In Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life, (1989), I described a patient who complained that her husband was habitually late for dinner. Dinner was ready at 6:30, but he often came in as late as 8:30 without calling to let her know that he would be late. She asked me, “Is that right?” in a tone that implied that she was the victim of wrongdoing. I tried to explain to her that the key question wasn’t whether it was right or not, although one would tend to agree with her in principle. What she said may have been correct, but in any case, it was irrelevant. I wanted her to see that she was viewing the situation as a passive victim, which was neither productive nor adaptive.
Many people think they are entitled to good treatment. The truth is that they are neither entitled nor not entitled to it. The significant issues are what is going on and how do they feel about it. This woman would have been better off actively facing the facts of the situation and acknowledging her emotional reactions rather than personally judging it and feeling victimized by it.
If you are being robbed, you don’t sit around thinking, “This shouldn’t be happening to me. It isn’t right.” Instead, you react. You may defend yourself, call the police or try to run away. Constructive action is the opposite of victimized brooding.
The woman whose husband was late for dinner had every right to feel angry and to consider practical ac¬tion if she wished, but to try to justify feeling victimized was maladaptive and ultimately meaningless.
Even in the most extreme situation, such as a concentration camp, feeling victimized is not adaptive: Feeling your anger, planning an escape, attempting to survive any and all of these courses of action are preferable to indulging powerless, victimized feelings. Your attitude is a vital factor in determining whether you will survive or perish, succeed or fail in life. Viktor Frankl contended that many of the survivors of German concentration camps were able to endure because they refused to give in to feeling victimized. Instead, although stripped of all their rights and possessions, they used one remaining freedom to sustain their spirit; the freedom to choose what attitude or position they would take in relation to the horror they faced. “It was the freedom to bear oneself ‘this way or that,’ and there was a ‘this or that.’” (Frankl, 1954/1967, p. 94)
Maintaining a child victim role leads to chronic passivity. Victimized feelings are very often appropriate to the child’s situation. Children are without power, are helpless and are at the mercy of their parents. Later as an adult, things happen that are sometimes beyond your control and understanding. However, the adult who is still playing the child victim role responds like the deer that sees a mountain lion approaching and instead of fleeing the danger becomes paralyzed. This person just keeps noticing over and over that the situation is unreasonable, unfair or threatening but doesn’t make the appropriate adaptive responses. In the case of the woman mentioned above, the tip off to the fact that she really preferred the child victim role was that she never made any substantial attempt to change her circumstances. Like so many of us, she would rather feel justified in complaining endlessly about her unfortunate cir¬cumstances while passively registering her dissatisfaction than actively changing her situation.
In facing one’s feelings, it is important to note that feelings do not require any justification. They are automatic responses to favorable and unfavorable events, and people’s feelings cannot be judged as right or wrong. Clean anger is merely proportional to the frustration experience regardless of any rational considerations. It is more advantageous to experience feelings than to deny them or cut them off. However, actions, unlike feelings, have consequences and must be considered in relation to both moral issues and rational reality concerns. Therefore “acting out” emotions, particularly angry emotions, must remain under a person’s control. For example, a feeling of murderous rage can be considered innocent, but to make sarcastic remarks has consequences.
“Victims” deal in judgments and “shoulds” in interactions with others. They operate on the basic assumption that the world should be fair: “I should have been loved by my parents.” “My children should call me or write to me.” “After all that I’ve done for her, the least she could do …” This type of preoccupation with “rights” and “shoulds” is irrelevant to the real problems that we are all faced with; it leads to inward brooding, righteous indignation and vengeful feelings. Worse yet, angry, victimized feelings are bottled up inside, contributing to depression and psychosomatic disorders.
In conclusion, playing the victim is maladaptive. Even though passive manipulations may occasionally work, taking this powerless position hurts the perpetrator and is never in one’s best interests. In the long run, it does more harm than good. People can control their destructive urge to play the victim by acknowledging that their personal world and the external world contain many inequities and social injustices that are discriminatory and unfair to individuals or groups of people, yet they can take power over their lives. Despite these negative circumstances, there are active remedial solutions available to make an effective adaptation.