The Psychology behind Scapegoating


The history of the word “scapegoat” begins way back in the 16th century, when the Jewish community placed their sins onto the described ritual animal in preparation for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. A key part of Yom Kippur, as described in Torah, the Jewish Hebrew Bible, is the ritual slaughter of two goats; one for the Lord and the other one bearing the sins of the community which are symbolically placed upon it. In 1530, while translating the entire Hebrew bible into English, William Tyndale used the word “scapegoat” while describing the second goat bearing all the sins, which evolved later to be used as ‘scapegoat’. Today we use the word “scapegoat” to describe people who symbolically take or bear other’s sins. Scapegoating is the act of blaming someone, a person, or a group, for something bad that has happened or that someone else has done. For example; scapegoating the immigrants for the country’s economic problems. 

Why Do People Indulge in Scapegoating? 

For individuals, scapegoating is a psychological defense mechanism or phenomenon of living in denial by projecting blame and responsibilities over others. The ego defense of the perpetrator plays a vital role in scapegoating as uncomfortable feelings such as envy, guilt, jealousy, anger, frustration, shame, insecurities are redirected onto others. This allows the perpetrator to eliminate negative feelings about themselves and provide a sense of gratification. Furthermore, it justifies a self-righteous displacement of aggression. 

Scapegoats are insecure people with an inflated sense of self, motivated to raise one’s status particularly relative to the target. Their most easy targets are people who are less powerful and most marginalized. People who make the perpetrator feel less threatened. It can also be inanimate objects as well. Others also describe perpetrators as people firmly convinced of the fact that others are responsible and shall be worthy of punishment for the same.

Read More: 9 Ways to Spot an Fake Apology

But sometimes it is the villain who needs a greater villain so that they can scapegoat and deflect from their shortcomings and seek to evade the burden of blame and responsibilities. Sometimes relatively stronger people can also be targets of scapegoating. 

The Disinformation War 

A good example of scapegoat is as follows: 

In the months since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic began, thousands of Asian people have become the target of harassment and assault in America. The then U.S. President Trump repeatedly referred to “COVID-19” as the “China virus” and pushed a disapproved theory that it originated from a Chinese lab. Asians in America every day had new tension in their daily lives ranging from being shunned across the country, randomly getting physically assaulted, and verbally harassed to their properties being vandalized with racist tags. 100 hate crimes were estimated to be committed against them each day. The phenomenon of scapegoating is generally involved in creating the feeling of “us” vs “them” dichotomy and it is typically based on real, social, political, cultural, or economic power struggles. 

What Does it Mean to Be the Family Scapegoat? 

Scapegoating not only happens to protect the self but also the family image or people who are favored in the family. Scapegoating tends to start in childhood when children are blamed for the problems occurring in that dysfunctional family. Compliance with such unhealthy family structures can have a detrimental effect on the mental health of the children. Following are some of the many factors why parents might choose to scapegoat a child:

  • Birth Order 
  • Sexual Orientation 
  • Appearance 
  • Gender
  • Intellect 

For example, narcissistic parents might favor the child who brings the most glory to the family while scapegoating the other one. On the other hand, the boy in the family might be the golden child and the role of a scapegoat might be assigned to the second daughter.

Read More: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Effects of Being a Scapegoat 

  • Trauma: Being deprived or singled out as a “bad one” may cause psychological distress where they might have a hard time believing that they are good, likable, and worthy.
  • Normalizing dysfunctional behavior: After experiencing abuse by living in a dysfunctional environment, it gets difficult for the person to understand toxic people or a place before the harm is done. 
  • Self-sabotage or self-harm: Scapegoats internalize the harmful message they’ve received so strongly that they engage in life-threatening behaviors or act in a way as if they deserve to be scapegoats. Their self-care also decreases and they generally perform poorly in life. 
  • Difficulties in setting boundaries: They need help realizing where people are crossing the line. They don’t trust their judgments and think that they are being too sensitive or are exaggerating. 
  • Toxic relationships and environment: They tend to enter friendships, romantic relationships, or working environments that are abusive and exploitative. 

Coping with the Effects of Scapegoating 

Prioritize your mental health, healing from this reprehensible trauma may take a lifetime which is why it becomes absolutely important to consult a professional. Research reveals that self-compassion correlates with emotional resilience. Practicing self-kindness, and transforming your inner critic, will help you re-evaluate your self-concept and will make you realize that you are worthy and likable too even if you’ve been a recipient of unjust and harmful behaviors like bullying, put-downs, abuse, and so on. Understand, that you’ve been punished misappropriately.

The best way is to reset the boundaries keeping your mental health and emotional well-being foremost. Family, friends, and even strangers might try to convince you to rethink your boundaries but many people don’t understand the psychological toll it takes on one while living in a dysfunctional environment. As you rejoice in your personal growth, you may start to sympathize with how the perpetrator is stuck in their old patterns. Forgiving your culprit may take a very long time, but you forgive them for the sake of your healing. By doing this you establish courage and look at yourself as a person who is given unlimited possibilities of freedom and happiness. However, healing looks different for each individual and how to move forward with it solely depends on you but with the support of a professional, you can decide what is best for you.

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