(Note this is an updated post that I wrote years ago on my personal blog. I’ve expanded the original post and it is worth the re-read.)
In Seminar XI, Lacan argued that whenever the subject who is supposed to know (SSK) exists then so will transference. The typical neurotic patient will grant the analyst his trust, and thus allow him to assume this position of knowledge. Furthermore, as soon as the analyst is the positioned as the SSK, “he is also supposed to set in search of unconscious desire” (Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 235). The patient comes into analysis assuming that the analyst has some sort of understanding of his symptoms. Of course, this is untrue. Psychoanalysts are not mediums and have no special intuitive capacities. This belief of the patient is the very thing that often motivates him to enter analysis. The patient interprets the analyst’s interventions as information from the SSK, sometimes granting the analyst omniscient powers.
I’ve been thinking more about Lacan and the way we sometimes attribute certain characteristics to different people (e.g the analyst as the SSK). In social groups, especially group therapy, it is very common that a scapegoat emerges. Generally, this person sticks out in the group as being different and thus worthy of hate. The group tends to project their hatred onto this individual and treats this contaminated group member as a “leper” who must be kept at a distance. Inevitably, the group turns against this one person and alienates the person from the group. Scapegoating is a universal phenomena and it can take many forms.
Two recent experiences in inpatient group therapy brought this to mind. In one group, I noticed that the members continually scapegoated this one patient. This young girl’s attitude was moralizing towards her peers and sycophantic towards the group therapists. Day after day I watched other group members roll their eyes as she constantly raised her hand, effectively monopolizing the time of the group to share her opinions. I approached her after one group session and asked her, “I’ve noticed that you’re frequently excluded from the group. Does this happen to you on the outs (i.e. outside of the inpatient unit)?” She told me that it did. So I asked, “Do you have any idea why that might the case?” She stated she doesn’t understand why and she began to cry. I could tell that this was a long-standing issue that caused significant psychological pain. I confided to her, “You know, it’s my experience that there’s almost always going to be someone excluded from the group. It might be a good idea for you to talk to your individual therapist to figure out how not to be that person and why it is that you often find yourself in this situation.” More recently when I was leading a group of adolescent teenage boys I found that the group conversation was dragging. I allowed for some silences to see how the patients could tolerate the anxiety. During these moments I observed that they frequently returned to talk about sexual matters and to make homophobic jokes. Not surprisingly, they often engaged in homoerotic behavior that was always explained away as being only in jest. Psychoanalytically, I believe in these moments the group members were experiencing feelings of awkwardness and needed a moment of solidarity to remind themselves that they were not at risk of being scapegoated if they made an “unacceptable” statement. As a result, they continued to fantasize the imagined homosexual who might contaminate the group, which they then promptly scapegoated to bind the group closer together (given that all the group members were purportedly heterosexual). I cite these two examples to highlight the inescapable anxiety and awkwardness that is operative in most groups. Sometimes, the scapegoat is an actual member and sometimes the scapegoat is a foreign intruder who is held out of the group to avoid contaminating the group members.
It has been argued that awkwardness is the zeitgeist of our times, hence I want to introduce the importance of the subject-supposed-to-be-awkward (SSA). I’m going to first discuss the psychoanalytic theory that explains this phenomenon, and then discuss how the awkward individual functions in groups.
I believe Kleinian theory can shed light on the SSA’s function in a group. From an object relations perspective, children have certain experiences with early caretakers that continue to exert a lasting influence on the way they interact with others. These internalized object relations impact the way we relate to others, and we often unconsciously find others who will engage us in a similar way. It is not merely that we find others who will treat us similar to the ways our caretakers treated us, but it also that we unconsciously and repeatedly behave in such a manner that arouses responses from others that resemble the way our early objects treated us. It is assumed that people are caught in a cycle of repetitive behaviors. In therapy, one reenacts certain relational patterns that are similar to how one engages others outside of therapy. Initially, as in normal relationships, the patient projects certain feelings onto the therapist that mirror the way in which s/he is used to interacting with others (what Freud called “stereotype plates”, i.e. transference).
