The Goat

Sacrifice is an unavoidable part of life.

But sometimes you are the sacrifice.

At some point, we will all serve our turn as The Goat.

And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.
~ Leviticus 16 King James

And the sheep will be separated from the goats: Goats are independent, differentiated, disobedient, and hard to direct; a wholly different creature than a happily herded sheep.
Even the three Billy Goats Gruff cross the bridge to face down the hungry troll one at a time.

Every school, church, social clique, graduate program, social service agency, group therapy, small town, every team, club, and every family system has their own identified patient, the angry one, the-who-do-you-think-you-are one, the broken, vulnerable one who absorbs all of the cast off sins, shames, and discomforts – who manifests “dis-ease” for the rest. The chosen Goat suffers so that we may escape ourselves, distance ourselves, externalize our terror of loss, of aggression, of suffering, of inflation.

In groups forced to negotiate in close proximity to each other, and especially groups that feel a strong need to see themselves as Unified in Goodness – relational tensions build up which must be disavowed. The more energy spent repressing aspects of ourselves which threaten to destabilize the collective – the more shame and aggression accrue, the more the community brims with repressed energies, anxiously awaiting discharge.

Envision the Collective as one big agitated kid stuck inside on a Sunday afternoon, wearing wool socks and shuffling though shag carpeting: Flush with electric charge, index finger poised for an unsuspecting sibling to absorb the spark.

Therapy offices everywhere are full of traumatized Goats, marked by their families, schoolmates, employers, coworkers, neighbors. People bearing the weight of collective distortions, targets of harassment, victims of abuse, absorbing vilifying projections of whichever dominant narrative surrounds them: Strung up for being too smart, for telling a threatening truth, for being “other” in terms of their race, sexual or gender identity, for being too gifted, for being obviously wounded, for being too vulnerable.

One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things just doesn’t belong….

Any experience or self-state that makes others uncomfortable, that threatens, frightens, exposes or in someway challenges the status quo can mark you as the sacred goat, the Sin-Eater, the point of discharge.

With boring regularity we seize the opportunity to elevate those who seek out and gather up our idealizing projections. Inflated far beyond the limits of humanity, past the point of sustainable hubris – the crowd enjoys the taste of blood and justice when they eventually dismember and destroy their idol, cutting them “down to size.”

Perhaps there is a corrective function, as ugly as it may be, in such repetitive public cycles.

But most of those chosen to eat our sins have not sought out their role at all.

In sports (from my limited understanding) , “The Goat” is the one who slips up, who stumbles, who drops the ball or misses the crucial shot at a pivotal moment. He or she is assigned the stigma of failure for the entire team, although certainly other members could have worked to accrue a larger advantage earlier in the game. Here it is simply our fallibility, our capacity for error, vulnerability and loss that threatens the collective narcissism, the group’s fantasy of omnipotence and immortality.

Goats are nimble climbers, able to negotiate steep and hazardous slopes. Those who find that their ambition and talents lead them to penetrate into new spheres are particularly likely to be selected for sacrificial punishment: A woman or a person of color employed in a profession previously under the sole domain of white men. The first teenager to publicly come-out as homosexual in the history of their high-school.

A Tale of a Very Angry Goat:
I worked once, on a treatment unit with a particularly smart and gifted clinician who appeared, at every staff meeting, in the guise of The Angriest Social Worker in the World. Rage – at the systemic obstacles, injustices, and stupidity surrounding her and her clients, surrounding and perpetrated by us all – emanated from her in waves of hot toxicity. We all appeared to ourselves to be remarkably patient, pragmatic, and well insulated in contrast. The rest of us believed we had our work, our goals and boundaries in proper perspective and that she did not. We all thought more highly of ourselves because we were certain that we were not so so very angry.

And of course, when she announced that she was leaving – we all assumed, that although we admired her impressive skills and her gifts, that we would be relieved to be rid of her daily tantrums and diatribes.

Instead, we all got crankier. In fact, we grew increasingly cranky with each other each passing day.

Eventually, I became extremely  cranky. Intolerably cranky. Everyone else now seemed to be going about their business while clients died, disappeared, suffered, were involuntarily medicated, unjustly incarcerated, or deported. Great hot waves of toxicity preceded me into meetings and trailed in my wake. And I’m sure, that after I left that job some other team member stepped into the position of the Angry One -and began to carry the disavowed rage for the entire team.

Once a community or a group or a family has built up sufficient momentum, and is in the throes of projecting their unconscious, unprocessed conflicts onto the selected goat, there is no logic, no argument, no discussion, no call to morality or reason that can dissuade them.

