The Scapegoat and the Wounded Healer

The archetype of the scapegoat, as an inner orientation towards the social world and one’s place in it, can contribute to survival. This is especially true when sexual trauma is ongoing or occurs in societies that stigmatize girls and women who have been sexually abused. Seeing oneself as devalued or ‘damaged goods’ reduces the likelihood of challenging persons with more power, or taking actions that might lead to retaliation, abandonment, or in some societies, maiming or death. Eventually, however, the archetype of the scapegoat must be overcome to fully recover from sexual trauma.

Recovering from this archetypal orientation has its own developmental trajectory. Whatever life circumstances that would have guided development had sexual trauma not occurred are now confounded by the survivor’s need to address her relationship with power, which has been distorted by the experience of being subjugated to the will of another; with alienation, as she often feels like an outcast; with intimacy, since she easily distrusts and even doubts her value to others; with her body, which is avoided because of intense emotions that arise in response to trauma triggers; as well as with aloneness, which her discomfort with challenges her capacity to move in the direction of her unique and creative expression of personhood. Together, these obstacles to intimacy, belonging, and creativity alter the development of sexual trauma survivors.

The opposite of the archetype of the scapegoat — and all the emotions, beliefs, images and orientations towards society and relationships that it activates — is the archetype of the wounded healer, or what hunter gatherer societies referred to as shamans once their journey of healing their wounds was completed. The wounded healer, like the person who has endured sexual trauma, experiences psychological fragmentation and dissociation in reaction to an overwhelming, if not life-threatening event. However, what for the wounded healer becomes an initiatory, inner quest into the “wilderness” of the psyche in search of wholeness, for the scapegoated is a damnation. Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera wrote,

“When entered consciously and willingly by a shaman-healer or prophet, the wilderness experience can convey special vitality, special powers and authority; and those powers and the consciousness gained from the transpersonal source can be brought back to enrich the collective. When entered unwillingly as a condemned alien, like … the scapegoat, the desert is a curse.” [1]

Unlike the scapegoated, whose accounts of both persecution and recovery are silenced or ignored by her community, the wounded healer is prized for the wisdom gained through her recovery. What the wounded healer learns about healing inner fragmentation becomes a method for healing other members of the community and the collective as a whole. According to Joan Halifax, “The objective of the initiation ordeals and of the ritual performances is ultimately that of service to the community. Although shamans go through individual experiences in the solitudes while seeking inspiration, the wilderness is brought back to the people in the form of ceremonies.” [2] The wounded healer has the support of her community to take this journey; they are receptive to the wisdom gained through her deeply personal confrontation with the imaginal contents of psyche, which is understood as how humans access the spiritual world.

I believe on the level of what Daniel Lord Smail called the deep history of the brain, and Carl Gustave Jung described as the collective unconscious, we still activate the archetype of the wounded healer in response to life-threatening and self-annihilating experiences such as sexual abuse. [3] At least unconsciously, we wait for a socially supported remedy to our distress, and guides (whether human or spiritual) to help us learn how to cope with psychological fragmentation and often overwhelming imaginal contents. When a society does not create and foster opportunities for its members to respond to the activation of the archetype of the wounded healer — if not actually impedes attempts to recover from trauma — the archetype of the scapegoat is also activated, causing a felt-sense of being sacrificed or abandoned by community.

In societies and communities that foster dominance hierarchies and social inequality the conditions necessary for supporting the journey of the wounded healer are rarely present. The hardened reality is that such societies resist taking actions needed to end sexual violence. Equally important, most societies insufficiently address the wounds of those assaulted, and avoid learning from our experiences of abuse and recovery. In our silence and alienation, many of us have trouble finding productive ways to deal with the overwhelming imaginal contents of our psyches and inner fragmentation. Without a community to return to and share our wisdom of overcoming sexual trauma, even the most successful recovery can nevertheless stir feelings of despair.

