In my first post on this topic we explored some real group dynamics that lead to “receiving the scapegoat role. Here I’d like to further discuss the psychological ways we can reenact this role and the pain of it ongoingly in life.
As I begin, I want to reacknowledge the real power of present day groups forces that pull us into psychological roles and reactions and trigger survival fears. Particularly when the issue of scapegoating is related to society level issues - like racism or homophobia or transphobia - society hits some of us with the “opportunity” (no thanks!) to take on that role over and over again. Or, in your situation, you might note that your family is still alive and unchanged, and continue to blame you for their problems until the last time you spoke.
That said, when we’ve already been a scapegoat earlier in life, we’re even more vulnerable to becoming one later in life. A discussion of these internal dynamics is in empathy of the way trauma fuels cycles of pain.
A CYCLE OF PAIN - TAKING THINGS PERSONALLY
Scapegoating involves when a group targets a person who dares to speak up a group issue, but not conveniently, into an issue about the speaker, rather than have it be addressed by the group. When we “accept” the role, we are asked to take things personally, and treated as if we were the problem, or that it is our “personal” issue. I suspect, if you’re reading this far, you join me in recognizing challenges of this dynamic in your own life or in situations you’ve been in. Maybe you’ve taken things personally! Or maybe you’ve said, “I’m not going to take it personally!” But still did.
Let’s hold that struggle with compassion!
For many us with attuned sensitivity to scapegoating, earlier wounds remain unprocessed at deeper levels. Our hypervigilence radar goes off just by witnessing the scapegoating of others. The gift can be protection of others. The cost is when this goes awry. Being scapegoated anew in communities that matter to us can trigger deep pain or reactivity. It is these traumatic feelings, messages, and reflexive defenses that invite us to repeat our role in new situations.
Whether we find ourselves walking in shame, feeling distrustful and afraid to engage, or spiraling and deeply shaken by day-to-day events, deepening into the pain of blame, or acting out that pain…the scapegoat role invites us to lose the wholeness of ourselves. We lose our limited capacity for more effective connection. Our ability to connect with others safely in the here-and-now, goes out the window. We can end up fragilely guarding our emotional safety in many situations. Trusting we can speak up becomes fraught: the role eats into our psychological well-being.
Scapegoats are vulnerable to repeatedly reliving this role in many situations due to a combination of being handed the role and our own now-learned habits to take us down that familiar “uh-oh-not-again” emotional roller coaster with rapid speed.
Here are some characteristic aspects of vulnerable scapegoats
—-we’ve felt different or been marginalized in our lives
—-we thus take a different perspective
—-we usually are ahead of others on thinking about differences
—-we take risks - some of us say proudly, some say stupidly - but stick our necks out
And some vulnerable truths
—-we can be out of touch with the pulse of the group because we’re already ahead
—-we don’t always know how to reach out for the support we need
—-we need support
—-we often feel we can’t get support, and we have to do it alone
—-we may just go off do things our own way, and yet not find our way
—-other people don’t understand us
—-in our own pain, we may not be able to take in others
Do these fit you? Are you saying obviously, or I’m not so sure?
DECIDING HOW MUCH TO FOLLOW OUR LONGINGS
What happens so often with the trauma of scapegoating is self-exile: our honest differing, forward-thinking voice, becomes a stressful or anxiety-ridden choice. Particularly when we have been blamed or excluded for that voice. When we don’t get support in a time of social exclusion, which in fact our brains and being need, we can develop strategies or habits or beliefs that ward off the capacity to take in support in the future when it is available. Some beliefs include “I’m always alone,” “I don’t need help.” Or it could actually be a way of tuning out of the group consciousness, in order to protect yourself, that leads you to not be able to participate in relationships effectively. Sadly, it can also involve puffing ourselves up and becoming unwittingly insensitive to others to protect our own sensitivity.
