Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

Surviving Scapegoating

Evil when we are in its power is not seen as evil but as a necessity or even a duty.

Simone Weil
Gravity and Grace

Who among us has not, at some time in our lives, lost our footing and slipped uncertainly onto that mystifying, surrealistic, and punitive landscape of being scapegoated by a group of friends or colleagues?

Alternately, who among us has not, at some stage in our lives, found ourselves in the grips of the great dehumanizer, acting out the scapegoating of another? We hope that, if this landscape must be traversed at all, that we did so at an earlier age, and that by now reason, impulse control, and the ability to retrieve one's projections have already largely conquered the primitive instinctual impulse to project, to blame, and to vilify.

The first order of human defense is blame. Something goes wrong or astray, and we look for someone/thing on whom to place the burden. I remember with fondness, my friend, Lynne Aston, laughing at herself after misplacing her coffee cup, listening to herself yelling aloud in her empty house, "Who stole my cup?" This happened more than once for her, and she always found it funny.

In any case, scapegoating in a group is always acting out (meaning that one performs an action rather than communicates directly). It is a defensive act which projects unacceptable emotions—hostility, sexuality, and guilt onto others. If the scapegoating takes place in a psychotherapy group, it is important to remember Irvin Yalom's quote:

Scapegoating is another off-target manifestation. It is highly improbable for scapegoating to persist in a group in the absence of the therapist's collusion.

Irvin Yalom
Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, Fifth Edition, p. 315.)

It is far healthier for all concerned when scapegoating is handled as a group creation.

In addition, research supports the view that the most dangerous people in groups are those who have a strong desire to see themselves as superior beings. (Roy F. Baumeister, Brad J. Bushman & W. Keith Campbell, "Self-Esteem, Narcissism, and Aggression: Does Violence Result From Low Self-Esteem or From Threatened Egotism?")

Narcissists are emotionally invested in establishing their superiority and are quick to blame and persecute. In fact, it is reported by Terry Birchmore, that the profession of psychotherapy may be an attractive field for individuals with unresolved narcissistic problems which were not adequately addressed during their training.

Finding your way back from being scapegoated is an extraordinary challenge. You will be dealing with feelings of hurt, anger, shame, and betrayal. This work cannot be done alone. One needs a therapist and some very good friends. Here are some hints for recovering from this shocking betrayal.

A healthy sense of humor serves us well in the aftermath of being scapegoated. When doing the shamanic work of The Warrior's Wheel of Turtle Island, Laughter is the Sweet Medicine of the North. We encounter the Enemy of the North, Clarity, and transmute it into an ally. Through this engagement we are released from the tyranny of our core beliefs. We enjoy Relative View, appreciating the amazing array of variation and divergence in human beings, including those who scapegoat and are scapegoated.

Is forgiveness necessary?

Ideally, forgiveness is necessary, but it is not always possible. Clinging to feelings of anger, hurt, shame, and betrayal keeps one attached to the victimizers.

It is not necessary to forgive your betrayers personally. One can assume that they are not interested in your forgiveness. It is necessary that forgiveness happens within you.

Here is a formula to work with, meditate on, and try out.

Forgiveness Exercise

Imagine the Scapegoaters in front of you. Imagine yourself saying to them:

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy