We all know that person, we might have even been her. The one who’s going to quit her job and travel the world, the one who’s going to open her own shop, go back to university, or finally write that book…but somehow it never actually happens.
Some of you might remember the Joshua Kadison song that was on the radio way back in 1994 called “Picture Postcards from LA”. It tells the story of Rachel, a singer who wants to move to Los Angeles and make it big:
“She’ll even buy a ticket and pack her things to leave
Though we all know the story, we pretend that we believe
But something always comes up, something always makes her stay
And still no picture postcards from LA.”
Rachel isn’t a coward for not following her dream, and those of us still planning that book or that big trip around the world aren’t lazy or ‘all talk”. We’re just being taken over by our lizard brain.
The Reptilian Brain
The amygdala, or ‘lizard brain’, is a primitive structure in the base of the brain responsible for the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. This is where associations are made between stimuli and the pleasant or aversive events they predict.
For example, if your pet always hears the sound of the can opener right before food appears, this sound become associated with a positive event and will begin to produce a pleasant feeling – a process known as classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs).
The amygdala is the home of the fight/flight response, whose job it is to warn us of danger, allowing us to escape from predators and protect ourselves from harm.
Experiments show that the greater the emotional arousal we experience following an unpleasant event, the stronger our memory of that event will be. An example of this would be if someone snaps at you and this causes you anxiety, you are more like to remember this event than someone who was not upset by being snapped at.
Research also shows that heightened amygdala activity often occurs following trauma during childhood. This can lead to a breakdown in the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for thinking, planning, decision-making and social behaviour. This interruption impacts our emotional processing.
Taking Back Control
“Survival and success are not the same thing.” – Seth Godin
Once an external events triggers an unpleasant memory, lizard brain steps in. Our capacity for rational thought is reduced and it can feel like we’re right back in the original unpleasant event.
This is not a weakness, or a matter of willpower. The lizard protects us from perceived harm, and it doesn’t like us to do anything out of the ordinary where the outcome can’t be predicted. This is especially true of amygdalas that were overstimulated early in life.
So when we think about leaving our familiar patterns to travel, go into business or return to study, our lizard starts shouting at us: ‘Are you out of your mind? What if it doesn’t work out? What if you make a fool of yourself? You don’t even know what you’re doing, it will be one giant disaster. Just stay where you are and don’t move!’
Sounds familiar right? The good news is that our brains have a great capacity for changing old patterns, a process known as neuroplasticity. This refers to changes in neural pathways which occur due to modifying our behaviour and environment.
There are things we can do to get the lizard out of the driver’s seat so our thinking brain can function rationally again. For some situations, this can be as simple as recognising the trigger and reframing it.
If you automatically become defensive when someone is angry, take a breath and see if you can become curious about what’s happening, rather than reacting automatically. Try to name the emotion that’s coming up for you – it might feel like resentment or frustration but underneath there might be fear or sadness.
If the lizard automatically labels the angry person as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, can you suspend judgment and become an interested bystander instead? What might be going on for that person? Is it really about you?
Bringing your conscious awareness to the situation builds new neural pathways that allow us to stay more in control of our responses. We build strong neural pathways through repetition – this is how we learn new languages, musical instruments, sporting skills etc.
The hippocampus is the structure in the brain that passes messages between the cortex and the amygdala. In simplistic terms, guided drawing aims to help the hippocampus function effectively so it can relay accurate messages needed to switch off a panicked lizard.
A technique I use called Guided Drawing allows a person to witness their story, making their inner tensions visible. The drawing focuses more on the actual movements the client makes on the paper than the appearance of what they draw. The rhythmic movements allow the body to move out of an immobile hyperaroused state and realise that the traumatic event is over, they are safe and they have survived.
Until this happens, discipline, willpower and positive thinking will only take us so far. Trauma is stored in the body and it needs to be released before the lizard will stop sounding the old alarm in the present moment where there is no actual danger. Healing in this way does not require us to change anything on the outside, the process occurs internally and our external lives change accordingly.
The presence of an unpredictable adult in my childhood home caused me to always be on guard, scanning the environment for danger and trying to be as invisible as possible to stay safe. Through Guided Drawing, I explored the feelings in my body associated with this. I was asked to make different movements for which I chose different colours.
My drawings went from a black and red combination of circular and slashing movements to light coloured movements up and outward from the page. The difference I felt in my body was huge, from weighed down and trapped to released and flowing.
I now offer this approach to my clients. My lizard has gotten in the way of many physical activities I’ve tried to pursue, such as scuba diving, along with some of my plans for my business and my writing. So I’ve been using this process to make friends with my lizard, because I want to write that damn book…and I love offering this treatment to others as well to help them heal from the inside out.
