Letting Go of Victimization
“We live in a society of victimization, where people are much more comfortable being victimized than actually standing up for themselves.”
We live in a society of victimization, where people are much more comfortable being victimized than actually standing up for themselves. — Marilyn Manson
The paradox of victimhood
There’s a real conundrum in trauma therapy. People with unresolved and still resolving complex developmental trauma move toward familiar and undesirable roles as a result of unconscious “programming” — traditionally victim, perpetrator or abuser, and bystander. This isn’t because we want to, but because we are conditioned to, even to take on these roles as a matter of survival.
For example, someone who was routinely abused as a child is likely to have learned to acquiesce to the abuser, and conform her or himself to the expectations of the abuser and the experience of the abuse in ways which were most self-protective — even when that meant possibly seeking out the abuse as a way to predict, control and diminish the impact. The victim may, for example, have learned that to go along with it still meant the bad thing would happen, but maybe not additional bad things. He may have learned to suppress feelings to cry if crying resulted in harsher punishment, leading to adult difficult accessing emotions. She may have learned to believe that she was at fault and deserving of punishment for “doing something wrong”, when that something wrong was essentially ordinary and unavoidable, since children are not adults, and adults aren’t perfect, anyway. People need time to learn.
Learning to speak
Many of the experiences begin before we acquire language, and they leave an impression on us about what relationships are, the basic sense of reality. This is not indelible, but like so many things we learn before we can speak, these lessons are learned implicitly and contribute to things like attachment style and recognition style, the ways in which we go about connecting mutually with others, ranging from non-recognition, to mis-recognition (dysrecognition?), and basic to full recognition. I also believe that “self-recognition” is of vital importance in how we form a bond with ourselves, how we self-attach. In my experience, the self-relationship is key to treating others differently, but once we start to make that shift, there is a snowball effect as meeting people who treat us differently allows us to further loosen the victim-style perception and interpretation.
It is this self-attachment which is so critical in remaining within the worldview of victimization. Essentially, whether it is explicit or implicit, verbalized, murmured or voiceless, we tell ourselves stories about others’ motives and our own motives, making judgments and appraisals about causality, blame, and responsibility. We decide, often unconsciously or subconsciously, what kind of world we live in. We consider our relationship to this constructed world, and we act and see what happens. Does the world meet our expectations, or surprise us?
Is the world against him or her?
As a victim, I expect the world to harm me, whether intentional or incidental, agentic or mindless, malicious or incompetent, fate or destiny, or faceless existence. Even the basic relationship with mortality is shaped by our attachment to the world, and our relationship with ourselves, (which is shaped and re-shaped in relation to significant others over the course of our lives). A key feature of this expectation is the attribution of blame either of the world or other people or toward oneself in various forms of self-recrimination or self-abandonment. There is a sense that existence is acting against my best interests, a certain interpretation. Probably untrue, but a rough approximation which allows one to always be ready, in a way, for bad things to happen. If it has actually happened quite a bit, it’s hard to argue.
It is the feeling of blaming, of guilt and shame, which is so persuasive. It lends affective reality to the experience, even when we understand intellectually that there is a difference between how we feel (at fault) and how we “should” feel (innocent) — even when we understand that while we may have some responsibility, we do not need to attack ourselves. And the stance we take up can influence the people we choose, and who we gravitate toward as the result of unconscious influences. Quite often, though this will start to shift if we find a way to spend more time in “healthy” relationships, this means that we re-enforce the belief that people and the world suck. I don’t like the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” because it is too mystifying for my taste, yet our actions surely influence what we experience and discover within ourselves, from other people and as the world.
But… the attacking is self-protective when directed externally, and hard to relinquish especially without the sense of a secure, safe world, forget about all the real dangers the world presents. We need an alternative narrative ready to roll if we are going to let go of the victim narrative. This can help to shift identities, though in my experience it is never fast enough, never certain enough, never good enough.
When people use the expression “letting go”, though it is often used an ill-defined way, it feels like there could be a sense of relief. The perpetrator is hidden there. The expectation of letting go before one has ever experienced it, whatever it may mean (self-forgiveness, a weight lifted away, gratitude, compassion, love, mutuality, self-esteem, etc.) is always different from what letting go feels like after it has happened.
Breaking out of that strong triangle of victim, abuser, and bystander requires a fundamental shift. Otherwise, it reads as reality. There are no other stated options. The implicit option is a fourth position, and that can destabilize the triangle. The fourth position starts as a witness or an actor, perhaps passive, perhaps an active. I tend to think of activism as the destabilizing factor, gently questioning the reality of our narratives to start, looking more deeply into where they come from, and experimenting with alternative views. When it comes to perpetration and bystanding, as powerful as victimization but often under-recognized and less desirable to see, a fourth position starts to break down those narratives, allowing us to become more aware of generally less palatable aspects of ourselves and feel empowered to do something about it. Have a good understanding of what is happening is useful, but not sufficient, for successful change.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.