Did you know that the scapegoat in the family is often the first to see the truth about what’s happening in the family? It’s true – and there are several reasons why. Before we discuss the reasons, let’s ensure we’re on the same page by defining a scapegoat.
What is a scapegoat in a toxic family?
When it comes to toxic families, the scapegoat is the person who is most often blamed for anything that goes wrong, even when they’re not directly involved.
“Scapegoating involves when a group targets a person who dares to speak up a group issue, but not conveniently, into an issue about the speaker, rather than have it be addressed by the group,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Evaline Wu in her scapegoat series.
How does it feel to be the scapegoat?
As a scapegoat in a family or social group, you may feel alone and isolated, like no one understands what you are going through.
Maybe everyone encourages you to get professional help, and you’ve tried – but the therapist focused on YOU and not the family around you, so you didn’t get any help at all.
You may have been further traumatized by someone who couldn’t recognize your situation.
Where did the term ‘scapegoat’ come from?
In the 16th century, the word scapegoat was used to describe ritual animals used by Jewish people to carry off their sins before Yom Kippur.
Pointing out that this is a story about two goats, Corbeth adds, “One goat was mortally sacrificed, and another who was cast to the wilderness.”
“This “cast” goat was to carry all the sins of his tribe. The goat was chosen to carry away the “sins of man” so it would release all the tribe members of their guilt.”
Corbeth goes on to explain that this act would cause all of the members of the tribe to feel relieved since they’d cast their sins on to the poor animal, and adds that this made everyone happy.
Scapegoats are subjected to emotional and psychological abuse.
The scapegoated family member will be psychologically and emotionally abused, just like the rest of the family, when a narcissist is involved.
The scapegoat is blamed, shamed, smeared, and otherwise abused and manipulated, often without remorse or even concern from other family members or group members.
The difference is that they are exposed to more of it than the other members of the toxic family.
And the worst part is that the abuse will come from other family or group members inadvertently.
Why do other family members take part in abusing the scapegoat?
It is not usually intentional; it’s just how the family avoids facing its own toxicity.
Like the original scapegoat (from the Bible and in Greek Mythology), the family lays its problems on the doorstep of the scapegoat and feels relieved when they do.
“This process of projection, shaming, and blaming serves to divert attention away from the rest of the family’s mental and emotional problems via casting the targeted family member into the role of ‘scapegoat,’ psychotherapist Rebecca Mandeville, author of Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role explains. “It is sometimes the case that families who scapegoat one of their own are oblivious to the fact that they are engaging in psycho-emotional abuse and will become highly defensive if this is pointed out.”
And a lot of times, the scapegoat will find themselves falling into the role by doubting their own worthiness and beginning to believe that they really are intrinsically wrong.
What happens when the scapegoat tries to tell the rest of the family about their discovery?
In some cases, the other family members might be willing to acknowledge the issues.
But in most cases, they won’t admit what’s happening, either because they benefit from it or because they just can’t see it and are stuck in the narrative that the scapegoat is a walking problem.
The truth is that if the scapegoat’s abuse benefits them in some way, most family members don’t want to know, and they refuse to acknowledge the truth either because they are enablers or don’t want to deal with it the unpleasantness of it all.
An Example of the Scapegoat Archetype
One example of a scapegoat can be seen in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which Pearl Prynne is a perfect example of the scapegoat archetype.
In the novel, the townspeople see Pearl as an incarnation of Hester Prynne’s sin and punish her for it—even though she had nothing to do with her mother’s misdeeds.
What else would you expect? From very early in their lives, scapegoats are taught they’re worthless and cause all family problems.
The bad news is that some scapegoats never realize the truth.
The good news? Many will experience the scapegoat awakening.
What is the Scapegoat Awakening?
While you might imagine something like an “awakening” would be a huge deal, and you’d come out of such a realization with some kind of new clarity, it’s not all that dramatic and profound.
It can be considered an awakening when you realize something isn’t what you thought.
So, when the scapegoat recognizes that they’re NOT the entire world’s biggest piece of poo, they have had their awakening.
But that’s not what matters here; what’s important is what they do next.
How does the scapegoat awakening happen?
We know scapegoats are often the first family members to see something wrong.
This is partly because they’re often worn down from being scapegoated and made to feel like everything’s their fault.
It is so emotionally exhausting that many scapegoats actually start to believe that they are the problem.
This will often lead them to start researching – except they’re not researching what’s wrong with the family.
That was true for me.
If they’re anything like I was, the scapegoat begins by looking for answers to what is wrong with THEM, not the people doing the scapegoating.
How does being the scapegoat affect you long term?
The narcissist’s toxic family structure is typically characterized by chaos and dysfunction. The narcissist will use their partner or child as a scapegoat for the narcissist’s own feelings of inadequacy and lack of control.
All of this can lead to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
This is confirmed by Mandeville, who explains that in her professional experience, “the rejecting, shaming, and otherwise non-nurturing, harmful, and abusive family environment my clients grew up in (and had no means of escaping from) has actually contributed to their experiencing symptoms of Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD – which is also known as complex trauma disorder) secondary to chronic parental / family psycho-emotional (and at times physical) abuse.”
You must remember that narcissists rely on their family members to meet their need for narcissistic supply – and before the “awakening,” a scapegoat will do anything to please the narcissist.
If you were your family’s scapegoat, you’ll be able to relate to this discussion, in which Lise Colucci and I talk about being the scapegoat and what happens when the scapegoat in a family situation recognizes that there’s a problem in the family.
- This might involve a narcissistic parent and/or several other toxic elements.
- Also discussed is how to recognize and acknowledge when there is a narcissist in a primary role and how the scapegoat interacts with the other roles (such as the golden one, the lost one, the invisible one, the funny one, etc.).
- Plus: how siblings or other family members may react and choose to stick with the narcissist and their enablers and deny the reality the family is dealing with, including how they keep secrets from (and for) the toxic people and how the scapegoat is most commonly alienated and actively put down, among other things.
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