Are you your family’s scapegoat? How would you know? Do you find yourself on the defensive a lot? Do you hear stories, first or second hand, from various members of the family about your bad behavior? Stories that are very old, or not true or at best, exaggerated? Or maybe they are partially true but important bits of information are left out? A friend of mine couldn’t figure out why, when she went to visit her elderly parents who lived outside of Western New York, she was often marginalized. When she asked questions about her parents’ doctors appointments or issues of financial security, she was put off, told it was all taken care of, not to be concerned, which if course, concerned her even more. Later, she would run into extended family members who would say rather angrily, “well, it must be nice to live far away and not be bothered with the health and financial concerns of the family”. No matter what my friend did it was the wrong thing. It was an old painful pattern, but finally, after much self-reflective work, she asked herself, what was going on?
Scapegoating & The Dysfunctional Family
She was the family scapegoat. As Sarah Swenson explains in her article, Scapegoating in Dysfunctional Families, the dysfunctional family system zeros in on an innocent on which to hang all their messed up issues. Mom’s unhappy? Well, it’s because her daughter won’t hop to every time she needs something. A sister is angry at being disrespected? It’s always the scapegoat’s fault for being “too busy to call.” Never mind that the mother is completely able-bodied and the sister is totally capable of initiating a call or texting. Their unhappiness is all the scapegoat’s fault.
The point is to burden the scapegoat with the responsibility and guilt for the family’s woes so that the people who really are responsible don’t have to deal.
As Ms Swenson points out, the scapegoat is usually the most psychologically strong, the most accomplished person in the family’s circle. That leaves the scapegoated person to wonder, do they target me because they’re jealous? That might be, but it could also be because it is more justifiable, in a twisted way, to project intolerable internal discomfort onto a strong recipient. What satisfaction is there in beating up a weakling? A fragile scapegoat wouldn’t last long and the person doing the scapegoating would end up feeling sorry for them which would defeat the whole purpose.
Support + Therapy = Making Things Better
Slowly, with the support of good internal resources, therapy, and an empathic husband, my friend came to realize it was unlikely she would ever change the attitude of her sister or her mother. They would continue to blame her for the anger, bitterness and unhappiness in their lives. The power my friend had was to choose not to accept the unjustified blame anymore.
5 Steps to Stop Being the Family Scapegoat
- Only accept what is truly your responsibility. Allow them to take responsibility for what is theirs.
- Give yourself permission to step away. Allowing some space of time and distance may sound drastic but in many dysfunctional families it is absolutely essential for your mental health. You can love them and still need to protect yourself from them. You can do both at the same time.
- Refrain from arguing. You love them. You want more than anything for them to see what you see so that they can learn how to take responsibility and change for the better. That’s unlikely to happen. If it does it won’t be because of something you said. The best you can do is speak your truth, quietly and firmly.
- Lean on your circle of support. You will need them as you extricate yourself from the scapegoat role. When someone previously mired in the dysfunction gets better and decides not to play anymore, the ones remaining will try hard to pull the them back into the mire. It takes guts to stay the healthy course. Use the help available to you.
- Remember compassion. Compassion for them, because they are not well, are limited emotionally and deeply unhappy. Compassion for yourself, because it hurts to accept that people you love would inflict pain on you. Be proud of doing the right thing for yourself, even though it is the hard thing.
Elvira G. Aletta, PhD, Founder & CEO
Life gave Dr. Aletta the opportunity to know what it’s like to hurt physically and emotionally. After an episode of serious depression in her mid-twenties, Dr. Aletta was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease that relapsed throughout her adulthood. While treatable, the cure was often as hard to bear as the disease. Later she was diagnosed with scleroderma, another chronic illness.
Throughout, Dr. Aletta battled with anxiety. Despite all this, Dr. Aletta wants you to know, you can learn to engage in life again on your terms.
Good therapy helped Dr. Aletta. She knows good therapy can help you. That’s why she created Explore What’s Next.
Today Dr. Aletta enjoys mentoring the EWN therapists, focusing on coaching and psychotherapy clients, writing and speaking. She is proud and confident that Explore What’s Next can provide you with therapists who will help you regain a sense of safety, control and joy.
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