Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Law and Crime

False Accusations, Scapegoats, and the Power of Words

Recovery is possible.

Being publically accused of a crime one did not commit is torture, and once the information is out there, trying to defend yourself, clear your name, fight suspicion, and tolerate disdain makes for a horrible predicament.

People with little information can form strong opinions and take unwarranted retaliatory action from expulsion from the clan to spreading the false word. In Jane Eyre, the cruel headmaster tells the girls to let no one be her friend, take her hand, or comfort her. You get the sense that this is the worst punishment for Jane, worse than the head blow or the lack of bread.

If accusations are not true, a person is in a situation similar to being bullied. Even if one is rich, successful, famous, or “has it all,” the psychological devastation can be ruinous. If you are not believed, if you cannot fight back with the true story, if now you are distrusted and under scrutiny, the sense of helplessness is overwhelming. People with inner vulnerabilities are easy targets. Others sense the fragility and find it thrilling to gang up or attack. Having a scapegoat can help a group form a strong bond and find meaning in what could be otherwise empty lives.

Freud said that the pain of the ego is the worse kind of pain. Kids who are scapegoated with words that cause unbearable humiliation sometimes commit suicide. A supervisor in analytic school told me that kids who are tortured with words are often more traumatized than those who have been physically abused.

It is widely known that people with certain kinds of pathology are brilliant at looking like victims when they are actually perpetrators. They can ruin the life of an innocent person. You can see this on Law and Order, learn it in Psych 101, or just intuit it instinctively.

When you hear a story, consider the narrator. Who is this person? Why is she telling this story when she is? What feelings does she convey when she tells it? If there was true victimization, then the wish to retaliate is utterly understandable. You as the listener may feel like crying too. But what if the true story is not as it seems? You might feel a strange lack of empathy. Sometimes people dramatize. Some people lie or feel so injured for rational or irrational reasons that they come to believe their own distortions. There are those who are at peace when they lie and those who toss, turn, and torture themselves about doing so. In short, some people lie and some do not.

You might wonder, as you listen, if this person is truly seeking wellness, self-protection, or justice, or if the goal is simply to destroy someone else? If a person is lying to hurt someone else, it is a highly aggressive act and the accuser needs help. Such choices do not foster a healthy existence with generous, loving relationships.

You might hear a tale of woe, and just have the feeling that the teller is not all that woeful. Maybe there is a need to blame or malign for secondary gain: attention, fame, money, importance or drama. Maybe the person is not in touch with reality and is retaliating against an imagined transgression. Some seemingly intact people can have paranoid fears at the core. In order to “defend” themselves, they act against others. Maybe the goal is to take someone else down for competitive, regressed, or even unconscious reasons. They just want what the other one has.

Making a false accusation in a public way is an aggressive act. In the movie The Bad Seed, a sociopathic child has an angelic demeanor yet manages to destroy many lives. Sweet faces, soft voices, and tears can hide sadistic impulses. If you know someone like this, the best thing you can do is steer clear and build up your own life in a positive, separate way. Time takes away the sting, people eventually figure out the truth, and recovery is possible. You may be stronger, better, and savvier after you get out from under this mess you did not create.

I once attended an event where the speaker said some people are brought into this life to build, and others to tear down.

More from Carrie Barron M.D.
More from Psychology Today