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Posts from — June 2013

The Victim

The Victim

One of the most challenging states of consciousness that we see in session is the stance of the “victim.” No doubt you’ve run into it. The victim suffers, protests, and complains. There is always a problem, and the problem is always someone else’s fault. Victims rarely can go longer than a minute (literally) in a conversation before seizing the microphone and reciting a list of the things they are enduring, often with clever insights into the psyches of those who, for some reason, insist on persecuting them.

We all have off days, and perhaps on occasion even feel that life has conspired to test or defeat us, or at least isn’t doing much to help. These are the days when we cannot put a foot right, when everything good falls from our hands or finds a way to elude us. Occasional experiences in which we feel this way come and go, like stormy weather. A stance of victimhood, however, is a problem of the most serious sort. It cuts us off from our own creative resources, from opportunities that may be right in front of us awaiting our recognition, and from others, including friends and family members who love us. Victim consciousness can poison the well of daily life, and all the more so to the extent that our stances, our beliefs and expectations, our assumptions, tend to be self-fulfilling. Worse, victimhood seems to generate a gravitational field that can pull us (and others) into a growing darkness and pessimism. In extreme cases, this hole becomes a black hole.

To illustrate: Imagine someone holding his hand in a fire. Obviously, this person is in pain. The longer he keeps his hand in the flames, the greater the injury he suffers. Now, in the reality of the victim, the fire is responsible. It is hurting him. Certainly, there is no denying this in terms of the nature of fire to burn. However, that is not the issue. The relevant conversation here has nothing to do with the nature of fire, and everything to do with the nature of responsibility and choice. The fire has no choice but to burn. That is what fire does. We, however, have the power to remove our hand from the flames. In this sense, “the fire is burning me” misses the point. “Why am I keeping my hand in the fire?”—this is the beginning of wisdom and liberation from suffering. When the victim takes responsibility, he comes home to his power to remove his hand.

One of the main reasons that victims stay victims is that they equate responsibility with fault. In other words, they believe that accepting responsibility would mean admitting that they are to blame.This belief keeps them from appropriating their creative authority, because responsibility is not blame; it’s power, and specifically, the power to choose. Sometimes this comes down to the power to choose not to participate, e.g., in a chronically unhealthy or destructive situation or relationship. We have no power to change another’s behavior or stance, but we have all the power we need to determine our own. In any situation where we have allowed ourselves to indulge in feeling like a victim, we can stop and ask ourselves: What choice do I have here? How is my participation in this situation (problem, relationship, etc.) perpetuating my suffering? How am I keeping my hand in this particular fire?

Plato’s dialogue, Protagoras, presents the idea that “man is the measure of all things.” Without getting into the theoretical implications of this somewhat controversial statement, we can recognize that it has tremendous practical application to those areas of experience that pertain not to the natural order but to human interactions, such as ideas, feelings, beliefs, judgments, assumptions, relationships, and so on: I have seen clients take responsibility for their participation in circumstances they regarded as inherently problematic and in an instant, they were able to measure the situation differently. In the most practical way, the problem as such was not merely a certain arrangement of facts but a construct rooted in the client’s stance, and any stance can be deconstructed in favor of a better one through our power to choose. It is no accident that the ancient Greeks had such a strong appreciation for the heroic. To refuse to be a victim is no small thing, for as victims we can never be happy, never discover the good life or its roots within ourselves. The heroic acceptance of responsibility may not change the facts, though certainly it can influence them profoundly. The fire may may continue to burn—but the willingness to take responsibility for our role in our suffering allows us to remove our hand from the flames.

The liberating reach and power of such willingness is hard to overstate. It is something that one must experience. Through its efficiency, the victim vanishes, and we find that we can move gracefully through conditions that a moment earlier felt overwhelming and unbearable. Simply by refusing to be a victim, we can set ourselves free and enrich our lives immeasurably.

June 29, 2013   Comments Off on The Victim