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Making Yourself a Target: Replicating the Scapegoat Role in Your Life - How to Stop Doing It

She's outraged.  Everyone in the girl's dorm is mad at her.  Everyone at work is mad at her.  Everyone in her family is mad at her.  Even her boyfriend is mad at her.  She fumes about injustices, favoritism and toadying.  She's weary from battle and furious at the wrongs of society.  She's targeted, gossiped about, confronted, ostracized and perceived to be a troublemaker.  Does this pattern sound familiar? 

This young woman is the scapegoat in her family of origin.  If you were the scapegoat (the black sheep, the screw up, the problem child) in your family you probably replicate that pattern in all of your adult relationships.  Whether it's colleagues at work, friends or romantic partners, somehow you end up being the scapegoat in every situation.  How does this happen?  How do you stop the pattern?

I was the scaepgoat in my family, so this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart.  Do I still replicate the pattern?  I tend to, but I'm becoming better and better and stopping the pattern.  It is hard work.  You have to be willing to take a long hard look at your own behavior and own up to the part you play in recreating the role.  You have to be willing to give up long held beliefs and ideals.  You have to be willing to do something different.  But I believe that if anyone can own what they are doing and take responsibility for it, it is a scapegoat.  They are strong this way and they value the truth - at any cost - even if it means recognizing they are the heart of their own problems.  

Is it worth it?  YES!  Life is so much easier when you are not walking around with a target on your back. 

What are the behaviors you might be doing to cause the role reenactment?

Identifying these patterns of behavior and thinking are also difficult to identify.  You've been programmed all your life to act and think this way.  I spent years groping around in the dark because I found nothing written about this anywhere.  I decided to write down what I've learned so perhaps other scapegoats won't have to be in the dark as long as I was.  There are many, many different ways to be a scapegoat, but here are some I've found. 

If you aren't sure if this describes you or not ask a friend or family member who will give you honest, but compassionate feedback. 

Black and White Thinking

Scapegoats tend to have very black and white thinking.  Things are either all good or all bad.  They are completely right or completely wrong.  This kind of thinking ties in closing with maintaining some of the behaviors listed below.   This is one of things which will make change difficult.  Convincing a scapegoat that a little wrong can be good or that giving in a little bit is not weakness. They tend to see everything as all or nothing. 

To overcome this, try to identify when you are reducing complex things to black and white thinking.  Try to develop a more balanced view of things.  Is it possible something could have pros and cons?  Good and bad qualities?  Is it possible that always telling the truth might not be a good idea?  Can you think of instances when it would not be?  Look for words in your thinking which indicate black and white thinking; always, never, perfect, impossible. 


Scapegoats can be the ultimate idealists.  They believe in ultimate truth and absolute justice and they are quick to grab their sword and shield and fight for their ideals.  Therein lies the problem.  Scapegoats have little tolerance for people who don't life up to their ideals and this is most people.  Life and the human beings in it rarely life up such perfection. 

To overcome this do a reality check.  Do you expect things of other people you do not manage yourself?  Do you set the bar so high no one could ever live up to it?  Do you expect perfection instead of humanity?  To live and play well with others you have to allow other humans their flaws and their foibles.  Instead of idealism, embrace tolerance.

Defender of the Weak, Righter of Wrongs

Some scapegoats love to fight for the underdog whether it be a person or a cause.  They rush in with their sword and shield ready and anxious to do battle.  They believe with all their hearts that this is what caring people do for each other and anyone who does not defend those who are less fortunate are weak, heartless or cold.  We love scapegoats for this, and their willingness to fight for others comes from their good hearts, but it truly hurts them in the end. 

When other people find out the scapegoat takes up their battles for them, they will go out of their way to bring all their complaints to the scapegoat.  So it looks like this:  Ms. Scapegoat is happily working away until "Joe" comes over to complain about the increased work load everyone in the department is being given.  He complains how unfair it is (a magic word to incite a scapegoat - "unfair") that this burden is being placed on them and not some other department which has a lighter work load.  Ms. Scapegoat feels her dander rising as Joe talks on and eventually finds herself worked up into a lather.  She marches off to the boss' office to tell her just how unjust she feels this situation is while Joe saunters back to his cubicle. 

