Scapegoat or Black Sheep of the Family?

By Jordan Schaul | Scapegoat Strength | November 13, 2021

You won’t find the term black sheep or scapegoat listed in diagnostic references, personality inventories, or legal dictionaries. If you come across these ungulate idioms in popular culture, you’ll find that they are used interchangeably and erroneously in reference to evildoers. Because one can be both a black sheep and a scapegoat, it makes sense that the meanings of these idioms have seemingly converged. But there is a distinct difference between the symbolic definition of a black sheep and a scapegoat despite persistent ambiguities surrounding their meanings.

Black sheep are symbolic of outcasts and scapegoats are symbolic of people who assume the sins of others. A black sheep’s idiomatic origin refers to the recessive trait found in black individuals in predominantly white flocks of sheep. A scapegoat is a reference to atonement and repentance in Judaism and ancient rituals involving offerings of sacrificial animals.

Black sheep: someone who does not fit in with the rest of a group and is often considered to be a troublemaker or an embarrassment

Scapegoat (scape·​goat | ˈskāp-ˌgōt): one that bears the blame for others or one that is the object of irrational hostility (Meriam-Webster)

While there are superficial similarities between them, the family scapegoats are neither inherently evil nor deserving of blame. In narcissistic families, scapegoats are hypercriticized, undermined, provoked, and almost inevitably conditioned to display reactive aggression or rebelliousness and self-sabotage. In essence, scapegoats are made and not born. Scapegoats may exude more intuition and empathy than their siblings. They may be more independent in their spirit and more trailblazing in their mindset, but they don’t emerge without the influence of dysfunction from their particular family of origin.

As a child, the scapegoat is the sibling who can most relate to not being seen or heard because they are deemed a threat or destabilizing presence to one or more parents. Because of their insecurity and controlling nature, the narcissistic parent disempowers the child who is either too much like them, reminding them of their flaws, or is not enough like them and threatens to break the mold.

Scapegoat children become easy targets for parents and siblings looking to place blame to alleviate deeply embedded and unresolved emotional issues. The scapegoat becomes accustomed to being alienated and ostracized and as a result, may search for opportunities to seek positive attention from one or more parents. They often become overachievers in an attempt to gain the praise of a narcissistic parent. That praise never comes.

The scapegoat fulfills a specific role in a dysfunctional family—a role that was unconsciously assigned by the narcissistic parent and predetermined to exist. Scapegoats are not inherently “problem children” but they are perceived as such. They were assigned to fulfill a role just like that of the golden child (aka favorite child) who can do no wrong in the eyes of the narcissistic parent.

The black sheep is the object of rational concern and does not fulfill a predetermined or predestined role like the scapegoat. The black sheep may present problems, but with the exception of a very few no child is inherently a problem child. The black sheep may simply walk to a different beat, is overtly rebellious, and may challenge conventions in addition to challenging authority. These mavericks and renegades operate outside of norms and breach societal codes of conduct but are not necessarily bad people. Black sheep may elicit rational concern from family members and others who may worry for their safety and wellbeing. But they may simply be free spirits unconcerned with norms or perceptions and products of emotionally healthy families.

Most importantly, the black sheep may go on to change the world and inspire others. They may become innovators and trendsetters and while they may start off as a bit delinquent they may end up influencing others and serving humanity. Scapegoats have the same potential but they carry the burden of guilt and shame and while they may turn out to be most emotionally healthy in their family of origin they often have to overcome their demons and complex trauma before they can go on to change the world.

Related Resources on the Drop-in Social Audio App

Scapegoat Strength
Rise Like a Phoenix
Hacking Narcissism