When most people think about trauma, they think about how individuals experience physically or emotionally violent circumstances that leave them traumatized. Traumatic experiences are painful, but can be transformative, too. Personal healing is transformative when we release shame, blame, and guilt, and allow the traumatic experience to be integrated into the rest of our lives.
What we are less aware of, is that when a person experiences trauma it affects how they interact in all the groups they belong to. Conflict, dishonesty, and challenges among groups, I argue, are most often rooted in trauma, both individual and collective. In group dynamics too, trauma is not just an obstacle, it is an opportunity for transformation. The group can strengthen its bond and its commitment to its shared work when trauma is understood, transformed, and integrated into the group’s experience of itself.
Take scapegoating, for instance. People who have been emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as children, often develop a sense of isolation in their families. They feel that they’ve never been protected and safe. As a result, they learn to fend for themselves, and are often looking out for the next attacker or betrayer, developing a distrust in people, and especially groups. They can also become very independent and self-reliant, ready to speak their minds and be successful despite the lack of support. In group, this combination of factors often translates into being a truthteller without building supportive relationships. Groups often react negatively to people who do this, especially when that truth is being avoided.
So the group blames the individual for disrupting the group’s flow and the individual is scapegoated. If individual leaves, the group is likely to do the same to the next person. When the person leaves, they experience the same thing in the next group they join. When both sides avoid truths about themselves, the dynamic is repeated in a painful, disempowering way.
But scapegoating can become an opportunity to transform trauma, instead. Let’s see how.
I wrote Avoid Being Scapegoated: Look for Allies and Build Support a couple of years ago. In this blog, I’m focusing on how scapegoating affects groups and what both the individual being scapegoated and the group can do about the experience to transform the trauma.
What the person being scapegoated can do:
- Take ownership of your need to heal your own emotional wounds. Discover your first experiences being scapegoated (generally in the family), and do whatever you need (journal, release the emotions, create art, etc.) to heal them. If the emotions are very intense, you may want to support seek out support from a professional: energy-worker, acupuncturist, massage therapist, or a psycho-therapist. You may consider taking a break from the group while you do this.
- Say that you feel scapegoated: “I feel I’m being scapegoated for speaking my truth.”
- Shift the attention away from yourself: “Can the group honestly say I am the only person that feels this way? I am the only one that sees what is happening as problematic? I hear you say that your concern is that ____. I’m curious to know if others agree with you or there are other perspectives as well.””
- Build Allies and support. Before attending other meetings, ask people you trust about their thoughts and request their support: “Since you also think/feel about about this the way I do, the next time people gang up on me, could you please speak up?”
- Restate your commitment to the group, and move the conversation forward: “My commitment is to contribute to this group fulfilling its intention to_____. Can you see that my comment comes within this commitment? Can you hear it so we can learn and move beyond it instead of getting stuck in it? Can we take a step back, and think about what’s next?”
What the group/group facilitator can do:
- Identify the issue creating the scapegoating and ask the group to own how they contribute to it: “What does everyone else think/feel about this issue?”
- Make space to learn from the conversation: “I’m grateful this was brought to our attention. What does this discussion teach us about ourselves and our work?.”
- Support Transparency, create a space for people to share opinions privately (not everyone will speak out publicly): “ I’m happy this was brought to my attention. It’s always better to share reservations so we can handle them, instead of hiding them. Feel free to communicate privately with our leadership, too.”
- Integrate dissent into the meeting. Choose a check-in question that allows everyone to speak to how they participate in the dissent: “Complete the sentence. What frustrates me most about this process right now is….”
- Envision how the group can grow from the experience: “I’d like to see us grow from this conversation, what if we all became more ___ /built our capacity to ____ as a result of this conversation?”