The Scapegoat Identity

How we come to identify with guilt.

Posted Jan 11, 2011

One of the most important of personal assessments we can give to ourselves, and one which will pretty quickly tell us whether or not we are living authentically, is answering this question: What thought or emotion runs me? What emotion or thought gets me to do things I don't even want to do? 

Is it guilt? Does guilt come around fairly frequently telling me that if I don't do X, Y, or Z I am going to have to contend with horrible feelings of guilt later? Do I hang out with people I don't want to hang out with, do and say things I don't want to do and say because I fear that if I don't I will feel guilty later? Do I feel like I might be thought of as a "bad" person or, worse yet, a "selfish" person if I don't do that thing the guilt is urging me to do? 

If we can honestly answer "yes" to those questions, we are being emotionally blackmailed by our own guilt. And the truth is that when such emotional blackmail is a pattern, our identities are usually all wrapped up in it as well. In this case, we are fairly constantly defining ourselves, our behaviors, words and thoughts, based on whether or not we have obeyed guilt. 

Self-definition is identity. For example, I might define myself as a good person because I don't allow myself to be selfish in my thoughts, words, or deeds. I hate myself for the reserve of resentment I find lurking around the periphery of my vision at all times. So, while I think of myself and present myself as a good person, I'm also feeling internally like a bad person. And I don't notice that I'm losing myself in the bargain. 

Years later, I may wonder how the resentments that seemed mild at first, have grown into bitterness without my permission. And this will make me feel that I must be even worse than I thought. This feeling of "badness" might even drive me into therapy

Persons whose lives are run by the emotional blackmail of guilt have what I call a "scapegoat" identity. The scapegoat motif began centuries ago as a part of the sacrificial dynamic with a god or gods. The members of a village would write down their sins on a ribbon tied around a goat's neck. The goat was then sacrificed or sent away into the wilderness. Either way the scapegoat carried the "sins" of the village with him. 

And that is exactly how the scapegoat identity works. As a naturally sensitive or empathic child grows up in the home with parents and others who cannot be "wrong," who blame the child for things they themselves have done or who otherwise refuse to take responsibility for their own inner lives, the child may begin to empathize with, then carry, then identify with all of the unresolved flotsam and jetsam floating around in this home.

Sensitive and empathic children—not having been taught how to use empathy--can be used by family, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as the carrier of the "sins" of the family. Children are seeking mirrors, as we've said in other posts, that define them. If the only mirror is one that defines the child as the guilty party or the responsible one, a sensitive child, who longs for connection, will begin to define him or herself accordingly. 

As that child grows, he will encounter more and more of the world, but will come from the same exact dynamic established at home. Why? Because he has identified with this way of interacting. He thinks it's who he is. He is the guilty one. The one who must constantly take responsibility for others emotions and "sins" because this is just what he does. He cares a great deal for others—as a natural part of his authenticity—but this caring has been contorted, by this defined identity, into carrying

So now, this child, whose gift it was to be empathic, has now been cursed. She will not use her empathy as recognition of what others are feeling, and the ability to mirror that back to them so that they can then use that information for their own growth. She will use her gift of empathy to carry other's burdens of guilt, responsibility, and emotion. And in so doing, she will somehow prove to herself that she is not the bad person she senses that she is. 

This sense of unworthiness carried deep within and below every good deed done by the scapegoat originates from having carried the guilt and responsibility for others' "sins." This child has taken on these "wrongs" and "sins" as if they should, indeed, belong to him. And he feels this sense of wrongness as if it actually defines him. He is now, officially the scapegoat—for he has taken the "sins" of others away. 

But truly, under this mask and costume, is a genuine person not afflicted with the "sins" of others, who is gifted with a powerful tool. If she is to break out of the scapegoat identity, she is going to have to come to know this authentic person within her.

And believe it or not, that process begins by recognizing and beginning to honor the resentments—for they are leading her to the truth that she is doing a lot of things that are not genuine. We'll talk more soon about how this process of uncovering the authentic self hidden beneath the scapegoat occurs. Wait for it.