Dominance hierarchies in particular — what I will call Hierarchy for short — depend on scapegoating traits, individuals, and groups that might activate archetypal responses that lead to reintegration of psyches and communities. Benefactors of Hierarchy depend on scapegoats as symbols of what happens to those who either threaten those in power or carry traits the society forbids because they threaten the values of Hierarchy. Furthermore, Hierarchy requires both psychological and social fragmentation for the maintenance of a stratified social structure in which some are perceived as stronger, better, wiser, etc., and thus deserving of more status and resources. To tolerate such inhumane conditions, we all must split off parts of ourselves, regardless of our position in Hierarchy.

Hierarchy is maintained through the manipulation of fears of scarcity. People and groups identified as scapegoats serve as safety valves for the stress that builds up from the constant threat of uncertainty that hierarchical societies create, especially the fear of falling in social ranking. Even if this fear is a simmering threat, it nevertheless seems to activate a need to continually identify a potential out-group, or devalued ‘other’, on which to project anxieties and insecurities. The people or person scapegoated becomes acculturated to victimization, and thus more tolerant of conditions involving oppression and inequality. They often become more concerned with seeking safety than challenging their oppressors.

When oppression of a demographic group has occurred since the beginning of civilization, and the consequences have been passed down through generations, survival responses tend to take on an archetypal quality. Hence, many girls and women who are sexually abused never tell anyone what happened and feel tremendous shame about the trauma. Throughout the history of civilization, such a reaction likely kept many women safe from being further scapegoated by their communities. Unfortunately, this also contributed to the continuation of Hierarchy.

Hierarchy, in its fostering of dependency on dissociated and fragmented psyches, bodies, and collectives, obscures the path towards integration following trauma. This has left us largely ignorant about our own minds and bodies, including trusting the signs and conditions that indicate the direction of healing and development over the life course. Furthermore, the circumstances and personal qualities on which the journey of the wounded healer depend have been increasingly devalued through their association with the feminine. Qualities that are present in varying degrees in all humans, irrespective of gender  — such as intuition, emotional intelligence, body wisdom, and the capacity to interact meaningfully and purposefully with the mythic imagination  — have been devalued and derided to the extent that we moderns have lost touch with our innate understanding of the path of the wounded healer. The devaluation of these ‘feminine’ traits has also been a necessary precursor to both the creation and maintenance of Hierarchy.

Fostering conditions that support the archetype of the wounded healer could pose a serious challenge to Hierarchy, given its dependency on social and psychological fragmentation and the oppression of its most alienated members. Thus, the recovery of sexual trauma survivors, along with other victims of Hierarchy, is an integral part of confronting the social inequality on which Hierarchy depends. Efforts to heal our individual traumas cannot be held separately from social change, and rather must be seen as a central component of social reform.

The next post looks in depth at the archetype of the wounded healer. CG Jung has been credited with resuscitating this archetype in modern times, bringing attention to the need for myths, the imaginal, and embodiment for healing fragmented psyches as well as continual growth across the lifespan. I’ll include his examination of the process of individuation to describe recovery from scapegoating — an experience Jung also endured in his life. For many of us, scapegoating casts the longest, if not the most debilitating, shadow over our lives. Until we overcome this sense of ourselves as scapegoated, we often cannot feel as if we have recovered.

Questions to ponder: The journey of the wounded healer does not necessarily mean that all who take this journey are meant to become shamans, or their modern equivalents, psychotherapists. Being a wounded healer is about a type of wisdom that can infuse however you choose to live your life. Given this more general understanding of the archetype of the wounded healer, how is the wisdom you gain from your efforts to recover from sexual trauma beneficial to the communities you are part of, or people you know? What could you teach them?


  1. Perera, Sylvia Brinton. (1986). The scapegoat complex: Toward a mythology of shadow and guilt. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, p. 26.
  2. Halifax, Joan. (1982). Shaman: The wounded healer. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, p. 35.

  3. Smail, Daniel Lord. (2008). On deep history and the brain. Berkeley: University of California Press; and Jung, CG. (1959). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).