Updated: Dec 8, 2020
You know that sinking feeling you get inside when someone is not pleased with you? It used to happen to me all the time and it always took me by surprise. On the outside, I am a competent therapist, loyal friend, open and compassionate to everyone I meet. On this inside, I am content and peaceful until someone who is lost in their perception blames me for their unhappiness. I get a sick feeling in my stomach, and my throat closes up. I either stutter or stammer or I cannot say anything at all. My immediate reaction is to ask myself, “what did I do?” and then I would apologize and walk away wondering what it was that I did that made me have that reaction.
This is a subtle form of bullying known as scapegoating. The perpetrator/bully does not have the personal responsibility skills necessary to own their mistakes or admit their feelings and they project them on to unsuspecting victims. The victims or scapegoats, usually have a long history of being a container for other people’s emotions, therefore when it happens they tend to blame themselves for feeling bad, compounding their pain.
In a family system, this dynamic essentially has three roles, The Perpetrator, The Scapegoat and the Identified Patient (the symptom bearer). I will use a brief family case study to illustrate.
Family History: Let us say that our family is small, three people. We have a mother who works full-time, has one male child with special needs, and a grandmother (maternal) who lives with them to “help out”. The grandmother dotes on the little boy with special needs. He is afforded her attention before and after school, and over the weekends while his mother is working and providing for all three family members. This is the status quo for many years until puberty arrives and he begins to act out. He starts getting into fights at school and talking back to both the grandmother and mother. The three of them come to counseling because of his problems with school.
Who will be scapegoated and take the blame for the child’s behavior? If you guessed the mother, you would be correct. The mother feels guilty for not spending enough time with her child. The grandmother feels compelled to blame someone other than herself because she has given the child all of her attention over the years, and because she is so “unselfish” in her giving, it must be her daughter’s fault that all of this is happening. The child, now entering adolescence has a surge of hormonal activity, in addition to the undefined special needs and struggles to find his identity and role in the family. He is the Identified Patient and symptom bearer of emotional distress for the family. This is the current status of the family system.
Initial therapy process: In the initial stages of therapy, the whole family dynamic begins to change, the child’s acting out increases and the arguing and blaming between the mother and daughter escalates. The daughter decides to enter individual therapy after a couple of weeks of family therapy. The grandmother does not, as she is too busy attending to the teenager’s issues. The grandmother and teen stop going to family therapy.
Middle therapy: Through the process of the mother’s individual therapy, it is discovered that she has a long history of not being able to stand up to her mother. Moreover, she was afraid of confronting her and did not know how to ask for what she needed or to be honest about how she felt. This is the key to the family dynamic of scapegoating and bullying. The one being blamed or taking on the blame is the change maker, and is the only one that can effectively change the family dynamic.
Resulting therapy: The three family members rejoin in family therapy as the mother has cultivated enough courage to speak about her feelings to her mother. The teenager witnesses the interactions and is involved in the conversations. Over a few sessions, the family begins to change as feelings are processed and healed in the supportive environment of family therapy.
Now, this example is brief, and has a positive outcome, however, if you use your imagination I bet you could see where this process could have broken down and caused irreparable harm. For example, if the mother stood up to the grandmother and became afraid or unsure, she could have backed down and not followed through with her convictions and the status quo would have continued. The grandmother could have become angry and obstinate, refusing to make any changes in her blaming behavior, sufficiently closing off the opportunity for a closer relationship with her daughter and alienate the teen. The teen, could have quietly found other ways of coping with the family stress by using alcohol, drugs or even video gaming to escape.
In this examination of a family system with scapegoating behavior, I have made it somewhat simple to see the inner dynamics that occur. However, for most families I have worked with or known personally, it’s not always that easy to see. The key for making changes in a Scapegoat Family Dynamic is through the role of the scapegoat. Once the blaming stops, personal responsibility has the chance to surface, and that is the lesson that the entire family needs to learn most. That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach is the sign that there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed, and if you put a little work into it, you too can be freed from blame!
Lastly, when a person does not have to learn new “coping skills” but feels good about their personal choices and cultivates values and healthy self-esteem, there is no need for coping skills.
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