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    Families That Scapegoat

    By Tom Moon, MFT–

    When Maureen’s aging mother fell and broke her hip the day before Thanksgiving, Maureen left her wife and drove seven hours to be with her injured parent. Maureen’s four brothers arrived too and stayed in the family home, but they told Maureen to get a hotel room because there was no room for her. She faced an atmosphere of coldness and hostility, both from her brothers and from her mother.

    At dinner, her eldest brother got drunk and blurted out the reason for their anger: their mother’s fall was Maureen’s fault. As the only daughter, it was “selfish” of her to leave town and move in with her wife, when her clear duty was to set aside her career aspirations and her relationship in order to stay home and take care of their mother. Her brothers, (two of whom lived closer to their mother than Maureen) apparently had no such responsibility. For Maureen, this was just the latest episode in a lifetime of being blamed for every problem in the family.

    One of the cruelest and most damaging patterns in dysfunctional families is scapegoating, in which one or both parents chooses a child to be blamed for the unhappiness, conflicts and failure in the family. Scapegoating is a “projection defense” in which making the scapegoat look bad diverts attention from the real sources of the family misery.

    Once the victim is chosen, other children in the family join in on the bullying, usually with the active encouragement of the parent. Children who are scapegoated typically learn that they are at the bottom of the pecking order in the family, and automatically gravitate to that role at school or at work. 

    How can you recognize if you are the family scapegoat? The most obvious sign is that, when you are blamed for family suffering, even when it has nothing to do with you, your first reaction tends to be to feel ashamed rather than indignant. When you point out reality or blow the whistle on the destructive behavior in the family, you are not only not believed, but also you are further targeted as a troublemaker.

    You find yourself repeatedly accused of behavior that the scapegoater engages in, as when a parent rages at you and then accuses you of having a bad temper. You are treated as the family black sheep, and habitually face contempt and disgust. You may be the emotionally healthiest member of the family, but you are still repeatedly accused of being bad, sick or difficult. As an adult, you may be accomplished and successful, but family members discount and criticize your achievements.

    For Maureen, the family response to her mother’s fall has been a wake-up call. She has finally realized that it’s futile to continue trying to win the favor of a parent who didn’t love her when she was growing up. A parent who rejects her own child usually has some kind of severe personality disorder and isn’t likely to change. And when Maureen’s brothers participate in her mistreatment, they are a group of bullies, not a family.

    If you have been a family scapegoat, your inner work is to come to understand that everything you have learned to believe about yourself as the scapegoat—that you’re weird, or bad, or crazy—is false. Your feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame actually belong to the perpetrators. They used you as a dumping ground for their painful feelings.

    The best that you can do is to understand the underlying dynamic of your family and to work to come to peace with it on your own. In my experience, it’s usually not realistic to expect parents to own up to their mistreatment. If you confront them about it, the most likely response is that they will only deny and blame you again for being ungrateful.

    Accept that you may never be able to have a healthy relationship with your scapegoaters. This may mean having little or no contact with them, and you may have to experience grief as a result, but the pain of having to mourn these losses will be much less harmful than the pain of continuing to endure the abuse. As a survivor of bullying and abuse, your lifelong task is to focus on learning to treat yourself with kindness, care and compassion, and to seek out relationships in which you are loved and respected.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website