Know Your Safe-Goat

The Scandinavian Yule Goat symbolizes the relationship between sacrifice and celebration during the holidays. It refers to the Nordic God Thor’s slaughtering of goats for an end-of-year feast (he would resurrect them the next day). We may need to sacrifice a goat of our own to get through the family drama-fueled “hellidays” — a “safe-goat.”

What is that?

As opposed to a family scapegoat — an immediate family member at whom we direct unprocessed anxiety or anger — a “safe-goat” is a person far enough outside our immediate family system at whom we can direct unprocessed anxiety or anger without inflaming conflicts between present members.

Last week I advised you to “trim your Christmas three,” i.e., to avoid triangulating or scapegoating a third party during any family contact leading up to the holidays, in order to coast through to New Year’s Day family drama-free. But, as my siblings have since reminded me, finding yourself short on material with your family can cause anxiety, making you vulnerable to the flames of gossip. At these times, you may need to deploy a “safe-goat.”

Now, this is not a model for long-term healthy relationships; in general, bonding with one person by directing negative energy at another is toxic and prevents us from individual and relational growth. But right now we’re just talking about getting by. You might think of it as symptom management, cough syrup for your strep throat as opposed to an antibiotic. That being said, before using the “safe-goat” solution, you’ll want to read and adhere to the warning label: At no time should you disparage the “safe-goat” in a way that fosters prejudice against a type or group of people, as this will breed unnecessary ill will at a time of peace and hope. The point is to have at your fingertips someone familiar to the group over whom you can share a quick and easy gasp, growl or guffaw, and this should only be used as a last resort.

How do you choose your “safe-goat”?

Remember, you’re trying to avoid clear and present conflict, so obviously you’ll want to pick someone you won’t see over the holidays and who is separate enough from your immediate family that talking about them won’t cause tension between any two of you. An aunt or uncle could work, so long as they’re not top-billing stars in your family drama. Special guest star status should be the limit (as in, you see them once every three years at most). Twice or thrice removed relatives are good options. Shared (or formerly shared) neighbors, high-school teachers and DMV workers are even better.

An ideal “safe-goat” will have a personality quirk that affects everyone the same way, e.g., the absent uncle who suddenly appears when he needs money, the aunt whose monologue skills rival Fiona Shaw’s (only aggressively draining as opposed to entertaining), the “hyper-healthy” cousin who’s consistently “not surprised” when one of you gets sick, your mother’s neighbor who calls every five minutes to find out what she’s doing, the former high school art teacher who now posts homemade music videos about the apocalypse on YouTube, the DMV worker with the fixed smirk who somehow manages to trigger a full-blown public tantrum in each of you.

The roasting of the “safe-goat” will ideally fill dead air — much like the celebrity roasting panel on Chelsea Lately — but only for a few minutes, in order to keep you comfortably present with your family. You’ll want to be mindful of the potential for your gossip to go nuclear (as in family), in which case you should redirect back to a “safe-goat.” You should also keep your ears peeled for an opportunity to switch topics altogether — to mutually-interesting current events, movies, books, etc. — if and when possible.

Just as Thor resurrected his sacrificed goats the day after his feast, so should you mentally redeem your “safe-goat” after your event has passed and their purpose has been served. Make sure to discard any residual negative thoughts you generated about them the day before. As the holidays come to a close, and the new year begins, you can then turn to cultivating your individual family relationships in the long-term without any third party involvement — save, perhaps the help of a psychotherapist or spiritual guide.

We should all put in the time to learn how to relate to one another without triangulating, but the “hellidays” can be desperate times, and it can only help to go in armed with a “safe-goat.”

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