Have you noticed that it has become fashionable in personal growth and self-help circles to believe that no one is a victim of anything, ever? Virtually every day I see some book title, workshop or facebook meme that essentially tells me that victim is a bad word. Not because it’s wrong to harm or victimize others, but because it has become shameful to let any life circumstance stand in the way of you getting what you want. Victim has become synonymous with loser, dupe, sucker, chump.
One implication of this position is that perpetrators, tyrants, bullies, and abusers (even industrial accidents and natural disasters!) apparently no longer exist or hold any power in this magical world of total self-determination where “no one can make you feel anything” and where “we create our own reality”.
Perhaps most troubling is that the blanket denial of victim-hood brings with it a general denial of wounding. To deny our wounds is to rob us of a primary source of wisdom and depth. If we fail to acknowledge the wounds inflicted upon us, we may never get around to examining them, and we we may never allow ourselves the experience of grief, of anger, of tenderness, of humility – experiences that ultimately forge our character and connect us to each other in incomparable and crucial ways.
Victim-hood can be seen as a human archetype. Archetypes are universal aspects of ourselves; universal because we can be certain we share them with other human beings. In other words, we all have an inner victim, whether we like it or not. Our inner victim provides us with practice in the areas of receiving, of surrender, of smallness, weakness, tenderness and vulnerability. On the other end of the archetypal spectrum, we all have an inner warrior. Our culture places high value on the warrior, while shunning the victim. We much prefer to see ourselves as strong, powerful, courageous.
If our inner victim represents vulnerability, our inner warrior represents strength. Both victim and warrior – vulnerability and strength – have expressions ranging from immature to mature. Our inner victim ultimately needs the strength of the inner warrior to mature (vulnerability, then strength). Our inner warrior ultimately needs the vulnerability of the inner victim in order to mature (strength, then vulnerability). In this way the polar energies of victim and warrior are paradoxically aligned. (As a sidenote, this paradox can sometimes be seen in the couples I work with in therapy. One person is expressing the victim archetype and the other is expressing the warrior archetype. Each simultaneously needs/fears/rejects/desires what the other represents. But wait, when the right cues are triggered the roles switch… No wonder relationships feel complicated!)
We will all identify with different archetypes at different points in our journey, and if there is a goal in this journey perhaps it is to grow through each one without concretizing it into a rigid permanent identity. It is our task to KNOW each archetypal aspect without getting locked into BEING any single one.
Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars. ~ Serbian proverb
Honouring weakness, smallness, woundedness and vulnerability in ourselves and in others can be uncomfortable for those who are currently growing into their warrior archetype. The warrior fears the weakness of the victim (“It may be contagious!”). And so the immature warrior, or “pseudo-warrior”, exploits or dismisses the weak. On the other hand, the mature warrior, the warrior who has learned to honour their own inner victim, protects and supports the weak. The mature warrior may choose to create a protective space for the victim to attend to the task at hand, simultaneously supporting the victim’s journey, and also the warrior’s own journey. This is difficult work.
When we condemn the victim in others, we can be sure there are “victim tasks” remaining undone in ourselves. When we sneer at victim-hood we reveal our own neglected work in the victim realm. If we attend to our own victim tasks, we will have patience and understanding and support for others when they are faced with theirs.
We are not victims merely of our own thinking, as new age gurus would have us believe. We are also victims of unjust social and economic systems. We are victims of war and hurricanes, car accidents and cancer. We are victims of family abuse and neglect. Acknowledging victim-hood where it exists challenges a culture that essentially preaches meritocracy – we get what we deserve. If we allow the idea of victim-hood, we allow the possibility that injustice exists, and that it causes harm. This crosses into political and cultural territory, a place that inward focussed self-helpers and even therapists seem reluctant to go. It also crosses into the realm of chaos, where bad things happen to good people.
I’m reminded now of a popular term, “victim mentality”. Dismissing victim-hood as a simple error in perspective attempts to provide a tidy solution to the problem of bad things happening to good people. I get the appeal, and I have been seduced by it at times. It’s easy for me to believe that behind the victim denial trend is, at least partly, a well-meaning desire to help people get unstuck, to push them along in a culturally predictable pseudo-warrior “I-did-it-you-can-do-it-hurry-up-and-get-over-it” kind of way. But I’ve come to suspect that it often has the opposite effect. By denying victim-hood altogether, and by abandoning the complex and uncomfortable tasks that the victim archetype asks of us, victim-hood is never allowed to mature, to complete and give way to whatever wants to come next. We collude in our own stuckness.
This collusion is at least partially conscious. Our suspension of disbelief only goes so deep. I recall being at a personal growth workshop where we were dutifully doing some kind of “re-framing” exercises around traumatic life events. At the break, one of the participants told me flatly that these types of workshops are routine for her – There’s a lot of talk of transformation, a lot of shows of deep significance, and a general going through the motions. Then she goes home to reality. She knew I was a therapist and so asked me, how does real change happen? How do we truly get past our victim selves, not just pretend with affirmations and bolster ourselves with self-help jargon?
I didn’t know exactly what to tell her then (“Quick, what’s the key to transformation?”) and I’m not sure I would know exactly what to tell her now. But I think I might say something about our willingness to feel what we feel. To stop pretending that we’re more powerful, or weak, than we are. To take a break from striving to be different and better. To settle more deeply into our experience of ourselves, others, and the world. To go through what we’re going through and to stop looking for shortcuts, for a way around. To question the cultural assumptions we have internalized. To be curious about our experience rather than hell bent on fixing or changing it. To acknowledge the presence and contributions of those who have come before and those who will follow.
We’ll end with a paradox – By rejecting victim-hood, we risk never getting the chance to fulfill the tasks like surrender, vulnerability and compassion that it requires of us. By identifying too strongly with victim-hood we risk concretizing the victim experience. But don’t worry too much about these things. Neither are permanent, or a problem to be solved. Life will provide plenty of opportunities for motion in both directions – toward integrating the victim, and the warrior – whether we like it or not. We need but remain present to the life we live, which is often the most difficult task of all, for victim and warrior alike.
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