Understanding Scapegoating.

This is another subject clients consult us about and we have had the experience and ability to help them.

The ego defence of displacement plays a role in scapegoating, in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger frustration envy and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often the more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated target is then persecuted, providing the person doing the scapegoating not only with a conduit for his uncomfortable feelings, but also with pleasurable feelings of piety and self-righteous indignation. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero, even if both are purely fictional.

A good example of a scapegoat is Marie Antoinette, Queen of Louis XVI of France, whom the French people called L’Autre-chienne—a pun playing on Autrichienne (Austrian woman) and Autre chienne (other bitch)—and accused of being profligate and promiscuous. When Marie Antoinette came to France to marry the then heir to the throne, the country had already been near bankrupted by the reckless spending of Louis XV, and the young foreign princess quickly became the target of the people’s mounting ire.

A ‘scapegoat’ usually implies a person or group, but the mechanism of scapegoating can also apply to non-human entities, whether objects, animals, or demons. Conversely, human scapegoats are to varying degrees dehumanized and objectified; some, such as witches in medieval Europe, are quite literally demonized. The dehumanization of the scapegoat makes the scapegoating more potent and less guilt inducing, and may even lend it a sort of pre-ordained, cosmic inevitability.

Some would say that Satan the Devil was used as a Scapegoat for sins and interestingly they also depict his image as half man half goat.

According to René Girard, owing to human nature envy gradually builds up in a society until it reaches a tipping point, at which order and reason cede to mob rule, chaos, and violence. To quell this ‘madness of the crowds’, which poses an existential threat to the society, an exposed or vulnerable person or group is singled out as a sink for all the bad feeling, and the bad feeling bred from it.

After the defeat of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens, Socrates, with his close links to prominent oligarchs such as Critias, who had been the first and worst among the Thirty, no longer seemed like the harmless eccentric of old, but like a dangerous and corrupting influence, a breeder of tyrants and the enemy of the common man. In the febrile atmosphere that had taken over the city, any accusation made against him, however false or fanciful, was apt to be seized upon as a pretext to punish him and turn him into a scapegoat for all the evils of the tyranny. Once dispatched, a scapegoat may, particularly if he is also a martyr (one who opposes or resists a belief that is being imposed upon him), be totemized. Today, Socrates is chiefly remembered by his death; and Seneca even went so far as to opine that ‘it was the hemlock that made Socrates great’ (cicuta magnum Socratem fecit).

The term ‘scapegoat’ has its origin in the Old Testament, more specifically, in Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus, according to which God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed, but to be released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat.

In the West, the earliest use of the term “scapegoat” can be found in early Judaic ritual described in the Bible’s Book of Leviticus. The passage goes something like this:

“On the Day of Atonement a live goat was chosen by lot. The high priest, robed in linen garments, laid both his hands on the goat’s head, and confessed over it the iniquities of the children of Israel. The sins of the people thus symbolically transferred to the beast, it was taken out into the wilderness and let go. The people felt purged, and for the time being, guiltless.”

The term scapegoat, however, has evolved to refer to individuals who are symbolically or concretely made to bear responsibility for the faults or problems of others. For individuals, scapegoating is a psychological defence mechanism of denial through projecting responsibility and blame on others. It allows the perpetrator to eliminate negative feelings about him or herself and provides a sense of gratification. Furthermore, it justifies the self-righteous discharge of aggression.  For the perpetrator, it can provide a firm separation between good and bad. Others describe scapegoaters as insecure, motivated to raise their own status, particularly relative to the target. Having firmly convinced oneself that the other is responsible, it seems only logical to displace punishment as well.

It is unlikely, however, that this psychological explanation directly translates to the sociological level. At the group level, scapegoating does not reflect mass psychosis. At the same time, it is true that psychological issues may be involved for some group members and some may suffer from psychological problems. The aggregating of individuals to produce scapegoating at the societal level appears to be a complicated process involving a number of personality types and psychological processes. To put it simply, scapegoating involves the creation of a stark ‘us verses them’ dichotomy.

