We’ve all known at least one person whom we would call a victim: Someone who has actually been victimized by someone else, or for whom “life has been hard.” And we don’t want to give them a bad rap, I mean; really, they’ve had it hard, right? So, we tolerate their inability to get up in the morning, or their constant or convenient references to their hard lives, or even their abuse, while we sigh and try to be understanding and say, “Yeah, but she’s had a hard life,” or “Yeah, but he’s been through a lot.”
Now, I don’t want to come across as an unsympathetic person here, but with regard to the victim role, it can turn on a dime into the bully role, if we’re not watching. See, there’s a difference between someone who occasionally has a victim thought, and someone who is living the role. Anyone can get on the pity pot now and again. Anyone can fault life circumstances with life choices. Sometimes it’s hard to reverse that and fault life choices with life’s circumstances. I mean that means taking personal responsibility! But if we are going to finally arrive at acceptance of any particular given circumstance, be it an abuse or an accident, illness or a “bad” job or relationship, we are going to have to take personal responsibility. And those of us, who do finally move to acceptance over that given circumstance, have learned to take personal responsibility over the choices that we made. That doesn’t mean that everything that happens to us is within the power of our choices, but it does mean that we have choices about how we are going to respond to those events over which we have no control. And it does mean that we have much more say-so in our lives than many of us would like to admit.
For someone who has opted to live out the victim role, this means all but never being the cause to your own effect. The mantra of the victim is filled with phrases like:
“You just don’t understand how hard it is for me!”
“I had no choice!”
“I was out of control!”
“I was overwhelmed!”
“She or he made me do it!”
“I can’t help it!”
I could go on, but you get the idea. This person lives out of what we, in the mental health field, call externalized locus of control. In other words, they locate their controls outside of themselves. They truly believe that their own actions and even their thoughts are controlled by something or someone outside of themselves. The very idea of challenging themselves to do something different than they’ve always done, hoping for different results, is foreign to them. They cannot even imagine that they are responsible for life choices. It’s their parent’s fault for not loving them enough; it’s their teacher’s fault for being bad teachers; it’s their brother or sister’s fault, their wife or husband’s fault; it’s the driver of that car’s fault–THEY ruined my life!
Ever heard someone say, “He/she/it ruined my life?” At the very least you were listening to someone who is in the throes of a victim seizure, if not someone who lives entirely out of the victim role. Let me be absolutely clear here, before we go into any further depth: NO ONE can ruin your life but you. Take note, there was a period at the end of that sentence. Regardless of what happens in our lives, we still have loads of options, and still are in charge of what we do with it. But the thinking, the belief system of the victim finds this thought unbearable.
Why would such a seemingly hopeful belief be so unbearable to the victim? Because it means taking responsibility for life and life’s choices. Taking responsibility to them means several things. It means:
Bearing the burden of this awful life.
Holding myself accountable.
Fear, terror, blinding terror!
You see, how we interpret makes a huge difference. I interpret taking responsibility for my life and the choices I make as grandly hopeful. I interpret it to mean that nothing, NOTHING can keep me down. But this concept is foreign to the victim. The victim thinks: If I take responsibility for my choices, my responses and very often the actual circumstances themselves then I’ll have to feel this enormous guilt. I’ll have to be ashamed of myself for all the things that I’ve done. My response to that, of course, is well, that’s your choice. You don’t have to choose guilt and shame, but of course, you could if you want.
Victims think, but I should add here that they only think these things on an unconscious level, for to think them consciously might be to recognize what they are up to. Victims think that life is, indeed, awful and that they could not bear to imagine being responsible for such an awful thing. My response to that is, again, that perspective is a choice. Very often, when one of my client’s is in the throes of a victim thought, I will ask her (let’s say it’s a she this time) how yesterday was and she’ll give me a litany of the terrible things that happened yesterday. Then I ask, “What else happened?” The best she can tell me is that “Oh everything else was just okay.” But I’ll insist that she be more specific and tell me about what else happened and what she felt about each specific thing. I’ve yet to have a single person who is not able to come up with some really cool things that happened that day. Things that he or she had not noticed because s/he had been so busy thinking about how bad the day was. For someone who is not identified as a victim, this switch helps them to buoy the other upsetting things that happened. And it helps them to build hope that there are always some good things going on. But for the victim, and this has been almost diagnostic for me, this discussion will cause great consternation and even irritation. The victim will avoid, change the subject, criticize me for being Pollyanna, just plain deny that anything good happened, or if they can admit that they had a good experience or two, they will “yes but” it to death before it reaches the true light of day.
