We all mess up from time to time. We’re human. And it can be especially hard getting called out when we make a mistake, doubly so when it’s by someone we care about. But if we do hurt someone we’re close to, it’s good for them to tell us so we can do better.
Except sometimes the criticism isn’t valid. Maybe we didn’t do it. Maybe they’re confused. And maybe they’re just being a big old jerk and using you as a scapegoat for their insecurities.
The story of the scapegoat originates in the book of Leviticus, and it’s quite literally as it sounds. In order to atone for the community’s sins, a goat would be exiled to the desert, to fend for itself on the harsh landscape.
Poor goat. Goats are adorable. Clearly you don’t want to be this goat.
The Surest Sign You’re a Scapegoat Is That Someone Keeps Putting You Into Double Binds
The surest sign that someone is trying to blame you for things that aren’t your fault: They’re putting you into double binds.
A double bind is when a person sends out two different messages, both of which conflicts with the other. This causes situations where no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to do “the wrong thing” and be criticized. A double bind is also known as “being between a rock and a hard place” and “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” No matter what you do, you’re a terrible person.
Double binds are a huge source of confusion, anxiety, and stress. They are often used as a form of control without open coercion. The fact that they are so confusing makes them difficult to address to or resist.
If someone is putting you into double binds repeatedly, it is emotional abuse.
One minute they’re criticizing you for talking too much. The next they’re saying you don’t talk enough. If you point out this contradiction and ask what they right amount of talking would be, they criticize and invalidate you for asking for clarification:
“You’re so dramatic.”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you something so obvious.”
“Don’t go into therapist mode on me.”
“Ooo, someone’s sensitive.”
“That’s not what I said. It helps if you listen. Maybe if you stopped talking so much and listened instead, you’d actually hear what people say.”
The list goes on, basically whatever they can think of in the moment that they know will bother you.
Survivors of Emotional Abuse Are Especially Vulnerable to This Tactic
The saddest part is that survivors of emotional abuse are especially vulnerable to this tactic. The same personality traits that make survivors resilient also make it hard for other people to understand them, and so many survivors develop insecurities that they’re damaged and deserve more criticism.
In The Survivor Personality, Al Siebert writes:
Survivors puzzled me at first. They are serious and humorous, hard-working and lazy, self-confident and self-critical. They are not one way or the other, they are both one way and the other…biphasic personality traits increase survivability by allowing a person to be one way or its opposite in any situation or to fall somewhere along the continuum in between the two extremes. To have biphasic traits is to be more adaptable rather than being either one way or another. It is to be proud and humble, selfish and unselfish, cooperative and rebellious
If you look at someone who does not handle life well, it is often because he always thinks, feels, or acts in only one way and would never consider the opposite.
Many people with opposing or counterbalanced personality traits have been told something is wrong with them. People with rigid thinking can’t handle complex people very well, and often view them as defective…it is healthy, not sick, to have two opposite feelings.
What to Do If Someone’s Putting You Into Double Binds
So what to do if you feel like someone is putting you in double binds? Simple.
Point out the contradiction, politely. It could just be a miscommunication issue. Assume good will. Observe their reaction. If they continue to double bind, criticize, or invalidate you, especially if they escalate, then this is a serious issue. If this happens repeatedly, then it’s emotional abuse, and you should seriously rethink your relationship with them, whether that means going to therapy or cutting off contact.
Life is far too short to waste on people who want to rake you over the coals for things you didn’t even do.