Leanne Chapman Psychology

[ Guidance for the wounded soul ]

Step Out Of The Scapegoat Role


Did you know the word ‘scapegoat’ came originally from a ceremonial practice where a goat was sacrificed for the sins of the people, and another goat was then loaded up symbolically with these sins and sent out into the wilderness alone to perish. The goats themselves were considered pure, and the shame and sin of the people were transferred on to these innocent creatures to carry.

There are many innocents who carry the blame for others. It allows groups of people, families or whole nations to project their own prejudices and aggression away from themselves. It’s a very painful role to play, however family therapists believe the scapegoat is often the healthiest family member because they aren’t complicit in denying the dysfunction.

If you find yourself as the ‘black sheep’, the ‘outcast’, or the ‘bad guy’, your self-esteem is likely to be so damaged that you find yourself actually exhibiting the negative descriptions you hear about yourself. This might take the form of not living up to your potential, not reaching your true earning capacity, having unhealthy relationships with people who don’t treat you well, and not reaching for your dreams.

Some signs that you are, or have been, in this role include:

  • You are made responsible for family issues, disagreements and conflicts, even when these occur as a result of other people’s actions.
  • Other family members have been verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you
  • You are disbelieved and called a liar if you try to defend yourself and explain what really happened
  • People outside the family system go along with the bullying or look the other way when you ask for help
  • You are expected to help other family members out but cannot expect the same help in return
  • You find yourself asking ‘what did I do now?’ on a regular basis
  • You notice that the person accusing you of bad behaviour is the one actually engaging in this behaviour, eg. accuses you of being rude while they are repeatedly rude to you
  • Your achievements are minimised or turned into something negative, eg. you mention you got a good grade on your last assignment and you’re told ‘you think you’re better than us’.

How did you end up in this role?

The scapegoat is carefully chosen, although probably not consciously. He or she is the one who rocks the boat in some way, either through being different (artistic when the rest of the family is intellectual, for example) or through being very sensitive and therefore unable to pretend along with everyone else that the family dysfunction is not happening.

The scapegoat builds their identity on the constant stream of information they receive about their ‘badness’.  They may know inside that they haven’t done anything to warrant this treatment, but it seems that no-one else sees this. As a result they feel insecure and unsafe, making them very vulnerable.

They may find themselves in abusive situations outside the home – at school, in the workplace, in relationships – which seems to further confirm their status as ‘bad’. Consequently they find it very difficult to trust others and may avoid closeness with others altogether as a result.

The scapegoat is often lonely, hurt, confused, and filled with feelings of inadequacy. Without sufficient encouragement, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They grow up lacking the ability to comfortably interact with others, engage in team activities and sports, etc, and this in turn leads them to avoid opportunities to move forward personally and professionally. Even when they do advance, they will tend to downplay their successes.

Although they are often very bright, not much is expected of the scapegoat and they can become under-achievers, although it’s obvious they would be highly successful if they could believe in themselves.

How to step out of the scapegoat role

The first step to finding your true identity outside this appointed role is to recognise it is not the truth about you. The people who scapegoated you had their own agenda and they needed you in this role to help them avoid dealing with their own problems. In projecting their own defects on to you, they were able to sidestep the pain of their own challenges. The decision to scapegoat you was based on their own needs and had little to do with who you are at all.

You are not who they say you are, you are who you say you are.  
~ Jason Alexander

Deep inside, it’s likely that there’s a part of you that knows the truth, that you are a good kind loving person and you have been cast into a role that does not reflect this or allow others to see it. Tune into this part, it will help you stand your ground and say no to further mistreatment.

Because of the projection involved in scapegoating, it’s likely that the depth of self-loathing and shame you feel are not actually yours. These feelings belong to the people who thought you were a useful dumping ground for their ‘stuff’. When these feelings come up, question their veracity – where does this feeling come from and is it based on any real evidence?

Try not to fall into magical thinking – feeling not good enough doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough. It’s like thinking that because we ‘feel fat’ everyone will look at us and see how ‘fat’ we are. It’s just a feeling, and feelings are not facts. Remind yourself of all the kind things you’ve done, the praise and support you’ve had from others, the achievements you’ve reached.

We all have both good and bad points, the focus on yours has been out of balance towards ‘all bad’ – remind yourself of all the good points too, you do have them and good friends have probably been trying to point them out to you for years!