Regardless of whether individual or group scapegoating, it typically is based on real social, political, ideological, cultural, or economic power struggles. Scapegoats are frequently less powerful and more marginalized. This makes them easier targets. However, they need not be. Many of them are in fact privileged, at least in relative terms. The Jews throughout Europe, Chinese in Southeast Asia, or Koreans in inner city Los Angeles are but three examples of the latter. In each case, assertions of unfair advantage provide an explanation for the inferior economic position of others. This sentiment is often beneficial for political leaders who can deflect blame from their own shortcomings. For example, there is evidence that Indonesian government leaders and the military fueled anti-Chinese sentiment after the economic collapse in 1998.

Scapegoating often becomes an important part of conflict. Once scapegoating is perceived to be successful in generating positive feelings in perpetrators, there is likely to be reluctance to give it up. The scapegoated provide a ready explanation for troubles. Therefore, there is relatively little incentive for the perpetrator to give it up. For the scapegoated, they are left with few good options: to flee, to assimilate, or to fight back.

There are many innocents who carry the blame for others. It allows groups of people, families or whole nations to project their own prejudices and aggression away from themselves. It’s a very painful role to play, however family therapists believe the scapegoat is often the healthiest family member because they aren’t complicit in denying the dysfunction.If you find yourself as the ‘black sheep’, the ‘outcast’, or the ‘bad guy’, your self-esteem is likely to be so damaged that you find yourself actually exhibiting the negative descriptions you hear about yourself. This might take the form of not living up to your potential, not reaching your true earning capacity, having unhealthy relationships with people who don’t treat you well, and not reaching for your dreams.

Some signs that you are, or have been, in this role include:


  • You are made responsible for family issues, disagreements and conflicts, even when these occur as a result of other people’s actions.
  • Other family members have been verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you
  • You are disbelieved and called a liar if you try to defend yourself and explain what really happened
  • People outside the family system go along with the bullying or look the other way when you ask for help
  • You are expected to help other family members out but cannot expect the same help in return
  • You find yourself asking ‘what did I do now?’ on a regular basis
  • You notice that the person accusing you of bad behaviour is the one actually engaging in this behaviour, eg. accuses you of being rude while they are repeatedly rude to you
  • Your achievements are minimised or turned into something negative, eg. you mention you got a good grade on your last assignment and you’re told ‘you think you’re better than us’.

How did you end up in this role?

The scapegoat is carefully chosen, although probably not consciously. He or she is the one who rocks the boat in some way, either through being different (artistic when the rest of the family is intellectual, for example) or through being very sensitive and therefore unable to pretend along with everyone else that the family dysfunction is not happening.

The scapegoat builds their identity on the constant stream of information they receive about their ‘badness’.  They may know inside that they haven’t done anything to warrant this treatment, but it seems that no-one else sees this. As a result they feel insecure and unsafe, making them very vulnerable.

They may find themselves in abusive situations outside the home – at school, in the workplace, in relationships – which seems to further confirm their status as ‘bad’. Consequently they find it very difficult to trust others and may avoid closeness with others altogether as a result.

The scapegoat is often lonely, hurt, confused, and filled with feelings of inadequacy. Without sufficient encouragement, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They grow up lacking the ability to comfortably interact with others, engage in team activities and sports, etc, and this in turn leads them to avoid opportunities to move forward personally and professionally. Even when they do advance, they will tend to downplay their successes.

Although they are often very bright, not much is expected of the scapegoat and they can become under-achievers, although it’s obvious they would be highly successful if they could believe in themselves.

How to step out of the scapegoat role

The first step to finding your true identity outside this appointed role is to recognise it is not the truth about you. The people who scapegoated you had their own agenda and they needed you in this role to help them avoid dealing with their own problems. In projecting their own defects on to you, they were able to sidestep the pain of their own challenges. The decision to scapegoat you was based on their own needs and had little to do with who you are at all.