Many of us have never experienced the deep aspects of ourselves - or our core values - of being truly seen (or even when seen, have fully taken it in). Scapegoating is particularly vulnerable. We may carry around internal devaluing, at some emotional level, of that part of ourselves that dares to step forwards in the world. Sometimes we may tell ourselves that we value ourselves, cognitively or politically, yet still find in vulnerable moments deep fear or conflict arise as we seek to access our full confident self-expression.
Past scapegoating can also lead us to adopt adaptive coping strategies, which is a psychological term for a coping strategy that worked well in the past, and has limits in the present.
For example, It’s protective to not worry too much what others think, for example, except when we stop listening to others who we want to be connected with. When we get support from outside groups or a smaller community of support, or just one friend, we are strengthened. We can hold our allies in mind and be stronger or it. Yet we may then became a tribe that scapegoats others, in our own quest for marginal safety.
For many of us, the natural longing to be seen never closes down. You may find yourself still longing to be understood by those that have excluded you. Or you may open yourself again, because you want to expand your influence and fulfillment in the world. Though you can hide your pain, your shadow self often internally hungers for the witnessing and grasping of your capacities or contributions, or your being, in the eyes of others.
We all long to grow and make a difference. The scapegoat role can leave a person with a traumatic emotional wound that longs for the repair of reconnection. This is a healthy hunger for healing - for wholeness and interwoven community - that anthropologists have seen as biological attempt of trauma responses…to seek recognition.
However, sometimes, this combination of hunger and fear can make decisions about connection confusing. Yes, it is actually healthy to pull ourselves away from those situations that are so wounding. Yet this pattern to pull away can also seal ourselves too strongly, preventing us from finding connection in those places where it is available, particularly when we are reenacting the past. Our bodies tense reflexively under fear of threat and under internal emotional fear of exclusion that can be the most wrenching tension in the chest and neck.
Under this psycho-physical strain, we then seek to counter what feels like internal blocks, and push forwards too strongly. These dynamics become a liability for being able to expand yourself into doing things in life you want, or to know what battles matter in your life, when your needs for recognition stay unmet, and unconscious hungers send mixed internal signals.
A PATH THROUGH TO EFFECTIVE EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION
So often personal dynamics, systems, societies, relationships, or even our mindset, can seem fixed in stone. Yet all things evolve or change. If there’s one truth, it’s that nothing can stay the same forever. There are skills we can grow in relationship, so that we can evolve things in a better direction. We have a biological force going for us: this drive for connection, when harnessed, is a powerful force!
Many times, healing the scapegoat role on a personal level is about deep healing of trauma, empowerment, and a place to process emotion and find safety in relationship.
Healing the scapegoat role in community means learning how to forge new relationships of repair and effective emotional communication. Sometimes it involves closing certain connections for protection, for a period of time. Other times, it may involve gaining the skills and capacities, in the arenas you chose, to engage in new dynamics. In the process, it is also possible to learn new skills to support others to not fall into these roles. As we rise from the pain, we find we are not alone in feeling like the scapegoat! We develop compassion and skills to support our connections and communities to be the types of connections we want.
These skills, this healing of scapegoating, start with the neurobiology of our emotions. It involves touching into our body wisdom to learn to access powerful transformative emotions from a state of internal ground. Then it involves learning how to find recognition for ourselves and others in ways that bring us back into connection, rather than out of connection. It means learning to authentically take yourself out of patterns of hiding or internal pain, and into the world in a way that shows yourself to your partner, your friends or your communities - in the situations that feel safe - in the way you in fact desire to be seen. Then it means ongoing skills that support more security in your relationships and the risks you take in life, or the unexpected ones you face.
So now, let’s mention some wonderful truths of scapegoats
—Often sensitive to injustice in the world
—Empathy for vulnerabilty and protecting others
—Have developed unique skills, intelligence or knowledge of value to the world we we learn to bring it forwards in ways which care for ourselves
—Deep capacity for leadership, contribution, and love
—Resiliency and capacity to lift others and selves from the scapegoat role
Wouldn’t it be great if you could celebrate your gifts, yourself, and feel safe and connected in community? Yes, there is a path. Let’s walk together.
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.