Let go of explaining and justifying yourself to people who are invested in seeing you as ‘bad’. Trying to gain understanding from abusive family members, co-workers or ‘friends’ keeps you stuck because they are not able to give you this. This is a reflection on them, not you.

However do ask to be treated respectfully from now, keeping in mind that doing this is likely to be viewed as more evidence of your ‘badness’. Remember this is not the the truth, even if some people never apologise for their disrespectful behaviour. You are entitled to make statements along the lines of “The way you just spoke to me is not acceptable, please don’t speak to me like that again” and “If you want speak to me, please do it civilly or I won’t respond.”


This step is made easier if you’ve already made a commitment to learn how to trust and respect yourself first. You will be less likely to back down in the face of other people’s accusations and insistence that you are out of line if you believe you deserve respect.

Stepping out of the scapegoat role can sometimes mean that unfortunately you are unable to continue a relationship with some of the people in your life. If they are determined to keep you in this role, you may need to limit or even cut contact with them. This may cause pain, but it will be less painful than continuing in this role.

Make a regular practice of treating yourself with loving kindness and self-acceptance.  It will feel unfamiliar and false, even impossible, at first but that’s because it’s a new experience. Keep going until it becomes a habit. This is your best protection against being exploited and victimised in the future.

You are not alone

I know about being loaded up with the shortcomings of others and sent out into the wilderness alone, about underachieving and living down to expectations. My report cards all said ‘Leanne would do well if she tried’. I was sacked from my first job and from two more later on.  I saw myself as a naive, incompetent and unattractive fool with woefully inadequate social skills. I tiptoed around trying to avoid attention and could never ask for help with anything, so I became fearful of taking on anything that I might not be able to work out by myself.

Of course looking back I see I was re-enacting the situation in my family home. The workplace was a completely different environment but I knew my role well and I transferred it to every new environment I came across. It’s a painful process and has lifelong implications, however it doesn’t have to rule your life and you can step out of this role, even while those who put you in the role continue to do so.

As a child, you had no choice, but as an adult there are choices. The best choice you can make is to decide every day that you will live according to the person you truly are inside, rather than who other people say you are or want you to be. I now know I’m capable, smart and competent. I’m important, valuable, and have a lot to offer. I’m worthy and I’m worth it. I have something to say, I make a difference, and I matter. If I meet people who don’t appreciate these things about me, I let them go. Once I would’ve seen it as evidence that I really was lacking, now I just move on.

Recognising that other people are not my family, and that my scapegoat status is obsolete, along with acknowledging the achievements I have made even with my lack of self-confidence, has really started to turn things around for me. You will probably need support with this and it may take a long time to find your true self again, one you can love and value, but it’s worth investing in this process. Remember you are worth it.

images courtesy of Huffington Post and Krishannah.blogspot

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  1. I have been the escape goat for my adoptive family for 30 years, i finally had the courage to step away 3 years ago.
    Its nice to know your not alone as, either people don’t talk about it or don’t understand it. I had healthy friendships then they evaporated when they find out why i don’t mention my family, so i don’t talk about it to people as its easier.
    Your words really resonate with me and have helped me thank you.

  2. Dr. Patsy Waderker Perry

    August 22, 2019 at 10:21 pm

    Thank you so much for this very important article. I am exhausted of being scapegoated, but striving to climb upwards. I press forward. All I can say is that God is good.

  3. I have always kind of known that I am my family’s scapegoat, but have always refused to accept it. I love my family and I don’t want to believe that they were wrong in treating me the way they have, and in a way still do. I look for fault in myself just so I can say, “they gave me all I needed.” But the truth is, they didn’t. My father was physically abusive toward me, and everyone looked the other way. My older brother beat the s*** out of me on a daily basis (not an exaggeration), I would tell my mom, she would ask what I did to deserve it. When I said I didn’t do anything, she would insist I must have. My younger brother fell out a second story window, and to this day (25 years later) they say I pushed him. I KNOW I didn’t push him.

    I have often thought of suicide because I feel that I must not deserve life. I honestly don’t know how I have survived this long. I am now 32 and I can’t find or keep a job. Every job I have ever had has started well, then I get promoted or asked to take on more responsibility only to wind up getting major anxiety, sabotaging myself, and quitting. I can’t accept compliments. I find myself repeatedly in bad relationships with sociopathic or narcissistic women who manipulate me, take all I have to give, and then shove my faults in my face on the way out the door, leaving me feeling even worse about myself.

