The Scapegoat Role: Holding the Wound (part I)

“Why are you getting so upset?” “Did you have to bring that up? Can’t you see we’re doing fine not paying any attention to it!!” “Do we have to deal with YOUR issues?”

Have you found yourself targeted or blamed for situations in which you stuck your neck out, in hopes of making an important contribution, about something where you in fact knew more about the situation? Have you been the person who said the unspoken thing - such as pointing out injustice or ineffectiveness of a situation - that then got you into trouble? Has the fallout been painful, and alienating? Well, then, you might have experienced the “scapegoat role.”

Exploring the scapegoat role psychologically is something that’s been important for me as a therapist working with clients dealing with issues of marginalization, and personally understanding my own political experiences in diverse (or not so diverse) organizations. I’ve learned that scapegoating is a fact of group life. Groups create scapegoats. Families create scapegoats. Couples do too. Yet many psychological theories fail to grasp the dynamics in which the scapegoat role is created in our psyches, leading to what can feel like “blaming the victim”. Validating external injustice is thus for me an important step the path to healing.

Yet there is more.

Our scapegoated selves need a path back from the victimization back into empowerment. Being in a scapegoat role means living from a state of pain. Scapegoats often need support to find their way from the pain of isolation.

Finding support begins this healing journey when it bridges our feelings of isolation, and restores the scapegoated person’s ability to create effective, authentic connections with others. When we can share our voice in empowered ways, with others in the systems we live in, we bring connection and understanding, rather than reenact the violent pain of our wounds onto to others: we become able to feel we can connect and participate in difficult relationships more effectively. This leads to more fulfillment in the relationships that matter most to us.

First - Compassion - Let’s Take a Systems View

Scapegoating hurts! Of course! We’re excluded, we’re invited to take things personally, to go to our most wounded places. One thing that’s been key in my journey studying scapegoating, is the recognition that scapegoating is about group dynamics. We are group creatures, biologically effected in how we act and feel, by our roles in a group. Being given a scapegoat role is not about you personally, but about how our tribal brains have wired us to relate to others, and to deal with threats of complexity.

How does this work? A scapegoat can occur in any system - a family, a political organization, a community, or a couple - it can even occur in yourself when one part of you blames another part. By it’s nature, it starts in relationship to the communities we have participated in. This is the systems perspective.

According to Systems Centered Theory, which is on how groups integrate differences learned through experiential practice - a theory that has supported my own embodied understanding of how we heal from scapegoating - a person can become at risk for being scapegoated, (i.e. “induced into a scapegoat role”) any time there are underlying issues or differences that are not being addressed within a group of people - whether a family or a community or a society.

Furthermore, the nature of group dynamics is that any group naturally risks scapegoating somebody, even when they don’t intend to, even when they’re actively trying not to, let alone when they do! (There are strategies to reduce this, but that’s another discussion)

Sometimes one person or group of people is too different for others to take in. Sometimes there are conflicts in a family that are ignored and instead someone else in the family is blamed. Sometimes society as a whole scapegoats its most vulnerable members to divert attention from societal issues. Sometimes the strong desire to stay connected in a new group, and anxiety about people introducing differences, can lead groups to, ironically, outcast and scapegoat member, in order to preserve group cohesion.

In fact, everyone involved suffers from scapegoating. We need different voices and complexity to thrive. In the scapegoat role, from a group perspective, you’re left holding what a group cannot assimilate. In group psychology, this phenomenon occurs time and again in all sorts of groups where skills are not learned, and even in the most skillful groups in challenging areas.

The Personal Costs

Then there’s the personal impact.

The despair, the resentment, the rage or grief! Whatever our emotional go-to, the thermostat leaps! As human beings, we are social creatures wired to want to belong and connect, and we can’t help but respond to social exclusion like our tribal ancestors… with emotional pain. In fact, some neurobiologists argue that being shunned by a tribe triggers physiological responses signalling the risk of death. This can occur when scapegoating comes through bullying or violence, but it is less obvious when it occurs in more subtle emotional ways.

In my next post I discuss some of the psychologically painful costs of coping with the scapegoat role. There, I’ll also offer summary of some characteristics - challenges and gifts -of people who are vulnerable to being chosen for a group for a scapegoat role.

Eveline Wu MFT, is a somatic psychotherapist who has spent many years studying psychological and group dynamics theories on the scapegoat role from a mind/body perspective, in support of her own life experiences and those of her clients. She joins with all those who have suffered from the scapegoat role.