In Reclaiming Banished Voices, I spend two chapters on the Victim Triangle, fleshing out the causes of dysfunctional patterns of behavior, which keep us trapped in the familiar, and even habitual, roles of victim, rescuer, and perpetrator. Although we may have our fallback spot in the Triangle, we invariably move from one role to another, acting out behaviors that perpetuate one-up, one-down relationships, and prevent us from being our best self.
Most people have disdain for the victim. We imagine him/her as weak and defeated, marinating in self-pity, unwilling to accept and act on good advice, a loser. Underneath the outward façade of victim is someone filled with self-disgust far greater than anyone else could heap on him/her. But there are pay-offs for the victim.
We humans do everything we can to recreate and confirm our worldview. Our first construct of the world is in childhood. In response to abuse, neglect, or rigid expectations, we unconsciously choose a worldview that keeps us safe, either by adopting or discarding parental beliefs. Then, we cling to them out of fear of being vulnerable, and hurt, again. We can see this so clearly in our political rhetoric.
We choose to watch media outlets that feed our own view of the world, and which amplify our disdain for alternate interpretations. It is fear of being wrong, and therefore vulnerable, that we cling to our past construct. On the outside, we buy new clothes, update our wardrobe, but inside we treasure frayed t-shirts and worn out shoes, not daring to acknowledge that close to half of our world neighbors have survived experiences that have generated very different worldviews. And, ironically, each side perceives the other as heartless perpetrators, trying to take something that belongs to them. Sometimes it is material, sometimes emotional, but always it is our sacred, and cozy, and self-protective view of the world.
Whether it is in our political discourse, in our workplace, or in our personal relationships, we enter the triangle as victims (I spell this out in the book). Once in that victim role, we may perceive different points of view as an attack, honest feedback as harsh criticism, and simple requests as condemnation for “never being good enough.” And here is the seduction of victimhood: once attacked by a perpetrator, we can justify retaliation.
The path from victim to perpetrator is a greased chute. We can slide very easily from the voice of self-defeat to that of blamer and all-knowing judge, allowing us to go on the attack or withdraw into self-righteous silence. Either way, our self-righteousness breeds condescension and the need always to be RIGHT. Because we are victims of purposeful (when we are in the victim role, people always hurt us on purpose) attacks and subjugation, we can now get even. We no longer have to consider how our thoughts and behaviors perpetuate our unhappiness at home or at work, or our dysfunctional politics. Instead of taking responsibility to investigate how our personal history has created our worldview and behaviors, we can justify abandoning dialogue for blame, tit-for-tat retaliation, and revenge. It is so seductive that we are the first to cry “foul, poor me.” The seduction of victimhood is that our perceived, and actual, injury allows us to retaliate with the self-righteous belief that the end justifies the means.
Gandhi said that an eye for an eye could make the whole world blind. The alternative to victim-perpetrator-victim-perpetrator requires empathy. It is our fear that prevents us from inquiring how it is that others see the world so differently, and why their fears might have inadvertently hurt us. It is our fear that that prevents us from being open-minded enough to have empathy, and to acknowledge that there may be more than one TRUTH. It is our fear that prevents us from stepping out of the triangle, and disarming long enough to enter a true dialogue, rather than repeatedly advocating a position that we try to jam down someone else’s throat.
When we are out of the triangle, we have the courage to examine the sources of our worldview, take responsibility for our part of a dysfunctional relationship, all the while speaking our truth without dehumanizing our partners, co-workers, or world neighbors.