned. It is often imposed on an emotionally sensitive child from birth, because it is these children who usually become "informers" who notice what is happening and point out the deception.

As family members "discharge" their discontent, the child becomes the carrier of all anxiety and repressed negativity in the family. Once the schema takes hold, the family usually goes to great lengths to maintain the status quo. They must remain the scapegoat, otherwise the rest will have to look their vices in the eye. Even if the scapegoat is trying to get out of a toxic situation, others may make subtle or very visible attempts at revenge, manipulation, or blackmail.

Here are some of the signs that you have become the scapegoat in the family:

1. Your parents do not treat you the same as they treat your brothers or sisters.

2. Your mistakes are exaggerated or you are punished disproportionately.

3. Your parents don't interfere or pay attention when others bully you.

4. You feel out of place all the time, and close bonds do not form between you and the rest of the family.

5. As you become stronger, more successful, more independent, you feel that your family members are trying to put you in your place or devalue your achievements.

6. Brothers and sisters bully you or make fun of your idiosyncrasies.

7. You have unpleasant nicknames: you are always "onion grief", "pig in a poke" or "insane".

8. Your family doesn't know you well and doesn't particularly want to know you.

9. You are criticized for innate qualities, such as creativity or sensitivity of character.

What is happening does not necessarily mean that the household does not like you or is intentionally trying to harm you. Rather, their desire to label you stems from their weakness and fear of their own inadequacy.

Children naturally seek their identity in their parents. If your parents always treat you as "the one to blame" or "the most responsible," you may find it difficult to get rid of the imposed identity later on. Even if you eventually cut off destructive family relationships, you may still experience the mental or emotional consequences of living in this role, such as having difficulty finding safe relationships.

You understand intellectually that you are not the cause of problems in the family, but in order to get rid of the shame that has taken root inside, you need a deep, emotional "treatment". Getting out of scapegoat status can be tricky. You will toss between denial and fear, but you will finally find freedom.

However, you must understand that the cause of the chaos is not in you, but in the suppressed anger and disappointment of your family and child, you were not obliged to save someone

Getting rid of this burden, finding people who appreciate the real you, you will do more one step towards a full and vibrant independent life.

Emotionally retarded parents

Research has shown that a child's emotional development largely depends on how warm, responsive, and emotionally involved their loved ones were. Physical presence alone is not enough: parents must respond to the child's emotional states, provide feedback and closeness.

It is worth noting that in some cases, due to their own unhealed trauma, depression and loss, the child's loved ones are emotionally underdeveloped and detached. They are afraid of emotions and tender feelings and therefore cannot find an approach to their emotionally sensitive children. To understand the importance of emotional response, you can watch a YouTube video called “Still Face Experiment” (“Indifferent Face Experiment”). This is a recording of an experiment conducted in 1975 by Edward Tronik.

The mother of the child was asked to maintain an indifferent expression and not to react to the child's attempts to get her attention. When he did not receive an emotional response, he became upset and began to worry. The kid made new attempts to attract his mother, and when they failed, he gave up and turned away with an expression of hopelessness on his face. This study was a clear proof of the need for constant emotional attention of parents.

The findings of the original study were carefully tested by repeating the experiment, and finally proved that the absence of parental response has a strong and lasting effect on children. For children to learn to manage their emotions, someone needs to give them emotional feedback. Deprived of it, they feel shame, fear, helplessness and despair.

It is enough that children are not listened to and looked at to traumatize them psychologically

You can be dressed, fed and educated, but if your parents acted like robots, you might not feel loved. If your parents were emotionally inhibited, they were unlikely to show respect for your natural passion and high sensitivity. In fact, the depth of your feelings might frighten them.

The Invisible Child

In order for a child to develop self-respect — a sense that he means something to this world — it is first necessary that parents recognize his unconditional value. This need is called "mirroring": parents need to show their children, both explicitly and implicitly, that they are special, loved and long-awaited. Mirroring can be manifested in verbal praise, respect, recognition of the child, as well as in gestures, facial expressions, intonations that tell the child that he is loved.

Parents cannot always be perfect mirrors, and after all, they are not always around

This is natural and does not cause problems if separations do not occur too often and babies are not left alone for too long. Children who have received enough mirroring can turn to their own memories and translate their parents' positive message into a healthy and stable sense of self. Having a good mirroring experience, an emotionally healthy child will no longer need other people to prove to him that he is good.

As adults, such children will have strong self-esteem and believe that they are inherently good. But if the parent's emotional distress or insecurity has prevented them from mirroring the child sufficiently, then the development of a sense of self may be impaired. The lack of mirroring and deep acceptance by parents is especially detrimental to the development of the emotionally sensitive child, who needs active support in connection with his differences from his peers, which he already notices.

Perhaps your parents praised you only for things that were in line with their values, only when you took on a parental role, when you met their standards or met their needs, but did not support your search for your own identity. You may have grown up with the belief that your true self is not loved. In adulthood, this leads to a feeling of worthlessness and self-doubt.

