Scapegoating in Groups and Families

Scapegoating is a phenomenon that happens in almost all human groups. A. Colman (video below), begins the above talk by saying that it is the root of evil in humanity. Is he exaggerating this? Or are there truths in his remark?

bullying

What makes a group?

A group is made up of a bunch of individuals (and we are referring to human individuals here), who have to be together because of a certain task or function. A company of workers is a group. There are social groups, church groups, political groups, hobby groups, support groups and the like. Families are also groups.

In my article Bion: The Function of Myths in Groups, I explain that a group is a body that has a mental state and creates a phantasy. The group becomes more than the sum of people that come together to form it. The group has its own dynamics and it is its own organism.

Groups are like organisms, and they strive to keep themselves intact

The group connects the inner worlds of people. Narcissistic tendencies and psychological traumas get played out in groups. Like a living organism, the group strives to keep itself intact.

In order to do so, any form of aggression that naturally and unconsciously arises from the group becomes a threat to the status quo of the group. There is a tendency then for the group to move towards “doing something” to maintain harmony and equilibrium. The individuals then strive to retain their own idea of their “good self” and deny their part in the aggression that threatens the group.

Groups need scapegoats so that the members can disown their responsibility for the group’s destruction

The aggression that is latent in the group becomes disowned by the individuals (who do not want to be blamed for their group’s destruction), and transferred on to an external object of blame. This object of blame is the scapegoat.

Oftentimes the scapegoat is a member of the group. Sometimes it appears in the form of someone from outside the group– people from another culture, immigrants, women, etc.

Scapegoating in Groups

Scapegoating is the most ancient human rituals. It used to come in the form of practices such as child & animal sacrifice, adult sacrifice, witch hunting. Large groups of people can also become scapegoats, as we have witnessed during the Holocaust, Apartheid, and other genocides.

A Scapegoat is a person, subgroup, collective idea … who is made to take the anxious blame for the other people in their place.

The process of scapegoating is done in order for the rest to feel more comfortable, or to be more efficient, and whole.

The scapegoat embodies the transformational, creative and/or destructive potential within the group.

The scapegoat has often creative potential, and is often different from the others in the group. Sometimes this person has the potential to make changes in society.

Scapegoating is victimization of the other

Many who have been young victims of bullying in school or in the family have experienced from a young age, what it is like to be in the position of the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is usually the different / outsider. Not being able to bear the difference. Potential scapegoats are usually people who are racially different.

Scapegoat’s Adjustment

In order to survive being scapegoated, the person either turns into the

  • victim /patient (as in children who develop illnesses or develop behavioral problems in school).
  • avenger (someone who takes revenge)
  • the messiah / prophet (someone who saves the group)

09:10 Colman, in the video above provides us with literary examples of some of these scapegoat transformations.

In Families, the child who becomes the Scapegoat is also the Symptom Bearer

Scapegoating happen in almost all families. Most of the time a child in the families bears the brunt of the scapegoating. If the family is relatively harmonious, the scapegoat feels simply like a “black sheep”, and grows up to be an adult who can function well.

In families that are dysfunctional, or in families where mental disorders and/or addictions or illnesses exist, the scapegoat child develops symptoms or syndromes that affect his/her ability to function emotionally as an adult. Some of these scapegoated children develop psychological issues like depression, anxiety, eating disorders. Some also develop the tendency to self harm.

This is usually seen (which I witness in practice) in a families where parents strive to stay together, despite the fact that one or both parents are abusive or psychologically unstable. What would have been a natural course of action, a break up, is avoided by members of the family at all costs. A superficial picture of stability is often seen in these families.

The “only” problem this family seem to have is a problem child — a child who is doing poorly at school, has behavioral problems, has eating disorder, self harms or has other emotional difficulties. When as therapists we see such children, we understand them to be symptom-bearers.

The experience of being a child scapegoat is one of Childhood trauma. There is immense feeling of loneliness because his/her feelings towards the family are negated by their own parents and siblings. These are the children who’d take the blame for their parents’ worries. Many grow up believing that they are flawed. Many introject the blame. Self blame lead to self hatred, self harm and sometimes suicide.

Psychotherapy for Child Symptom Bearers

Usually families bring themselves into therapy because of a “problem” or “sick” child. In successful family therapies, the therapeutic work centers around the relational dynamics between the family members, and not focussed on the “problem child”. Helping the parents and other members become aware of their roles in the family system releases the afflicted child of having to bear the intrinsic problems that exist in the family.

Psychotherapy for Adult sufferers of Scapegoating

One does not always know that one is being made a scapegoat. In the working environment, the scapegoat may simply find work in the office stressful with conflicts.

Sometimes, of course, in the course of therapy the client realizes that he/she was his/her family’s symptom bearer, or that he/she was a scapegoat in a group.

Being a scapegoat brings with it feelings of loneliness. You are being targeted as the cause of problems. Because of this, there’ll also be feelings of having done something wrong, or being flawed. This progresses to self blame. Psychotherapy involves

  • addressing these feelings of loneliness, shame, fear and betrayal
  • re-aligning oneself by being awareness of the group reality,
  • finding oneself again being independent of the group,
  • finding resources outside the group
  • getting support from others

Contact me freely for more information on this topic, or for therapy.

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CPTSD: Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Child Abuse

While PTSD is a typical response to a single stressor in adulthood, Complex posttraumatic Stress Disorder ( CPTSD ) is the result of childhood experience of abuse.

 

Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD occurs in neither ICD nor DSM, but it has been proposed for over two decades (p.190). Adult victims of CPTSD suffer lifelong effects of emotional and physical instability of varying degrees of severity, making them also vulnerable in the face of stressful life situations.