Our shadow side represents the person we don’t want to be, all the aspects of ourselves we don’t want to express because of feelings of shame associated with them. We lock away the parts of ourselves we believe are unacceptable and we disown them. They lie dormant, rejected, and their absence leaves us less than whole.
A Golden Shadow
Sometimes what’s in our shadow isn’t dark at all, it’s the positive aspects of ourselves we’ve rejected because they shine too brightly for those around us, or because a calling to a noble cause overwhelms us and we aren’t sure we’re up to the task. Jung referred to this as the Golden Shadow – our beauty, knowledge and power which we reject and even project on to others instead. As with all shadow projections, we see these aspects in others instead of ourselves. We may idolise a famous figure for their beauty, talent or altruism, while denying our own.
We may also feel strong negative feelings towards others and criticise them or feel superior, not realising they represent denied parts of us. For example, we envy others their creativity and self-expression and criticise them for not following the rules, all the while suppressing our own creativity and denying our own outlets for self-expression. Maybe we were told as a young child that we couldn’t draw, or we made too much of a mess, and so we put our creativity aside and forgot about it.
What’s In The Shadow?
My own struggles with shadow aspects began early when I learned it was ‘wrong’ to not be a morning person, and that being an introvert was something to be ‘worked on’. I tried to hide these parts of myself, feeling ashamed of them, and whenever they surfaced I felt like a failure. I also denied my competence and capability to some degree because I learned that no matter what I did, it was likely to be criticised or mocked.
It wasn’t until I found other night people, other introverts, and learned that it was nothing to hide from, that I let these parts of myself back into the light. I feel no shame around them now because I found a tribe of people who accept these parts of me and allow me to own them without fear or shame. I also began to notice evidence of my capabilities over time as I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and noticed that I didn’t fall in a useless heap.
Magic occurs in the shadows, bringing the dark into the light. Doing shadow work means bringing the unloved parts of ourselves into the world again, reclaiming and integrating them into our being so that we can be fully whole again.
Mining The Gold
Let’s stop punishing ourselves, robbing ourselves of important aspects of who we are, and mine the gold in our shadows to bring it to the surface, back into the light. The best way to do this is to look at the things you fear most. This will lead you to your shadow.
What are your greatest fears? Challenge yourself a little by asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if you were to confront these fears?
What message might these fears have for you? What parts of you need love and attention? For instance, if you have feelings of jealousy or anger, what might there be for you to learn around this? Many clients have told me there depression came along to show them where they needed to make important changes in their lives, such as slowing down, or paying more attention to the health or relationships.
In reflecting on these prompts and even journalling about them, you may gain a new perspective on these unwanted aspects of yourself. Becoming aware of these parts will help you stop projecting them on to others, and over time you might even realise that these parts of yourself are actually treasures in disguise.
Have you ever been told you’re ‘too sensitive’? People often say this as an excuse for their bad behaviour. They do something disrespectful and when you point this out, they respond with ‘you’re too sensitive’ – suddenly it’s you in the wrong.
Don’t believe it. You probably are sensitive, but who decides what’s ‘too’ sensitive? If you’ve told someone their behaviour bothers you, the useful thing for them to do would be consider whether they need to continue this behaviour.
If they do continue, that’s fine – it just means you probably won’t be spending much time with them in the future. It doesn’t mean you’re ‘too sensitive’, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong – it means their behaviour isn’t going to work for you.
Here are some examples of things you might object to which often leads to the ‘you’re too sensitive’ label:
- being made the butt of someone else’s derogatory jokes
- being made fun of because of a belief or habit you have, for example being a vegetarian / intentionally childless / an introvert / a late riser / a chocaholic / a church-goer / supporting a particular cause, etc
- being spoken to in a challenging or confronting tone on a regular basis, for example ‘how stupid, why would you do that?‘
- being constantly corrected or contradicted about things you say or the way you do things
- being told to ‘lighten up’ or ‘get over it’ when you try to share your feelings about something
- being interrupted and spoken over the top of.
I’m sure you can add more examples to this list. The implication is that if you were tougher, you wouldn’t object to these things and they wouldn’t bother you. Remember that you have the right to let someone else know if their behaviour is upsetting or harmful to you. Don’t judge the success of your efforts by whether the other person heard and understood you though. The only criteria for success is whether you spoke up respectfully about how you felt.
How Do I Do This?
