A scapegoat is a person or object on which anxiety or blame can be dumped, even when they don’t deserve it. This is the first in a three part series on this blog on scapegoating.
I must first insert the disclaimer that I am not a psychologist. Use this article and the resources in it to become aware of issues and as a basis to start your own research. If you are in danger, this blog is not enough. Get professional help right away.
But with this said, I will share with you the results of my own research and thoughts stemming from that.
The name “scapegoating” comes from a practice described in the Old Testament, in Leviticus Chapter 16. A single goat was chosen, upon which all the sins of the Israel community were placed. Then, that goat was taken into the wilderness and released.
When we dump our blame on a simplistic explanation (or on an individual person instead of all the players in the family), we create a scapegoat, an easy target for our anxiety.
By means of a personal story, I would like to illustrate how easy it is to single out and “scapegoat” one person (or department) rather than to address the root causes of a wider problem that is more properly addressed by changing the entire organizational system. The concept of scapegoating applies in all organizational systems, ranging from blaming politicians for worldwide economic trends to blaming one child in a dysfunctional family for exhibiting symptoms that are actually manifestations of problems within the larger family system.
Scapegoating can be a serious obstacle for conflict resolution, because it is impossible to address root causes of conflict if the wrong source of conflict is targeted. When there is conflict within any type of organization, care should be taken to examine the true causes and, where warranted, to address change that is needed throughout the entire system, not just singling out a single scapegoat. (More can be learned about “scapegoating” through study of Murray Bowen and his writings about Family Systems.)
My particular illustration about the temptation to create a scapegoat has to do with what it took for me to learn to be on time for work. It wasn’t just a matter of setting my alarm clock five minutes earlier in the morning. Learning to be on time for work required me to readjust my entire day, starting with the activities that led to being on time for bed at night.
The year was 1993. I was working full time as a Staff Attorney at the Office of the S.C. Attorney General. Every morning, I faced the task of getting two small children awake, dressing them, feeding them breakfast, brushing their teeth, packing their school papers and changes of clothes for the day, packing their lunch, putting on their coats, buckling them in their car seats and driving them to daycare. And every morning it was a struggle for me to get all this accomplished in time to arrive at my office by 8:30 A.M..
My small children always wanted to sleep just a bit longer. When they did awaken, they would dawdle while getting dressed. They would eat their breakfast slowly. After breakfast, they never just ran to get their teeth brushed, nor would their attention stay focused on getting their warm coats on. After we were outside, they were just as likely to play with the neighbor’s cat as to get in the car. You get the drift. As my mother might say, it was like “pulling teeth” to get them somewhere on time.
I knew that for me to be on time for work, we needed to leave the house by 7:45 A.M. At 7:30 I would still be cheerful, but as the clock approached 7:50 or 7:55, I was no longer a happy camper. Mentally, my mind would be racing ahead through my commute, through the time it would take me to drive them to daycare, walk them in, then driving to work, and culminating often with my imagining what it might be like to be late for a scheduled meeting . As the minutes of toddler dawdling ticked off, my stress level would skyrocket. When 8:00 arrived and we were still not in the car — when my adult time clock alarmed that I would be late for work if there were another, single, second of delay — my stress would reach a boiling point. My anger felt like a purple monster bursting out of the closet where I normally kept it locked.
After we were in the car, the easiest way for me to vent my anxiety and anger was to yell at my children for making me late. As my little captive audience sat buckled in their car seats, I would berate them for dawdling. I would angrily tell them, in my adult way, that I needed them to cooperate, to focus, and to do what they were told. Yelling at them to be on time relieved some of my tension, displacing it onto them by making them feel sad and guilty, but in fact it was not a solution that was designed to be particularly effective.
For in fact, the solution to my problem was more complicated than to have a small child “hop to it”. Was it really fair for me to blame them for doing what came naturally to children?
Over time, I realized that I was the adult. It was my responsibility to get them ready and to be on time, not theirs. My children’s sole responsibility was to be children. They were not in control, I was. They were dependent upon me to structure their lives so that they were doing the right things at the right times and keeping on an appropriate schedule.
The root causes of my being late was not my children. It was me.
When I became more honest with myself about my own expectations, it became more clear why I couldn’t blame my children.
What was I going to blame them for, for being children? Dawdling is normal four year old and two year old behavior. The problem was that I was not allowing enough time for them to act their age. I needed to wake them up at least half an hour earlier than what I was doing, to allow time for choices at breakfast, for experimenting with toothpaste, and for playing with the neighbor’s cat.
But to wake them up a half hour earlier was more complicated than it seemed. Because waking up half an hour earlier meant that my children needed to go to bed a forty five minutes hour earlier at night, to allow for bedtime story and cuddles. To get to bed earlier at night required me to give them bath earlier, which meant supper had to be earlier, and so on. Perhaps I even needed to adjust my grocery shopping schedule and times when I did other family chores.
If I had always blamed my children, the obvious “culprits” instead of making the systemic changes I needed to make, I would have been making my children into scapegoats for what was, in fact, a much larger and more complex challenge. To make a simple change, I needed to change an entire “system” of how things were done in my household. To accomplish that, I also needed the cooperation of my husband and any other person involved, meaning the entire “family system”. And that is the point of this blog post, which is to illustrate what a scapegoat is.
