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?

What makes a group?

A group comprises a bunch of individuals (and we are referring to human individuals here) who have to be together because of a particular task or function. A company of workers is a group. Social groups, church groups, political groups, hobby groups, support groups, and the like exist. 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 dynamics, and it functions as an 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.

To do so, any form of aggression that naturally and unconsciously arises from the group threatens the group’s status quo. There is a tendency for the group to move towards “doing something” to maintain harmony and equilibrium. The individuals then strive to retain their 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 onto an external object of blame. This object of guilt is the Scapegoat.

Often 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 of human rituals. It used to come from practices such as child & animal sacrifice, adult sacrifice, and 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 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 the victimization of the other.

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

The Scapegoat is usually the different / outsider. They are not being able to bear the difference. Potential scapegoats are generally people who are racially different from the leading group.

Scapegoat’s Adjustment

To survive being scapegoated, the person either turns into the

  • victim /patient (as in children who develop illnesses or develop behavioural 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 family bears the brunt of the scapegoating. If the family is relatively harmonious, the Scapegoat feels like a “black sheep” and grows up to be an adult who can function well.

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

This is usually seen (which I witness in practice) in families where parents strive to stay together, even though one or both parents are abusive or psychologically unstable. What would have been a natural course of action is a breakup is avoided by family members 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 behavioural issues, has an 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 an immense feeling of loneliness because their feelings towards the family are negated by their parents and siblings. These are the children who’d take the blame for their parent’s worries. Many grow up believing that they are flawed. Many introject the blame. Self-blame leads 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 centres around the relational dynamics between the family members and does not focus on the “problem child”. Helping the parents and other members become aware of their roles in the family system releases the afflicted child from having to bear the inherent 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 find work in the office stressful with conflicts.

Sometimes, in therapy, the client realizes that they were their family’s symptom bearer or that they were 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 aware of the group reality,
  • finding oneself again being independent of the group,
  • finding resources outside the group.
  • getting support from others.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *