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Can acknowledging your victimhood be good for your ego?
Narcissistic Victimhood and Victim Aversion
This piece is an exploration of victimhood. I will touch on the concept of the sacred victim then move on to everyday victimhood and how one can experience being a victim. This piece is a primer to another piece in the Unfuck Your Thinking series on exiting interpersonal power struggles with someone who is restricting your ability to speak openly, have a say and be heard.
I will describe here how each of us can cycle through all 3 roles in the Drama Triangle to avoid confronting the shame of feeling powerless, helpless and inferior that accompanies being victimised by someone else. I also offer an approach to facing victimhood that is restorative.
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I just celebrated Rosh Hashanah - Jewish New Year. With every Jewish holiday, we overeat sweet fruit and honey cake, celebrate our freedoms and our responsibility to invest in our family, community and humanity for the continued existence of our people. We’re also constantly reminded of our history of persecution and that we don’t yet live in a world that loves Jews enough to leave us alone. Despite the tenacity, trauma and resilience that enabled a relatively small population to survive centuries of dispossession, persecution, assimilation and genocide, Jewish people are alert to the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment, targeted attacks and extremist activity on the left and right of the political spectrum in Western countries. Intergenerational psychic impressions of persecution or as Dr. Naomi Wolf says, genocidal ancestral memory, might slip to the back of one’s mind during comfortable moments and are easily recalled in our current time along with all the feelings of danger.
This holiday prompted thoughts about victimhood and being a victim. In today’s Oppression Olympic Games, I can play cards from my privilege-oppression-exclusion deck in specific community contexts to give me lived experience authority or reprieve from being lumped into every other privileged group.
As tempting as it is in some situations to shut down an unproductive conversation about identities, intersections and right think as if we’re trading social status commodities, I would also be a narcissism hacker imposter using their tactics to be seen as morally superior and dominate the discussion. This is not how I want to relate to others. There’s more to us than labels and lived experiences.
The Sacred Victim
The righteous underdog is all the rage now on social media platforms, academic circles and in many industries, uplifted by political leaders, advocates, activists and social injustice warriors. Society’s black sheep and scapegoats (ie. Chosen oppressed group) have seemingly ascended to loftier positions in the social hierarchy where their voices can be heard. Suffering and oppression status are centred and revered by pious allies, conspirators and upstanders within institutions. Promises of redemption and access to the glories of upper class heaven lure the opportunistic privileged to become oppressed identity converts. Character development is an insufficient motive or reward for those who want to be worshipped.
“Based on the sacred-making (that is, “sacrificial”) power of suffering, the sacred status elicits piety, gives its bearers special authority, surrounds them with sanctions, and calls for symbolic sacrificial punishments of the impious.”
Prof Molly Brigid McGrath from The Authority of the Sacred Victim
Just as bullies channel their power through enablers, sacred victims are empowered by their benevolent oppressors who are the authorities of righteousness. In exchange for their exploitation, sacred victims are protected from the consequences of vulnerable narcissistic behaviour and can demand entitlements from the perceived privileged and their institutions. Their duty as sacred victim role buffers against the discomforts of self-examination and remain preoccupied by a continual narcissistic supply from their worshippers.
Anointing the sacred victim also authorises the Benevolent Oppressor to demand confessions of bigotry from Chosen oppressors (ie. white men), prescribing readings and prayers from the anti-oppression scriptures for their salvation while conducting shunning rituals to excommunicate heretics who question The Way. Where there’s a sacred victim, there’s a team of co-dependent enablers fulfilling their need for power and authority.
This parallels saviourism of a capitalistic society focused on selling solutions to manufactured crises. The Saviour needs someone or something to save. The victim, who didn’t realise they were a victim until the Saviour and Saviours-adjacent told them so, is relieved to be saved. The crisis is managed and crisis manufacturers and their business Saviours continue to innovate ways in which Victims can be saved.
As I described previously, playing any part in this drama continually fuels an addictive co-dependence that is antithetical to the liberated reality of the social justice vision.
The Three Faces of the Victim
The Victim as the Persecutor
While some enjoy the perks of sacred victimhood, there are others who run for the hills at the thought of being considered a victim.
“I don’t want to play the victim” is a common sentiment even from those who are repeatedly let down or hurt by someone’s thoughtless or intentionally hurtful behaviour.
Victim mentality denies any responsibility to change one’s own circumstances, perception and behaviour to improve their situation. Victim aversion denies the impact of wrongdoing to protect the now threatened strong, empowered and resilient self-image and protect their ideal image of the actual perpetrator to avoid confronting them about their wrongdoing.
Victim aversion can occur in any relationship involving abuse of power. A common example is a bully’s flying monkey who is accused of not protecting the bully against the consequences of the bully’s assaults (against the target) and is given the silent treatment. The flying monkey, who is the victim in this scenario, feels ashamed and guilty, strives to restore their image with their bully bestie. Most reasonable people would think the bully is cuckoo but trauma bonded people turn on themselves, believe they’re the actual persecutor and seek to redeem themselves.
You might default into the victim as persecutor role if you experienced authoritarian parenting involving blaming, shaming, conditional approval (or none at all) and different forms of punishment, as a familiar relational dynamic with a dominant person. When accused of wrongdoing, you would already assume you’re the persecutor by dismissing your own experience and reality. The self-gaslighting prevents you from objectively analysing the situation to examine the intention and behaviours of the accuser and discover how both parties contributed to the conflict.