The problem with this type of thinking is that it isn't really fair to the person being defended.  If someone else always fights their battles for them, they never learn to stand up for themselves.  In fighting their battle for them, the scapegoat communicates to them that they are too weak to help themselves and only the scapegoat can save them.  This glorifies the scapegoat more than it helps the defenseless.  To truly help someone, you help them stand up for themselves and fight their own battles. 

This constant fighting of other people's battles also makes the scapegoat a target.  They are labelled a troublemaker, a complainer, a problem employee who is always grousing about something.  It makes it twice as difficult for the scapegoat to get their own needs met.  If the scapegoat has gone to the boss every week for 10 weeks in a row to complain about some injustice that is being done to so-and-so, when the scapegoat goes to the boss on the 11th week to ask for something they themselves need, the boss is already sick of them complaining and turns a deaf ear.

How to stop it?  Ask yourself, "Did I care about this before Joe came to me about it?"  If Ms. Scapegoat heard the news about the increased work load and had no feelings about it before Joe came along, then the problem belongs to Joe, not to them.  So she needs to sit down and let Joe work it out.  If Joe is so upset by it, let him go talk to the boss about it.  If Joe is not enough upset by the change to take it to the boss, perhaps the scapegoat should not act on it either.

Words to watch for when you are replicating this behavior may be; unfair, unjust, right, should, can't ought.  some ideas which may indicate this line of thinking might be; "It's not fair", "That isn't right", "They shouldn't treat people that way", "They ought to do it the right way", "They can't get away with that". 

The Truth Teller

In their family of origin, the scapegoat was probably the truth teller.  The scapegoat would be the one to say out loud that dad was not "sick", he was drunk.  Mom is not "resting", she is high.  Aunt Sally is not "under the weather", she had a psychotic break.  Grandpa Smith is not "odd", he is a pervert.  This truth telling had a purpose in their family of origin.  It brought out the real issue behind the dysfunction.  But scapegoats often carry over this need to tell the truth into their adult lives with disastrous results. 

The mistaken belief here is that the truth must be told at all times.  See the black and white thinking?  All truths must be told every time.  Now we all know that simply isn't true.  If your wife turns and ask you, "Honey, do you think this makes me look fat?" do NOT tell the truth. 

The belief that the truth must always be spoken is paired with a belief that failing to tell the truth makes you weak or hypocritical (because the people in their family of origin were too dysfunctional to deal with their truth).  The scapegoat generalizes this opinion to everyone in their lives.  They fail to realize you might fudge on the truth to spare someone's feelings.  You may fudge on the truth to avoid a confrontation with someone who is unreasonable or about an issue you don't care about.  The scapegoat will not realize that other people may be just as capable of fighting battles of their own, but unlike the scapegoat, they carefully pick their battles rather than taking on every battle that comes their way. 

To change the behavior the scapegoat has to realize that letting the truth slide a bit can smooth out their rocky relationships and go a long way in avoiding frivolous and self-defeating confrontations. 

Rule Enforcer (Self-Righteousness)

Self-righteouosness is a heady and intoxicating emotion and is found in some scapegoats.  The self-righteous assume that they know the only proper way of doing things and that other's should see things their way.  They may assume that there is only one right way of doing things.  Again, you can see the black and white thinking.  The self-righteous also believe that it is their task to ensure that others do things in the way the self-righteous have determined to be right  or correct. 

The client in the opening scenario felt the need to constantly remind the girls in her university dorm that smoking in the rooms was not permitted.  She could not understand why she was targeted for this behavior since she was only pointing out the rules.  Technically this is true.  She was pointing out the rules and smoking was against the rules.  But you can imagine how unpopular this made her with the other girls.  Intolerance of human foibles can definitely put a big target on your forehead.