Here, I need to introduce the rather difficult term of projective identification. This is Ogden’s definition: “In projective identification, not only does the patient view the therapist in a distorted way that is determined by the patient’s past object relations; in addition, pressure is exerted on the therapist to experience himself in a way that is congruent with the patient’s unconscious fantasy” (McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, p. 110). Projective identification involves two people. One person splits off an unwanted self-state (e.g. idea, feeling or fantasy) or object (internal representation of others) and projects it onto the other. The person who projects then unconsciously behaves in such a manner so as to elicit the expected reaction from the other. Let me offer an example. A patient, who hates himself and cannot believe the therapist actually likes him, will split off his self-hatred onto the therapist by assuming the therapist dislikes him. He will then relate to the therapist in such a way that the therapist, in time, grows to dislike him. For instance, he might continue to deny any empathic gesture made by the therapist and question the therapist’s good intentions. This, in turn, only serves to frustrate the therapist who eventually does begin harboring feelings of resentment towards the patient. In summary, the individual splits off some intolerable self-state or object onto the other, and then acts in such a way to pressure the other to assume that characteristic. Projective identification is a step beyond projection because while in both projective identification and in projection the bad object or intolerable self-state are evacuated from the self and located in the other, in projective identification the patients acts in such a way to elicit certain reactions that reassures him/her that the badness is located in the other. Furthermore, the patient can control the projected object or self-state from afar, allowing them to continue a relationship with the split off object or self-state. Finally, it should be noted that the patient is searching for opportunities to project or split off the object or self-state in the other. Quite often, the other will embody certain characteristics or vulnerabilities that will signal to the patient that the other will be a good container for these intolerable experiences.
Let’s move onto the subject-supposed-to-be-awkward (SSA). I’ve found that in social groups it is common that one person is often scapegoated as the awkward person who is teased by others for being different. Awkwardness arises when an individual does not observe the implicit social rules that dictate normative behavior appropriate to the group context. While I won’t deny that certain people are different from others, I have found that, after awhile, the SSA’s behaviors are unjustly criticized as awkward regardless of the actual behaviors. For instance, I know in my own experience in friend groups the SSA can repeat the exact same joke as someone who the group highly values, but the group will react negatively whenever the SSA makes such a joke. However, they will laugh if a more popular member makes the exact same joke. Any action the SSA performs will always be greeted with suspicion and will inevitably be interpreted as awkward regardless of the actual behavior. Funny sexual jokes will be interpreted as creepy. Nice gestures will be read as desperate or manipulative. The group’s relentless mistreatment of the SSA ensures that he will never catch a break from the group. How can we understand this common phenomenon? Everyone has fears of being excluded or being thought of as awkward by his/her peers. All of us, at times, commit social faux pas. The normative rules that govern social behavior are plastic and sometimes difficult to discern. People invariably experience anxiety, as it is not always possible to determine the appropriate group behavior, given the nebulous rules. The group functions better when this constant threat of being ostracized is minimized by incorporating the SSA in the group. So, initially this person will be spotted as the different other who may behave in inappropriate ways. Consequently, the group members detect this weakness and jump at the opportunity to find someone who can “contain” everyone else’s fears of being awkward. Then the members of the group project their own fears of awkwardness onto the SSA, and then treat this individual in such a way as to provoke awkward actions. In turn, the SSA holds these projections for the group member, and the members experiences this individual as awkward and get to distance themselves from their personal anxieties about being awkward.
Let me offer some examples. It is a common joke in work places that there is always “that guy” who nobody wants to accompany to lunch or invite to happy hour. This individual is often treated as someone who should be avoided at all costs because of his awkward personality. In the popular NBC comedy series, Parks and Recreation, Jerry Gergich, an obese 65-year-old white male, is “that guy”. He is constantly the butt of jokes and is ridiculed by other characters. Despite Jerry’s numerous contributions to the office and his good-hearted nature, the rest of the characters consistently scapegoat him and treat him as the SSA. Jerry functions as a container for the sadism of the rest of the characters. Notice that Jerry does exhibit some vulnerability to being excluded. He is significantly overweight, old and too accommodating. He is a prime target for the group’s sadism and aggressiveness. As a result, the group members unconsciously make a pact to project all of their own fears and anxieties onto Jerry because he is vulnerable, and then they act in such a way to assure that he continues to be treated as the SSA.
