In the game of recrimination, guilt turns into poison darts that, sooner or later, will target us. If we accept the guilt of others and take on responsibilities that are not ours, we run the risk of becoming someone's scapegoat. And once you've taken on this role, it's very difficult to get rid of the enormous emotional burden that it brings.
What does "scapegoat" mean? History, symbolism and bad luck
To celebrate the Day of Atonement, a journey that involves confession of sins and repentance throughout the year, the ancient Jews chose two goats. Then they randomly selected one of the animals to be sacrificed to Yahveh.
“Aaron will draw lots to see which of the two should be for Yahweh and which for Azazel,” states Leviticus 16 in the Old Testament. "He will bring the goat that was given to Yahweh and offer it as a sacrifice for sin".
The other goat had no better luck as he was to blame for all sins. The rabbi placed his hands on the animal's head in a symbolic ceremony to transfer the faults of the people to the animal.
Subsequently the goat was led into the desert as an emissary, where it was abandoned. Even if it is said that they stoned him to death because with that sacrifice the people could purify and blot out their sins.
From that tradition derives the expression "scapegoat". On a psychological level, this phenomenon continues to maintain its main historical characteristics: the scapegoat is chosen at random to take charge of sins that do not correspond to him and thus free - in a real or metaphorical sense - whoever has the real responsibility.
What is a scapegoat in psychology?
In Psychology, the scapegoat is the person or group that one wants to blame, even if innocent, to clear the real culprit. Therefore, he is a person on whom the accusations or convictions fall, although he is not the real responsible for what happened.
History is full of scapegoats as this phenomenon is as old as man himself. Perhaps one of the most tragic and iconic examples of a scapegoat was the blaming process the Nazis launched against the Jews, just because they appeared to be more successful in business while many other Germans were suffering the devastating consequences of World War I.
Today, several groups carry the stigma that comes with being considered a scapegoat. This is the case of immigrants or social minorities on which a part of society discharges its discomfort. Many political leaders, especially in times of crisis, politically and unscrupulously exploit the scapegoat mechanism to divert attention from their own shortcomings and attempt to evade their responsibility by charging it to others.
This blaming process is also common in dysfunctional families, where group psychological difficulties and complexes are transferred to a specific member. That person is the one who takes on all the problems, shame and guilt of the family, thus diverting attention from the real conflicts that need to be resolved.
Why do we need a scapegoat?
The phenomenon of the scapegoat in Psychology can be traced back to two Freudian defense mechanisms: displacement and projection. Indeed, choosing the scapegoat is often an unwittingly nurtured process.
According to Freud, in order to maintain a certain balance, both psychologically and interpsychologically, we have a tendency to remove from our consciousness the things, emotions, impulses or thoughts that disturb us or represent a conflict.
When something generates hostility in us, we tend to shift that feeling towards more socially acceptable goals or more vulnerable people who are not a danger to us. For example, instead of getting angry with our boss, we can end up shifting that anger towards the partner, in which case he will become our scapegoat.
In other cases, the scapegoat is the result of the projection; that is, we project those feelings or anxieties that we do not accept in ourselves onto others. The problem is that accepting these feelings would alter the image we have of ourselves, it would cause a cognitive dissonance, so by projecting them onto others we maintain a tension-free relationship with our “I”. So, for example, we can blame our partner for not listening to us, while in reality it is we who are not listening.
When we get frustrated because we see no way of solving the problem and it becomes too threatening, the simplest answer to channel helplessness, fear or anxiety is to direct it to a third person or group.
Therefore, the creation of a scapegoat responds to two psychological reasons: 1. maintaining perceived personal moral value by minimizing guilt feelings for the responsibility of a negative result and 2. maintaining perceived personal control by obtaining a clear explanation of a result. negative that would otherwise seem inexplicable, as psychologists at the University of South Mississippi explained.
When we find someone to blame for misfortunes, problems, social calamities or even pandemics, we lighten our responsibilities and dispel unacceptable shadows. We also strengthen our distorted sense of power and justice, relieving guilt and shame, freeing ourselves from the need to do something as the responsibility is not ours.
The scapegoat thus becomes a kind of punching bag, the reservoir in which we leave the most painful or complicated problems and conflicts. So we don't have to delve too deeply into their causes. We simplify everything. And we mitigate the psychological pain of accepting certain responsibilities.
The problem is that creating a scapegoat doesn't solve the problems. Closing your eyes on our shadows will not make them disappear. Blaming the other does not resolve conflicts and creates new problems for the person who is taking on responsibilities that do not correspond to him.
The emotional wounds of the scapegoat
Many people who have become scapegoats are not fully aware of this dynamic. Since those who generate the blame are usually people with whom we have a close emotional bond or people in positions of power, the most common thing is that we assume these blame. We do not realize that we are involved in an emotional abuse situation until it is too late and the damage is already done.
Scapegoats often suffer from tremendous distress because they have experienced years of contempt and abuse. Parents who accused them of ruining their life, highly toxic or superior partners who do not take their responsibilities.
Those people are weaving a story based on lies, denial and distortion of reality where the scapegoat becomes the only one to blame for all misfortunes. As a result, it is not uncommon for the person to end up believing that they are wrong.
That person will find it increasingly difficult to identify their wants and needs, will believe they are not worthy to be successful or loved, and will lose confidence in their ability to pursue their goals and dreams. He is also likely to blame himself excessively and think he has no right to be happy.
To get out of this network, the stereotypes of the guilty / villain and the hero / victim must be broken. This means assuming that there is no one completely good or completely bad. And that in every relationship, the responsibilities or the blame are distributed.
It is never too late to discover and claim our true identity, free from the distorted and guilty narrative that others want to impose on us by portraying us as "bad" or "defective".