    I don’t know what to do. My body is breaking down from the pummeling it has taken. I am totally isolated from the outside world. I have to live with my parents because I don’t trust anyone that I could move in with, and they continue to make me the scapegoat, although it isn’t as bad as it once was.

    All I want is a normal life, but at this point I don’t even know what that is anymore.

    • So sorry to hear that you’re going through this.

      • Take it one step at a time. I’ve blocked people out of my life that see me in a clouded way. I’m reading books and learning recovery methods to learn what to say. It takes time, but with a good and caring counselor, you can move forward towards healing and betterment.

  4. I never knew that there was a reason that my family treated me so badly. With distain, blaming me for everything that ever went wrong, picking on me, calling me names and ostracising me. I am 51 years old and I have just discovered that I am the scapegoat. I cried when I realised this. I cried with pain but I also cried with relief.
    I now have to figure out how to move forward and discover who I actually am. The thought is scary but I am determined to discover who I am.
    I have no contact with most of my siblings. One who I recently discovered is a narcissist. Thank you for the guidance in this article I look towards being healed.

  5. I was the sensitive creative child who was also severely scapegoated as was my younger brother. I left home at 14 to live with my boyfriend got pregnant and had 2 kids. My drug addicted boyfriend left me when my kids were babies. I went on welfare and lived on 500 a month. No one in my family helped me. Once I asked my mother for 30 dollars to keep my light on and she refused. Fast forward 35 years and here I sit married, world traveler, very financially secure and successful. In fact far more financially successful that anyone in my family. How did this happen? I went no contact over 30 years ago. When you are the scapegoat the only answer is NO CONTACT. You must free yourself from the people who spent years trying to destroy you.

  6. This is great. Im a scapegoat and idiot too. My mom told me to not have friend and i did . Now i dont know to have a friend. Lack skill etc. Please tell me how i can grow as nomal human? Im 24 , can you give me example or tips?

  7. Thank you for writing this, the hopeful ending is important to me, that a scapegoat can heal! ‘Recognising that other people are not my family, and that my scapegoat status is obsolete, along with acknowledging the achievements I have made even with my lack of self-confidence, has really started to turn things around for me. ‘ is great to hear that there is a future and my path might be different but it is my path now and it doesn’t matter that I am going onto a different path from my abusive family of origin.

  8. I just realized today that I am the family scapegoat. I always thought i was the black sheep because I am not the favorite. My family made fun of me when I was little , always telling me every little thing I did wrong . Everyone joined in. My sister has always been the favorite and she has done some horrible things to the family but always comes out smelling like a rose. I found out that I need to watch what I say for my words get twisted around and made into a problem when there should not be any. It seems that when I talk to my dad (and I watch what I say) he tells his grandson about our conversation and either he or my dad twists the story and words around as his grandson runs to my mom and tells her that I was saying some bad things about her and I ‘Cant be trusted . ‘ Now this time my mom will not talk to me! They just keep doing this to me! I am left dumbfounded because I am unaware of saying anything horrible about anyone at all! All I want is to fit in for once in my life and be loved but at my age now it is unlikely to change as they are very unlikely to change. They just enjoy the drama and they try to use me to keep it going. My parents are divorced by the way. This has been happening quite frequently lately, the gossip behind my back about me in general and the words and story twisting. My sister always liked to stir up trouble and try to get me in trouble by ‘telling’ on me over things she turned into a major issue. She continued this into adulthood and now it seems her son enjoys doing the same thing to me! I am afraid to speak about anything at all around them. I am not able to completely avoid them so I am trying to learn to be a ‘gray rock’ in their presence. They know that I was severely bullied in school and perhaps this makes me an easy target with their twisted needs as well. I am exhausted and wish I could cut ties once and for all.

    • Hi Dee, so sorry to hear all that you’re going through. The gray rock approach will certainly help you not be pulled into the madness. I hope you’re able to surround yourself with people who treat you well and are able to reflect to you the person you truly are, rather than the toxic version your family seem to want to project on you. It’s very painful 🙁

  9. Wow, fantastic, clear article/blog. I can so relate. I’m 56 and slowly coming out of the fog after realising I’ve been scapegoated by my family all my life. It sucks!
    Your article is helping me greatly in many ways. Thank you so much as some of the things you mention that I am living with at the moment, like trying to explain and justify myself to others – which is clearly not working. Trying really hard to shake off this scapegoat role – some days are better than others.

