Scapegoats in families have long been the living “thermometers” of the health of a family system or dynamic. They are but one expression of family dysfunction and often play a very important role. In modern society, scapegoats are generally accepted by licensed therapists to be the one who tells (or acts out) the truth in the family, the elephant in the living room that no one is talking about. It is this act of truth telling that makes them the target for family rebuke and this is why they are often the first person the therapist wants to talk to.
More on that later. What most people don’t know is the legend of the scapegoat:
The Scapegoat is an old Jewish custom. In the days before meteorology and biology, ancient peoples who experienced plagues, famine or drought often believed that God was punishing them for a sin. But they did not know who among them had committed the sin. So they performed an ancient ritual. A goat was brought into the center of the community. (No animals will be harmed in the writing of this article. I promise.) A ritual was performed which allowed each member of the community to heap their individual sins upon the goat. The goat was then driven out into the desert, away from the community. The hope was that the goat would remove the sins from the community in order to glean favor from God and have the punishment lifted.
Now at this point I know you’re probably asking yourself: How do I become a scapegoat? I wanna be a scapegoat when I grow up! You want the job?
1) They must be the strongest.
The Scapegoat has to bear the sins of the entire family. They have to survive, alone, in the “desert” without the comfort or support of the family. So they must be strong in order to carry the burden.
2) They must be the most loving.
The Scapegoat sacrifices themself for the benefit of the family. Again, this is somewhat subconscious, but only some level they know they are doing this. They give up themselves so the family may appear to be “OK”.
One of the downsides of having 20/20 vision by virtue of sobriety is a re-acquaintance, re-wounding, or re-introduction, if you will, by way of utter emotional clarity and “awakeness” to the aberrant family dynamics. The catch-22 is that when the scapegoat dares to shine a light on a family system or any moving parts that are unwell, the light of truth is immediately resisted and refracted back to the scapegoat or their behavior. The below was write up by Robert Burney, M.A., about the typical moving parts in family dysfunctions or family systems that are unwell.
“The emotional dynamics of dysfunctional families are basic – and like emotional dynamics for all human beings are pretty predictable. The outside details may look quite different due to a variety of factors, but the dynamics of the human emotional process are the same for all human beings everywhere.
Emotional dishonesty is very often at the root of such family dysfunction. When the role model of what a man is does not allow a man to cry or express fear; when the role model for what a woman is does not allow a woman to be angry or aggressive – that is emotional dishonesty. When the standards of a society deny the full range of the emotional spectrum and label certain emotions as negative, or any emotions as negative, for that matter – that is not only emotionally dishonest, it creates emotional disease. ”
Within family dysfunction, some children maintain one role into adulthood while others switch from one role to another as the family dynamic changes (i.e. when the oldest leaves home, etc.) A child may play all of the roles at one time or another.
“Responsible Child” – “Family Hero”
This is the child who is “9 going on 40.” This child takes over the parent role at a very young age, becoming very responsible and self-sufficient. They give the family self-worth because they look good on the outside. They are the good students, the sports stars, the prom queens. The parents look to this child to prove that they are good parents and good people.As an adult the Family Hero is rigid, controlling, and extremely judgmental (although perhaps very subtle about it) – of others and secretly of themselves. They achieve “success” on the outside and get lots of positive attention but are cut off from their inner emotional life, from their True Self. They are compulsive and driven as adults because deep inside they feel inadequate and insecure.
The family hero, because of their “success” in conforming to dysfunctional cultural definitions of what constitutes doing life “right”, is often the child in the family who as an adult has the hardest time even admitting that there is anything within themselves that needs to be healed.
“Acting out child” – “Scapegoat”
This is the child that the family feels ashamed of – and the most emotionally honest child in the family. He/she acts out the tension and anger the family ignores. This child provides distraction from the real issues in the family. The scapegoat usually has trouble in school because they get attention the only way they know how – which is negatively. They often become pregnant or addicted as teenagers.These children are usually the most sensitive and caring which is why they feel such tremendous hurt. They are romantics who become very cynical and distrustful. They have a lot of self-hatred and can be very self-destructive. This often results in this child becoming the first person in the family to get into some kind of recovery.Ah yes. Sounds familiar. As with most things in life, however, we can only take responsibility for our part in family wreckage by increasing our own self-awareness. And what if the designated scapegoat begins to eradicate the most obvious sins that helped the family in ignoring their own part? It doesn’t matter, the scapegoat will still feel the intense emotional dishonesty among the family members and will retain the blame. Actually, the group at this point has a big investment in not listening to the Empath or Scapegoat. Now that their tension was gone, they wanted to keep it that way. If the scapegoat was not to blame, then they’d have to take their feelings back and perhaps bring those feelings to painful consciousness.
As for the other family members, their insistence on making the Scapegoat the problem made it impossible for her to have a healthy relationship with them. However, with one or two members who were willing to look at how they helped create the situation, a new relationship was able to develop between them and the Scapegoat. The irony about the whole affair was that the scapegoat did bring the hidden feelings of fear of losing family cohesiveness to a head: the family’s worst fears were realized. But, instead of using it as an opportunity to heal, the family most likely will continue to keep the Empath as the scapegoat and become even more entrenched in holding the appearance of a happy harmonious extended family from that point until the next family crisis and opportunity for healing arises.
Being a scapegoat is a horribly painful situation to fall into as an Empath. In order to avoid it happening, Empaths must learn to tell the difference between their emotions and other’s emotions. Also, when they notice a group of people becoming worked up over someone else or an issue in a negative fashion, they must be careful not to sympathize so as not to risk being caught in the emotional whirlwind. The best action is to stay detached, and if that is too difficult, to quietly leave the scene.Tomorrow – Part Two: Are You in Danger of Becoming a Scapegoat? Heal Yourself, ThenVaccinate