It can be really hard for victims of abuse to recognize that they are the scapegoat for their abuser. The reason being that the abuse that scapegoats are subjected to is designed to make them feel incapable of conceptualizing their own version of reality to ensure that the abuser is able to remain in power and control. Learning about the characteristics of a scapegoat can help victims of abuse determine whether or not they are their abuser’s scapegoat. 

A scapegoat will have low self-esteem, difficulties regulating their own emotions, they will have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they will have symptoms of depression and anxiety disorder, they will use maladaptive coping behaviors and cognitive distortions, and they will victimize themselves.

This article is going to guide you through all of those characteristics that are associated with being an abuser’s scapegoat to put you in a position to protect yourself from further abuse. Our article What Happens When a Scapegoat Leaves a Family is packed full of important information that you can use to help determine if you, or someone you know, is a scapegoat but we’ve also created a short video below that gives you a sneak peek of that information.

A Short Video About What Happens When a Scapegoat Leaves a Family

Scapegoats Have Low Self-Esteem

A scapegoat is someone who is blamed, ridiculed, and mocked for the shortcomings of their abuser. Abusers use scapegoats as repositories for their negative emotions. Scapegoating is a form of projection, a defense mechanism where one takes elements of their own identity and sense of self that they find unacceptable and places them on someone else. 

A simple example of this would be an abusive mother using her daughter, who she thought of as ugly, as a scapegoat because the mother had an upbringing in an environment where she was ridiculed, mocked, and punished for being “ugly” by her parents. 

The mother’s perception of her daughter serves as a constant reminder of the fear that she has of being “ugly” so she uses her daughter as a scapegoat to indirectly attack aspects of her own identity that she finds unacceptable.

Because scapegoats are constantly being fed their abuser’s vulnerabilities, insecurities, fears, weaknesses, and other negative emotions that they don’t necessarily possess, it is very common for scapegoats to have low self-esteem because they start to believe the negativity that the abuser projects onto them.

A scapegoat being manipulated by the narcissist

Scapegoats Have Difficulties Regulating Their Own Emotions 

The invalidation, devaluation, and dehumanization that scapegoats are subjected to is often so intense that they neglect their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs in an attempt to be available, responsive, and consistent for their abuser. 

It is very common to see scapegoats exhaust themselves trying to please their abuser because they see how well the abuser treats other people in comparison to them. After months, years, or even decades of being a scapegoat, their neglect of their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs often causes them to have difficulties regulating their own emotions.

Scapegoats Often Have Symptoms of PTSD

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often caused by extremely stressful, frightening or distressing experiences, or after a traumatic experience. A scapegoat is exposed to some of the most traumatizing forms of emotional and physical abuse on a daily basis so it is very common to see scapegoats have symptoms of PTSD.

For this article we interviewed fifty survivors of abuse who believed that they were their abuser’s scapegoat to learn what the most common symptoms of PTSD that they experienced were and found intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking or mood, and maladaptive coping behaviors to be the frontrunners. 

We will go through intrusive memories, avoidance, and negative changes in thinking or mood below but we’ve created a separate section for maladaptive coping behaviors later on in the article.

Intrusive Memories

Rumination, when someone’s mind becomes consumed with excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings, is very common for victims of abuse to experience. 

a scapegoat ruminating

Avoidance

It’s very common for victims of abuse to have poor trauma responses like fight, flight, freeze, and fawn, because of the abuse that they are experiencing. Examples of good trauma responses would be yoga, breathing, meditation, or doing something else that they enjoy.

Negative Changes In Thinking or Mood

Being an abuser’s scapegoat for an extended period of time often causes victims of abuse to have very negative thoughts about themselves. Remember, scapegoats are the repositories for the abuser’s negative emotions so after a while the abuser’s projection becomes the scapegoat’s reality.

Scapegoats Show Signs of Depression and Anxiety Disorder 

It’s very common to see victims of abuse to show signs of depression and anxiety disorder. With scapegoats two signs of depression and anxiety disorder that are very common to see are difficulties controlling feelings of worry, hopelessness and/or worthlessness. 

The intensity of the abuse that scapegoats experience on a daily basis force them to analyze every single thing that they do and say in an attempt to avoid being ridiculed, blamed, and punished by their abuser and the extensions of their abuser.

A scapegoat experiencing family mobbing

When this is combined with the fact that scapegoats are a repository for the abuser’s negative emotions, it is very common for scapegoats have difficulties with controlling feelings of worry and feel hopeless/worthless about their past, present, and future every single day.