Persons who are identified as victims simply do not want to realize that they are responsible for their own attitudes, beliefs, thoughts, and ergo, their emotions. They don’t want to do the work of realizing that beliefs create attitudes, mantras and eventually emotions. They want to believe that their moods are just related to bad things that have happened to them, or to swings. Victims will often say that they need a medication adjustment when in fact what they need is an attitude adjustment. But the medication, being an external control, is held accountable.
The really bad thing about all this is that in the process, victims get themselves victimized. They get involved with bullies all too often. Why do they do this? Well it isn’t because they are masochistic. It’s because the bully will help them stay in the victim role and for some reason this victim role seems to work better for them than anything else. Not being responsible somehow makes them feel safe–even if in that safety they are getting the beatitudes kicked out of them. This is where the terror of changing out of the victim mask and costume becomes apparent. Even though the victim role may be killing them, in the most extreme cases, they will hold on to it for dear life, for the prospect of living without it is more terrifying than death.
I want to be clear here that not everyone who is being abused is living out the victim identity. Some, who are being abused, are living out the scapegoat identity in which they feel guilty and responsible for others’ behavior; some are living out other roles we’ll talk about later. But when victims are living in an abusive situation, it is because it makes it possible for them to maintain the victim identity.
The other really bad thing about all this is that very often the victim flips over to the opposite side of the coin and actually becomes the bully. In fact, many victims bully others with their victimness. It works like this:
“I’m so sick, you have to take care of me, and if you don’t I’ll show you in some way that you really are going to have to come up to it.” Maybe they will do this by getting sicker, maybe by attempting to force your hand in some manipulative way.
“I need you; you can’t leave me.” And so the victim holds his or her victim hostage to this desperate need.
“He/she/it ruined my life. Now it’s up to you to fix it.”
Again, I could go on, but you get the idea. Anything within the life of the victim can be used to scare, cajole, manipulate or abuse another person, who is perceived by the victim to be the next best “mama.” Very often the victim will accuse those, who don’t do their bidding, of abandoning them. When I am working with a client who is being so manipulated by a victim, I will very often inform them that adults can’t abandon other adults. When we were children, our fear of abandonment was justifiable since we were utterly dependent on our caregivers for sustenance. But the growing up process means becoming more and more accountable for our own choices. Adults are responsible for their own lives–which mean that they don’t need a primary caregiver anymore. The very notion of abandonment implies that the person left behind is not capable of caring for him or herself. But, you see, for victims, everyone else is responsible for their well-being, because they are absolutely NOT.
So, how do we deal with victims? Well, first we recognize the victim thoughts which hold us victim. We need to be able to see the ways that we are thinking like victims before we can recognize it in someone else. And while we may not be living out the victim role, we must fully understand that we are 100% accountable for our lives to this point and after, in order to be able to recognize and deal with a victim identity in another. Why? Because the victim will be very good at talking you out of thinking that s/he is responsible for his/her own life.
Second, because we are now clear that we are not responsible for their lives in any way, shape or form, we can walk away from that responsibility. This may or may not mean walking away from the victim, but it will mean walking away from taking any form of responsibility for them, their lives or their choices. And that clarity about who is responsible, which we learned in the first step, is going to keep us from feeling guilty when they deliberately take a turn for the worse, or get themselves victimized again, hoping we’ll come to their rescue. That also was their choice.
And third, we can take complete responsibility for how we react to their manipulations and machinations to get us to renew our commitment to being responsible for their lives. This might mean confronting ourselves about what secondary gain we get out of rescuing victims.
Will they get it? Occasionally to rarely. But that’s their choice. Most often I find that victims have this really cool cat-like feature. They always, somehow, land on their feet. Often this means that they will find someone else to hold hostage to their refusal to take responsibility for their lives. But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that if enough of us take 100% responsibility for our own lives, the victim will find no one out there on whom they can utterly lean for their lives, and the whole victim identity will one day fade away.
Until then, I intend to be responsible for me…not you!
Aaron Karmin MA, LCPC. Through Roosevelt University he holds an advanced certification in stress management which involves teaching six mind-body techniques which enhances relaxation. Aaron has worked at all levels of mental health care from inpatient to outpatient, private to community, not for profit to Fortune 500 executives. He is a highly effective guest lecturer, group therapy leader, and individual therapist who is able to discuss a variety of topics including: Anger Management, Leadership, Relaxation Techniques, Communication Skills, and Goal Setting Strategies.
Aaron recognizes the need for flexibility and creativity to address the mind and body and uses solution-based instructions to promote a healthy lifestyle. His approach to anger management focuses on increasing frustration tolerance and impulse control by understanding triggers, identifying physical cues, recognizing thoughts, considering consequences, implementing solutions, choosing behaviors, and promoting expression. When individuals feel in control of their situations and their lives, their depression and anxiety are replaced with feelings of security, confidence, competence, identity, responsibility, belonging, and self-respect, which is the prerequisite for success at home and at work.