By protecting the actual persecutor, you assume full responsibility for rectifying the situation while ignoring the impact and consequences of being victimised. This is often the case when you hear victims of abuse using bypassing tools such as forgiving their abuser and gratitude practice to fulfil spiritual justice. In day to day examples, this might look like you defending a friend when you witness other friends being hurt by the shitty friend who did the same to you.
You might not see that this blind spot involves you justifying their behaviours and sacrificing yourself to protect the authority (ie. shitty friend) from facing consequences of their actions. As a result, you never have the opportunity to process the impact of being a victim because their accusations make them the greater victim, and you’re required to do what’s necessary for their forgiveness.
Questions for you:
Does this sound familiar? If so, how did you break away from this version of victimhood?
The Victim as the Saviour
Another attempt to bypass suffering is to become invested in the personal growth and enlightenment of the person who betrayed your trust. You attempt to sanctify them through constructive feedback, unconscious bias training, prayer and coaching them to shift their mindset so that your suffering has a purpose. You believe the Persecutor-Victim story happened for a reason that serves your growth and earns you both spiritual brownie points. Your suffering had a purpose to enlighten them and you were the benevolent sacrifice and now Saviour for their own illumination. When you see glimmers of potential change as they relish the a-ha moments your patient active listening skills facilitated, your higher purpose theory is affirmed and you’re no longer the Victim. Except it’s all a fantasy and you’re in denial.
You would follow this logic when you feel a negative charge about seeing yourself in the role of a Victim of someone else's behaviour. In order to live into your preferred resilient or empowered identity, you would need something to happen to restore balance. That is, the perpetrator would need to see the error of their ways so that being the victim had a purpose and the shame associated with that role can dissipate.
Victimhood bypassing is a common form of denial that attempts to restore a sense of control and order to override feelings of inferiority but prevents you as the Victim from having a realistic interpretation and response to the betrayal. This is also when toxic positive statements are deployed to cheer your way through an upsetting situation.
Alternatively, a realistic response involves acknowledging that you are the Victim of the situation, the situation or conflict disrupted your experience of reality, and that it is having an impact.
Questions for you:
In which situations have you attempted to correct a situation as the Saviour Victim? What was the result?
The Victim as the Victim
Shame is a normal response to being the victim of one's own delusion or someone else's wrongdoing. The pain however can be two fold: the pain of being hurt by another and the pain of discovering yourself as a victim. It’s tempting to lean into the victim role of the previous examples to avoid or alleviate the pain.
However, there is a danger in unacknowledged victimhood. In an effort to distance yourself from the shame of powerlessness, you might be grasping fantasies of resilience to overcome the state of victimhood rather than face the discomfort of being a victim, learn from the experience, and apply that wisdom toward future prevention.
It’s an unrealistic demand to always see ourselves as empowered, strong and resilient when life throws us curveballs in the form of other’s hurtful conduct. We can be weakened by someone’s actions AND draw support from internal and external resources to regain strength and overcome the challenge. We are a complex mix where multiple truths can co-exist to narrate our perception of victimhood.
Victimhood has its place alongside all the other roles. If we never allow ourselves to fully experience the shame of being rendered powerless, blindsided or inferior by someone else's actions, we can go through life rejecting aspects viewed as flaws in favour of a superior self that is impervious to pain and suffering. And that's how we end up harnessing narcissistic traits to preserve a false self instead of hacking it and growing from the experience.
When I was deeply betrayed by someone I trusted, I initially hoped for their redemption and enlightenment to make the whole experience 'worth it'. The more I held onto that shred of hope the more I prevented closure. When I accepted that this person is very different (awful different) from my fantasy of them and not what I hoped they would be anymore, it became easier for me to close out that relationship emotionally and my suffering ceased.
Processing the emotions of victimhood, instead of reframing our experience in favour of a superior/stronger self, is a process that requires resilience, openness to learn from experiences and many other attributes that cultivate humility, empathy and discernment. This process also safeguard against violating your own moral standards and ethical responsibilities toward others so you’re less likely to do unto others what had been done to you.
As described at the beginning of this piece, living in a state of victimhood is a problem for the victim, their enablers and everyone else connected to the drama triangle’s web. Some will only know how to label themselves as perpetually oppressed to blame and shame those who they hold responsible for keeping them oppressed. Harnessing a victim complex is one way any bully gets away with targeting their victim while claiming victimhood with their enablers.
For the rest, acknowledging your victimhood, without dwelling in it, seeking to be special as a result of it, or bypassing it can help us develop a better relationship with shame, acceptance of the victim within yourself and for sustaining a healthy ego.
Thank you for reading, sharing, commenting, subscribing and supporting my work,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
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I believe that a common threat to our individual and collective thriving is an addiction to power and control. This addiction fuels and is fuelled by greed - the desire to accumulate and control resources in social, information (and attention), economic, ecological, geographical and political systems.
While activists focus on fighting macro issues, I believe that activism also needs to focus on the micro issues - the narcissistic traits that pollute relationships between you and I, and between each other, without contributing to existing injustice. It’s not as exciting as fighting the Big Baddies yet hacking, resisting and overriding our tendencies to control others that also manifest as our macro issues is my full-time job.
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