She's outraged. Everyone in the girl's dorm is mad at her. Everyone at work is mad at her. Everyone in her family is mad at her. Even her boyfriend is mad at her. She fumes about injustices, favoritism and toadying. She's weary from battle and furious at the wrongs of society. She's targeted, gossiped about, confronted, ostracized and perceived to be a troublemaker. Does this pattern sound familiar?
This young woman is the scapegoat in her family of origin. If you were the scapegoat (the black sheep, the screw up, the problem child) in your family you probably replicate that pattern in all of your adult relationships. Whether it's colleagues at work, friends or romantic partners, somehow you end up being the scapegoat in every situation. How does this happen? How do you stop the pattern?
I was the scaepgoat in my family, so this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Do I still replicate the pattern? I tend to, but I'm becoming better and better and stopping the pattern. It is hard work. You have to be willing to take a long hard look at your own behavior and own up to the part you play in recreating the role. You have to be willing to give up long held beliefs and ideals. You have to be willing to do something different. But I believe that if anyone can own what they are doing and take responsibility for it, it is a scapegoat. They are strong this way and they value the truth - at any cost - even if it means recognizing they are the heart of their own problems.
Is it worth it? YES! Life is so much easier when you are not walking around with a target on your back.
What are the behaviors you might be doing to cause the role reenactment?
Identifying these patterns of behavior and thinking are also difficult to identify. You've been programmed all your life to act and think this way. I spent years groping around in the dark because I found nothing written about this anywhere. I decided to write down what I've learned so perhaps other scapegoats won't have to be in the dark as long as I was. There are many, many different ways to be a scapegoat, but here are some I've found.
If you aren't sure if this describes you or not ask a friend or family member who will give you honest, but compassionate feedback.
Black and White Thinking
Scapegoats tend to have very black and white thinking. Things are either all good or all bad. They are completely right or completely wrong. This kind of thinking ties in closing with maintaining some of the behaviors listed below. This is one of things which will make change difficult. Convincing a scapegoat that a little wrong can be good or that giving in a little bit is not weakness. They tend to see everything as all or nothing.
To overcome this, try to identify when you are reducing complex things to black and white thinking. Try to develop a more balanced view of things. Is it possible something could have pros and cons? Good and bad qualities? Is it possible that always telling the truth might not be a good idea? Can you think of instances when it would not be? Look for words in your thinking which indicate black and white thinking; always, never, perfect, impossible.
Scapegoats can be the ultimate idealists. They believe in ultimate truth and absolute justice and they are quick to grab their sword and shield and fight for their ideals. Therein lies the problem. Scapegoats have little tolerance for people who don't life up to their ideals and this is most people. Life and the human beings in it rarely life up such perfection.
To overcome this do a reality check. Do you expect things of other people you do not manage yourself? Do you set the bar so high no one could ever live up to it? Do you expect perfection instead of humanity? To live and play well with others you have to allow other humans their flaws and their foibles. Instead of idealism, embrace tolerance.
Defender of the Weak, Righter of Wrongs
Some scapegoats love to fight for the underdog whether it be a person or a cause. They rush in with their sword and shield ready and anxious to do battle. They believe with all their hearts that this is what caring people do for each other and anyone who does not defend those who are less fortunate are weak, heartless or cold. We love scapegoats for this, and their willingness to fight for others comes from their good hearts, but it truly hurts them in the end.
When other people find out the scapegoat takes up their battles for them, they will go out of their way to bring all their complaints to the scapegoat. So it looks like this: Ms. Scapegoat is happily working away until "Joe" comes over to complain about the increased work load everyone in the department is being given. He complains how unfair it is (a magic word to incite a scapegoat - "unfair") that this burden is being placed on them and not some other department which has a lighter work load. Ms. Scapegoat feels her dander rising as Joe talks on and eventually finds herself worked up into a lather. She marches off to the boss' office to tell her just how unjust she feels this situation is while Joe saunters back to his cubicle.
The problem with this type of thinking is that it isn't really fair to the person being defended. If someone else always fights their battles for them, they never learn to stand up for themselves. In fighting their battle for them, the scapegoat communicates to them that they are too weak to help themselves and only the scapegoat can save them. This glorifies the scapegoat more than it helps the defenseless. To truly help someone, you help them stand up for themselves and fight their own battles.
This constant fighting of other people's battles also makes the scapegoat a target. They are labelled a troublemaker, a complainer, a problem employee who is always grousing about something. It makes it twice as difficult for the scapegoat to get their own needs met. If the scapegoat has gone to the boss every week for 10 weeks in a row to complain about some injustice that is being done to so-and-so, when the scapegoat goes to the boss on the 11th week to ask for something they themselves need, the boss is already sick of them complaining and turns a deaf ear.
How to stop it? Ask yourself, "Did I care about this before Joe came to me about it?" If Ms. Scapegoat heard the news about the increased work load and had no feelings about it before Joe came along, then the problem belongs to Joe, not to them. So she needs to sit down and let Joe work it out. If Joe is so upset by it, let him go talk to the boss about it. If Joe is not enough upset by the change to take it to the boss, perhaps the scapegoat should not act on it either.
Words to watch for when you are replicating this behavior may be; unfair, unjust, right, should, can't ought. some ideas which may indicate this line of thinking might be; "It's not fair", "That isn't right", "They shouldn't treat people that way", "They ought to do it the right way", "They can't get away with that".
The Truth Teller
In their family of origin, the scapegoat was probably the truth teller. The scapegoat would be the one to say out loud that dad was not "sick", he was drunk. Mom is not "resting", she is high. Aunt Sally is not "under the weather", she had a psychotic break. Grandpa Smith is not "odd", he is a pervert. This truth telling had a purpose in their family of origin. It brought out the real issue behind the dysfunction. But scapegoats often carry over this need to tell the truth into their adult lives with disastrous results.