Deep inside, it’s likely that there’s a part of you that knows the truth, that you are a good kind loving person and you have been cast into a role that does not reflect this or allow others to see it. Tune into this part, it will help you stand your ground and say no to further mistreatment.

Because of the projection involved in scapegoating, it’s likely that the depth of self-loathing and shame you feel are not actually yours. These feelings belong to the people who thought you were a useful dumping ground for their ‘stuff’. When these feelings come up, question their veracity – where does this feeling come from and is it based on any real evidence?

Try not to fall into magical thinking – feeling not good enough doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough. It’s like thinking that because we ‘feel fat’ everyone will look at us and see how ‘fat’ we are. It’s just a feeling, and feelings are not facts. Remind yourself of all the kind things you’ve done, the praise and support you’ve had from others, the achievements you’ve reached.

We all have both good and bad points, the focus on yours has been out of balance towards ‘all bad’ – remind yourself of all the good points too, you do have them and good friends have probably been trying to point them out to you for years!

Let go of explaining and justifying yourself to people who are invested in seeing you as ‘bad’. Trying to gain understanding from abusive family members, co-workers or ‘friends’ keeps you stuck because they are not able to give you this. This is a reflection on them, not you.

However do ask to be treated respectfully from now, keeping in mind that doing this is likely to be viewed as more evidence of your ‘badness’. Remember this is not the truth, even if some people never apologise for their disrespectful behaviour. You are entitled to make statements along the lines of “The way you just spoke to me is not acceptable, please don’t speak to me like that again” and “If you want speak to me, please do it civilly or I won’t respond.”

This step is made easier if you’ve already made a commitment to learn how to trust and respect yourself first. You will be less likely to back down in the face of other people’s accusations and insistence that you are out of line if you believe you deserve respect.

Stepping out of the scapegoat role can sometimes mean that unfortunately you are unable to continue a relationship with some of the people in your life. If they are determined to keep you in this role, you may need to limit or even cut contact with them. This may cause pain, but it will be less painful than continuing in this role.

Make a regular practice of treating yourself with loving kindness and self-acceptance.  It will feel unfamiliar and false, even impossible, at first but that’s because it’s a new experience. Keep going until it becomes a habit. This is your best protection against being exploited and victimized in the future.

You are not alone

Many people have experienced being loaded up with the shortcomings of others and sent out into the wilderness alone, about underachieving and living down to expectations. They have seem themselves as naive, incompetent and unattractive with woefully inadequate social skills. They have tiptoed around trying to avoid attention and could never ask for help with anything and became fearful of taking on anything that they may not be able to work out by themselves.

Of course looking back they can see they were re-enacting the situation in their own family home. Some have also transferred it to every new environment they came across. It’s a painful process and has lifelong implications, however it doesn’t have to rule your life and you can step out of this role, even while those who put you in the role continue to do so.

As a child, you had no choice, but as an adult there are choices. The best choice you can make is to decide every day that you will live according to the person you truly are inside, rather than who other people say you are or want you to be. Know that you are capable, smart, competent, important, valuable, and have a lot to offer. You are worthy you make a difference and you matter. If you meet people who don’t appreciate these things about you, let them go.

Recognising that other people are not your family, and that your scapegoat status is obsolete, along with acknowledging the achievements you have made even with your lack of self-confidence will turn things around for you. You will probably need support and it may take time to find your true self again, one you can love and value, but it’s worth investing in this process. Remember that you are worth the effort.

Psychology Today.


2 thoughts on “Understanding Scapegoating.

  1. An excellent blog about an important issue. There are so many people who have been cast into this role who have huge potential. Others have found it expedient to attempt to extinguish that potential through probable envy or fear of something different and innovative. To watch folk discover their potential is as magical as watching a flower slowly unfold and blossom. 🙂


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