  10. Wow, thank you Leanne for this well written and clear article. I can so relate to it. I’m 56 and have just realised over the last couple of years that I have been scapegoated by my family (my parents and sister – my brother hasn’t spoken to me for several years). It is like stepping out of the fog, but then not knowing what to do now. My elderly parents treatment of me has become worse and worse over time. Your article helped me a lot, especially realising I’m not alone. So thank you ever so much.

  11. And just to add to that… its like it is easier for people to deny fault rather than just to admit own it and apologise to those they hurt. In my experience I am always wrong in their mind but they mever are. Why is it so hard for anyone to admit to their own?

    I dont want to be the person that everyone ‘chooses to hate’ anymore but even if people ‘liked me’ i dont think id ever be able to trust their sincerity. Id question if there were genuine or just pretending.

    Ive spent 35 yrs being picked on and more than it would be hard to change that negative mindset. Even with adequate amount if counselling.

  12. I believe I am that person but not just within my family but also for anyone I come across who dont want to face their own issues. Friendships have turned nasty even when Ive done nothing wrong but treat that person well. Family, friendships, relationships always making me out to be wrong all the time.. even trying to tell me what or who I am when I am actually not what they say. Its like a deflection or diversion away from themselves. Often the people making the claims toward the scapegoat like myself are often the ones that actually have bigger issues. I think we end up with issues due to others heavy projecting onto us. Ive cut my family off. I gave up making friends and distanced myself to any I had because of trust issues. All my relationships have not been good ones and im always treated as an after thought. I have recently started seeing a counsellor in hopes to gain a bit more perspective. My mother is the largest prejector self deflector out of anyone ive known so wanting to start there and gain some professional perspective to make more sense of it out of all the confusion. I dont want her in my life due to her negativity. And when I think about the idea of meeting new people or making new friends at 35 yrs of age I still believe that everyone I meet with turn nasty.

    I know deep down im a good person but I am forever treated like crap and not one person will take ownership in their part of it.

    • As a scapegoat of almost 70 years old, and having gone ‘No Contact’ almost 15 years ago, I experience the same as Anonymous March 11. I seem always to come out on the wrong end. I’ve been hit one time too many – punchy, maybe. I think I need to learn some social tap dancing which most people already know. Alot of who we all meet are jerks. That’s a fact. We have to give them only as much honesty as we think they deserve ( not too much for most people – ‘They can’t handle the truth.) Keeping conversations at a surface, light,polite level works best for many people I meet. Even so, the scars are apparent and since many disabilities have come against me as a result of those psychic injuries, I live a little below where I belong with my intellect and standards. This drives them crazy, too. And……many people are just jerks. That’s all. They also probably have their own suffering so don’t get too discouraged.

  13. This blog about scapegoats is one of my favorites it helps me a lot learning what i am in my family , step by step realeasing myself from the trap and the emotional distress that they put me through over and over again.its really not easy changing what i thought iam , my low self esteem and selflessness towards abusive people has put me in more complicated situations in other parts of my life just because i didnt know i was a scapegoat . i was confused all my life but lately im learning a lot i will do everything to heal and take back what i lost what i truly am . its not too late to be happy and knowing my true self. Thanks leanne for this wonderful article. All the best ❤
    Siri recently posted…Drawing Out The PainMy Profile

    • Thanks for dropping by Siri, I’m so glad it was helpful. I’m working on a program for helping people who have experienced this sort of pain to find their way out of the dark. I hope life gets easier for you now you know the truth x

      • This blog was very insightful, thank you Leanne. If you do complete the program you are working on, please let me know, I would definitely like to take part in it. Scapegoating is not cool, and no one should be subjected to this type of abuse!!! At least there is some awareness, thank God for that!

        • Natalie, thank you for your comment, it has prompted me to get on with things. I was just saying to someone earlier today that I need to work on this project, so your comment is confirmation! I’m sorry you have a need to be part of this, but I will definitely keep you informed x

  14. This was a powerful article for me as I always knew something was wrong but now I can put words to my family dynamic. I’m a truth teller and an intellectual. The rest of my family has their head buried in the sand and rot their brains on wine and law and order. Knowing what they’re going to say and why really takes the sting out of my families constant negativity and deminishing comments. Thank you so much for this. It came to me at a really low point and it’s nice to find some hope.

