Victimhood has become trendy in recent times. Mainstream media practically denounces the idea that hard work, resolution and perseverance play any role in a life of love and self-fulfillment. Dating shows and reality TV lead young women to believe promiscuity and desperation will get them saved. Failing economy memes are repeated until they become mantras and alibis for nearly every unemployed college graduate. Racial and cultural differences continue to skew our ability to discern between discrimination and ineptitude. So what do all of these things have in common? The sense of being powerless, owed something or needing to be rescued.
"I feel empathy for victims because I was raised in a family of victims."
For much of my life I have been drawn to victims. On a deeper level, when I see a victim, I see a person whose self-esteem has been so severely beaten down he/she feels unworthy of his/her own dreams. Perhaps, most significantly, I feel empathy for victims because I was raised in a family of victims.
My father was an alcoholic through most of my adolescence. He and his siblings managed to sustain childhood feuds right up to their deaths. My mother vanished shortly after my 12th birthday with a thug named Neil, whom I assumed to be a drug dealer. She later kidnapped my younger brother and me from my father. Fearing for my younger brother’s safety (in the company of Neil) I kidnapped him, tracked down my father and escaped to the West Indies.
My philandering father resented me for not telling him of my mother’s affair with Neil and my mother interpreted my escape from her as betrayal. My parents were so resistant to taking responsibility for their failed marriage that they resorted to placing blame on me — a 12-year-old child. This turn of events left me with a deep-seated sense of inadequacy and a great story/excuse for all my shortcomings. It became my crutch and my go-to for sympathy, but it hindered my progress in love and professionally. With time, I would learn to appreciate the benefits of my unique upbringing and use it to my advantage.
"Selfishly, I held all the cards yet I only chose to play the race card."
I gained better perspective being raised amongst, working beside and becoming friends with people who had far more tragic experiences than me. I’ve known teens who have lost their immediate families to drugs, crime and/or AIDS. I’ve mentored kids who were raised in loveless environments and I’ve lost friends and family to terminal illness. One of my dearest friends was raped repeatedly by his mother’s boyfriend until the age of ten. When he finally mustered the courage to tell his mother, she turned around and married his alleged rapist. Yet, my friend has gone on to become an accomplished philanthropist and positive role model.
In no way am I implying that one tragedy has preeminence over the next. Whether you’ve been wrongfully imprisoned or had wealthy parents who spent more time nurturing their finances than their offspring or you’re a Panamanian civilian whose home was bombed by American Airmen minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve (Operation Just Cause) — your victimization is relevant and real. But what distinguishes the victim who manages to transcend his/her trauma(s) and go on to lead a love-filled, purpose-driven existence from one who chooses a more counterproductive, sometimes self-destructive life?
According to Dr. Elayne Savage, PhD and author of “Don’t Take It Personally! The Art of Dealing with Rejection” – the seemingly powerless victim is in fact often the most powerful person in the room.
Here is a prime example of how this works:
In my early 20s I dated a woman for 7 years who was half Japanese and half Portuguese. I never once proposed. When confronted by friends and family for not doing so – I attributed my trepidation to her Japanese father who had issues with my being black. I claimed I did not want to bring children into those dynamics. Though this may have been a legitimate claim, the truth is I was blaming her father for my own commitment issues. I was afraid to commit to marrying her but I was also afraid to commit to leaving (breaking up) so that we could move on with our lives. Instead, I posed a somewhat sensible argument and sought no solution. Selfishly, I held all the cards yet I only chose to play the race card. And that is a prime example of a victim choosing a stagnant life over a dynamic one.
The deeper, underlying issue is that victimhood is a byproduct of low self-esteem, self-doubt and insecurities, which prevent us from taking responsibility. These emotions must be acknowledged and repaired in order to move ahead.
So how does one break out of the victim cycle?
Lisa Bahar, a licensed marriage and family therapist states, “Victimhood often stems from a place of loss whether it’s a relationship, health, etc. A major step toward escaping victimhood is identifying that you are in fact playing the victim role. Equally important is having the realization that the victim role is not paying off.”
“You have to accept that you may not have caused the problem but only you can clean it up,” says Dr. David Reiss, a practicing psychiatrist for over 25 years. He adds, “It’s important for people who have truly been victimized to acknowledge that they have been traumatized by one or more incident(s), acknowledge how he/she feels about it – but to realize that the perpetrator isn’t going to come back and make good on you. If you are waiting for fairness you’re stuck.”
“Many times, victim roles will attract the rescuer role into their life. It is a big step to notice that, be willing to let that role go and turn to self for a different way of behaving and feeling in the world. This takes practice and awareness,” explains Lisa Bahar.
Another factor in our culture’s sense of helplessness is we are taught to believe that credit scores, college degrees, new cars, jewelry and a home equate to happiness. Even worse, we use these things to forge our identities. That only draws us further away from knowing who we truly are. Without a deeper understanding of self, it is nearly impossible to know what we are actually capable of —which leaves plenty of room for self-doubt.
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Learning to be comfortable in the company of people who didn’t need to be rescued and weren’t interested in saving anyone was extremely challenging. Resisting the urge to blame others was even more uncomfortable. But in those areas of uncertainty and discomfort is where most of my progress in love and life has been made. That year was the turning point of my existence. I started a very lucrative Internet business and I was offered my first acting role.
Speaking as someone who has been both the victim and the rescuer I can assure you — the rescuer is merely an enabler, much like putting a band-aid over Gangrene. And the longer we await our savior(s) or find reason to blame others — the longer we put our lives on hold. Life is too short because we wait too long to start living it.
- – David M. Reiss, M.D.
- – Lisa Bahar, MA, CCJP, LMFT, LPCC
- – Elayne Savage, PhD
This article was previously published at GlobalGrind.