“And Aaron must lay both his hands upon the head of the goat and confess over it all the errors of the sons of Israel, and all their revolts and sins, and he must put them upon the head of the goat … and the goat must carry upon itself all their errors into the desert … into the wilderness” – Leviticus Ch 16.
That sounds biblical, yes? That’s because it is. The above is the first ever mention of a scapegoat, from the Old Testament. It’s a simple enough idea – the head priest transfers the sins of the people onto a goat (an innocent), which is then expelled from the community and forced into exile. It relieves the sinners of their burden of sin, essentially so they can feel better about themselves without doing any real penance.
Sound familiar? Scapegoating in the modern day is a similar process, but the goat is replaced with a person, group of people, or organisation. In any system, be it a friendship circle, a relationship, a family, a society, or a political movement, there is the potential for scapegoating. It happens when the dominant person or persons puts the blame on a less powerful person, relieving their own burden of guilt or responsibility in the process.
In therapeutic terms, this is often called projective identification (Clarke, 2019; Klein, 1975). Specifically, others act out or contain externalisations of unwanted parts of self. In some cases, the sender (scapegoater) may elicit in others (scapegoat) that which is projected; in other cases, the scapegoater may simply see the forbidden in the scapegoat and try to change or control them accordingly. In this way, the projected material (blame – yuck – criticism) is less toxic for the scapegoater and easier to manage insofar as it is “not them.” (Moreno, 2007).
“In scapegoating, the individual or group seeks to symbolically purge their own (largely implicit) feelings of inferiority, guilt, and self-hatred by perceiving a target individual or an outgroup as immoral or dangerous, and by expelling, isolating, or otherwise punishing that scapegoated target” (Rothschild et al, 2012, p.1148).
Let’s reframe this. Feeling like a scapegoat is a traumatic and isolating experience. Perhaps the following might be going on for you in your family or your relationship. You may often feel:
- Criticised, blamed, or singled out for mistreatment by one or more family members;
- Discredited or harassed when you try and stand up for yourself, or speak from your place of truth with family or partner;
- When attempting to name the family dynamic or call out the ‘bully’, you are criticised, labelled, and made to feel inferior or lacking (gaslighting);
- You become identified as broken, hard work, the black sheep, or the outsider;
- You struggle with self-doubt and low self-esteem. You feel insecure and find it difficult to trust others, be vulnerable, and experience intimacy.
Remember that this is an unfair power dynamic. The ‘goat’ is unfairly blamed for the incident or situation while the other parties shirk any responsibility: the bully and victim become locked in a power dynamic. The scapegoater (or more accurately, the perpetrator) is ‘invested’ in the ‘goat’ remaining powerless, meek, dependant, and misunderstood. The bully is either unwilling or unable to see the role they play in creating the drama, conflict and abuse.
In the original story, the goat is physically cast out, and sometimes this also occurs in the family or social systems. More often, however, the behaviour is more a psychological exile, a deep disconnect between the parties involved. Interestingly, in the Old Testament the fate of the goat is never mentioned.
I quite like to imagine that it walks out of the village, meanders around for a couple of days nibbling on some tussocks of grass, contemplating self and setting, and then finds a group of friendly and like-minded goats to hang out with. Being cast out (becoming the outsider) physically or psychologically is traumatic; however, in that state, real growth can occur, and new connections can be forged with deeper understanding of what makes relationships real – trust, mutual respect, and open communication.
“If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better.” — Carl Jung
“It’s too easy to criticize a man when he’s out of favour, and to make him shoulder the blame for everybody else’s mistakes.” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Clarke, Jeremy. (2019). We need to talk about Fabian: Klein’s ‘lost’ theory of projective identification and the social construction of gender/queer objects. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 33(3), 192-217.
Moreno, J. (2007). Scapegoating in group psychotherapy. The International Journal of Group Psychotherapy., 57(1), 93-104.
Rothschild, Z., Landau, M., Sullivan, D., & Keefer, L. (2012). A Dual-Motive Model of Scapegoating: Displacing Blame to Reduce Guilt or Increase Control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1148-1163.