How to change it?  A friend once asked me as I was gearing up for a battle, "Is this really a hill you want to die on?"  It had never occurred to me that I could pick my battles.  Ask yourself if you really want to die on this hill.  Do you really care if they smoke or not?  Is this really where you want to spend your energy?   Is it really affecting you?

Words to watch for; should, must, right, correct, wrong, proper, acceptable, suitable, can't.  Ideas which might indicate self-righteousness;  "They should do it this way", "It must be done this way", "That isn't right!", "That is just wrong", "That isn't the way to do it properly", "That isn't acceptable", "They can't get away with that". 

Odd Man Out

People who are isolated, odd or different are easier to scapegoat.  People who are disliked are easier to scapegoat.  People who create fear, aversion, fatigue, anxiety, envy, guilt or other negative emotions in others are easier to scapegoat.  This is why people who are sexually (i.e. gays or lesbians) or religiously (i.e. muslims, pagans) different can become targets.  This is why people who have annoying or frustrating behaviors can be targeted.  We often see a disabled child being made the scapegoat of the family.  Or the "odd" child.  A child with whom the scapegoating parents easily identify with may also make an easy target.  For instance, if a mother has a problem with her own sexuality, her daughter may act out sexually when she starts dating and become a target for mom's scapegoating.  A father with anger issues whose son can't control his temper may target the son.  A child with behavior problems may become the scapegoat because the behavior problems make managing them difficult.  This is why you will sometimes see an autistic child or a child with conduct disorder being scapegoated.  Since driving the scapegoat away from the group is part of the interaction, someone who is already operating on the fringes makes a more desirable target.  The group does not have to lose a valued member. 

What positive steps can you take to stop replicating the scapegoat role?

Build Bridges

Therefore, if you are trying to break free of the scapegoat pattern it is important to "play well with others".  Work hard at building bridges with the other people in your group - whether it is a group of colleagues, roommates, family members or friends.  Not being isolated to the outer fringes of the group makes you harder to villify and scapegoat because you are one of them.  Generating positive feelings in others makes it harder for them to scapegoat you. 

If you are an employee, but happy and pleasant about where you work.  Be determined to work in harmony with others and let gossip, office politics and other people's opinions and issues fall away.  If Angie has a problem with Mark, let it stay with Angie.  You don't have a problem working with Mark.  I once caught myself listening to my colleagues gripe and complain about another colleague, "Miguel".  They had problems working with him and held a lot of resentment about things he did that made their work harder or disparaged their work.  I was getting truly incensed at Miguel's bad behavior when I caught myself.  Wait a minute!  I never had a problem working with Miguel.  He had a few flaws, but I really like to talk to him because he was very, very intelligent and had a lot to say I'd never heard before.  Miguel and I worked quite well together.  So what was my problem?  It wasn't my problem.  It was theirs.  And I almost picked it up and ran with it.  Whew!  A near miss.  But I'm getting better at catching myself.  This brings me to my next point.

Avoid Negativity

As a scapegoat, I seemed to surround myself with gripers and complainers.  People who brought whatever they were unhappy about to me.  Why?  So I would fight their battles for them.  Part of my "rehabilitation" was to change the people with whom I surrounded myself.  Remember, GIGO.  Garbage In, Garbage Out.  I stopped listening to gossip and negativity.  When it started, I went back to my office.  I cut off endless negative comments about other people.  I stopped my own griping.  If you are not happy about where you are - move.  Whether it is a job, a geographical location, a living situation or a relationship.  Change it or leave it.  Don't sit around griping about it.  No one wants to be a around a complainer, unless they are dumping their negativity on you to carry for them.  Negativity draws negativity to you.  Stop carrying other people's emotional garbage around. 

Well, that's what I've learned so far.  In my new job position, I have totally broken the scapegoat role and get along famously with all my colleagues, even Miguel.  Life is so much simplier.  As I learn more about breaking this role pattern, I will keep posting here so stay tuned.  You can find all my articles about the Scapegoat Role in the Categories List at the right. 


