The Appeal of Being a Victim
In No Expectations, I talked about an ex-boyfriend who was chronically disappointed with the people in his life, feeling as though he were the only one willing to do the “heavy lifting” in his relationships. As miserable as he was with me and with the human race in general, I think he found a twisted satisfaction in his negative outlook. He would object mightily to this, but I think part of him enjoyed being a victim. I don’t think he’s alone in that enjoyment.
And in How to Think Like a Victim, I said that underlying issues of fear, anxiety, and self-confidence can stand in the way of change, of getting out of that victim role and taking responsibility for your life. I think these two topics are related, and that understanding how might give people a better understanding of the forces at work that can keep them in a victim place.
I think the connection often goes like this. Fear and anxiety hold people back, but in their stuckness, they discover certain payoffs. These payoffs are different for everyone, but generally fall into these categories:
- Martyrdom. Being a victim can be a lot like being a martyr. A person in a bad situation, if they handle it correctly–capitalizing on or exaggerating their pain, mistreatment, deprivation, etc.–can get a lot of attention and sympathy from people. They like the attention and sympathy, so they stay in a victim role in order to get it; this is especially true if they’ve never learned better ways to feel heard by others.
- A sense of superiority. Like my ex, people may be miserable because of their high, unmet expectations of others, but they find a certain satisfaction in feeling so much more capable, so much more sensitive, so much more willing, than the people around them. They complain routinely about their relationships, but underneath the complaints lies an arrogance and a smug superiority that they secretly relish. If these types gave up the victim role and accepted people as they were, rather than seeing them as agents of disappointment and misery, they would also have to give up this grandiose self-image, and that is usually not something they’re willing to do.
- Addiction to negative feelings. Sometimes people find cold comfort in their negativity. It isn’t superiority or martyrdom. It’s more like an addiction to feeling bad. Anger and self-righteousness are usually accompanied by an adrenaline rush, which produces pleasant sensations and a sense of power. Even if that power goes nowhere but back into nursing the resentment, it might be the only sense of power that people who don’t know how to assert themselves ever get. If so, that would be hard to let go of.
- Escaping the burden of responsibility. Of course if you’re a victim, you don’t have to be responsible. You can stay comfortably within the zone you’ve created for yourself and nobody is going to expect anything more from you. You can blame people, luck, circumstances, and whatever else suits you, for your situation. You can go through life without once having to look at yourself in any deep way that might result in any positive change. Erich Fromm wrote a book on this topic called Escape from Freedom. He was not talking about victimhood, but about a cultural mentality of avoiding responsibility to the point of choosing totalitarianism over freedom. If you pay attention, you will be able to see where this is going on around you (but that is a different topic).
- You don’t have to change. This is the meat of it. If you’re not responsible for your situation in life, then you don’t have to change. This is more the result of escaping responsibility than a separate category, but it is the upshot of all victim behavior: if you are powerless, then there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. You’re stuck in your stuckness and there’s nothing you can do to get yourself unstuck. As awful as this sounds, if a person’s primary motivation is fear and/or anxiety, its appeal is understandable.
All of these are poor substitutes for taking responsibility and working toward what you want out of life. But they are also much easier. They require little risk and offer little challenge. For someone with deep-seated fear and/or anxiety issues, these can seem like lucrative payoffs.
Also, getting out of this place can be difficult. Not only because of the underlying issues, but because the victim can be so hard to recognize in ourselves. As much as I loathe this trait in myself, I fall into it much more than I care to admit. I find myself feeling rageful at the rudeness of strangers, smug in my sense of being right, hopeless in the face of a world that seems at times to have gone completely insane. Before taking on this subject, I would not have categorized any of those attitudes as being a victim. But now I think they are. It makes sense, as I grew up in an environment so saturated with the victim mentality it was as commonplace as breathing. As much as I have tried to eradicate victimhood in myself, I see now that I have more work to do. I’m sure it’s the same for many of us.
And maybe it will never go away entirely. Maybe it never should. I think there is a time and a place for self-pity, and maybe even for self-righteous anger and other victim behavior. These are normal reactions to many of life’s surprise twists and turns, and certainly normal when we begin to have new awareness about our pasts. These are times where we can pull into ourselves and seek out sympathy and advice, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we stay there too long (and some people stay there for an entire lifetime), we put off the next steps, which are accepting our fate and finding the best solutions we can for moving on with our lives. If we stay there too long, we become chronic victims. And while there is a certain appeal to putting off these steps, the payoff isn’t worth it. Being stuck yet safe is no reward. It is a self-imposed prison sentence, while moving past the victim phase is the greatest freedom imaginable.
Categorised as: Power/Empowerment