First of all there are times when we really are victims. Anyone can fall victim to an assault, an unforeseen calamity, or identity theft.
When we are the victims of these kinds of things it is psychologically important to accept that we are in fact a victim. It would be unhealthy to deny that we are vulnerable and can get hurt. At these times it is a sign of strength to look for sympathy and support.
Getting stuck in a victim identity
A victim identity is what Eckhart Tolle describes as the ego identity, the story that we tell about ourselves (in Stillness Speaks, 2003, p. 31). It is a way of defining our sense of self based on resentment and grievances.
Getting stuck in a victim identity means it is difficult to give up this definition of ourselves. It is our claim to fame and we feel that without it we would be nowhere.
Victim conditioning in childhood
Many adults with inadequate coping skills, boundaries and emotional controls have had early childhood experiences in which they actually were victimized. They have often been abused either verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually. Sometimes they were abused by being ignored, neglected or emotionally abandoned.
These experiences leave them with a low self concept and a lack of basic trust. Trust in themselves, trust in others and, if you will, trust in the universe. It is as though they feel “I will always be disappointed and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
What is the impact of the victim identity on relationships?
- Defensive Self-righteousness.
Whether it is true or not, the victim identity brings with it the expectation that you will be hurt or controlled by your significant other, or by anyone for that matter. This in turn leads to very defensive reactions to anything and everything that could potentially be seen as a slight or criticism.
I have seen many people who do not know how to take issue with a negative characterization of themselves. They can’t seem ever to say “No, you’ve got me all wrong!” Instead they become defensive and often combative, saying in effect “I’m better than you, look what a mean person you are.”
- Emotional reactivity
When a victim lashes out and blames you for being the bad guy it is hard to want to sympathize with them. In fact in that situation you are likely to feel like you are the one being abused.
At this point the victim feels they need to reject you, avoid you or control you so that they won’t experience the feeling of being inadequate. In fact they experience any number of normal situations that arise in relationships as unduly harsh and become overly reactive.
- Retreating into addiction
Feelings victimized can trigger resentment and self-loathing. The person in the victim role naturally looks to escape such negative feelings and reaches for an addictive drug which helps relieve anger, loneliness and shame.
Often the person in the victim role will engage in an addictive behavior such as sexual acting out in secret, as an escape and sometimes as a way to get even. The victim may feel “I deserve this,” or “this is all I have,” or “if I’m bad I’ll be really bad.”
How to respond to someone who adopts a victim role
When someone experiences him or herself as a hopeless, helpless victim it is a catch 22. If we accuse them of playing the victim they feel shamed and become even more defensive. If we ignore them then we are seen as uncaring or hurtful. If we defend ourselves we are seen as denying their pain, and so on.
Counseling and learning about healthy communication can help in the long run to enable people to catch themselves when they are responding based on old conditioning.
In the meantime we should try:
- Being non-judgmental
- Responding ourselves in the ways we would like them to respond
- Giving the “victim” a vote of confidence
This last one can be surprisingly effective. It means letting the person know that we have confidence in them to surmount obstacles. The vote of confidence helps them to see that they are not as weak or helpless as they believe.