Redemption for the Scapegoat

By Paul Dunion | March 7, 2022


Of all the childhood roles in a family, scapegoats are in dire need of being in repossession of their essential goodness. Scapegoats enter the family, and all too soon become aware that the Hero child has secured the position of recognition and approval. Scapegoats rigidly attached to their role when the system is heavily stressed by addiction, illness, extreme transiency or poverty. Unless some unfortunate situation as an accident or illness deposes the Hero, how to belong as a recipient of parental praise eludes the Scapegoat. Any place worth pursuing seems fully occupied. It becomes apparent that something darker may be the only option.


Characteristics of Scapegoats


  • Negative attention. It’s only too easy to view Scapegoats as incorrigible. The truth is that they simply can’t imagine competing with the Hero sibling who has wrapped up everything positive. Hence, negative attention becomes preferred to no attention.
  • Acting-out behavior. To receive negative attention, the child begins to indulge in uncooperative and delinquent behavior. This disorderly routine can extend beyond the family to school and other social organizations, resulting in a nefarious reputation.
  • From role to identity. As Scapegoats indulge in unacceptable behavior, the understanding that they are anything larger than the role they occupy slowly slips away. They believe that they are bad people, reflecting the spirit of a tragic figure. Unless there is some form of therapeutic intervention, they run the risk of addiction, incarceration, and even an early death.
  • Outside the family. Convinced that there is no positive way to participate in the family, they rely upon peer affiliation to engender some measure of belonging. They make their way to other children who likely feel a similar frustration with family life.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse. Scapegoats are extremely prone to abusing street drugs and alcohol to numb the nagging feelings of rejection and hurt. They easily translate these vulnerable feelings into anger and are viewed as angry.
  • Offerings of love. Scapegoats know they cannot love their parents by what is conventionally viewed as being a success. Instead, the parents receive a negative distraction from their pain. The defiant Scapegoat can generate a myriad of disturbances and disruptions, keeping the attention of the parents away from what troubles them about themselves.
  • Restricted development. Scapegoats suffer both cognitive and emotional development. They take solace in deciding and proving that they are not like the Hero sibling, who may be comfortable with academic pursuits. Their intellects often do not receive the necessary guidance and encouragement that can be offered by schools and colleges. They are more interested in fine tuning their cleverness and cunning directed at some scam or scheme to make a buck or to get someone’s attention. So much of the Scapegoat’s emotions remains subterranean, with only the fire of anger and rage surfacing. Repression of the more vulnerable emotions leads to unconscious emotion influencing beliefs and behaviors. It’s challenging for scapegoats to be clear about what motives their decisions and choices and some understanding of likely outcomes.


Restorative Measures for the Scapegoat


  • Psychological education. Scapegoats benefit immensely when learning that they have been playing a role. They will need solid therapeutic support as they gradually release a way to see themselves that has likely been confirmed by parents, relatives, and a host of authority figures. They can gradually accept that feelings of self-deprecation were part of the role and not a reflection of who they are. It can be very helpful for them to view the entire system, especially the place occupied by the Hero sibling.
  • Getting acquainted with vulnerability. Scapegoats typically show a tough guy, tough gal persona. In a trusting therapeutic relationship, they might dare to let go of a much-cherished bravado. Allowing themselves to get close to hurt feelings will make them feel more vulnerable. Claiming their authentic selves will be frightening as well as being supported for doing so. The core of identity includes not being seen, scoffed, and labeled incorrigible. There will be the vulnerability of a lost hope to be accepted and appreciated. If their parents defined them as hardened and hopeless, they then need to feel the vulnerability of betraying their parents as they reclaim their essential worth.
  • Moving out of delusion. Scapegoats typically build a case in support of their non-conventional and iconoclastic lifestyle. The delusion is that they have not betrayed themselves as so many others have done. They create an ethos condemning those who sold out to the system, acquiring a formal education and a house with a white picket fence. They glorify their errant ways as testimony to their courage and honesty. What they need to get honest about is how self-sabotaging they have lived, dictated by their family role. Beneath all the rhetoric is the claim that their Hero sibling wasn’t all those folks made them out to be – nice guys selling out.
  • Welcoming a measure of self-love. Of all the childhood roles, the scapegoat has the greatest challenge engendering self-love. The scapegoat’s ego has settled into being especially bad, avoiding any semblance of being pedestrian or plain-vanilla. They are also convinced that there is no constructive way to receive attention. Scapegoats need to return to the main purpose of the role again and again, an offering of a loving negative distraction. As such, their damaging self-concept was only a story attached to the role. They can begin to be mindful of self-deprecating narratives and learn to interrupt them as bad stories, saying nothing about reality. Such interruptions are the compost for growing love for the self.
  • Building genuine support. Scapegoats possess natural rapport building skills, especially with peers. They can learn how to deepen their capacity for empathy and carry their sensitivity as a strength. They can be great allies for those feeling disenfranchised, defeated and alone. They can learn that they are deserving of the same support they offer others.
  • Death of a sacrificial lamb. Scapegoats are the sacrificial lamb of the family. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family. Healing comes to their souls as they accept that their sacrifice is no longer needed and learn the distinction between necessary and unnecessary sacrifice. Integrating this understanding of sacrifice can easily morph into a practice of care for the body, mind, and spirit.
  • Emergence of inner authority. Scapegoats live in the illusion that they have escaped the dictates and expectations of authority figures. The truth is that their compulsive insurrections have negatively tied them to external authority. As they allow the need for defiance to subside, they can begin to develop inner authority. The seeds of which are germinated by asking: What do I love? What is my love asking for? What are my gifts and strengths? How might my gifts serve? To what or whom am I willing to give myself? What feeds my soul?

When the dark path is reinforced by peers, scapegoats can struggle to find their way back to the light of their essential goodness. It behooves educators, clergy, counselors, and coaches to be alert to a client’s description of their family of origin. The moment I hear sibling defined as a sure winner, I become vigilantly curious about the possibility of being in the presence of a scapegoat. Human potential practitioners are the most valuable resource for scapegoats. It’s just too difficult for scapegoats to wrap their heads around what happened to them in their families of origin. However, anyone who understands the various ways children love can offer a scapegoat an invitation to step out of this debilitating role.



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