Monica came into her counseling session crying. The position at work that she worked so hard to obtain was now in jeopardy. She couldn’t understand how this happened so quickly. One day she seemed to be everyone’s favorite new employee and the next day she was an outcast. But as she began to recount her story, a few things became clear.
Her new boss was so charming in the beginning that she wondered why others had warned her he was difficult to please. Yet a new person emerged after Monica made a slight oversight on a report. Now he was demanding, condescending, and overbearing. In an effort to regain his favor, she agreed to take responsibility for a blunder he made during a meeting. However, this did not seem to fix anything, rather he became more belligerent than ever.
Added to that, her assistant frequently came in late, smelled of alcohol after lunch, left early, and had excuses for everything that went wrong. After asking around about her, Monica discovered that several people believed that she had a drinking problem as she was known to come into work drunk on a few occasions. One day she was caught by upper management coming in two hours late to work. She lied and said Monica had given her permission. In an effort to try to be nice to her assistant, Monica begrudgingly agreed to lie. But things only got worse.
According to ancient Jewish tradition, a goat was released into the wilderness after taking on the sins of others so the people could remain in the community. The term scapegoat stems from the concept of one person (or animal) absorbing the mistakes of others. The scapegoat has not done anything wrong rather they are the fall person for those who have done wrong. After explaining the term, Monica realized she was her boss and assistant’s scapegoat. Now she needed to know how to get out of her situation.
- Understand what a scapegoat is. The purpose of a scapegoat is to pass responsibility onto someone else. Usually this person is unsuspecting at first and agrees because they are trying to get along with others. This technique of passing the buck is very common with narcissists, sociopaths, and addicts. Narcissists can’t allow their ego to be tarnished by an error. Sociopaths do it for the sport of it. And addicts do it because accepting fault in one area of their life means being accountable in another.
- Don’t accept liability. Looking back on the two events, Monica had an opportunity in both events to be honest with her level of responsibility. Instead, she chose to take on things that were not her fault. This did not improve her relationships as the two individuals just saw Monica as a pushover and someone they can continue to take advantage of in the future. Had she refused to be their scapegoat, a level of respect would be achieved instead of contempt.
- Review past experience. Her feelings of frustration over being a scapegoat ran deep. Upon further examination, Monica realized that her brother used to get her in trouble for his offenses all the time. Her parents, trying to be impartial, told the kids to “work it out.” Her brother’s idea of this was to threaten harm to her if she didn’t agree to take blame. As a demonstration of his determination, he even lit her stuffed animals on fire. Her willingness at work to make excuses for her boss and assistant was subconsciously rooted in the fear her brother instilled.
- Stop being the scapegoat. Once Monica separated out trauma from past events, she was able to set new boundaries. She began by issuing a written warning with her assistant about her late arrivals and notified Human Resources of her suspicious behavior. Then she researched narcissistic bosses and found other ways to feed his ego. This pacified her boss and neutralized her assistant. Despite a couple of attempts to thwart her boundaries, Monica remained firm.
- Expose the abuser. Monica knew that eventually she would need to expose the scapegoating technique to prevent other employees from damage. But doing this too soon would mean jeopardizing her job, so she waited and watched. When she saw another employee taking the fall for yet another blunder by her boss, Monica spoke to that person and advised them not to take on the blame. This frustrated her boss, but by then, Monica had established a good enough relationship with Human Resources that her job was secured. Once Human Resources caught on, it was only a matter of time before her boss was removed.
Narcissists, sociopaths, and addicts are most effective when they are able to utilize a scapegoat to escape responsibility. Monica successfully navigated around such behavior by knowing the warning signs and setting very firm boundaries. The only thing worse than being a scapegoat once, is being one a second and third time.