The mistaken belief here is that the truth must be told at all times. See the black and white thinking? All truths must be told every time. Now we all know that simply isn't true. If your wife turns and ask you, "Honey, do you think this makes me look fat?" do NOT tell the truth.
The belief that the truth must always be spoken is paired with a belief that failing to tell the truth makes you weak or hypocritical (because the people in their family of origin were too dysfunctional to deal with their truth). The scapegoat generalizes this opinion to everyone in their lives. They fail to realize you might fudge on the truth to spare someone's feelings. You may fudge on the truth to avoid a confrontation with someone who is unreasonable or about an issue you don't care about. The scapegoat will not realize that other people may be just as capable of fighting battles of their own, but unlike the scapegoat, they carefully pick their battles rather than taking on every battle that comes their way.
To change the behavior the scapegoat has to realize that letting the truth slide a bit can smooth out their rocky relationships and go a long way in avoiding frivolous and self-defeating confrontations.
Rule Enforcer (Self-Righteousness)
Self-righteouosness is a heady and intoxicating emotion and is found in some scapegoats. The self-righteous assume that they know the only proper way of doing things and that other's should see things their way. They may assume that there is only one right way of doing things. Again, you can see the black and white thinking. The self-righteous also believe that it is their task to ensure that others do things in the way the self-righteous have determined to be right or correct.
The client in the opening scenario felt the need to constantly remind the girls in her university dorm that smoking in the rooms was not permitted. She could not understand why she was targeted for this behavior since she was only pointing out the rules. Technically this is true. She was pointing out the rules and smoking was against the rules. But you can imagine how unpopular this made her with the other girls. Intolerance of human foibles can definitely put a big target on your forehead.
How to change it? A friend once asked me as I was gearing up for a battle, "Is this really a hill you want to die on?" It had never occurred to me that I could pick my battles. Ask yourself if you really want to die on this hill. Do you really care if they smoke or not? Is this really where you want to spend your energy? Is it really affecting you?
Words to watch for; should, must, right, correct, wrong, proper, acceptable, suitable, can't. Ideas which might indicate self-righteousness; "They should do it this way", "It must be done this way", "That isn't right!", "That is just wrong", "That isn't the way to do it properly", "That isn't acceptable", "They can't get away with that".
Odd Man Out
People who are isolated, odd or different are easier to scapegoat. People who are disliked are easier to scapegoat. People who create fear, aversion, fatigue, anxiety, envy, guilt or other negative emotions in others are easier to scapegoat. This is why people who are sexually (i.e. gays or lesbians) or religiously (i.e. muslims, pagans) different can become targets. This is why people who have annoying or frustrating behaviors can be targeted. We often see a disabled child being made the scapegoat of the family. Or the "odd" child. A child with whom the scapegoating parents easily identify with may also make an easy target. For instance, if a mother has a problem with her own sexuality, her daughter may act out sexually when she starts dating and become a target for mom's scapegoating. A father with anger issues whose son can't control his temper may target the son. A child with behavior problems may become the scapegoat because the behavior problems make managing them difficult. This is why you will sometimes see an autistic child or a child with conduct disorder being scapegoated. Since driving the scapegoat away from the group is part of the interaction, someone who is already operating on the fringes makes a more desirable target. The group does not have to lose a valued member.
What positive steps can you take to stop replicating the scapegoat role?
Therefore, if you are trying to break free of the scapegoat pattern it is important to "play well with others". Work hard at building bridges with the other people in your group - whether it is a group of colleagues, roommates, family members or friends. Not being isolated to the outer fringes of the group makes you harder to villify and scapegoat because you are one of them. Generating positive feelings in others makes it harder for them to scapegoat you.
If you are an employee, but happy and pleasant about where you work. Be determined to work in harmony with others and let gossip, office politics and other people's opinions and issues fall away. If Angie has a problem with Mark, let it stay with Angie. You don't have a problem working with Mark. I once caught myself listening to my colleagues gripe and complain about another colleague, "Miguel". They had problems working with him and held a lot of resentment about things he did that made their work harder or disparaged their work. I was getting truly incensed at Miguel's bad behavior when I caught myself. Wait a minute! I never had a problem working with Miguel. He had a few flaws, but I really like to talk to him because he was very, very intelligent and had a lot to say I'd never heard before. Miguel and I worked quite well together. So what was my problem? It wasn't my problem. It was theirs. And I almost picked it up and ran with it. Whew! A near miss. But I'm getting better at catching myself. This brings me to my next point.
As a scapegoat, I seemed to surround myself with gripers and complainers. People who brought whatever they were unhappy about to me. Why? So I would fight their battles for them. Part of my "rehabilitation" was to change the people with whom I surrounded myself. Remember, GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out. I stopped listening to gossip and negativity. When it started, I went back to my office. I cut off endless negative comments about other people. I stopped my own griping. If you are not happy about where you are - move. Whether it is a job, a geographical location, a living situation or a relationship. Change it or leave it. Don't sit around griping about it. No one wants to be a around a complainer, unless they are dumping their negativity on you to carry for them. Negativity draws negativity to you. Stop carrying other people's emotional garbage around.
Well, that's what I've learned so far. In my new job position, I have totally broken the scapegoat role and get along famously with all my colleagues, even Miguel. Life is so much simplier. As I learn more about breaking this role pattern, I will keep posting here so stay tuned. You can find all my articles about the Scapegoat Role in the Categories List at the right.