The best way to do this is to focus on your feelings rather than on making their behaviour wrong. Avoid labels and stick to what you felt and observed:
I felt uncomfortable when you told us we were doing everything wrong.
is more effective than:
You make me feel so uncomfortable when you think you’re better than all of us.
The first example shows someone speaking about him or herself, not about the other person’s motives and not on behalf of other people involved. They have focused on their own feelings and what they observed the other person do.
The second example is all about the other person. This statement makes assumptions about why the other person behaved the way they did, and gives all power to the other person for how they now feel.
Stick to what you’ve observed when sharing your feelings about someone else’s behaviour and avoid criticising the other person. They aren’t actually doing anything wrong (unless they’re deliberately causing harm). They’re just doing what they know to do.
Toby recently shared with an acquaintance that on two occasions when he had wanted to share with her something that had happened in class, she had started to tell him what to do, which he didn’t want. He told her this in the hope that she’d then understand he just wanted a friendly ear.
She responded by telling Toby what he was thinking and feeling – ‘you don’t like others to be honest’ – something we can’t possibly know about another person since we don’t read minds. She also told him he was too sensitive, which is a handy way to avoid dealing with his request for behaviour change.
Unfortunately when Toby let her know what he really needed she heard this as criticism. This happens often because many of us have experienced so much criticism, we hear it everywhere, even when we’re not actually being criticised. I’ve certainly had to learn what’s criticism and what’s genuine feedback about someone else’s experience of me.
What’s Criticism and What Isn’t?
Criticism can be constructive, especially in the workplace, but in personal relationships it’s often framed as a statement that starts with ‘you’ and is followed by an outline of what we’re doing ‘wrong’. Genuine feedback focuses on the speaker’s feelings – when you did this (observable behaviour) here’s how I felt about it.
If we can get past the feeling of being criticised and hear this for what it is – a courageous sharing of someone else’s experience, someone who has taken the risk to be honest so they can connect with us more effectively – we can learn a lot about ourselves and others. This is where true intimacy occurs.
If you do this and you’re told you’re too sensitive, chances are the other person wasn’t able to recognise or participate in this genuine sharing, and that in itself gives you information about how much to expect from that relationship in future.
Did you know the word ‘scapegoat’ came originally from a ceremonial practice where a goat was sacrificed for the sins of the people, and another goat was then loaded up symbolically with these sins and sent out into the wilderness alone to perish? The goats themselves were considered pure, and the shame and sin of the people were transferred on to these innocent creatures to carry.
There are many innocents who carry the blame for others. It allows groups of people, families or whole nations to project their own prejudices and aggression away from themselves. It’s a very painful role to play, however, family therapists believe the scapegoat is often the healthiest family member because they aren’t complicit in denying the dysfunction.
If you find yourself as the ‘black sheep’, the ‘outcast’, or the ‘bad guy’, your self-esteem is likely to be so damaged that you find yourself actually exhibiting the negative descriptions you hear about yourself. This might take the form of not living up to your potential, not reaching your true earning capacity, having unhealthy relationships with people who don’t treat you well, and not reaching for your dreams.
Some signs that you are, or have been, in this role include:
- You are made responsible for family issues, disagreements and conflicts, even when these occur as a result of other people’s actions.
- Other family members have been verbally, emotionally or physically abusive towards you
- You are disbelieved and called a liar if you try to defend yourself and explain what really happened
- People outside the family system go along with the bullying or look the other way when you ask for help
- You are expected to help other family members out but cannot expect the same help in return
- You find yourself asking ‘what did I do now?’ on a regular basis
- You notice that the person accusing you of bad behaviour is the one actually engaging in this behaviour, eg. accuses you of being rude while they are repeatedly rude to you
- Your achievements are minimised or turned into something negative, eg. you mention you got a good grade on your last assignment and you’re told ‘you think you’re better than us’.
How did you end up in this role?
The scapegoat is carefully chosen, although probably not consciously. He or she is the one who rocks the boat in some way, either through being different (artistic when the rest of the family is intellectual, for example) or through being very sensitive and therefore unable to pretend along with everyone else that the family dysfunction is not happening.
The scapegoat builds their identity on the constant stream of information they receive about their ‘badness’. They may know inside that they haven’t done anything to warrant this treatment, but it seems that no-one else sees this. As a result they feel insecure and unsafe, making them very vulnerable.
They may find themselves in abusive situations outside the home – at school, in the workplace, in relationships – which seems to further confirm their status as ‘bad’. Consequently they find it very difficult to trust others and may avoid closeness with others altogether as a result.
