The Power Of The Victim



In 1986, Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand created an amazing piece of work called “The Decline of the American Empire.”  In that film is a character who is into S & M, more specifically the “M” side of that fetish. 


At one point in the film, a friend challenges her on this preference.  She explains, in a matter-of-fact sort of way that “there is an incredible amount of power in being a victim.” 


That line struck me there and has remained with me.  It has been proven true over and over again when observing the patterns of victims. 


You see, in my line of work, there is a lot of talk about the difference between victims and those who take full responsibility and accountability.  The discussion usually goes along these lines:


Victims blame others, make excuses for their behaviour and their results and they deny that they have made any contribution to the problem or that they have any ability to contribute to a solution. 


These discussions then make the conclusion, essentially, that victims receive no benefits.  But I want to dive into that a little. 


Victims do get a benefit.  They are freed from the responsibility of doing anything about it.  Change and improvement is hard.  Living a life of satisfaction and delight takes effort.  When your fortunes are purely at the whim of fate or of others, there is no point exerting that effort; it is bound to be futile.  Therefore you’re free to do…nothing.  And when the victim is really on his/her game, well-intentioned good people come to their aid, so they really don’t have to take action themselves.  That is a huge payoff.


Now, the more I’ve observed this, I’ve come to see that there are 3 kinds of victims.  I believe it’s important to understand these distinctions so you can see where you fall and to potentially understand who you’re dealing with. 


1)    Situational Victims

This is the vast majority of people.  With the possible exception of the Dalai Llama, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t fall into this once in a while.  You get ticked and blame somebody.  You don’t immediately look for a solution but come up with excuses (or as adults call them: “reasons”) for not acting.  Generally, though, truly responsible people get past this and decide to take action.  They recognize that, despite their temporary disappointment with others, they can only control themselves and they also acknowledge along the way that most people are just doing the best they can, even if they mess up from time to time. 

2)     Raging Victims

These folks get pissed off at others.  You could also call them Blamers.  They have no problem at all blaming others for their choices.  They justify this by noting that they also blame themselves when they screw up.  They do take actions when they want to achieve something.  But their anger and propensity to fault-find keeps them from enjoying contentment.  They don’t realize that blame and fault-finding is the opposite of compassion.  Frequently, they will experience success but remain confused as to why they haven’t found happiness. 

3)    Professional Victims

The first two groups are relatively easy to identify and, by and large, to deal with.  If you’re on the receiving end of the wrath of a Raging Victim, you may not enjoy it, but you’ll know where you stand.  The Professional Victim is much harder to deal with.  Often, they will have learned the language of personal responsibility but not its applications.  They will always sound as if they are doing their very best, but things just don’t seem to be working. 


Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I’m not one of those personal development folks who believes that all bad things are the making of the person experiencing them.  Bad things do happen.  They can happen randomly and even repeatedly.  A mother in Syria is not responsible for the bombs that drop on her neighbourhood. 


But the Professional Victim is particularly adept at making others think that they are in this category of “real victim”.  And they can wreak havoc on others, by damaging their reputations through tales of mistreatment or unfairness and by getting them to be their unwitting allies, doing things for them.  Here are a few clues to distinguish the Professional Victim. (Just one of these may not be sufficient, but if there are a few, beware.)

i.                The Drain. You often leave conversations feeling drained or less energetic than when the conversation started.  The other name for such a person is an Energy Vampire. 

ii.              The All About. The excessive use of the phrase “I’m all about.”  Eg.  “I’m all about love and compassion”; “I’m all about personal growth.”  Richard Branson never says “I’m all about improving the world through business.”  The Dalai Llama never says “I’m all about compassion.”  They just act.

iii.             The Big But. Look for the combination of the language of personal responsibility followed by “but”.  E.g.  “I know how important it is not to find fault in others, but really, what Jim did was just so terrible.”  Often they will have read materials or taken courses on personal growth where they acquired the vocabulary, but resisted the message.

iv.             The Flood.  Professional Victims know that if they give up the floor they may be called on something.  So, particularly in a conflict, they will dominate the conversation with quantity.  They seem to somehow believe that as long as the other person isn’t speaking, they are likely to convince them.

v.              The Problem Pattern. Professional Victims almost always have something to complain about.  Now complaining is admittedly an unfortunate cultural habit in North America.  But these folks will usually have one or more people that are causing them difficulty.   Their descriptions of the problems will, individually, seem plausible and will elicit sympathy.  But if this is a pattern, there is often more at play.

vi.             The Faux Apology.  This allows them to tell people that they took the high road by apologizing without ever taking accountability. Frequently, the apology carries a buried criticism. Eg. “I’m sorry you took it that way.” (A responsible person owns his/her communications.)  “I’m sorry the circumstances were such that the argument had to happen.” (Responsible people identify behaviours or decisions that they’re accountable for.  They don’t apologize for circumstances.)

vii.           The Guilt Trip.  Frequently, when you ask something of such a person, even asking them to accept a bit more responsibility, you leave feeling a bit guilty, as if you were being unfair or unreasonable.  You know that your request wasn’t excessive, but somehow that feeling is there.  Or, if you’ve evolved past allowing other people to induce guilt feelings in you, you will see it happen to others.


viii.    And more.  There are others.  But I hope you’re getting the idea.


Why am I sharing this?  It seems to me that too many people in personal development trot out the lecture on being a victim without a deep enough understanding of it.  The Situational Victim may hear the lecture as talking about Professional Victims and not see themselves in the description.  Therefore they won’t get the lesson. 


Also, most of my readers are good folks.  These are the ones that Professional Victims take advantage of.  Having seen a lot of this, I just wanted to give you some markers to consider whether you’re in the orbit of someone like this so you can choose to no longer participate. 


And finally, while there is a payoff of being any of the victims identified, that payoff is never joy, fulfillment or contentment in life.  If you simply say, “I am responsible for every outcome in my life”, you’ll make proactive decisions designed to produce good outcomes. 


And that’s nothing to complain about.