I have also noticed that it is becoming more common for some individuals to self-identify as “awkward”, in an ego-syntonic manner (i.e. to “own” being awkward as a quirky, desirable personality trait). For example, I was at a social outing where I met someone who described herself as “awkward” and instructed me to excuse any behavior that seemed weird or different. What I found fascinating about this interaction is that the individual felt the need to preempt any awkward moment (for which she would be presumably responsible) by letting me know beforehand of her awkward nature (likely in the service of mitigating her own anxiety). I also found her anxious confession an implicit demand that I not judge her if she did act awkwardly, allowing her the fantasy that she could have a social interaction wherein she would be able to avoid the unavoidable ambiguity and anxiety. Needless to say, her demand not to be judged likely harbored the fantasy of being able to escape her superego. In other words, “please don’t access your superego so I can ignore mine as well.”
The major question is this: why does the group permit the SSA to maintain membership in the group? It is my contention that the SSA is structurally necessary for the group to function effectively by decreasing the group member’s fear of social exclusion. In fact, I would argue that the group tends to come together more strongly and quickly if someone in the group can be sacrificed as the SSA. Everyone can then be in solidarity with one another against this individual who is far enough away so as not to infect the members with his awkwardness but close enough to contain everyone’s social fears and anxieties. If this individual is too close then the group members become overwhelmed by his social ineptitude and the anxiety it generates, but if he is too far away then it weakens the ties holding the group together and it runs the risk of having another group member fulfill the position of the SSA (which is likewise anxiety-producing).
Another important question to consider is this: how does the group keep the awkward member as the SSA? First, once the SSA recognizes his place in the group, he will inevitably mount a resistance. Of course, if the SSA tries too hard to redeem himself and escape his role in the group he might be viewed as being too needy or desperate, willing to do anything to gain acceptance. This pathetic effort to be included will invariably invoke sadism in the group, as each member rejects the SSA undoubtedly due to their own rejection anxiety. Nothing is more abhorrent as desperation and neediness precisely because of the intense anxiety that is stirred up when one frantically seeks to hold onto abandoning objects. When the SSA experiences this overwhelming anxiety he must be banished from the group (or allowed to remain in the group but kept at a respectful distance from the various members). This group’s rejection is exacerbated if the various members have experienced early rejection from important caretakers, leaving them particularly vulnerable to anxiety about being rejected from people they love. Second, let us suppose that the SSA reluctantly accepts his place in the group, assuming the role. The SSA’s resignation to his role will likely only encourage further cruelty and rejection. Of course, the group members have to be prudent with their aggression, strategically titrating their level of aggressiveness. If they are hyper-aggressive then they run the risk of having the SSA leave the group at any moment, making other members vulnerable to inhabiting such a position. The trick for the group is to offer the SSA enough hope that one day he might ascend the ranks of the group but keeping it just out of reach so that the group members do not have to worry about being at risk to be the group’s new scapegoat.
This dynamic becomes more interesting whenever a potential new member is interviewed by the group. The nature of a group is often revealed when a potential member visits, as the major conflicts and typical defenses are stirred up by the potential members’ presence. It is quite common that the potential group member experiences anxiety about fitting in with the group and fearing rejection from the group members. This potential member might try to solidify his presence into the group by attacking the SSA. However, this potential member is often surprised when the group members, whom he observed ridiculing the SSA, rush to the SSA’s defense. In this situation, the group members often explain their protection of the SSA by virtue of their deep love and concern for the SSA. They might tell themselves that they truly do care about the SSA and only give the individual a hard time in jest. However, I find this interpretation to be superficial and self-serving. Let me offer an example. I have often heard family members say that it acceptable when they make fun of one of their own but they will not allow non-relatives to make fun of that person. In fact, they will often defend the scapegoated family member due to some supposed love concern for the family’s SSA. At a group level, I believe that the members experienced severe anxiety when the potential group member insulted the SSA because they feared that this new attack might provoke the SSA to leave the group. In turn, the group members would be rendered vulnerable to occupying this awful role, consigned to be the new SSA. However, this attack can be used to the groups’s advantage because it offers the SSA the illusion that he is actually cared for and respected by the group. Obviously, this is untrue but it does make the SSA’s suffering more palatable. Furthermore, the anxiety and sadism (which had been conveniently externalized onto the SSA) were threatened by this attack, forcing the group members to rush to the defense of the SSA to maintain the status quo. The SSA must be kept at an optimal distance from the rest of the group: close enough to contain all of their projected anxiety and aggressiveness but far enough away so as not to contaminate them with their own badness.
Finally, we might wonder whether or not the SSA has a chance to change his role in the group. I think it is safe to say that there are only two options for the SSA: either leave the group or recruit a new member who can occupy his position. Group dynamics do not die easily, as they tend to be persistent and stubborn.