The scapegoat is often lonely, hurt, confused, and filled with feelings of inadequacy. Without sufficient encouragement, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They grow up lacking the ability to comfortably interact with others, engage in team activities and sports, etc, and this in turn leads them to avoid opportunities to move forward personally and professionally. Even when they do advance, they will tend to downplay their successes.
Although they are often very bright, not much is expected of the scapegoat and they can become under-achievers, although it’s obvious they would be highly successful if they could believe in themselves.
How to step out of the scapegoat role
The first step to finding your true identity outside this appointed role is to recognise it is not the truth about you. The people who scapegoated you had their own agenda and they needed you in this role to help them avoid dealing with their own problems. In projecting their own defects on to you, they were able to sidestep the pain of their own challenges. The decision to scapegoat you was based on their own needs and had little to do with who you are at all.
You are not who they say you are, you are who you say you are.
~ Jason Alexander
Deep inside, it’s likely that there’s a part of you that knows the truth, that you are a good kind loving person and you have been cast into a role that does not reflect this or allow others to see it. Tune into this part, it will help you stand your ground and say no to further mistreatment.
Because of the projection involved in scapegoating, it’s likely that the depth of self-loathing and shame you feel are not actually yours. These feelings belong to the people who thought you were a useful dumping ground for their ‘stuff’. When these feelings come up, question their veracity – where does this feeling come from and is it based on any real evidence?
Try not to fall into magical thinking – feeling not good enough doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough. It’s like thinking that because we ‘feel fat’ everyone will look at us and see how ‘fat’ we are. It’s just a feeling, and feelings are not facts. Remind yourself of all the kind things you’ve done, the praise and support you’ve had from others, the achievements you’ve reached.
We all have both good and bad points, the focus on yours has been out of balance towards ‘all bad’ – remind yourself of all the good points too, you do have them and good friends have probably been trying to point them out to you for years!
Let go of explaining and justifying yourself to people who are invested in seeing you as ‘bad’. Trying to gain understanding from abusive family members, co-workers or ‘friends’ keeps you stuck because they are not able to give you this. This is a reflection on them, not you.
However do ask to be treated respectfully from now, keeping in mind that doing this is likely to be viewed as more evidence of your ‘badness’. Remember this is not the the truth, even if some people never apologise for their disrespectful behaviour. You are entitled to make statements along the lines of “The way you just spoke to me is not acceptable, please don’t speak to me like that again” and “If you want speak to me, please do it civilly or I won’t respond.”
Don’t waste your time explaining yourself to people that are committed to misunderstanding you.
~ Shannon L. Alder
This step is made easier if you’ve already made a commitment to learn how to trust and respect yourself first. You will be less likely to back down in the face of other people’s accusations and insistence that you are out of line if you believe you deserve respect.
Stepping out of the scapegoat role can sometimes mean that unfortunately you are unable to continue a relationship with some of the people in your life. If they are determined to keep you in this role, you may need to limit or even cut contact with them. This may cause pain, but it will be less painful than continuing in this role.
Make a regular practice of treating yourself with loving kindness and self-acceptance. It will feel unfamiliar and false, even impossible, at first but that’s because it’s a new experience. Keep going until it becomes a habit. This is your best protection against being exploited and victimised in the future.
You are not alone
I know about being loaded up with the shortcomings of others and sent out into the wilderness alone, about underachieving and living down to expectations. My report cards all said ‘Leanne would do well if she tried’. I was sacked from my first job and from two more later on. I saw myself as a naive, incompetent and unattractive fool with woefully inadequate social skills. I tiptoed around trying to avoid attention and could never ask for help with anything, so I became fearful of taking on anything that I might not be able to work out by myself.
Of course looking back I see I was re-enacting the situation in my family home. The workplace was a completely different environment but I knew my role well and I transferred it to every new environment I came across. It’s a painful process and has lifelong implications, however it doesn’t have to rule your life and you can step out of this role, even while those who put you in the role continue to do so.
As a child, you had no choice, but as an adult there are choices. The best choice you can make is to decide every day that you will live according to the person you truly are inside, rather than who other people say you are or want you to be. I now know I’m capable, smart and competent. I’m important, valuable, and have a lot to offer. I’m worthy and I’m worth it. I have something to say, I make a difference, and I matter. If I meet people who don’t appreciate these things about me, I let them go. Once I would’ve seen it as evidence that I really was lacking, now I just move on.
Recognising that other people are not my family, and that my scapegoat status is obsolete, along with acknowledging the achievements I have made even with my lack of self-confidence, has really started to turn things around for me. You will probably need support with this and it may take a long time to find your true self again, one you can love and value, but it’s worth investing in this process. Remember you are worth it.