Consequences of CPTSD:

Another name proposed for this disorder is “developmental trauma disorder.” CPTSD compromises an individual’s identity, self-worth, and personality; emotional regulation and self-regulation; and ability to relate to others and engage in intimacy.

Individuals can experience ongoing despair, lack of meaning, and a crisis of spirituality.

 

Children are Victims of CPTSD

While PTSD is an atypical response in traumatized adults, developmental trauma may be a very common (and thus the typical) response in traumatized children. Such trauma often goes unrecognized, is misunderstood or denied, or is misdiagnosed by many who assess and treat children.

Children are, due to their immaturity and helplessness, are more prone to being traumatized than adults.  They are also easy targets for narcissistic abuse.

Types of Abuse in CPTSD

CPTSD is generally associated with a history of chronic neglect, trauma, and abuse over the course of childhood. Neglect in early childhood compromises secure attachment and tends to result in avoidant or resistant/ambivalent attachment—or, most severely, toward the disorganized/disoriented attachment style that leads to significant dissociative pathology.

This neglect sets the stage for trauma in early childhood, which further interferes with normal affective maturation and the verbalization of feelings, leading to anhedonia, alexithymia, and intolerance of affective expression. Children and adolescents are more prone to dissociate than are adults.

Experience of Betrayal

Dissociation is especially linked to betrayal trauma—the neglect that allows for, or passively tolerate, more active trauma.

In the face of continued betrayal trauma, dissociation is the child’s best life-saving strategy.

The Bystander Parent

Repeated trauma in childhood involves a perpetrator and victim, but also a parent who permits the trauma to occur; is uninvolved, oblivious, and neglectful; or else is paralyzed by fear into inaction. Patient and therapist may find themselves playing any of these roles and their opposites.

Psychotherapeutic Treatment of CPTSD

When a client comes to therapy, it is often not apparent that he/she suffers CPTSD. Adult clients visit therapy for an array of symptoms that include (but not exclusively) depressive, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, posttraumatic, dissociative, somatoform, eating, sleep-wake, sexual, gender, impulse-control, substance and non-substance dependency disorders and personality disorders.
There is a danger that therapists who are not aware of CPTSD overlook childhood experiences and spend too much focus on the diagnosed symptom.
If the therapist were to treat the trauma of CPTSD itself, this treatment if successful can ameliorate all the symptoms. This requires that the childhood abuse experiences be recounted and worked through.

The Therapeutic Process

It is common that the patient who has CPTSD will not be able to recollect the events of abuse. If he/she did, he/she may not be able to experience the feelings associated with the time. This is because of the dissociation of the child who was in the situation. Freud explains that what the client does not remember, he acts out. It is important for the therapist to be observant to the repeated behavior of the client in the interaction with the therapist.

The trauma and neglect of CPTSD are essentially relational, and so the therapeutic relationship itself becomes the principal vehicle of change. How the therapist feels, thinks, and acts depends on what aspect of the neglect/trauma drama is being played out with the patient (p.191).

Dealing with childhood trauma is a complicated process in therapy. There may a degree of enactment in the transference and this can be confusing. What is really necessary is a sound therapeutic alliance based on trust. Within the transference relationship, the client a therapist experience the client’s enactments and attitudes towards the abusing parent, the bystander parent and the client as victim and perpetrator. For this reason, the therapist has to be alert to the phenomenology and the here-and-now of what unfolds in the therapy sessions.

Bibliography

Lingiardi, Vittorio. Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual, Second Edition (Page 192). The Guilford Press. Kindle Edition.

 

How to Ask a Patient about Childhood Trauma History: Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

In this lecture Bessel van der Kolk speaks about his work with patients with childhood trauma. Here is a snippet of this video on how to get from a patient information about his/her trauma history. The topic of childhood trauma is not easy to bring up. Oftentimes the patient doesn’t recall the traumatic event(s). Sometimes these events are not acknowledged as trauma by the patient. Even if someone has encountered trauma and has memory  the event, there may still exist emotional difficulty in relating the event to a professional.

Van der Kolk provides us here with a way of interviewing the client @ 10:20 :

  1. Ask about demographics: where do you live? who lives with you? who does the cooking? who does the dishes? who do you talk to when you come home at night? When you need help/ when you are sick, who can you turn to? when you feel bereft and upset, who do you talk to? These questions give a picture of a person’s interconnectedness.
  2. Ask about the person’s current health (e.g. sleeping patterns).
  3. Family of origin demographics: how about when you were little? who loved you? who was affectionate to you? who saw you as a special little kid? was there anyone in your family who you felt safe with growing up? (*Hear van der Kolk’s comment on this question @ 12:30) who made the rules and enforced rules at home? how did your parents solve their disagreement?
  4. Childhood caretaker and separation.
  5. Other questions @ 31:30 : can we assume that life was good growing up? was anybody in your life a drug addict or alcoholic?

“You really cannot understand anyone with Borderline Personality Disorder unless you understand the terror they grew up in.” Bessel van der Kolk

Childhood trauma and BPD are correlated in findings. 87% of studied subjects with BPD had histories of severe childhood abuse and/or neglect — prior to age 7.  Other personality disorders do not have significant correlations with childhood trauma.

Slide @ 17:05 shows correlation between childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and the symptoms of suicide ideas, suicidal attempts, cutting, bingeing and anorexia.

Neglect and ability to feel safe are found to be factors that determine the likelihood in which the patient can feel safe and be helped during therapy.

Full video is here:

Why do we need to find out about traumatic childhood experiences in therapy? Besel van der Kolk explains this @ 44:40, the importance of revisiting the traumatizing events.

@ 45:20 he explains the neuro-biological consequence of trauma.