Family Scapegoating: How To Survive Betrayal



This is not an easy topic. It is loaded with hurt and pain.

The world turns upside down for the person who becomes the family scapegoat. Being in this position is life altering. It’s a stab in an already wounded heart, a kick in the groin when you’re already down. It’s a stunning shock.

You have already endured sexual abuse, incest, violence or other violations within the family home. That alone is hard enough.

You’re not willing to bury the family secret anymore. You need help. You’re not willing to hide the truth to continue to demean yourself and protect everyone else.

I’ve written previously about scapegoating, family estrangement, “secondary wounding,” and trauma.

This post is intended to explain why horrendous betrayal and family rejection happens in the first place.

How could ‘loving’ family members treat one member this way?

And how do the victims ever heal? Healing or recovery on some level is a necessity; otherwise, chronic anxiety and depression and other side effects become inevitable.

Expert Advice

A counsellor from British Columbia, Canada, Glynis Sherwood has studied the scapegoating concept in depth. She has helped clients with scapegoat healing and recovery from since 2009.

I turn to her wise counsel and expertise for this post.


Understanding The Family Scapegoat Scenario

A secret (about trauma, abuse, violence) is kept in the family by the victim. The victim knows that this secret must not come out.

But burying the truth does not last forever, and the victim invariably understands that healing will only occur when the truth is exposed.

Thus the victim decides – one day, years, or, decades later – to reveal the truth – hoping (expecting) support, love, compassion.

Instead, backlash.

The family turns away from the victim. One by one, by one, in the worst case scenarios.

“Backlash is the norm,” says Sherwood.


The Reason Why

Dysfunctional families are closed family systems, Sherwood says.

“The rules of power are understood. Those with power – rather than principles, are in control.”

A closed system is not about love or strength in the moral sense. “It often encapsulates a family history founded on multi-generational abuse, secrets and lies.”

And the scapegoat – bearer of secrets – is to be kept quiet “to ensure that the family does not collapse.”

“Ostracizing, punishing the victim and/or denying the truth maintains the myth of  ‘the good family.’ Preserving the myth is more important than the truth.”

“And, like a house on fire, the scapegoat must be extinguished.”

And is.


Where is The Love?

“Character disordered people are incapable of love,” says Sherwood.

And their chosen method for ‘discipline,’ scapegoating, “is an earth-shattering situation for the victim,” she continues, which also leaves the victim with this devastating epiphany: “There can be no reconciliation with toxic, damaged, narcissistic family members who lack the emotional wherewithal or character strength to know and do the right thing.”

For, rather than support or love a damaged soul who found it hard enough to reveal their painful truth, the family flees.

The victim is left with daunting questions:

Did my family ever love me?

“Who am I?”

“Is my life a lie?”

The Reality

The victim is the healthiest family member, says Sherwood.

He/she told the truth, and faced the consequences.

The other family members did not.

It is the victim, the scapegoat, who “made the horrendous but conscious decision to release him/herself from the toxic family, and, is the one to endure the loss of family.”

And, the crippling fall-out: “The grief, the feelings of abandonment, having to admit to yourself that it’s over, there’s no turning back, no happy ending.”


Does Anyone Heal From This?

Yes. By accepting the truth, which does not lie. And by following strategies for self-compassion and healing which were denied you, including these:


1. Forgive Yourself.

“You can only make peace with yourself,” says Sherwood, “knowing you are the keeper of honesty and truth-telling in a damaged family system that does not know how to learn from mistakes, or crimes, against other family members.”


2. The Family Mess is Not Your Fault.

Though other family members may try to convince you that you are responsible for upending the family unit, be clear: “It’s about you not fitting into a toxic system. You are not flawed, defective or unlovable – the family system is.”


3. Seek Professional Help. 

“I don’t know that anyone can recover [from family scapegoating] 100%, ” says Sherwood, “but most people (provided they get appropriate counselling and support) can feel much better.”


4. Make Healing The Priority.

“You have to manage the scar tissue, set limits that protect you from ongoing abuse, challenge internalized shame-based beliefs, build healthier, non-traumatic relationships.” (And eliminate those that are toxic.)


5. Cherish What You Have Now. If you have a supportive spouse, good friends, others who support you, build your life around them. Dwelling on what you have lost maintains the wounds of the past and forfeits the good in your life.

Your biggest challenge, overall, is to accept how you have been treated. You have been scapegoated, ostracized, betrayed. This is treatment that would not be remotely acceptable in a healthy, loving family. You know this. You have to accept it.

You were harmed. Then, you were harmed again. Time to close that door. You are free now. Do not allow yourself to be harmed any more.



Recommended Extra Reading…

First a huge thank you to Glynis Sherwood, not only for her contribution to this post, but to her work helping others heal from the devastation of scapegoating. Please visit her website for further excellent information and guidance on the topic.


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.”Toxic Families Who Scapegoat.”

Karyl McBride Ph.D.The Narcissistic Family Tree” 

Lynne Namka, Ed.D.Scapegoating –
An Insidious Family Pattern of Blame and Shame on One Family Member.”

This entry was posted on Friday, April 7th, 2017 at 12:21 am and is filed under Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.



While I don't publish all comments, I welcome and appreciate your feedback and participation. If you'd prefer to keep your comment 'private,' please use my contact form (located on my website menu) and indicate this. I will happily respond to all comments and questions.

  1. April 17th, 2017 | Sue F says:

    Thanks so much for this article. I have been on this journey for about a decade and it’s reading articles such as yours that have helped me so much. I’ve also read a lot on shame, co-dependency, verbal and emotional abuse. I find that having an understanding about these issues has “softened the blow” in some respects. I know that this situation was never my fault and whilst I could blame and shame my family of origin I would rather now put all my resources into healing myself. Kind regards, Sue

  2. April 18th, 2017 | abby says:

    Hi Sue: Please note that I have also written articles on shame, guilt, fear, co-dependency (people pleasing) and other issues, as they all tend to be related. You can search for these posts on my “search” bar on my site. You are so wise to educate yourself and put the emphasis on your own healing. This is what turned it all around for me too. I wish you luck with your journey, you are on your way. xo

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While I don't publish all comments, I welcome and appreciate your feedback and participation. If you'd prefer to keep your comment 'private,' please use my contact form (located on my website menu) and indicate this. I will happily respond to all comments and questions.

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