Truth Telling, Scapegoating & Shaming

With my new found awareness of scapegoating in mind, I’ve been doing some research on the subjects of scapegoating and shaming of truth tellers. 

Here is an an interview with Caleb Carr.  He’s an author who grew up with an alcoholic father.  I think the paragraphs are  a succint and accurate description as to how many alcoholic parents relate to children who ask about the elephant in the room or the sounds, smells and sights associated with the elephant in the room:

Although Carr maintained contact with his father throughout his adult years, their relationship was fraught with tension. “He was enormously threatened by me, from the time I was a child – threatened by my tendency to speak what I perceived. Alcoholics don’t tend to like children like that.”

Lucien Carr, who died in February, initially welcomed his son’s success as a writer. “He, like all his generation, enjoyed anything that brought him back into the spotlight, even indirectly. But when uncomfortable subjects began appearing in interviews he became upset.”

Lynn Namka gives a good overview of scapegoating  here

In particular, these parts resonate with me:

Other children in the family can pick up the scapegoating pattern and join in taunting and hurting the scapegoated child. In extremely dysfunctional families, the parent may goad the other children to pick on the disfavored one.

Sometimes one child is favored and given special status by the parent. This child can do no wrong according to the parent when they are growing up, but being the favorite backfires on them. Children who are favored often develop their own form of pathology in that they grow up feeling special and entitled. One woman said, “For years I resented my sister who my moved adored. I wished I had been special to my mother. Now I see how messed up my sister is and I’m glad I was not the chosen one of a very sick mother.”

One interesting thing I found is that we are likely to play this role out in other situations and environments outside of our family, without even realizing it.  This site is a blog by a therapist where the therapist goes over an office politics situation.  Several of the people are playing out their alcoholic family roles.  One is the family hero, another the scapegoat and one the lost child.  It’s especially interesting as the author contrasts their reactions to a co-worker with healthier boundaries reaction.   

I can paticularly relate to both the scapegoat & the hero:

Jamal is probably the Scapegoat in his original family, for this is a familiar pattern for the Scapegoat, that of the Truth Teller.  Scapegoats typically say what others will not.  And they say it loud and long.

Tatiana was the Hero of her family, the “good girl” who always did everything right.  She also has serious issues with Bill’s performance, or lack thereof.  Tatiana gets to work early and leaves late.  Because of her perfectionism and the seriousness with which she takes her job she not only has a lot of her emotional well-being wrapped up in it, she has very little life outside of her job.  Her job is her life.  Tatiana takes on responsibilities which are not hers in order to make things work better.  This often involves covering work which Bill failed to do or didn’t do properly.  Tatiana keeps her head down and doesn’t say anything to the boss because she doesn’t want to be identified as a problem, she wants to maintain her Hero image.  But she joins with Jamal and Salima in complaining behind the boss’ back.  Because she is so competent and doesn’t complain out loud, the boss tends to give extra assignments to Tatiana rather than assign them to Jamal, who will complain, or Bill, who won’t do them, because she knows Tatiana will get them done, on time, correctly, without complaint.  Tatiana sees the disparity in how she is treated and resents the extra work, but does not say anything to the boss and quietly fumes.  Her stress level and blood pressure are both rising as a result and her doctor is urging her to change jobs.  But it probably won’t help, because Tatiana repeats this pattern at whatever job she has.

Now, contrast that to Javier, who has a reasoned, well balanced approach:

Javier is a happy go lucky guy who enjoys his work and has a full life.  He, like Carol, is very responsible and competent.  He arrives at work on time and leaves on time, but does not put in extra time.  He doesn’t get embroiled in the complaining because it “brings him down” and prefers to work happily in his office, then go home.  When the boss tries to assign the duties to him which are not his own he quietly, but firmly asserts that this is not his job and asks that it be removed.  The boss then gives it to Carol who won’t complain or to Bob as punishment for annoying her.  When deadlines are not going to be met because the “pet” has not completed his part of the assignment, Javier is careful to be sure that his part of the assignment is complete and on time and to have it signed off by the boss as to when it was received.  When Carol and Bob come to him distressed about the deadline not being met Javier listens politely, without comment, then states that he has to get back to work.  He does not allow himself to be emotionally pulled into their stress or unhappiness.  He is confident that he has done his part of the assignment and leaves the anxiety about meeting the deadline to the boss.  He chooses to focus on the parts of the job that he likes and to looking forward to whatever he has planned with family after work.

The same therapist gives a good background on scapegoating here .  This part jumped out at me.  I’ve bolded and put certain parts in red because of how strongly they touched me:

The family heaps their collective sins on the Scapegoat of the family, then drives them away from them.  They can then point at the “black sheep” in the family and proudly proclaim that they are not like them.  This serves the purpose of allowing the family to look very good to outsiders, by making the Scapegoat look completely bad.  The Scapegoat is sacrificed for the good of the family.How is the Scapegoat chosen?  Please pay attention if you are your family’s Scapegoat.  This is important.  (Again, this process is totally subconscious on the part of the family.)   The Scapegoat must have two characteristics in order to be able to perform their function:

1)  They must be the strongest.
The Scapegoat has to bear the sins of the entire family.  They have to survive, alone, in the “desert” without the comfort or support of the family.  So they must be strong in order to carry the burden.

