Christopher McHale
6 min readNov 30, 2023

Every family has one, in mine it’s me.

Photo by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash

Estrangement and Heartache in a Close-Knit Family

I come from a big family. I always loved my big family. But things didn’t work out. Others passed judgement and without a word I found myself estranged from most folks in my family.

I felt the vibe. I mean you do, don’t you? Blood ties are close. You feels things in a family. When the silent tide turned against me it hurt. Deeply.

I got sick. I had to have a major operation. In the times gone by that would have meant a family gathering around me. I certainly stood sentinel in hospital corridors for different family members over the years.

For me, it was a lot less so. Some people showed up. My kids. A couple of cousins. Friends. And lucky me, my soulmate.

But some people who I had once held close to my heart turned away. Not a word.

It took a long time to get perspective on this. I’m not a young man. I’ve had lots of disagreements with folks over the years. But this was different. This was deeper.

I’d pushed the boundaries of family. I’d had a nasty divorce. The divorce led to a business dispute. Family tried to help out with the business side of things but that turned out to be a bad choice. Things spiraled. To survive, to help my kids survive, I tried changing the rules of my family dynamic. No chance. Families aren’t that flexible. We’ve all felt it. The older brother who still treats you like a kid. The cousin that trample your feelings and then expects automatic forgiveness.

It just becomes too much.

And then it breaks.

What is a scapegoat?

Scapegoating another person is a form of displacement in a relationship.

Displacement is a defense mechanism where negative feelings like anger or guilt are redirected towards someone else, often a more vulnerable person or group. This is common in scapegoating, where outsiders or minorities are often blamed and persecuted. This allows the person doing the scapegoating to feel better, replacing their negative feelings with a false sense of justification and superiority.

In a family, this is a hard core choice. I’m not sure the scapegoating family ever understands the choice they made. And the toughest part of this is it tends to bleed across generations. Unassailable walls are built. Within several short years, an entire family can be destroyed. And there’s no putting the pieces back together.

Is it worth it to destroy a family this way?

Wouldn’t it be better to forgive?

To preserve?

To strengthen?

Five Steps to Overcoming Scapegoating in Families

If you decide to seek healing and love, here are five possible ways out of scapegoat hell.

  • Open Communication: Establish a culture of open and honest communication within the family. Encourage family members to express their feelings and concerns directly and respectfully, rather than directing them towards a scapegoat.
  • Family Counseling: Seek professional help through family therapy. A therapist can help identify the dynamics that lead to scapegoating and guide the family in developing healthier ways of interacting and resolving conflicts.
  • Education and Awareness: Educate family members about the concept of scapegoating and its harmful effects. Awareness can help prevent the unconscious redirection of negative emotions onto a single person.
  • Develop Empathy: Encourage family members to understand and empathize with each other’s experiences and perspectives. This can reduce the tendency to blame or single out one person as the cause of problems.
  • Shared Responsibility: Foster a sense of shared responsibility within the family. Encourage each member to take accountability for their actions and the overall well-being of the family, rather than attributing problems to one individual.

Understanding Scapegoating Impact in Families

I reached. by out many times to a person I had so unwittingly offended. But it was hopeless. The scapegoating grew. A cancer in my family. And bonds were fatally severed. Eventually, I made peace with it.

I surrendered.

I had a lot of responsibility to this situation. I needed to acknowledge that. But there were other things at play. Some family members stoked the fires. They took the opportunity to hurt. Some innocent members of the family, children, became scapegoated as well.

The family bonds broke in other ways. Other branches of the aged family tree snapped as well. It was like a dam of. dysfunction burst.

I needed to understand all this. I needed perspective. I’m a writer. I need to dig down on it.

The Cycle of Scapegoating

René Girard, the French philosopher, offered a deep insight into scapegoating: “The scapegoat bears the sins of the whole community, and his sacrifice restores the community to the good graces of the deity.”

I’d always been fascinated with the concept of the village sin eater. Raised a Catholic, I was fully prepared to take on all the family guilt.

But of course that was bullshit. I didn’t really want to be a family martyr.

I came across this from Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who touched on the societal aspect: “Madness is rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.”

So did that mean my family had gone mad? Or maybe the chilly wand of insanity had brushed me?

I’d certainly had a rough time of it. Lots of dark nights. Lots of times where an end of things became very seductive in my mind.

I read an anonymous saying that captured the essence of scapegoating: “Blaming others is excusing yourself.”

I’ve certainly been a blamer. As I got more emotionally healthy I came to see my need to blame as a sign of my own turmoil, which led me to see the need to blame as a disturbing symptom.

It was startling to realize how much blaming was going on in today’s culture. And what that meant. As it became clear to me, I freaked out.

How mentally ill is our society? Cable news is a 24/7 blame game. Social media is blame-o-rama.

The family bonds broke in other ways. Other branches of the aged family tree snapped as well. It was like a dam of. dysfunction burst.

I began to see my family situation as an extension of a broader tact toward blame. Culturally, blaming is our normal discourse. It’s always been that way, but perhaps now more than ever this soul-sucking trait of humanity is guiding our choices. Take no responsibility. Blame. That’s certainly our politics. And it’s become our lifestyle.

Is it all guilt? Are we unhappy with the way the world is going? Do we feel bad we’re leaving our children a total mess? Is our lack of ethics making us culturally suicidal?

Breaking the Cycle of Scapegoating

My journey through the scapegoating experience in my family had been both painful and enlightening. It’s a reflection of a larger societal issue, where blaming others and avoiding personal responsibility has become the norm.

This destructive behavior not only tears families apart but also reflects a troubling trend in our broader culture. I’ve learned that healing starts with self-awareness and taking responsibility for our actions. Blaming is an easy way out, but it solves nothing and only perpetuates the cycle of hurt.

As I’ve navigated through this, I’ve realized the importance of breaking this cycle, starting with myself and extending to my family and society. It’s a tough journey, but it’s essential for personal growth and for fostering a healthier, more empathetic community.

By acknowledging our role in these dynamics and working towards change, we can hope to mend broken bonds and create a more understanding and supportive environment for all.

Christopher McHale is a dedicated creative worker looking for innovations to help artists survive in an increasingly challenging time. Pkease support his work by visiting and subscribing.



Christopher McHale

Writer | Composer | Producer | Human | Christopher writes about creativity, culture, technology, music, writing.