Scapegoats Have Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms

Simply put, maladaptive coping mechanisms are behaviors that temporarily soothe one’s pain but in the long-term they are detrimental to their well being. It is common to see scapegoats struggle with maladaptive coping mechanisms like illegal substances, alcohol, food, and acting out. 

Sadly, it is also very common to see scapegoats struggle with body image distortion and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Body image distortion is when someone has a misperception of one or more features of their own body and body dysmorphic disorder is when someone gets so upset with the way that their body looks that it affects the way that they live. 

A simple example of body image distortion would be a scapegoat who is extremely skinny looking at themselves in the mirror and seeing someone who is overweight. They aren’t thinking this about themselves, they are actually seeing it. 

An example of body dysmorphic disorder would be someone who constantly asks friends and family if they look okay but not believing others when they are told that they look fine. There are a ton of different signs of BBD that you can read about here.

A scapegoat experiencing body dysmorphic disorder

Both body image distortion and body dysmorphic disorder are very common to see within victims of abuse who were their abuser’s scapegoat because they are criticized, ridiculed, mocked, and punished for everything that they do and say on a daily basis.

Without the guidance of a qualified professional or someone who can help them see that they are a victim of abuse, they could very well begin to believe what their abuser and the extensions of their abuser are saying about them.

Scapegoats Will Display Cognitive Distortions

Studies show that cognitive distortions, ways of thinking that are often inaccurate and negatively biased such as self-blame, hopelessness, and a preoccupation with danger, have a strong correlation with the PTSD victims of abuse often have.

12 Cognitive Distortions Commonly Seen Among Scapegoats

  1. Mind Reading
    • When a scapegoat believes that they know what others are thinking and assumes that they are thinking the worst of them. 
  2. Fortune-Telling
    • When a scapegoat believes that bad things are going to happen in the future without any proof. 
  3. Black-and-White Thinking
    • When a scapegoat only looks at the extremes of situations. They believe that things can only turn out good or bad and tend to lean towards the “bad” side of things. 
  4. Filtering
    • When a scapegoat only pays attention to the negative side of things and purposely ignores the positive.
  5. Catastrophizing
    • When a scapegoat is constantly waiting for or imagining the worst possible things to happen.
  6. Over-Generalization
  • When a scapegoat experiences a negative event and believes that it was only one part of a series of negative events that already occurred or that they predict will come.
  1. Labeling 
    • When a scapegoat does something “wrong” and decides that it means that everything they do is wrong. This is an extreme form of overgeneralization and it can also apply to relationships they have with others. For example, someone does wrong by them so they think everyone is going to do so.
  2. Personalization
    • When a scapegoat believes that everything others do is either a direct or indirect reaction to something that they have done. 
  3. Should Statements
    • When a scapegoat has very firm rules for themselves or others about how one should or shouldn’t behave. 
  4. Emotional Reasoning
    • When a scapegoat uses their own emotions as evidence for the truth. For example, if a scapegoat feels worthless then they believe that they truly are worthless.
  5. Control Fallacies
    • When a scapegoat believes that they have no control of their life and are just victims of fate or when they believe that they are solely responsible for the emotions of those around them. 
  6. Fallacy of Fairness
    • When a scapegoat becomes resentful of others because they believe that they know what is fair but others aren’t conforming to their rules and beliefs. 

A Scapegoat Can Behave Like a Covert Narcissist

One of the dangers of being an abuser’s scapegoat is developing some characteristics that are associated with narcissism, specifically covert narcissism

A scapegoat acting like a covert narcissist because of unprocessed trauma

A covert narcissist will often victimize themselves, they’re vulnerable and needy, they’re socially inadequate and anxious, they are resentful, irritable, and hostile, they’re passive aggressive, hypersensitive to criticism, argumentative, and often come off as depressed. 

For scapegoats who don’t address the trauma that their abuser projected onto them, there’s a high probability that they’ll develop some of those personality traits and characteristics of a covert narcissist as well.

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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References:

Rivka Yahav, Shlomo A. Sharlin, Blame and family conflict: symptomatic children as
scapegoats. Child & Family Social Work 7(2):91 – 98, 2002.

Michael, Tanja et al. “Rumination in posttraumatic stress disorder.” Depression and anxiety vol. 24,5 (2007): 307-17. doi:10.1002/da.20228

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