When does scapegoating become problematic?
Scapegoating occurs in any type of relationship, including those within larger structures, such as families and workplaces. In fact, it’s common to occasionally attempt to deflect responsibility for one’s mistakes, often by blaming someone else. It becomes problematic, however, when the pattern is repeated, especially if the so-called blame is always laid at the same person’s door.
How to recognise the signs of scapegoating
It can sometimes be difficult to know if you are scapegoating or, indeed, if you’re being scapegoated. The signs are subtle. Typically, if you’re being scapegoated, the main indicators may lie in what someone says to you. If you notice that one person (or people) seems to blame you for everything that goes wrong, regardless of the truth, it is likely scapegoating. Experiencing great anxiety because you know you’ll be told off if things aren’t perfect, or perhaps someone making sweeping statements like: ‘You’re the reason we have all these problems’ are also signs that you should watch for this pattern.
Likewise, if you’re worried that you’re scapegoating someone else, the crux is to recognise whether you consistently and unfairly blame someone for things that may not be their fault or responsibility. Holding someone to account for a specific mistake is fine, but accountability is different from a pattern of blaming. It’s important to provide feedback gently and to focus on specifics (‘You made a mistake with that account’), instead of generalising (‘You get everything wrong’).
How to initiate change
To make progress, it’s often more helpful to focus on how to manage the scapegoating rather than on why it’s happening. It’s also good to remember that changing someone’s behaviour is difficult and it may not be safe (physically or psychologically) to point out these patterns. When scapegoating is happening within a bigger dysfunctional system, such as a family, it might not be possible to stop it, and the focus might instead need to be on creating boundaries to protect and separate yourself.
If it feels safe to broach and discuss the pattern, it can help to ask another supportive individual (such as an adult sibling) to be part of the conversation. Try to be clear and concise in your communication, explaining without judgment what you’ve noticed and the outcome you would like. For example: ‘I want you to stop blaming me for the times you and Aunt Samira fight.’ If the scapegoating is happening as part of a pattern of bullying at work, however, consider seeking support from HR, as they will have the tools to manage the situation.
Prioritising your mental health
Reflecting on what’s happened and understanding what it’s meant for you is key. Working on your mental health and self-esteem is also essential, as it’s likely that both have suffered. Finally, boundaries are vital when managing this pattern of behaviour. They may involve how you respond to accusations, the amount of contact you have with abusive people, and actions or patterns of behaviours you choose not to tolerate.
At home, school or work, scapegoating is challenging and destructive. But whether you’re the person pointing the finger or the one at the end of repeated and unwarranted accusations of incompetence, it is possible to change the dynamic and establish more mutually constructive patterns of behaviour.
For more, visit ahonaguha.com
READ MORE ABOUT MANAGING YOUR MENTAL HEALTH IN Breathe 54.