  15. A man may choose to buy a certain car because he is familiar with its mechanics and knows how to keep it running, so the decision of which car to possess is sometimes based on familiarity, not on actual aggregate value. I understand how to operate as the scapegoat, but I’m just beginning to open up to explore different “models” to operate and possess, preferably I hope to try a true “myself model”, which is a very scary business, but I heard a very worthwhile endeavor. Apparently this model its already paid for and in the garage, I only need to hop in and start driving it. Should I really dare to drive that “forbidden model”? She looks fine but dare I drive it? I truly hope I will take courage and drive her away.

  16. Excellent advice Leanne. My favorite part: “Let go of explaining and justifying yourself.” For years, I felt I had to apologize for who I was because I thought there was something wrong with me. My mother and I are very similar, but that also means that we’re miles apart from my father. He’s an intellectual, and for years I thought I was. My mother and I are very spiritual beings and he has a hard time relating to that part of us. For the most part, we just don’t talk about our differences because it has caused too much friction in the past. It’s best to just be ourselves and find people that love us for who we are. That is what has helped me blossom into who I’m meant to be.
    Keri Kight recently posted…Through the Eyes of the Beholder: Is it a Disaster or a Learning Experience?My Profile

    • Thanks Keri, amazing how so many of us think there’s something wrong with us just because of our differences to the people around us at the time. Like you said, it’s best to be true to ourselves and find people who accept us just like that. Love that sentiment!

  17. Great post! I’ve always been a good girl, pleasing everyone but myself and now that I found my voice, I see many attempts to make me feel bad about it and the situations that I now refue to participate in. Luckily now I can stand for my own rights and it feels great.
    Alenka recently posted…Let’s have a Cup of Coffee!My Profile

    • Alenka, it’s easy to fall into that trap of trying to please everyone, it’s wonderful to hear you’ve found your voice and refuse to play that old game anymore x

  18. So true, and so tender, for me. I became the black sheep because it was a way for me to have an identity, to have substance. I dove into that identity when self-esteem was already gone, and hung out in that space, perfecting very bad behaviors, downward mobility and addiction for a very long time.

    Miracles (can’t explain it any other way) brought me to the awareness of the possibility of change and of choice. Changing my focus to the positive, to the good, was like turning an ocean liner in a sea full of icebergs, slow and painful, but (more miracles?) I made the complete 180 and survived into this now breath, this now moment, and this beautiful life.

    Scapegoat no more, yo!

    Love to you! xoxox
    Sue Kearney (@MagnoliasWest) recently posted…Precious one, you don’t have to do this aloneMy Profile

  19. Very interesting, deep and thoughtful. I’m at least happy to say that I never was that person, although I may play the role of mediation. Sharing your caring words to hopefully benefit others.

    fadwa recently posted…الانتحار عبر التحول من كائن إلى آخر/ كتاب الأفكار المحرمة  My Profile

  20. Great article thanks Leanne

  21. Thanks Leanne, great post and a good reminder about self respect and self esteem

  22. Hmmm…interesting. I recognise this pattern. Sometimes I think my husband uses my 13 year old son as a scapegoat (Although he’s quite good at sticking up for himself). Now I’ve noticed he is using this behaviour too. What’s that about?
    Krishna_Everson (@KrishnaEverson) recently posted…7 things you won’t believe about marketing that are actually true!My Profile

  23. Leanne, this is so beautiful! Thank you!

    There are so many layers to human interactions and you’ve really described this aspect of it so perfectly. It’s one of those things that’s hard to come to terms with – why did they choose me as a scapegoat? It’s not your weakness, but your strength, that frightened them. It’s the fact that you chose to speak or act out against what they knew in their heart to be true, but didn’t want to face. It’s your very life force, shining so brightly, that was frightening to them.

    On a soul level, being a scapegoat helps us to find that strength within ourselves, and to shine it out in the world. It helps our souls to grow. The hard part is, it hurts in the process.

    Keep shining, beautiful Leanne <3
    Jenny recently posted…A Love Song for the AnimalsMy Profile

    • What a beautiful way to put it Jenny – it really is true, it reflects our strengths rather than our weaknesses. The life force shining through is never something to be ashamed of!

  24. Wow i never knew the origin of the word, thank you- makes sense.
    yes i have been that person in some of those instance- not any more
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…Do You Believe in You?My Profile

  25. Something I’d not really thought about much. Thanks for the clear and interesting blog Leanne.

  26. Excellent. I used to be this person.

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