2) They must be the most loving.
The Scapegoat sacrifices themself for the benefit of the family.  Again, this is somewhat subconscious, but only some level they know they are doing this.  They give up themselves so the family may appear to be “OK”. 

How do you get out of this role?  First, you have to acknowledge that you are in it and understand how it works.  Most Scapegoats are fully convinced that there IS something wrong with them.  There isn’t.  You really have to wrap your mind around this first.

This was really helpful to me because I thought my selection as a scapegoat was due to a weakness or character flaw.  It wasn’t.  Paradoxically, it was due to my strength and love.  Which are positive things I can use to undo the damage the scapegoating has done.  Whether it’s by reaching out for help with therapy or reaching out for love with my community (extended family, friends, etc). 

15 thoughts on “Truth Telling, Scapegoating & Shaming

      1. We are very fortunate to be born now, in the age of the internet and psychology. Imagine generations before us, who had to cope with this alone.

      2. I agree. Even with technology, I spent such a long time thinking it was my fault I was being treated the way I was by my family and that I “deserved” it. Once a therapists identified it as “scapegoating”, I read up on it and I read blogs of other people who’d gone through it. It was so incredibly helpful and healing to know I wasn’t alone and I didn’t “deserve” it.

  1. Did your therapist give a number or percentage of how much of the population may be subjected to skapegoating?

    1. No, I don’t know the percentage. I don’t think it’s acknowledged very much. The family myth is that all parents love their children equally. As many of us know, that’s not the case.

  2. Thanks for writing this! It’s very helpful to me. I feel very alone right now, due to my family abuse. First, my family projects their problems onto me. Then, they use crazy-making to make me sound insane. They try to convince me it’s all in my head and I am actually mentally ill. Next, their attitude is that if I were just gone, they’d be able to be happy; the problem isn’t them or their dating partners. It’s me. I was always confused about why every problem was ultimately because I did something “wrong.” If someone hurts me, I’ll stay quiet and try to talk it out, so my family uses that time to ignore my concerns. When I finally get angry, they point the finger at my anger as “proof” that I’m the problem. I think I’m a bad person who somehow deserves this, but of course, I’d never think that about my siblings! They deserve empathy, love, support, and validation, right? It’s very hard.

    I appreciate that you pointed out that the scapegoat must be the most loving and strong one. I thought I didn’t deserve love and protection because I should be able to withstand the abuse without ever getting upset and reacting. My family even blamed sexual abuse on me and if I blow my top, it’s proof I was part of the problem. I deserved it.

    1. One more thing- I have difficulty accepting that I’m the family scapegoat because I want to be strong and fair. I didn’t want to “feel sorry for myself” or act like a victim. I didn’t want to delude myself; I wanted to take responsibility when I had a wrong belief, or did something wrong. My willingness to apologize and take responsibility meant I took responsibility for everything and made an easy target for blame.

      1. I’m sorry to hear you had to go through so much. It’s bizarre how families like this will twist things around on you. My mother is very nasty to me. It was worse when I was a kid. During the argument which led to the estrangements, I got very angry. It was along the lines of what she did to me as a kid with the screaming, yelling, berating and name calling. Not my proudest moment! But I was doing it rarely, to another adult vs. doing it frequently to a child. I’m not saying it was ok or that I was in the right. But it’s interesting how the behavior, even briefly from me, when directed at my brother, merits a cut off. But my mother did it constantly during my childhood and continued to some extent into my adult years. Yet I’m supposed to tolerate that and it’s somehow acceptable? The sad part is it took me at least a year of therapy to see how FUBAR and how uneven and unfair it was.

      2. Hi- Thanks for your reply! It’s always nice to know someone is listening. 🙂

        It sounds to me like you feel badly or ashamed of yelling and screaming back at your mom. I have found that scapegoats often judge themselves in ways they wouldn’t judge others. I have different rules for myself than I do for others; I must be able to withstand any abuse and not lose my temper, or I am “just as bad” and don’t deserve love. This is one of the biggest manipulations that keeps scapegoats in abusive relationships. The abusers push you to the brink, then when you melt down, they point at your “badness.” This makes no sense; it’s essentially saying, “I always knew you were bad, so I treated you badly peremptorily.”

        The fact is, I can see why you lost your temper. I can completely understand it and I think that your family pushed you to that point. I don’t criticize your natural reactions to abuse. Of course you don’t want to act like that; you’re a good person. But my guess is that you don’t scream at everyone; you just scream at those who lack empathy and respect for you.

      3. Thanks, sorry the delay i’m ok and my home’s ok, but I’m in an area which was hit by Sandy and I didn’t have power most of last week. i agree with you observations. My therapist has pointed this out as well, the way we hold ourselves to impossible standards of perfection and it is ok to be angry, etc. at being treated badly

  3. Hi! I hope you didn’t get hurt in the hurricane. I just came back to this page to re-read it; it’s great! You are a neat person & I like your blog.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words. I was very fortunate. No power for 5 days and nearly got t boned when a guy didn’t observe the treat the dead traffic light as a stop sign rule. But other than that, no problems. I feel very badly for the people who lost loved ones and homes.

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