Making my children into scapegoats would have relieved my anxiety and thus made me feel better for a moment, but this would have had two very bad effects. First, I would have made my children feel badly for being children, for something they actually had no control over. It would have cascaded into their lives in the form of misplaced anxiety and poor self esteem.
Second, improper casting of blame would have enabled me to ignore the true cause, which was my own behavior. The existence of a scapegoate would thus enable me never to address the true root causes. My family would have been stuck in a rut of blame and guilt which by its very existence precluded true healing.
If I had only blamed my children and addressed the issue at the superficial level, by yelling at them to hurry up, then I never would have overcome the tardiness. To effect real solutions required me to examine and correct deeper systems of how I was operating. It was much harder to change my entire lifestyle. It would have been so much simpler just to yell at my kids. But that is the point.
And that is the primary lesson about why we need to root out and stop scapegoating.
As long as we displace our anxiety onto the target of a scapegoat, we may make ourselves feel better, but we’ll be locked in a dysfunctional system that will never meet our needs and that will never get better. To really cure the problem, we must address the deeper, more systemic issues, not simply the most obvious target.
None of us wants to admit that we scapegoat others. None of us wants to admit that we tend toward being or creating a dysfunctional family. But it is only through being honest and acknowledging the temptation that we face the truth and overcome it.
This blog post has shown a relatively simple, straightforward example. In this case, my simplistic response would have been to blame my children for dawdling, when in fact the cause of my work tardiness was much more complex and included factors in my control.
But what of others that are more subtle, for we’ve all be exposed to scapegoating and sometimes it’s harder to distinguish than others. The next article in this series, HERE, will discuss some of the contexts in which scapegoats are used to avoid facing the real challenges that can face families and organizations. Then, the third installment, HERE, will suggest one specific technique that may help a family scapegoat to overcome that label.
Bear in mind, however, that I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. If this article seems to ring true for you, feel free to think about it and apply it. If it does not, move on to other more scholarly research or consult in person with a counselor. And by all means, again, if you are in danger, take reasonable steps to protect yourself and to get the help you need.
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Do nothing? Say nothing? But what if the parent’s dysfunction is not limited to themselves such as alhoholism, but child abuse? My BPD mother abused me as a child. For most of my early life I said nothing out of fear. My silence did not inspire anyone else in the family to speak up and tell the truth. Everyone remained silent and in denial. When I did speak up later in my teen years to question why she was slapping me, stealing from me, calling me names, Yes she abuses me more rabidly, denied everything, and blamed me. The whole family did nothing to help me, and seemed to buy into her labeling and justifications for abusing me, namely I was “bad” I was “spoiled” I was a “bitch” who made her hit me etc. The family scapegoated me because what was their other option? Admit their mother/wife was a child abuser? No, they continued to keep it a secret. Speaking up made the rest of my family scapegoat and resent me. But my keeping silent allowed her to abuse me all the same. The only difference was if I spoke about the abuse my siblings and father would deny it and resent me, actively bully me into silence and seclusion. When I was quiet and pretended the abuse hadn’t happened, they’d tolerate me. My choices were 1. Quietly take the abuse every day and be tolerated by family 2. Ask my family for help to stop the abuse and get scapegoated and gaslighted and actively bullied by the entire family.
Is being merely tolerated worth the abuse? Is doing nothing the best way out of being scapegoated? Either way I was still being abused by the dysfunctional parent. Either way the family remained in denial and protected the parent. In cases like these where the parent targets one child to abuse (my mother has BPD) doing nothing is not going to make the other family members step up and do the right thing. They have every interest in keeping mum about the abuse. They will always deny its the parent and blame the scapegoated child. They can’t continue to like and love their parent AND acknowledge he/she is abusing a child. So they justify the parents maltreatment of the child. They don’t even see it as wrong. They won’t speak up on the child’s behalf. How does a targeted child overcome the scapegoat role in this family dynamic?
I want to clarify that I do not in any way, shape, or form mean to imply that child abuse (or any other kind of abuse, including spousal abuse) should be condoned or permitted to continue. Ever. I encourage anyone who is being abused to seek help immediately and to report the abuse to proper authorities. I am also not a psychologist but rather am a family mediator. I posted this information to help readers gain insight only into general patterns and general ways of breaking patterns. It cannot be specific advice in specific circumstances. Because you ask specifically, “how does a targeted child overcome the scapegoat role in this family dynamic,” my best answer is to encourage you to seek help from a qualified therapist or counselor. They will be able to consult with you privately, help you explore the family dynamics, and help you discern the options available to you in your particular circumstances. I wish I could offer some magic formula that would make things better, but as you can see the family doesn’t even acknowledge the problem. Many people who are caught in the pattern of being scapegoated end up separating themselves from the dysfunctional family and building a new life elsewhere, but that is a highly individual and personal decision. Only you can make such a deeply personal choice. I encourage you to get some help from a qualified therapist as you navigate this difficult path.