It’s not hard to find victims today – individuals and groups of people who have been hurt, marginalized, violated, or humiliated. We live in a tough world which seems to be getting tougher all the time. For many their gripes are legitimate. They got a bad deal or a bad rap. Sometimes it wasn’t their fault at all, and other times, it wasn’t entirely their fault. Their punishment for mistakes, or poor judgment, seems to well exceed their crimes. They are angry, bewildered, and frustrated. Most of us can relate to some extent as none of us are immune to hurt in this world.
Problems arise though when being a victim becomes an identity, no matter how legitimately victimized someone actually was. And these problems affect both the identified victim, as well as those with whom they interact.
Just look at the political landscape today. Group after of group of victims assert their rights, many holding society hostage by holding guns to their own heads. Because they perceive themselves as worse victims than other groups it is often impossible to deal effectively to address even the real or perceived inequities of which they complain, lest one become labeled as bigots or heartless for not cow-towing to every outrageous demand. Sure, some real progress has been made when groups have asserted themselves against inequality but increasingly victims today lose sight of the goal by deriving more satisfaction in simply being victims. For many, victimhood affords them a safe subculture in which to feel a sense of belonging. For others it is a springboard for more aggressive behaviors designed to gain control.
For individuals who have gotten a raw deal, who have been abused, or abandoned, or treated unfairly, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it defines us. It’s certainly a temptation the evil one loves to dangle before us. As bad as our situation may be, there can be a familiarity and comfort in it…otherwise known as secondary gains. We don’t like the abuse we’ve suffered but we can become attached to the pity, the special treatment, to being the victim we wish we weren’t. We may get a lot of sympathy and there may be many who will take our part, but by making this our identity, we risk:
• Losing sight of the many blessings we do have.
• Not noticing the many strengths we’ve mustered to take on the challenges foisted upon us.
• Yielding to negativity and pessimism.
• Yielding to crankiness and depression.
• Losing the many graces we could gain by offering up our pain and suffering.
• Forgetting that God has a bigger plan and only allows trials for a greater purpose.
• Missing opportunities hidden within our challenges.
• Losing empathy for others by a constant focus on our own pain.
• Pushing others away with our negative attitude.
• Lording it over others as a weapon of control.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing the struggles many are dealing with. They’re legitimate. We can either allow these circumstances to empower us or enslave us. By allowing ourselves to identify as victims, we sell ourselves short. We forfeit our own power. We lose hope and too often…we become bullies.
I’ve seen it over and over in my office. A single parent who could never move past his or her pain, who feels put upon by even legitimate requests their children make, incensed that their kids don’t appreciate all they do for them, or how hard their lives are. In-laws that intrude trying to help and then take offense when proper boundaries are set or enforced. Spouses who resent having to work or feel unappreciated for what they contribute. Co-workers who feel put upon and cop an attitude at even the smallest request or correction. Without realizing it, their defensiveness and quickly triggered anger have turned them into bullies, subtly perhaps, but bullies nevertheless.
In order to have effective and healthy relationships, each party needs to feel free to express him or herself and to feel understood and appreciated. When dealing with a Victim-turned-Bully (VTB) though, expressing feelings or needs is hard. Rather than deal with the fall out, many learn to just bury their own feelings and forget their own needs. It’s easier to complain to others than to try to work out a problem with a VTB. When dealing with a Victim-turned-Bully, many start to feel guilty for having their own needs. They may shut down and drive resentments inward until they get physically sick.
When seeking help, it’s important to identify if a victim mentality is a factor. Clearly therapy is the correct venue to lay down the burden of hurt and pain one has experienced, but we run the risk of entrenching the problem more deeply if we legitimize victim status as an identity. Sure, sympathy and compassion are a necessary part of the therapeutic process but beware of therapists who don’t try to help you move past this identity toward becoming a victor over your circumstances. In all adversity are the seeds of opportunity if we open our minds to look for them.
For those who feel victimized by the victim-turned-bully, your pain is real as well. By identifying the problem, a good therapist can help you find ways to own your own feelings, set appropriate boundaries and learn how to have your own needs met…by the bully or not. You don’t have to be a hostage until the victim-turned-bully gives you permission to meet your own needs. You can triumph whether they ever change or not. That’s the good news. Talking to a counselor who can help you find your way out of this pattern is a great first step. Good things are waiting for you when you do.
Allison is also the Founder and President of www.CatholicTherapists.com, a nationwide network of dedicated Catholic therapists.
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