Scapegoating–Family Issues in Treatment

People Listening To A Man Gesturing With Hands

Scapegoating is a common family issue particularly in families in which there is addiction or codependency. To scapegoat someone means to single out a person for unwarranted negative treatment or blame. A scapegoat can be anyone–adult, child, parent, sibling, spouse, peer, or even a particular group of people. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a scapegoat as: one that bears the blame for others; one that is the object of irrational hostility. Families that are stuck in the pain of addiction or codependency are caught in dysfunctional patterns in an effort to cope with an overwhelming, traumatic and dysfunctional situation.

Many negative events, situations and feelings occur in such families. Each member feels the distress and must cope as best they can. More than not, these situations are chronic and characterized by a series of stressful experiences that accumulate and compound. Until treatment and recovery, the patterns of interaction between members can become rigid and painful. Scapegoating is a classic example of such painful dynamics.

The Scapegoat’s Purpose

The scapegoat in a family or other close system of people serves many purposes for the group. It is of course a painful position to be in because you are singled out and negatively regarded, blamed for bad things that happen in the group, and are the target of bad feelings. As the scapegoat, you do not have a comfortable role in the group and are always on the ‘outs’. Once established as the ’cause’ of bad things in the group, it is difficult to achieve a sense of belonging and emotional safety. The group that scapegoats you ‘benefits’, however. A scapegoat is ‘needed’ in a system in which bad things are happening and there are very few healthy outlets for feelings or very few healthy coping strategies.

The benefits of scapegoating are not healthy, but provide a type of temporary relief for the other group members. For instance, others that scapegoat someone do not have to be accountable and responsible for the problems they experience or cause. By scapegoating, they abdicate their parts in the problem and put the sole burden upon the targeted group member. This dynamic allows people to be irresponsible and to not participate as a ‘shareholder’ in the group’s well-being. It also allows group members to feel better about themselves while pointing out how much less than the scapegoated member is. Unfortunately, too, scapegoating maintains the status quo. In other words, with a scapegoat in place, the system does not get healthier.