Jennifer Lehr, MFT examines “emotional victimhood” as a reflection of how we see ourselves, the associated pain/consequences and the power we have to change.
Sue and her husband Dave were talking in the morning before leaving for work. Dave mentioned that he had made dinner plans with a friend later that week. Sue immediately bristled. “You never make plans with me, everyone else is always first”, she hissed. Dave sighed. “Here we go again,” he thought to himself. He tried to reason with his wife, but she was already upset and angry. Dave got quiet and pulled back rather than get into a fight. Sue got angrier as she felt more and more abandoned. Dave said that he had to go and left for work. Later that evening when they were both home, there was a chill in the air. Neither of them brought up the morning’s fight. Eventually things went back to normal again, and although the dinner with the friend came and went, this dynamic between them would come up over and over again, causing distrust, resentment and fear, and over time eroding the bond between them.
Victim hood is a self-concept, a way of seeing ourselves. It is not the same as being a victim of real circumstances such as a natural disaster or a crime. We all know people who are emotional victims. Emotional victims look at the world through a lens of past injustices without seeing the link in all of the situations: themselves. It just happened to them; life treats them badly. “You can’t trust a man” rather than “I’ve never been able to pick a trustworthy man”. Because they believe that they are not responsible for what is happening in their lives, they feel entitled to act inappropriately towards the perceived offender. Some people create victim roles for themselves. Other people are pulled into a victim role by being in a dysfunctional relationship. We’ve all had times when we’ve engaged with somebody who reacted on occasion as an emotional victim, or felt that way ourselves. Moving from being an emotional victim to self-empowerment involves looking at, and taking responsibility for, our own patterns in relationships, or circumstances.
What is the payback of not taking responsibility for oneself? Why would someone ever rationalize and embrace their disempowerment? The reason is that being an emotional victim allows an avoidance of painful feelings such as shame. Often emotional victims have had difficult childhoods and are sensitized to feeling criticized, wronged, or “bad”. They easily feel unimportant or mistreated. Nobody wants to feel as if they are “bad”, unimportant or mistreated. Deep down, there is a little child in them that really does believe that they are bad, or that others don’t care about them. Emotional victims develop a habit of “explaining” why events happen to them, rather looking at their own role in the events of their lives. In avoiding their imaginary “badness” and the feelings associated with it, they are not able to be honest with themselves about the responsibility they have for their lives and the wrong they actually inflict upon others. They are caught up in believing that people are bad, rather than knowing that it is the behavior that is bad, not the person. Driven by an underlying and often unconscious fear of being wrong, they blame others for their problems and defend themselves as guiltless and innocent at all costs. As a result, emotional victims take little responsibility for their own behavior and the events in their lives.
The cost of being an emotional victim is high. It is painful to feel powerless over the events of one’s life and to feel continually wronged. The ensuing despair and anger is also painful, as well as the strained relationships that result. The price is relationships that do not function well, where the other person walks on eggshells and does not open up to vulnerability and intimacy.
Do you have a relationship with somebody who does not take responsibility for his or her own behavior? How is this impacting you? What “survival” techniques have you developed? It might be time to change them.
Are there ways that you do not take responsibility for yourself? What feelings might you be trying to avoid? Can you allow yourself to be imperfect, make mistakes and apologize? Can you acknowledge that each of us has an enormous amount of power to change our lives and that looking at ourselves is the first step?1