The Subject-Supposed-to-be-Awkward and Group Dynamics

(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.

24 thoughts on “The Subject-Supposed-to-be-Awkward and Group Dynamics

  1. I realize now that more attention might have been spent analyzing the individual personality of the SSA. I think it is safe to say that the individual might have some masochistic tendencies based on negative experiences with significant others. Although the SSA is likely frustrated given the constant ridicule, s/he does get to enjoy the benefits of group membership. It is also quite common for these individuals to inhabit these position across multiple social networks, making the incentive to leave quite small. Sometimes, I have observed they have a defensively patronizing and moralistic attitude to the rest of the group. They might think of themselves as some saintly moralist who do not mind being aggressively attacked by these “immature” group members. This haughty attitude is a nice way to avoid their own rage which they have trouble expressing. Frequently they misdirect their own hatred inward, leading to masochism and encouraging the sadism of others. In other words, we might imagine the SSA exhibiting the passive-aggressive, masochistic Christ-attitude “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

  2. I wonder what you think about an application of Bion’s “work group” idea to these phenomena: is another way to describe the kind of group with an identified SSA member “avoidant?” I know Bion never used this word, but it sounds like the group, here, is essentially motivated by the attempt to avoid certain unconscious content. All of the members get to avoid the underlying fantasies that would otherwise spark their anxiety, and the new member is prevented from attacking the SSA because doing so would expose the group dynamic.

  3. Jeremy, thanks for the post. I like your connection in the comment to the Christ-position — made me think of Girardian thought, where scapegoating is also seen as universal phenomenon and is seen to be ‘redeemed’ through the Christian move. Which as you point out is a passive-agressive move, hence Girard’s fitting dislike of Nietzsche. … All of this, i think, raises the question of a theory of the subjectivity of leaving-the-group. (As opposed, for instance, to finding / founding another group or finding a better postiion within the group.)

  4. Jason, I’m glad you brought up Bion. I thought about trying to connect these ideas to his various group analytic theories but the post was getting bloated.

    I was trying to think about which “basic assumption” is animating the kind of group I am describing. Bion listed three basic assumptions: dependency, fight-flight and pairing. It clearly doesn’t describe the pairing group. I’m wondering if this group is best captured by the fight-flight group. Keep the SSA on the border of the group and it can serve as a shield against new, persecutory members but it also can function to ground the solidarity for the members within the group.

    I think avoidant is an appropriate description. Work is avoided in the group because of the defensiveness of the members. Any conversation is threatened by the fear of exclusion or being “outed” as awkward. The group can do nothing but preserve the inner circle of individuals who are inhibited from producing. Its about maintenance. Growth cannot take place.

  5. Dan, isn’t the subject-ready-to-be-persecuted the ideal Christian subject? I remember a friend in high school who often felt like he was attacked by others because “he was sold out for Jesus”. He thought people judged him because he was “hardcore”. He never seemed to realize that others disliked him because he was an asshole. Many Christians are always sniffing out opportunities to join Christ on the cross and interpret normative social rejection as religious persecution.

  6. “isn’t the subject-ready-to-be-persecuted the ideal Christian subject?” … yes, this is what i was getting at. I would (by and large) conflate the subject ready to be persecuted with the subject supposed to be awkward (presuming that the latter is seen in a positive vantage, i.e. has become conscious of the position and seen it as a positive thing). Also, i think your “forgive them father for they know not what they do” citation shows how this postion of the persecuted / valorized awkward scapegoat is not an aberration but a fidelity to Christ’s position. (however i would hope i could nonetheless find a way to keep Lauryn Hill from getting caught up in this lineage!)

    These are pretty rough equations, i know, so feel free to point out what i’m passing over.

  7. Yes, I see your point. Once the SSA moralizes their suffering they are in the position of the persecuted moral masochist/Xian. This is why I described the haughty attitude of this individual who often infantilizies other group members. They defend against their own anger about being excluded by talking down to the group members. This really does actually open up the ways in which the Xian subject experiences his relationship with the “world”. They want to be “in the world but not of the world.”

  8. Jeremy, could it be that what made that dude an asshole is that he not only occupied the position of the SSA that was given to him by the group, but also proceeded to substantialise it? (“This is who I am! who I have always been! and who I am called to be!”) He’s dealing with his own anxiety in the imaginary, rather than speaking about it, which Lacan in Television calls a moral failing, a moral cowardice (rejecting the duty to speak well; rejecting the unconscious)—which links nicely with the moralised rhetoric that’s characteristic of those who find their resolution in the imaginary.

  9. Ah, you put it better than i did: “Once the SSA moralizes their suffering they are in the position of the persecuted moral masochist/Xian.” Exactly. Also there’s a pretty interesting connection that opens up w/r/t your mention of infantilization — the developmentalism of Christianity, and the post-Christian secular, in which those who have not moralized suffering are rendered as infants, children, etc., who have not yet advanced to moralization. (This evidently has tons to do with coloniality.) Hence the need for Nietzsche to approach morality genealogically, i.e. to look at the invention of this moral goodness, and at a ‘time before the history of this goodness’, so as not to have participate in the development / critique of goodness.

  10. Simon, Yes, I think there is something very dishonest about the assumption of that position, especially because the individual does not assume responsibility. Either God or the Other is held responsible for the position while the individual is simply a passive actor in the drama.

    Dan, I like where you are taking this regarding colonialism. It is a passive-aggressive disarming move by the masochist Xian after the moralization/rationalization of their position. More and more I keep thinking about the disaffected Christian in the US who feels persecuted because they no longer have ABSOLUTE power to dictate holidays and monopolize ‘non-religious’ spaces. The disavowal of aggressiveness affords them this interesting space in society wherein they accept all reactions towards them as being uncalled for and unjustified (although they manage to interpret their suffering as part of some of providential telos). The absolute refusal to take responsibility leads to all sorts of projective defenses.

