Being stuck in the role of the scapegoat is a lonely experience. Your place in the group never really feels secure. You live with a constant sense of being blamed and shamed–even if you can’t point out exactly how, or why it happens. You have probably been told that your feelings are wrong so many times you‘re not sure which end is up or whether you can trust your own instincts. But still, in your gut you know things are not right.
That’s why you chose to speak up in the first place: to bring issues out in the open and hopefully address them together. Sadly, it’s also why you’ve been cast as the scapegoat by those who are hell-bent on denying difficult truths and maintaining the current power structure. As the scapegoat, you are subject to ostracism, victim-blaming, scolding, and shaming. And for some, a campaign of lies and half-truths weaken their perceived credibility both in and outside of the group. It is a painful way to live.
I’ll always remember the pivotal moment in my therapist’s office years ago when I began to fully grasp the consequences of speaking up. I sat trying to take in her words as she did her best to validate my hurt and anger toward members of my family. She explained to me, with empathy and conviction, that my perspective was appropriate. That others were wrong in their behaviors toward me and misguided in their interpretations. She tried to reassure me that I was justified in my feelings and, in fact, on the right track.
I wanted to believe her but wasn’t sure I could. She had presented me with a brand new lens through which to understand my experiences, one that went against the messaging I’d absorbed all my life. I wasn’t ready to buy what she was selling and I needed to play devil’s advocate.
“But…” I sat up straighter, my eyes locked on hers as they brimmed with tears, “when I seem to be the only one seeing it this way–and the people around me are convinced that I’m wrong, doesn’t that tell you something? Isn’t it my job to question myself when I’m all alone in my point of view?!”
My therapist exhaled, then looked back at me with kind eyes and a thoughtful expression. “You have to consider the source”, she told me. “There’s a whole group of people who are joined in their need to see it one way. That doesn’t make them right. It makes you brave.”
What a concept.
In the years since I’ve spent working with abuse survivors, I have watched the same kinds of scenarios play out again and again in other families and groups. The scapegoats tend to be the ones who are brave enough to speak their truths and point out when something is terribly wrong. They keep sounding the alarm in the face of overwhelming pressure to stay quiet. And they continue to stand for what’s right, despite the punishments this brings. Rejection, reverse blaming, and smear campaigns are some of the most common ways truth-tellers pay the price.
I know it’s difficult to feel sure of yourself when you’re being scapegoated, especially by people who matter the most in your life (or once did).
At the same time, it’s important to realize that within the group there are likely people who have been mistreated and/or abused. They have legitimate reasons to feel hurt and angry. But unless you have actually been on the offending side of these systematic behaviors–which is unlikely since scapegoats are generally not the ones who hold power–their hurt and anger are probably misdirected. That’s one of the reasons scapegoats are created: they make an easy target for pent-up frustration and pain. They also distract people in the group from real problems.
Scapegoats play an important and positive role. Like the guileless parade-goer in the classic tale who points out that the Emperor has no clothes, scapegoats tell the truth when nobody else will. And they go against the crowd to do so. Too bad because the entire group would be better off if people had the courage to listen. Someone has to be the brave one, after all, or the entire kingdom would go along with the king’s dangerous delusions, resulting in a culture of denial. And a naked king.
I like to imagine how the fable of the emperor would play out if it were true to life. In my mind, the powers that be and their enablers castigate the truth-teller for speaking up and she is expelled from the kingdom. True to herself, yet alone and abandoned.
But it doesn’t end there. She keeps walking through the gates of the kingdom and on down the road. She is scared and sad at first. But through her travels, she learns to rely on herself. She meets people who are kind and open-hearted. They embrace her morality, humor, and compassion and she appreciates these same qualities in them. Over time, our hero joins a small community of people who value her for the authentic person she is.
She settles in a village where people act out of empathy, humility, courage, and honesty. They do their best to protect the vulnerable and fight against abuses of power. They tackle difficult problems instead of avoiding reality or blaming others. And they offer each other acceptance and genuine love, messy and flawed as it may be. Just as our hero suspected, she finds that this way of life is infinitely more gratifying than the culture of denial and repression she came from.
This story is not a fairy tale. In fact, we all have the ability to go out and find our people: the ones who are willing to live in the truth with us, who know abuse when they see it, and who value morality more than inclusion. Follow your instincts and keep moving forward one step at a time. Even if the “kingdom” you came from does not see your worth, you deserve to be embraced and valued for the strong, wise, upstanding person that you are. I see the price you paid to be true to yourself, and I admire you for it.