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Rick Belden

Another excellent post in the scapegoat series. I recognized myself quite a lot, both in the unconscious repetition of thinking, behavior, and experience, and in the application of insight and awareness as a means of changing the patterns. Thanks for continuing to explore and share this material with us.



I too recognize myself in this. Growing up the scapegoat I've spent most of my life learning to stop replicating this role and these lessons are only a few I had to learn. And despite having studied psychology most of my life and being a licensed therapist, I too had an impossible time finding information about this particular role. I'm happy you found the information helpful. Thank you for your kind remarks.


WOW ~ thank you for this posting! I can't wait to read more of your articles about the scapegoat role. I am dealing with an abusive family member (a sibling who I see 1-3 times per year) who has targeted me ~ and the only information I can find is about their behavior (addict) and how I might be enabling them. The enabling part feels under control; at least the definition of enabling an addict that is generally accepted. But there is more to this debilitating dance my sibling and I are participating in, and your article is extremely helpful in revealing the behaviors I am exhibiting that perpetuate it. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful insight!


You're very welcome. I am finding a lot of people want to know more about the scapegoat role, so I plan to write more about it. Since I was the scapegoat it is a subject dear to my heart. It pleases me to no end to know that anything I write helps someone else get out of this very difficult role. Thank you for your feedback.


Your post is extremely helpful for getting behind the though processes of scapegoat. You just described my boyfriend to a T. An my best friend... I myself am the hero of my dysfunctional family. Clearly. I am now trying to figure out why I am so drawn to the scapegoat?? I feel that a large part of it is how refreshing their honesty is and how big their hearts are. I, being a hero am far from a truth teller, but a peace maker at all costs. My boyfriends conflict making rubbed me the wrong way alot but now I see why he does it. Still don't know if I can deal with the negativity he holds onto and the sarcasm that his truth telling turns into... Been looking for what roles attract one another? Do you have any info on that? Like a how a Hero and Scapegoat would seek one another out? All I can think is that we are basically opposites? Thanks for all the great info.



We are drawn to what is familiar. You probably grew up with a sibling as a scapegoat so that is a familiar pattern. Opposites attract and a scapegoat nicely compliments a hero. I love what you say about admiring his honesty and his big heart. Its beautiful that you see that in him for that is what a scapegoat is all about. Im also amazed by your insight into his sarcasm and negativity.

The secret? You each hold what the other needs to learn. Thats the attraction. He needs to learn to build bridges and wear a facade sometimes. He needs to learn to pick his battles and to keep the peace. You need to learn to screw up and be OK with it.You need to learn that there is a time to get real and be honest, a time to grab your sword and shield and fight injustice. The world will not come to an end if you fight back or speak up. Nor will the world come to an end if your boyfriend doesnt speak every truth or fight every injustice.

What if you played a game of switching roles for an hour, or a day? That might be fun and insightful.


Kellen, you made very good points. I've seen my role in some situations, but there are other time I can't imagine what I do to generate this pattern. For instance, I can barely walk into a classroom and the teacher picks me as her scapegoat. (I've gotten expert at telling them to knock it off.)

A sadder pattern arises in friendships. Things start pleasantly but eventually blow up as my friends turn into critics and unsolicited condescending "instructors." When I call friends on it --as respectfully as possible--my friendships fall apart--maybe because they don't me to set boundaries.

Any thoughts on this family curse I can't shake?


I just had a rough day at work, and was trying to figure out what is going on. I was already partway there; my New Year's resolution was to be more positive at work, and stop "venting" about things that bug me to co-workers. It is too easy to slide from "venting" to gossiping, and I was really beginning to dislike the way I was behaving. Moreover, when something really DID bother me, and I "vented" instead of dealing with the person involved, the issue never got resolved,and I never felt any better. So, today, I tried to be direct, and asked some questions about something that was bothering me, of the co-worker involved. It was pretty much a disaster; she became defensive, and said "I don't understand why you're so upset about this," "It was ONLY..." and similar non-information things. In searching the internet to try to find more information about defensiveness, I found this site. Good grief! ALL of this applies to me. When I was a Senior in High School, I defended a Freshman against bullying. I haven't been in High School for over 20 years, and my co-workers are adults, not helpless kids, yet I'm still doing this! My constant railing against injustice, and persistent "naming the elephant," probably contributed a lot to the defensiveness!

