Scapegoat-Lite vs. Positive Scapegoating

  • small_askdr A rather vexing cartoon  from last weeks New Yorker  had this lead: “Dan and Irene’s communication problems improve thanks to Richard, their couples  therapist.” The picture shows Dan with his arm around Irene,   happily bonding as they call  their therapist ‘clueless’ and  ‘ idiot.’ “

A person who had read my posting on what I call positive scapegoating  wondered whether this was an example of “positive scapegoating.”   I told her no, it’s the common garden variety of scapegoating in which members of a small group   use  the peverse energy of   blaming another,  in this case a member with special authority in a group, to bond.  What happens to their couples’ therapy is anyone’s guess but I wouldn’t put my money on a good outcome.  And the therapist might never know what’s really going on in the next few sessions. Clueless, perhaps,  but at least he gets paid!

Parents, teachers and  therapists are often scapegoats. They’re are easy to blame for children’s woes and they really do influence the problems.  Parents in particular  have trouble defending themselves (especially if their dead)! If their alive (and wise)  they can try to just be happy that their kids are doing well and if it takes scapegoating them to do that , well, c’est la vie.

It’s called Scapegoat-Lite: when little harm is done and it goes with the job and the role. Mild abuse of authority towards a greater goal–most professionals, lawyers, physicians, teachers, etc. usually take it in stride . It’s rarely a long-term solution to conflict but it’s a big part of human behavior–endemic as it is  in  politics,   family conflict, and almost all life disputes.

What I call  Positive Scapegoating   is a much more powerful process. It begins in serious scapegoating and that dynamic is strongly felt throughout the group, and especially by the victim who at first faces loss of community, comfort and personal esteem .  Being scapegoated is always  severe trauma, one from which most of us do not emerge easily. But some take the opportunity to get rid of the ties that bind. The “positive scapegoat” is ejected from a constraining environment which allow separation and   transformation  in positive directions. Many of us need that push ‘from the nest’ to have the chance to become ourselves and fly  .


  1. Rosemary Bruus says:

    Dear Dr. Colman

    I absolutely loved your Tedx talk. I am a student in the Masters program at the University of Santa Monica. Please keep up your great work! I love the way you think & I would love to meet you one day. My best to you, Rosemary Bruus ( I’m on linked in & live in Calgary Canada).

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