Scapegoating - Singling out one child, employee or member of a group of peers for unmerited negative treatment or blame.
Picking a Target
Everyone has some relationships that feel less comfortable, natural or rewarding than the others. Some people simply annoy us more, tire us more or challenge us more than others.
For example, many parents struggle to show equitable treatment to their children, who usually have different interests, abilities and behavior patterns, just as employers typically find a broad spectrum of abilities and attitudes within their staff. Teachers find they aren’t able to relate to every student in the same way. Some relationships just take more work than others. That’s life. It’s not possible or practical to treat everyone as if they were exactly the same, all the time.
Differential treatment becomes dysfunctional, however, when it translates into actions such as inequitable systems of reward and punishment or inequitable access or denial of access to opportunities, resources and liberties. It becomes a form of abuse when one child, employee or member of a group is singled out for special punishment, undeserved negative treatment or arbitrarily denied some benefit available to the others.
People with Personality Disorders are particularly susceptible to showing dysfunctional differential treatment because they sometimes allow their feelings to override facts. This means their feelings become so intense that what they feel about a person or situation can receive more of their attention or take a higher priority than what they know about that person or situation. This can then lead to distortions in how they interpret a given situation which are then used to rationalize or justify the way they feel and the way they behave as a result.
Scapegoating can occur in all aspects of life, however, it is most clearly demonstrated and can be most destructive when the person showing favoritism has some form of power or authority over others, such as in parent-child, teacher-student and boss-subordinate relationships.
In the US workplace, various laws such as The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Equal Pay Act, The Age Discrimination Act, The Americans with Disabilities Act and The Civil Rights Act of 1991, prohibit discrimination based on ethnic origin, appearance, gender, religion and disability. Other countries have also passed similar legislation. However, these laws only protect against favoritism which can be objectively verified in a court of law and where an objective criterion for the discriminatory behavior (for example refusing to serve members of a particular ethnic group in a restaurant) can be demonstrated. Negative treatment based on a person’s subjective “gut-feel” judgment about someone’s personality, character or appearance is much harder to regulate or prove in court.
The term “scapegoat” has its origins in the traditional Jewish feast of Yom Kippur - in which the transgressions of the people were ceremonially transferred by the High Priest onto the head of a sacrificial goat - the “escape goat” - which was then banished into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it
Scapegoating is the opposite of favoritism as it involves punishments rather than rewards, although they are essentially similar kinds of dysfunction. They both involve judgments which are not based on objective ideas of fairness. Other names for scapegoating include reverse-favoritism, bullying, prejudice, discrimination, bias and partiality.
What Scapegoating in the Home Looks Like
- A parent who systematically singles out one child for blame when things go wrong in the family.
- A parent who punishes one child more severely than their siblings.
- A parent who assigns undesirable responsibilities and chores etc. to just one child in the family.
- A parent who routinely speaks more negatively to or about one child in the family.
- A parent who refuses to intervene or take notice when other siblings bully, hurt or abuse one child in the family.
What Scapegoating in the Workplace Looks Like
- A boss who systematically denies raises and promotions and benefits to just one employee, despite them demonstrating equal or superior performance or merit to others.
- A teacher who gives poorer grades to one particular student than their work merits.
- A boss who routinely assigns less pleasant or desirable tasks to one employee while giving the more desirable jobs to others.
- A boss who covers up or shields other employees from responsibility or accountability while allowing one to face the consequences.
- A boss who denies access or time and attention to one employee while giving extensive access to others.
How it Feels
Children who grow up as the scapegoat in a family are likely to develop trust issues, resentment and low self-esteem. Children often blame themselves for such treatment and look for rationalizations for the way they are treated. They may begin to feel worthless, ugly, stupid or incompetent. They may struggle academically and avoid competitive situations or opportunities. Adult children who have been scapegoated may struggle with explosive anger, pessimism and resentment in relationships, employment, and friendships.
Some children who are victims of scapegoating may try to prove their worth by becoming over-achievers, often to the detriment of their own aspirations and interests in life.
Children who are victims of parental scapegoating often seek validation outside of the home can be vulnerable to predatory groups and individuals who seek to take advantage of them. Religious cults, criminal gangs, terrorist organizations, thieves and violent or sexual predators often lure their victims by initially offering validation to people who have low self-worth.
What NOT to Do
- Don’t blame yourself or assume that you did anything to deserve the way a person with a Personality Disorder treats you.
- Don’t accept scapegoating as normal or allow it just to “go with the flow”.
- Don’t persecute someone else who is being scapegoated. That is participating in abuse.
- Don’t ignore it when someone else is being scapegoated. That is condoning abuse.
- Don’t try to justify your worth by becoming an over-achiever. Don’t work yourself harder to earn the love of a parent or family member. Real love is a free gift; it doesn’t require people to jump through hoops.
- Don’t immediately trust everybody or every organization who offers you validation. Save your trust for people who will treat you well and don’t have a hidden agenda of their own.
- Don’t waste your time and energy trying to change another person’s opinion of you. As painful as it is to admit, you have almost no power or control over another person’s thoughts, words and actions.
- Don’t retaliate or try to hurt a person who scapegoats you. Try, as best you can, to disengage from them.
What TO Do
- End the conversation and remove yourself from the room and the house if possible whenever anybody treats you badly.
- Call the police if anybody physically hurts you, threatens or bullies you. If you are young, report it to a responsible caring adult.
- Try to base your own opinion of yourself based on your merits - your own unique strengths and weaknesses - not on other people’s emotions.
- Speak up for what is right when you see injustice. Say it once and then don’t say it again or argue about it. Agree to disagree if necessary. Just saying it once can sometimes help.
- Get support. Find validating and healthy friendships and relationships where people will appreciate your worth and encourage you to be the best that you can be.
- If you are in an employment situation, you might want to try to find an alternate position or another group or employer.
- If you are the recipient of inequitable treatment, politely decline the favor and request inclusion of your peers.