Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health

Subversion, Scapegoats, and Surrogate Catharsis

I’m a big believer in the notion that we all HAVE feelings. I’m even a big believer in the idea that we all FEEL feelings. I also happen to have a front-row seat for the myriad ways human beings try REALLY, REALLY HARD a lot of the time to AVOID feeling their feelings, especially the difficult, rowdy, dark, threatening ones.

A favourite avoidance mechanism for many of us (yes, myself included) is to subvert feelings we don’t want to have into actions that make us feel better, at least in the short term; for example:

Sad => Eat
Sad => Shop
Depressed => Sleep
Anxious => Clean

It’s the short-term, pleasure-seeking action into which we channel our temporarily imbalanced emotional state that might, indeed, work in the short term; it never seems to get at the root of whatever’s prompting those feelings in the first place, though. It turns us into what someone (I can’t now remember who) once termed, “Human Doings, not Human Beings.” How many of us recognize the phrase, “I eat my feelings”? That’s subversion.

Another common reaction to the feelings we don’t wanna feel is scapegoating:

[T]he practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame and consequent negative treatment. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. “he did it, not me!”), individuals against groups (e.g., “I couldn’t see anything because of all the tall people”), groups against individuals (e.g., “He was the reason our team didn’t win”), and groups against groups.

A scapegoat may be an adult, child, sibling, employee, peer, ethnic, political or religious group, or country. A whipping boyidentified patient, or “fall guy” are forms of scapegoat.

Scapegoating has its origins in the scapegoat ritual of atonement described in chapter 16 of the Biblical Book of Leviticus, in which a goat (or ass) is released into the wilderness bearing all the sins of the community, which have been placed on the goat’s head by a priest.

from Wikipedia

René Girard aptly describes how scapegoating becomes an outlet for feelings we can’t or don’t want to examine within ourselves for the ACTUAL source of them:

In a world where violence is no longer subject to ritual and is the object of strict prohibitions, anger and resentment cannot or dare not, as a rule, satisy their appetites of whatever object directly arouses them. The kick the employee doesn’t dare give his boss, he will give to his dog when he returns home in the evening. Or maybe he will mistreat his wife and his children, without fully realizing he is treating them as “scapegoats.” Victims substituted for the real target are the equivalent of sacrificial victims in distant times. […]

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the anger.

Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning; 2001, Orbis Books, NY

Projecting our feelings onto others isn’t new; nothing abhors a vacuum more than the human brain, not even Nature. So when we don’t understand why we feel what we feel–or we don’t want to look at why we might feel as we do–it’s sometimes MUCH easier to scan around for an easier target and make them bear the emotional burden for us. In taking those feelings out on the unsuspecting victim, we complete the ritual of metaphorically driving our burdens out into the desert to perish somewhere far, far away from us and our shame-stirring occupancy of those emotions. It’s devastatingly destructive on relationships, however–trust me on this one, I’ve personally lost entire marriages to not recognizing this pattern in time. (I had an excellent therapist who helped me figure it out afterwards, at least.)

A third way we often create distance from our own feelings is something I recently labelled as “surrogate catharsis.” A client was telling me how they often watched episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” for the soap-opera-ish melodrama that readily provoked great, heaving snot-filled sobfests the client could not otherwise allow themselves to express. It called to mind a lesson observed a very long time ago in the BDSM community, where I learned that bottoms/submissives/slaves can use the often-ritualistic container of a scene, or playspace, or a Dominant/submissive relationship, to express things we can’t always express in the other contexts of our lives. We can scream out the rage and pain, we can struggle hard against the bonds, we can let go of higher cognitive function and allow ourselves to fall into certain physical sensations, we can cry and sob and beg and plead and just generally let go of the behavioural constraints to which we normally cling.

A surrogate is a person or thing we substitute for another in the same role. Like scapegoating, but so unlike scapegoating, the mechanics of surrogacy are somewhat similar. For a variety of reasons, we cannot or don’t want to access our own feelings directly; this is fairly common with clients who bear the scars of profound trauma (or are still immersed in ongoing trauma scenarios). We are aware of the buildup of pressure alongside these unwelcome feelings, however, and seek to find a way to release the pressure without ever actually accessing the feelings and/or their roots directly. Unlike scapegoating, however, we don’t project those feelings onto another and then follow up with punitive measures. Instead, we actually allow ourselves to experience the feelings but in a different association than their actual origin. We can feel, and we can express, but it’s almost directed harmfully AT another… and it’s almost never connected to directly processing our internal traumas. For some of us, we achieve surrogate catharsis when we read or watch something that gives us permission to cry. Unlike the act of subversion from the top of this page, we choose acts that DO access and express our feelings, we just don’t connect them to their sources.

Some people default to a particular method of rerouting their emotional experiences. Some of us will move between all three as circumstances dictate. In many cases, these are self-defensive mechanisms designed to protect us from what we instinctively believe to be threatening experiences. In a lot of cases, these defences have become maladaptive and problematic for the person or their relationships. We create barriers between our day-to-day cognitive functioning and our emotional experiences for a lot of reasons, but chiefly because we’re taught to be afraid of, or to doubt the veracity of, our feelings. But feelings are most often just our brain’s way of running a flag up the pole to indicate, “Hey, You–something is going on here that needs tending to.” Therapy can often help people learn to connect safely with their own feelings, and find ways of both allowing them to surface without so much overwhelm, and choosing different default actions when they are present.

To borrow from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for a moment: Feelings are not Facts. They’re just a transient internal experience of the situation, the context, of this moment. When we deflect away from them, however, whether we subvert, scapegoat, or surrogate them, we can often give them more power and influence over us (or others) than they deserve. As a closing meditation on the transient nature of even the most overwhelming feelings, I offer my favourite poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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