As Jung himself says (approximately, sort of, somewhere)
It is a pointless task to argue with another’s projections.

Even the Gods cannot protect themselves, and must withstand the shadows projected upon them by the masses.

Once selected: some rail, and struggle, fighting back with full force, refusing to cede any ground or relinguish any standing. Others quickly surrender, either by going limp, passive and derealized or with an eerie dignity and certainty about who they are in the face of terrorizing, baffling lies, exaggerations, accusations and distortions.

Some catch the smell of danger in the wind early, and know how to become completely invisible, or quickly build a protective consensus of support.

Others attempt to master the terror by internalizing the distortions, taking the shadow of the group into their own identities and beliefs about themselves. Self-hate, toxic shame, internalized racism, sexism, homophobia, a false and degraded Self is organized to further protect the clan. Contact with the essential self is lost and abandoned, in order to stay connected to the family, team, community. A goat can take on the Burden of the group’s Badness and believe it, claiming it as their own.

I spend hour upon hour every week, as do therapists all around the world, working in many different modalities to try to sort through these calcified, internalized projections, and separate the wheat from the chaff, the false beliefs from the core Self, peeling away the distorting voices of introjected herd from the goat’s true, original nature.

“There is clearly danger in opposing the mass and safety for the individual lies in following the example of those around him.” ~ S. Freud, Mass Psychology

Or not.

It depends, I suppose on how you define safety.

Psychological scape-goating may offer the collective some temporary relief, serving to reestablish short-term homeostasis for the group, but it is only through coming into direct contact with our failures and fears, by facing and integrating our own shadow that we move toward wholeness.

Casting our sins away without a conscious reckoning defeats the processes of creative psychological growth.

But not for the goat.

And when he hath made an end of reconciling the holy place, and the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat: and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. ~ Leviticus 20 King James

Ultimately the scape-goat, escapes.

When the ordeal is survived, all old hopes of the former life in the community mourned, the shock and terror assimilated, the projections of other’s shaken off its shaggy coat- the goat owes nothing further to the community. Released to the wild, it reclaims its original nature, free and clear, the confines and conventions of domestication left behind and forgotten.


Goats are archetypes of regeneration. Thor’s chariot is drawn by pair of magic goats – which can be cooked and eaten each night for a delicious dinner. In the morning, when the sun rises – there they are, happy and intact, magically reassembled from the remaining skeleton and hide.

It is an inevitable and inescapable reality, that at some point in our lives, the group will turn on us.

The herd lives in constant terror, perpetually fleeing from its own shadows..

It is the goat, even if only mere skin and bones, that is set free.

copyright Β© 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

33 responses

  1. Another adoptee goat here who thinks you have spelled out something intelligent and very important. Thank you! I would like to link to this, as well.

  2. makes sense to me! being that I am a critic of the sort of social service system you speak about in this piece, I have to say that using the word “toxic” as applied to the first social workers anger is a bit misleading.

    The denial of harm that people in social services are complicit with on a daily basis is even more horribly toxic in my mind. I left social services for that reason too…that I might not stew in anger (and often simply helplessness) as often and all the injustices committed daily. But embracing that anger, coming to understand it and do what one can to change the system is very necessary.

    I don’t imagine you disagree at all, just adding these thoughts as some reading it might not grasp that. Anger, even rage (really feeling it and allowing it into my consciousness)…for me, while it was always a goal to release and let go and transform,was and occasionally still is a very important and vital part of my journey. All too often people refuse to explore their anger to feel it, to acknowledge it…the fact is it’s there and if it’s not explored is when it’s truly dangerous.

    Our culture is terrified of anger so that rather than learning to understand it’s gifts everyone simply runs from it. Anger is part of our emotional inheritance as human beings. It helps us and keeps us alive. When it is pure and clean it can continue to do that in a healthy way. Anger is not the enemy. Misunderstanding it and misapplying it certainly can be.

  3. I love this. It’s something I’ve always wanted to write about, but couldn’t put in words without sounding overly bitter. The scapegoat metaphor is perfect. Thanks.

  4. “Anger is not the enemy. Misunderstanding it and misapplying it certainly can be.”

    Thank you for your wonderful comment. I couldnt agree more.

