Notes on a Goat

I read an interesting post the other day, by a therapist named Martha Crawford. (What A Shrink Thinks, Read more of this post)

The post was about the scapegoat and his role in the family, community, and workplace.  She wrote in part about her experience with a co-worker, whom she called The Angriest Social Worker in the World. This woman was the conduit for all the frustration, anger, judgement and pain generated by the bureaucratic inhumanity of the institution; she would vent and complain and vibrate with barely repressed hostility through their meetings, while the rest of the group maintained relative equanimity and reasonable expectations.  

Eventually the woman burned out and was gone.  It was assumed that peace would reign with her departure.  But instead, a general dissatisfaction and “crankiness” arose among all the remaining clinicians, especially within the author, until she and two of her colleagues evolved into The Three Angriest Social Workers in the World.  

Her point was that every system needs a goat (or goats?): families, workplaces, communities.  Where none exists, or when one departs, some member of the group will be “chosen” as the next vessel for the dysfunction of the collective.

I know I am the goat of my family, the black sheep, the one who carries the shame and guilt and provides the rock bottom against which the others measure themselves.  That is a role I assumed.  It’s not my only role, but it’s one that has followed me throughout my life. 

The post got me to thinking:  Where else have I replicated that family role?

After my parents’ divorce, absorbing all that rage and sadness, I undertook my first (but not last) turn as troublemaker in school, and became a fighter, protector, and bully.  More shame and guilt, some of which I still carry today. 

Continuing, at age 11-12, I “appointed” myself one of those whose job it was to absorb the horrors of the Holocaust, taken on as it caused me to attempt to make moral sense of the world. I thought I was exposed to it because I was meant to be one of those who carried the guilt for it (not even Catholic, how did I pick this shit up?) and that I had to learn about it because that was how it could be set to right.  I wanted to join the Israeli army and protect Jews everywhere.  I became more adept at guilt and shame, and was plagued for years by horrific nightmares until I was able to work it out and release some of that burden.

I was Brenda’s vessel for dysfunction; I believe my presence in part enabled her to interact in healthy and constructive way with her other students.  As time went on, and my usefulness waned, I became the rageful rebel, was cut off like the poisoned limb I was, and eventually disappeared.

In both of my “high-impact” jobs, I was the goat. System-appointed, and self-appointed.  In both, I started out as a nobody, under incompetent rule.  I overthrew the incompetent ruler with the assistance of a semi-powerful mentor/champion, who encouraged my battle to improve the workplace, but was ultimately too weak and/or self-preserving to support me, and abandoned me (dad). As the dysfunction of the workplace escalated and became toxic, I was the point-person for everyone’s venting: respected, a leader, trying to put things to right, but also an absorber and the voice of the disaffected, angry, suffering “family”. The peacemaker, the intermediary between the “kids” and the “parents”. 

As the dysfunction reached a peak, the necessary conversion happened: new rulers asserted the rules, and the family receded into a more passive, accepting, functional place, adapting to the new realities; I, on the other hand, had collected all of the pain and anger and allowed it to overtake me.  I couldn’t let go of what I still witnessed and couldn’t accept, I couldn’t participate in it.  I lost touch with my rational, self-protecting parts, and became this walking talking font of rage and judgement. Most everyone turned away from me.  I became the problem.  Seeing the portents of my demise, I was too consumed with the emotional burden of my role to do anything sensible to prevent it.  In fact, at that point it was probably desired.  I was eventually excised, and the system continued as before.

So how do I break that chain?  How do I stop absorbing, and how do I quiet my mind and heart enough to not rage against authority; to not speak the truth as I see it, unfiltered; to raise my own self-preservation and well-being above that of the system?  Why does it feel like my own survival depends on fixing the problems in the group, on resisting the ones in power who are responsible?

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