Have you ever wondered about the long-term effects of being used as a scapegoat in your family or social group?

If so, so do many others. Our community got curious about this topic and recently asked, “What are the characteristics or traits of a scapegoat?” 

I looked through the latest research. Here’s what I found.

Eight common characteristics of a scapegoat include:

  1. People-pleasing behavior.
  2. Feeling responsible for the emotions of others.
  3. Low self-esteem.
  4. Maladaptive coping mechanisms.
  5. Internalized blame.
  6. Emotionally reactive.
  7. Struggle with trust and intimacy.
  8. Hyper-vigilance to others’ reactions.

In this post, I will explain each of these to help you understand the common characteristics of a scapegoat.

If you have or currently are experiencing narcissistic abuse, visit Unfilteredd’s Institute of Healing from Narcissistic Abuse for help.

1.) People-Pleasing Behavior

One common trait of a scapegoat is people-pleasing behavior.

They often go to great lengths to make those around them happy, sometimes at the expense of their own needs and well-being.1

They might agree to things they don’t want to do, say yes when they mean no, or suppress their own desires to keep the peace. 

A scapegoat showing people pleasing behaviors.

This behavior is rooted in the fear that standing up for themselves or setting boundaries will lead to more negativity directed at them. 

Over time, this can lead to a pattern of behavior where the scapegoat continuously sacrifices their happiness in the hope of gaining approval or avoiding further criticism from others.

2.) Feeling Responsible for the Emotions of Others

Another characteristic often seen in scapegoats is feeling overly responsible for the emotions of others.2 

They might believe that it’s their job to keep everyone around them happy and that any signs of unhappiness or conflict are their fault. 

This belief can lead them to constantly monitor the moods of those around them and adjust their behavior accordingly in an effort to manage or fix others’ emotional states. 

This excessive sense of responsibility for things beyond their control can be draining and is a direct consequence of being repeatedly blamed for past problems. 

It reflects an internalized message that their value is tied to their ability to appease or placate others, further reinforcing their role as the scapegoat within their family or group.

3.) Low Self-Esteem

Scapegoats often develop low self-esteem due to their role within the family or group.3 

Constantly being blamed for problems and perceived as the cause of conflict can deeply impact one’s self-worth. 

This continuous negative feedback leads scapegoats to question their value and doubt their abilities. 

They might feel inherently flawed or unworthy of love and respect, beliefs that are reinforced every time they are unfairly targeted.

A scapegoat with low self-esteem

This low self-esteem makes it challenging for scapegoats to assert themselves, pursue their interests, or recognize their strengths. 

The damaging narrative that they are always at fault eats away at their confidence, leaving them to feel less capable and deserving than they truly are.

Suggested Reading: 10 Ways to Build Self-Esteem After Narcissistic Abuse

4.) Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms

Being in the scapegoat role can also lead to the development of maladaptive coping mechanisms.4 

Facing ongoing criticism and blame, scapegoats might turn to unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, such as substance abuse, disordered eating, or self-isolation. 

These coping strategies might provide temporary relief from the pain of their scapegoat status but ultimately can lead to more significant issues in the long term. 

The reliance on these mechanisms is a response to the overwhelming need to escape the negative feelings associated with their role. 

Without healthy outlets or support, scapegoats struggle to manage their emotions in constructive ways, leading to a cycle of negative behavior patterns that can be hard to break.

Suggested Reading: How to Recover from Being the Family Scapegoat

If you need help with anything related to narcissistic abuse, visit Unfilteredd’s Institute of Healing from Narcissistic Abuse today.

5.) Internalized Blame

A characteristic often observed in scapegoats is the internalization of blame.5 

Having been repeatedly punished for problems and conflicts, whether real or fabricated, scapegoats can come to accept this blame as a true reflection of themselves. 

They might believe that they are inherently problematic or that something is wrong with them that provokes these negative reactions from others. 

A scapegoat with internalized blame.

This internalized blame goes beyond accepting responsibility for specific incidents; it becomes a deeply ingrained belief that they are at fault for many of life’s difficulties, even those clearly outside their control.

This can affect their decision-making, relationships, and willingness to take risks, as they are constantly wary of causing more problems or facing further blame.

6.) Emotionally Reactive

Scapegoats may also become emotionally reactive, a trait that develops in response to their environment.6 

Being constantly on the defensive, scapegoats might exhibit heightened sensitivity to criticism, rejection, or perceived slights. 

Their emotional reactions can be intense, driven by the accumulated stress and frustration of their scapegoat role. 

This reactivity is not unwarranted; it is a natural response to the ongoing strain they experience. 

However, it can be misunderstood by others as overreacting or being unnecessarily confrontational, further complicating their social interactions. 