“All because of you!”: how to understand that you are the “scapegoat” in the family

A person among people Knowing yourself

“As a family therapist, I have often worked with clients who tried to get out of the role of a “house scapegoat”, not realizing that this is the reason for most of their life's difficulties. They complained of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, but they believed that they had brought themselves down and did not understand how total bad luck was connected with this unenviable status, ”says Rebecca Mandeville.

Scapegoats are much more common than we think. This is one of the roles imposed on a child who is brought up in a problem family, and its negative consequences often remain for life. Many adults do not fully realize that in childhood they were subjected to psycho-emotional abuse in a particularly sophisticated form. Moreover, even specialists are not always able to recognize the symptoms.

Some psychologists and psychotherapists downplay or underestimate the genuine suffering of adult scapegoats because they do not know how destructive this form of domestic violence is.

For example, a client who hopes to resolve a protracted family conflict is told: “But this is your family, they love you”, “Kinship ties are very important, it’s probably not so bad”, “Try to forgive them, because you need to maintain good relations with relatives”, “Do not break with them in haste, because this way you just reinforce unhealthy parental attitudes.” Such recommendations only reinforce the fears of clients that the blame for all family troubles lies solely with them.

1. You are considered codependent, highly sensitive, and overly empathic. Or vice versa - painfully proud, which is quite understandable: your parents harassed you so much that now even harmless remarks are perceived as an insult. You cut short anyone who misbehaves with you unnecessarily.

2. You find it difficult to express your feelings because from early childhood you learned to talk less about yourself so that family members do not use the information received against you. Perhaps many (including parents) call you an insensitive and heartless egoist, unable to love. Because you are used to suppressing your emotions, you may have developed physical illness, addiction or codependency, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

3. You have been taught that the quality of your relationship with your parents, guardian, sibling and other relatives depends only on you. It doesn't matter who is to blame - all family troubles happen because of you.

4. If you tried to state your version of events or objected to family authority, you were called a liar, crazy, "sick in the head."

5. One or more family members have physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused you, including gaslighting, that is, denying, distorting, or misrepresenting facts in order to establish themselves at your expense.

6. Distant relatives and even acquaintances were told that you are a naughty, “problematic” child who does everything out of spite, cunning and lying at every turn.

7. If as a child or teenager you tried to complain to relatives or strangers that you were offended, they did not believe you. Parents, brothers or sisters denied their actions and every time they made you look like a liar.

8. You were slandered and humiliated: you were called “difficult”, “sissy”, “artist”

Relatives did not hesitate to describe your “shortcomings” to everyone they met - of course, in your presence. For example: "Oh, she was an unbearable child, she was always whining and naughty."

9. When you fell ill, you were accused of pretending and all your relatives, near and far, were informed about this, apparently in order to shame you once again.

10. As an adult, you continue to blame yourself for any failures in relationships and suspect that you were born that way - flawed and worthless.

11. You feel uncomfortable around your family, you feel like a black sheep that does not belong here. It seems that you are squeezed from all sides, neither to breathe, nor to make an extra movement. Just being yourself is unacceptable, and you may not even know what it is - your true "I".

12. You find it difficult to create healthy attachments, trust people and love, and you also blame yourself for this. Most likely, you are attracted to narcissists, abusers, alcoholics or drug addicts, and although you understand what this threatens, you still get involved in destructive relationships.

13. You struggle with anxiety, depression, impostor syndrome, or suffer from complex post-traumatic disorder or bouts of unexplained morbid grief.

14. You are a “hopeless patient”: you consulted with various specialists, but neither doctors nor psychologists are able to explain why you feel so bad, get to the bottom of the matter and prescribe adequate treatment. Conversations with a psychotherapist, mindfulness practices, medications help little - unless the specialist understands that the roots of your illness lie in the once experienced domestic violence.

15. Family downplays or ignores your personal and professional achievements , competent, classy specialist and so on.

16. You may have gone to extreme lengths and limited contact with relatives to maintain mental health. However, you doubt your decision and feel guilty that you acted dishonorably or wrongly by pulling away from your family.

Many of the examples seem to be written off from you? Most likely, you did not expect that they are explained by the “scapegoat” syndrome, raised in an abusive family.

In adulthood, those who were scapegoated in childhood by their relatives often suffer from toxic shame, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. They react aggressively to the slightest injustice, reliving difficult childhood experiences, and as a result, the family continues to attribute mental disorders to them. Despite the risk of hurting himself, the growing child fights hard for his needs and desires and strives to earn the respect of the most important figures in his life.

Adults do not believe that they are capable of achieving great goals and do not know how to form strong trusting relationships with others. After all, when they were children, they were forbidden to be, feel and express individuality on an equal basis with the rest.

The scapegoat role imposed by the family can have dire consequences. If you communicate with a psychotherapist or plan to contact him, be sure to re-read the above examples: they may lie at the root causes of your problems.

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