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How To Tell If You're The Family Scapegoat & What To Do

Sarah Regan
April 11, 2023
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
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Do you ever feel like no matter what you do, you're always considered the "bad guy" in your family? Perhaps you've long felt like the black sheep, the outcast, or the one who gets blamed for everything. If that sounds familiar, you might just be your family's scapegoat.

Here, psychologists explain what scapegoating in families looks like, plus what to do if it's happening to you.

What is a "scapegoat"?

A scapegoat is someone who gets blamed for the wrongs, faults, and mistakes of others, often so those others don't have to take responsibility for those deeds. The term was taken from the Bible—namely the book of Leviticus—in which priests symbolically take the sins of people and place them on a goat to be sent into the wilderness for the purpose of casting away people's sins.

Nowadays, this dynamic is often seen in families, when the family picks out one person and uses them as their personal scapegoat to explain away any problems. As psychologist and toxic family expert Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D., tells mindbodygreen, scapegoating is a major red flag that a family has toxic underlying patterns, adding that it is emotionally violent and abusive for the person on the receiving end.

Why do families do it? When family members are facing issues either in the family unit or within their own lives, it can feel easier to compartmentalize their cognitive dissonance by projecting it onto a scapegoat. For example, a parent might start questioning their own ability to parent their kids, only to avoid the cognitive dissonance and say, "No, this isn't my problem—it's because my son is so bad."

And according to doctor of clinical psychology Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, scapegoating often occurs when narcissists are present, explaining that there's often a "golden child" who can do no wrong, and then a scapegoat who's blamed for everything. "By triangulating children against one another, the [narcissist] keeps everyone in their place, teaching them they need to work for attention or that they don't deserve it at all," Neo previously wrote for mindbodygreen.


In a family context, scapegoating is a dysfunctional dynamic wherein the family members single out one person who is blamed or used to explain away any problems within the family unit. Many experts consider this behavior to be a form of emotional abuse toward the person on the receiving end of it.

Signs you're the scapegoat of your family:

  1. You feel (and are treated like) the black sheep of your family (e.g., "I didn't raise you to act like this").
  2. You feel you have to act out or defend yourself in rebellion (e.g., feeling hurt and angry, or the need to fight or lash out in some way).
  3. You look for the truth in your family's dynamics, and they don't want to hear it (e.g., "How dare you question my parenting").
  4. You're compared to other family members in a negative way (e.g., "Why can't you be more like your brother?").
  5. You are vulnerable and sensitive, which is taken advantage of (e.g., "You're so ungrateful; all you do is complain")
  6. Your family smear-campaigns you (e.g., "I told her not to date you because you would ruin it anyway").
  7. Your family blames you for anything, and everything always winds up on you (e.g., "Your father and I fight because of you").
  8. Your family plays the victim and makes you the villain. (e.g., "I do so much for you and get nothing back").
  9. Your family's faults are projected onto you (e.g., "I'm not manipulative; you're trying to make me mad").

What to do about it

If you made it this far and you're thinking, "Wow, yes, this is totally me," know that it is not your fault or responsibility to make up for your family's wrongdoings. No one is perfect, but that doesn't mean family members should constantly punish or ostracize you for things that are not your fault.

Beyond that, according to both Campbell and Neo, the grey rock method is a helpful tactic to learn, because the truth is, one of the only things you can control in these scenarios is your own reaction. With the grey rock method, you simply give the perpetrators nothing—becoming a rock.

"Look at the bigger picture of what's going on, and then deal with [them] as impassively as possible," Neo explains, adding that you might think this makes you inauthentic, but you wouldn't go to war without weapons or shields.

Or as Campbell puts it, you can treat the grey rock method almost like you're duping your family. "It looks just like people-pleasing from the outside, but when you know you're doing it for yourself, the psychology is totally different," she explains.

This is the best route to take if you have to deal with toxic family members, but if it reaches a point where your family is causing you more stress and trauma than you can take, it may become necessary to go no-contact if you can.

But of course, when that's not possible, Neo advises having as little contact as possible—with any form of you playing nice being strategic, not unconscious.

The takeaway

If you've become the scapegoat of all your family's issues, don't let their harsh words and actions diminish your sense of self. You know who you truly are, and if your family cannot appreciate that, you don't owe them any justification for the way you choose to live your life.

Sarah Regan author page.
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor

Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.