The emotional toll of scapegoating can make it difficult for them to maintain a calm and measured response when they feel threatened or judged, perpetuating the cycle of conflict and misunderstanding.

7.) Struggle with Trust and Intimacy

Scapegoats often struggle with trust and intimacy due to their experiences of being consistently blamed and criticized.7 

Growing up or living in an environment where one is frequently made the target can lead to difficulties in forming close, trusting relationships. 

The fear of being judged, misunderstood, or again made into a scapegoat can cause them to keep others at arm’s length, wary of revealing too much of themselves. 

A scapegoat struggling with intimacy

This protective mechanism shields them from potential hurt but also impedes the development of deep, meaningful connections. 

They may question the motives of those who show kindness or interest, worried that it’s just a matter of time before they’re let down or betrayed. 

This struggle extends to intimate relationships, where vulnerability is crucial; the fear of opening up and then being hurt or rejected can be particularly paralyzing for someone accustomed to being scapegoated.

8.) Hyper-vigilance to Others’ Reactions

Another trait that can develop in scapegoats is hyper-vigilance to the reactions and emotions of those around them.8 

By constantly trying to avoid blame or criticism, they become acutely aware of changes in mood, tone of voice, or nonverbal cues that might indicate disapproval or anger. 

This constant alertness is exhausting but stems from a survival strategy to preemptively address or amend situations that could lead to them being faulted. 

While this might seem like a useful skill, it places the individual in a perpetual state of anxiety and stress, always on guard for the next potential conflict or accusation. 

This state of heightened awareness can make relaxed, spontaneous interactions difficult, as the scapegoat is always anticipating a negative shift in the environment that they will need to respond to or for which they might be unjustly blamed.

If you are ready to be more than a victim of narcissistic abuse, visit Unfilteredd’s Institute of Healing from Narcissistic Abuse today.


Thank you so much for reading; I hope you found this article insightful.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

Have you ever been a scapegoat within your family or social circle? How did this affect your relationships and self-esteem?

What steps have you taken to overcome the negative impacts of being scapegoated, and what advice would you give to others experiencing similar situations?

Or perhaps you’re looking for guidance on how to break free from the scapegoat role and rebuild your sense of self-worth.

Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below.

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About the Author

Hey, I’m Elijah.

I experienced narcissistic abuse for three years. 

I create these articles to help you understand and validate your experiences.

Thank you for reading, and remember, healing is possible even when it feels impossible.

Unfilteredd has strict sourcing guidelines and only uses high-quality sources to support the facts within our content. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, actionable, inclusive, and trustworthy by reading our editorial process.

  1. Kevin Mimms. (2023. February, 1). Family Scapegoat: Signs, Effects, & How to Cope. Choosing Therapy. https://www.choosingtherapy.com/family-scapegoat/ ↩︎
  2. Yahav, R., & Sharlin, S. A. (2002). Blame and family conflict: Symptomatic children as scapegoats. Child & Family Social Work7(2), 91-98. ↩︎
  3. Regain Editorial Team. (2024. March, 12). Are You The Family Scapegoat? How To Know And What You Can Do About It. Regain. https://www.regain.us/advice/family/are-you-the-family-scapegoat-signs-you-may-be-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/ ↩︎
  4. Noah Williams. (2023. April, 21). Who Is a Family Scapegoat: Cause, Signs and How to Cope. Marriage.com. https://www.marriage.com/advice/relationship/family-scapegoat/ ↩︎
  5. Nadra Nittle. (2022. August, 11). What Does It Mean to Be the Family Scapegoat? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-the-family-scapegoat-5187038 ↩︎
  6. BetterHelp Editorial Team. (2024. March, 12). Why Scapegoating Is Harmful. BetterHelp. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/general/what-is-scapegoating-and-why-should-you-avoid-it/ ↩︎
  7. Allan Schwartz. (2014. January, 27). Toxic Families: Navigating the Challenges of Being a Family Scapegoat. MentalHelp.net. https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/toxic-families-who-scapegoat/ ↩︎
  8. Victoria Grande. (2021. October, 29). The Scapegoat Child: Effects and Lasting Pains. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/health/scapegoat-child ↩︎


  1. Fantastic information. I was able to work out that I scapegoated my daughter because my husband was scapegoating me. Now I can forgive myself for the pain I caused my child. She’s 25 now and she forgave me when I apologized to her last year for emotionally abusing her as a child. But I couldn’t forgive myself until I read this. Thank you for giving me clarity.

    1. Hey Jennifer, thank you so much for commenting. I’m happy that you’ve found this article helpful. It sounds like you have a tricky situation going on with your relationship with your daughter. It is great that you’ve been able to recognize what you did and why. I hope our content helps you find peace and rebuild your relationship with your daughter. If there is any specific content you’re looking for, please don’t hesitate to reach out at elijah@unfilteredd.net

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