|The Scapegoat by William Homan Hunt via Wikimedia Commons|
Most people understand what a scapegoat in modern terms is. It's the wide receiver who dropped the ball on the last play of the game (though the whole team played poorly up to that point); the department head who gets very publicly fired for carrying out the unfair policies set by her superiors; the husband who fails to properly read his wife's mind.
In ancient Syria, Greece, and Biblical times, an actual goat (or beggar, or cripple) was designated as the bearer of sins for the entire community. The scapegoat might be driven out of the community into an inhospitable region (theoretically taking all the evil/sin with it), where presumably it would in fact, die. Or it might be killed outright.
A similar concept was practiced in the Middle Ages, depicted in an old Night Gallery episode called Sins of the Fathers. The Sin-eater would consume food spread around the body of a dying or recently deceased person, so that the soul of the dead person would then be able to rest in peace or float to heaven, free of sin. Of course, if something happened to the village Sin Eater...
Except in certain religious connotations, nobody believes (on paper) in the concept of scapegoating anymore. As a parent with two children, say, we certainly wouldn't punish Child A because Child B misbehaved, right?
In practice... people do it all the time. (See butterfingered wide receiver, above.) Child B may be wearing down his mother's nerves all day long, but when Child A also does something annoying, that's when Mom snaps and takes it out on Child A. Fair? No. Human? Yes.
In real life, scapegoating and 'projection' go hand in hoof. Just as it felt too uncomfortable to drag around the guilt and sin in the village, for many people, acknowledging our own faults, shortcomings, and bad feelings is too heavy to carry. So it's got to be put over there, onto a target. Away from us.
See, we are good people. If there is something wrong, bad, or nasty in the room, it's because somebody else - not us - brought it in here.
According to Sigmund Freud, projection is a psychological defense mechanism whereby one "projects" one's own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else. 'Emotions or excitations which the ego tries to ward off are "split out" and then felt as being outside the ego...perceived in another person'. It is a common process. The related defense of 'projective identification differs from projection in that the impulse projected onto an external object does not appear as something alien and distant from the ego because the connection of the self with that projected impulse continues'.
In one example of the process, a person might have thoughts of infidelity with respect to a spouse or other partner. Instead of dealing with these undesirable thoughts consciously, the subject unconsciously projects these feelings onto the other person, and begins to think thatthe other has thoughts of infidelity and that the other may be having an affair. In this way, the subject may obtain 'acquittal by his conscience - if he projects his own impulses to faithlessness on to the partner to whom he owes faith'. In this sense, projection is related to denial, arguably the only more primitive defense mechanism than projection, which, like all defense mechanisms, provides a function whereby a person can protect the conscious mind from a feeling that is otherwise repulsive.Let's say someone is what we might call "toxic." He seems frequently angry and bitter, is usually finding fault with other people, uses verbally abusive language, and rarely accepts responsibility for his actions. If we have an interaction with this guy, he may attempt to project his bad feelings onto us, or use us as his scapegoat.
It's got to be pretty painful to walk around with a heart/body overflowing with anger and bad feelings. An emotionally unhealthy person is not going to be mindful, sit with his feelings, decide why they are occurring, and what action, if any, he wants to take when he feels upset. An unhealthy person is going to look for "the person who made me feel this way" as quickly as possible, and "let 'em have it."
If we tend to be Rescuers (see yesterday's post) we may accept, even encourage this person to "let it all out," even come to believe we deserve to be abused or called names, because, after all, we did forget to replace the batteries in the remote (or whatever the error was). Maybe we made a huge mistake, one that cost our boss an important contract. Anyway, we can suck it up and take it; we can "be the bigger person," and this will help the toxic person feel better.
No. If we do, we are only feeding fuel to an already unhealthy dynamic. No matter what has gone on, nobody "deserves" to be abused. (We might deserve to be fired, but even if we do, we do not deserve to be kicked on our way out the door.)
When we accept scapegoating, it's bad for us (obviously), but it is also bad for the abusers. They are experiencing momentary relief, true, but we are denying them the opportunity to deal in a healthy way with their feelings and problems. The underlying reasons why they are building up anger and resentment are not being addressed.
We can, firmly and politely, refuse to accept a truck load of toxic abuse dumped onto the front lawns of our hearts. We can put up a hand, and say, "Stop. If you cannot talk to me without name calling and abusive language, the conversation is over. Let me know when you are ready to speak to me respectfully, and I'll be happy to take up the subject again." (Caveat: if you live with a physically abusive person, this approach may not be safe. Please contact a domestic violence support network, and do whatever you need to do to stay safe. In the US, 1.800.799.SAFE www.thehotline.org. A partial listing of facilities in other countries is available here.)
Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and everyone should seek to treat others with dignity and respect, as well.
My A-Z theme is Issues related to Mental Health or Mental Illness.
Have you ever been scapegoated?
Ever scapegoated someone else, and realized it later?
How about projecting your bad feelings onto someone else?