P.S. I hate personal growth. It always feels lousy until it's over. Plus it's difficult.


I've identified my role as the scapegoat and I wish my family death. I cannot stand the way they used and fed off me to deflect from their own personal issues. It kills me that my mother watched while her husband beat me and convinced me I was NOTHING. It floors me that my dad tried to kill me, but only twice, so who am I to bitch and whine about justice? I literally attend their funerals in my mind and feel nothing for them.

For decades I tried to get help for childhood abuse issues and was told to go to aa, like that's a healthy hangout for the mentally distressed. I was told by my now therapist that talking about childhood memories only serves to retraumatize so it's not done that way. Retraumatize? Are you kidding me? All my life I've suffered the indignity of instrusive, unwanted memories and the fricking therapists of the world can't be bothered to spend an hour a week helping to reframe them? Are they mad? This is self-help BS gone amok. I cannot stand the self-helpers of the world, like spouting the party line of "take responsibilty" is the responsible thing to do. What nerve, what ignorance. Anyone who survives trauma will most likely suffer - to one degree or another - from POST TRAUMATIC STRESS. And in my case it is now a disorder. Treat the whole gd world for PTSD and WE JUST MIGHT get somewhere. Until then keep your, "take responsibilty" BS mantra far away from me.

PS - I do not have plans to kill my phony family, lest my rant incites a do-gooder to action.

Elise Fairbanks

So I don't know why I obsess over this, but when I was in high school I was the scapegoat at a school that had a lot of cliques and bullying. I did something that annoyed a lot of people and instead of being able to fix it, I was bullied. This makes sense because that was the culture at that school. I didn't want to be the scapegoat, and I don't have a lot of black and white thinking in my life. I never meant to do the thing that I got blamed for. Basically, I was backed into a corner by a teacher who lied to me--but most of the people there didn't give me a second chance. Because of being bullied or excluded and taunted about unrelated things I would argue with the people that bothered me, and this didn't help me make lots of friends or at least get along with certain people. I think I got over this, and I really learned to not tell the truth all the time, and go after causes that are important (but not all of them). However, last year was a tough year, and I went back to my reunion to just see how everyone was,and to try to move on from the past. There were people there that still were bitter towards me, and I reacted in a very counter productive way...again. I kind of think I became the scapegoat again to fill that role at the reunion even though I am not like that any more. This is funny because all I ever wanted was to get a long with everyone. At the reunion I managed to draw attention to myself, and this lead to someone yelling at me in front of a large group... she was a bitch but still. I was able to figure out that she had spread rumors about me from that experience, but I didn't really want that abuse again. I don't know why I repeated the same pattern again when I was around the same group of people. I really am not the same person anymore, I am confident successful, loving, and aware of the audience I am speaking to(most of the time). It bothers me not just because after 11 years I wasn't able to change my standing in this group, but I also found that a long time has passed and haven't moved on from what happened. Part of it is because I wasn't completely at fault for everything that happened, and I was never given the opportunity to fix the gray area that I was at fault for. Another reason this was hard was because I had dreams about what I wanted the high school experience to be like, and they didn't come true, especially when it came to my social life. This also is on my mind because as an educator I am learning about bullying and group dynamics. How do you move on from something, when you were never allowed to make amends or take responsibility for the part of the mistake that was your fault? Especially when you never meant to harm anyone? Also it is the age old question, I can't make the people that hated me forgive me I can only change myself. Which, I did do but it is strange that when I was around the people that disliked me again, I just repeated the same role again, said I didn't have a boyfriend because it felt easier to agree with someone that wanted me to be alone, or agree that my life isn't where I thought it would be when in fact I had no idea where my life would be in 10 years just because it was easier to agree and fall back into the defeated role. That didn't help me at all on the day, and I wonder if anyone else has found this happen when they see people from their past.

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