  11. Jeremy: thank you for this great post and all who commented. I am taking my time with it and working to get my mind around the entire argument. I wonder if you have done any Tavistock training? A number of years ago I went through a Tavistock group experience which significantly impacted the way I thought about my own role at that time as a pastor and the way I had consistently assumed scapegoat roles in the community. After all, isn’t the pastor the ultimate SSK in the community? It takes a lot of personal acumen, not to mention old-fashioned guts to step out of this role. I appreciate the way you suggested to the individual in the group that they do their own work with their therapist to explore why they assume this role (I could be wrong, but I make the tacit assumption that at some level this role is always “accepted”). It’s too easy to take over, then one is just reinforcing the role.
    I wonder what the role of the scapegoat is with adjunct faculty?

  12. I have done some work with Tavistock through my graduate program. We were required to participate in a group relations conference that was enlightening on the ways in which unconscious group dynamic processes function. I’m hoping to participate in more trainings during my postdoc.

    I don’t think it’s an “accident” that some people repeatedly find themselves in such roles. Some of these individuals may simply be socially inept while others are masochistic (self-punishing).

  13. You wrote: 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.”

    How can her therapist help her without observing the dynamics?
    This was actually a good opportunity to have the group members (as a whole) reflect on their own behavior (of scapegoating and social rejection) and learn how to communicate frustration in a non-attack fashion. In a protective way, you, as the facilitator, could guide the questioning process. “Do you notice that you are cutting her off? Why do you think that is happening?” You can lay the ground rules for how they express their irritation with her pontificating. A moment of silence to process each point is useful. There could be a slow back and forth exchange (maybe with some crying and initial hurt) until some resolution or clarity is reached.

  14. What are the rules for the “process group”. I see this as facilitation, not intervention. Perhaps it was not appropriate in that session, I am not trying to second guess you. But, there may be another time when the group is building communication skills—it seems an important issue and a great help for people to learn to recognize when scapegoating is occurring.

    I also reiterate, that it might be difficult for an individual therapist to help her without observing the interactions. The young woman may need special help to perceive her own “moralism” and lack of social skills, otherwise she could be left feeling that she has some fundamental flaw.

  15. I see your point. My point is to her was that: a) Most groups are subject to this process and b) It’s not an accident that she continues to find herself in that role. If I remember her case correctly, her individual therapist was sometimes in these sessions.

  16. Jeremy: It’s all too easy to second guess outside of the group. Tavistock emphasizes that groups are ‘always already’ in these dynamics, whether they recognize it, or not.There is tremendous pressure on either the ‘facilitator’ or therapist (sometimes the same!) to solve these conflicts by borrowing authority, becoming, in effect, Lacan’s ‘big other’ (and I think it is doubly the case when the ‘group’ in question is the ‘church’). In my experience this happens with the best of intentions, to try to spare someone (the recognized ‘scapegoat’) pain. Entrenched victimhood does not so easily let go its grasp. No wonder Nietzsche said the worst thing we can show someone is pity.

  17. Right, if I thought that pointing out the scapegoating would have radically altered the group process, then perhaps I would have said something. It’s my experience that when the group facilitator or therapist makes such an interactions two things are liable to occur: a) the scapegoat will be attacked more by the other group members who become envious of the therapist’s ‘favoritism’ of the scapegoat and b) the group defensively changes the current process but only when the facilitator is in the room (likely increasing the attacks when the facilitator leaves).

    I’d like to think that people could one day arise beyond the pettiness of scapegoating and exclusion, etc. My experience with that Tavistock group is that even ‘high-functioning mental-health professionals’ are vulnerable to these group processes. Some may read my intervention with the patient as needlessly cynical (i.e. this will always happen so figure out how not to trap yourself into this position) but I think it accurately represents normative interpersonal functioning.

  18. Jeremy, regarding your characterization of the SSA as, perhaps, “exhibiting the passive-aggressive, masochistic Christ-attitude,” I encountered an interesting story in Palladius’ The Lausiac History through a brief comment in David Jasper’s The Sacred Desert. Jasper summarizes it quite nicely, so I’ll quote him:

    “[W]e read the story of a mad scullery maid in a convent who is the recipient of scorn and abuse from the whole community of sisters. … When finally, under God’s direction, the saintly Piteroum recognizes her as a holy person and actually the spiritual center of the convent, she vanishes and is never heard of again. Though regarded by all as an idiot, her self-effacement makes actual idiots of all her sisters in the convent, for they have failed to see her true worth. She becomes as nothing. It is only then, in her final absence, that the community recognizes that she has been, in fact, the true and necessary heart of the convent who has made the community possible — the sponge and the empty desert who has absorbed its dross and excess.” (11)

    I think the “mad scullery maid” in Palladius’ story fits in with the discussion of “the Christ-position”/”scapegoating” that you and dbarber bring up, albeit through the lense of a bishop (i.e. Palladius) who views it as an inarguably saintly and desirable imitation of Christ. Palladius’ description of the maid leaving the convent might also be of interest, as regards a certain narrative of “calling out” the SSA:

    “[A]fter a few days she was unable to bear the praise and honor of the sisters, and all their apologizing was so burdensome to her that she left the monastery. Where she went and where she disappeared to, and how she died, nobody knows.”

  19. Yes to each of the above! I wonder, for instance, how many ministers have accepted the ‘wounded healer’ paradigm of ministry (Nouwen) and set themselves up as scapegoats or for co-dependent relationships in the parish. One way to gauge this is to ask if one can bear the psychic tension an inevitably necessary ‘no’ to some utterly unrealistic demand from those one fears to disappoint will invoke. Thanks again Jeremy for a thought provoking blog.

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