You are not who they say you are, you are who you say you are.
The word ‘scapegoat’ came originally from a ceremonial practice where the shame and sin of the people was symbolically transferred on to an innocent goat to carry alone into the wilderness.
There are many innocents who carry the blame for others. It allows workplaces, families or whole nations to project their own dysfunction away from themselves.
It’s a 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 of the people around them.
If you find yourself being the ‘black sheep’, the ‘outcast’, or the ‘bad guy’, your self-esteem is likely to be so damaged that you may find yourself actually exhibiting the negative descriptions you’ve heard 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.
Try this short checklist to see if you show signs of being scapegoated:
- Are you often made responsible for issues, disagreements and conflicts, even when these occur as a result of other people’s actions?
- Have others been verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you?
- Have you been disbelieved and called a liar when you try to defend yourself and explain what really happened?
- Have people outside the family or workplace gone along with the bullying or looked the other way when you asked for help?
- Are you expected to help others out but cannot expect the same help in return?
- Do you find yourself asking ‘what did I do now?’ on a regular basis?
- Do 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?
- Are your achievements 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’?
All of these are signs you are being expected to carry the ‘sins’ of others, just as the ceremonial goat once did.
The scapegoat is usually different in some way – artistic when the rest of the family is intellectual, for example. It might be the highly sensitive one or the introverted truth-teller who cannot hide their true emotions and is therefore unable to pretend along with everyone else that the 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 does.
Consequently they find it difficult to trust others and may avoid closeness as a result. They are often lonely, hurt, confused, and filled with feelings of inadequacy. Without sufficient encouragement, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Lacking the confidence to interact easily with others or engage in team activities, they may miss opportunities to move forward personally and professionally as a result. Even when they do, they will tend to downplay their successes.
The first step to finding your true identity outside the role of scapegoat is to recognise this is not the truth about you.
Next week I’ll cover strategies for stepping out of this role and forging a new identity for yourself.
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