    And the toxicity I spoke of was a kind of unfocused, scattershot rage – made impotent and powerless by the resistances in the larger system. I also think that when we find ourselves in circumstances when we are the only conduit, outlet for a groups’ unconscious, unprocessed and repressed rage – we are inherently prevented from using it construcively. The only anger we can use well and with justice and with good effect is our own, perhaps joined with the conscious anger of others.

    thanks for reading and the important clarifications you made here.


  5. What a wonderfully important idea to illuminate on, and thanks for bringing the spirirtual and psychological out in judiasm. I am particularly touched by your idea that even though the goat reduced to skin and bones still can be free and hopfully recover from his skin and bones state.

  6. In group work, which theories I am being taught to relate to community work, we are trained to call out the scapegoating indirectly and have group members talk about how feeling blamed or being made to absorb all the dysfunction (for a lack of a better word) at one time in their lives made it feel. We do this in hope that the scapegoat will finally be able to say their part, others might be able to identify with them, and then group mutual aid will hammer out the issue so the group can return to a healthy level of harmony/differentiation.

    How do you do that in a community? Especially when it is a community by identity where members may live all over the globe?

    Maybe you find a way to call out the scapegoating so that everyone, in their own way, maybe in the comments section of a blog, in a forum, or on their own blog, can say how it made them feel. Maybe then people can identify with the scapegoats. Maybe then they’ll let the goats free? Maybe that might be what you are doing here? Or at least setting a good example of it so that others can know how to set their community’s scapegoats free.

    You are a lovely woman. Thank you for writing this. Whenever I read your posts, I am always confident I will have something profound to say in class the next day πŸ™‚

  7. In the safer laboratory of a clinically organized group – there is room fo group leaders (when they have not had their own unconscious conflicts activated and projected on to the designated “other”) to name these dynamics and bring them to consciousness.

    In organizatational and institutional settings, and likely on-line, it can often be impossible to disrupt. I wrote this, I suppose, to address and struggle with my own hopelessness about what happens to humanity when it clusters in a mass, a mob, when groups begin to reinforce what is worst in us, rather than what is best in us.

    The only way I can imagine forward on a larger scale, is for more people to learn about about the basic mechanisms of fear and projection – only by knowing yourself, and knowing that you will only encounter many aspects of yourself when you meet them in the face of the threatening Other –

    Thanks for reading, and for your insightful comments and kind words.


  8. Narrative Therapy’s use of The Tree of Life is found to be helpful in some situations in an organised response for goats. Changing the sheep and their responses will be a bigger task!

  9. A wonderful post! I share your sense that the only lasting solution is self-knowledge, withdrawal of projections, and self-acceptance.In other words, we need to think psychologically to live spiritually! You’ve done such a beautiful job of clarifying this here. Thank you. Jeanie

  10. Thanks so much!!
    Yes, I do think that with out basic emotional/psychological intelligence and education other kinds of growth and progress are stalled out – as we all are susceptible and can become possessed by affects and instincts which may or may not serve any goal greater than short term survival in the moment.

    Growth is hard work!

    Thanks for your comments!

  11. I have been that angry goat. And I have made other people into goats. And yet the way you describe this whole process of scapegoating…it just is. There’s no shame in admitting we’re the goat, or we’ve made another into a goat. In acknowledging the truth about ourselves and another, we all find a little more freedom.

  12. Thanks. Yes. Your comment just clarified things further for me too, and I drew a deeper breath.

    It just is. And probably always will be. We will always have unconscious conflicts that we cast out as projections – because we can never “empty” the unconscious.

    Projection is how we meet our unknown Self.

    Thanks for reading. And commenting


  13. i never thought about our offices being full of scapegoats, but it’s true in many ways.

    i really enjoyed how you highlighted that goats are nimble climbers, because scapegoats are not helpless people, and often in different situations or environment they are quite powerful.

    thank you for the many rich thoughts

  14. Yes – even all “identified patients” in family systemic work are managing the scape-goated projections of the rest of the family. Sometimes, in healthy enough families, systems, groups – that process can be made clear to parents, siblings, etc and the projective pressure relieved. Sometimes the system commits to the projection – & continues to point to one family or community member as the source of the entire problem – and then, our efforts must shift to helping the identified patient extricate their identity from how they are being seen.

    We are all goats, all sheep. Hopefully, if we accept that we can hold our projections lightly.


  15. “Projection is how we meet our unknown Self.”

    LOVE this quote. You should write that down. Oh, wait…

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  18. Thanks Martha for this great post. I brought out my copy of “The Scapegoat Complex:Toward a Mythology of Shadow and Guilt.” again…time to re-read and digest some more. Sandy

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