Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Un-Love Triangle

Over the years, I have known my share of people who identify themselves as victims. Conversations with these people invariably turn from the latest unhappy episode unfolding in their lives to the retelling of other stories of loss from their past. Being the victim is who they are. It is the filter through which they view all of life.

Being the victim gives them a sense of entitlement. Because all these bad things have happened to them, they feel entitled to sympathy, charity and a pass on less than honorable behavior. They can't help it if they are chronically late or fail to keep a commitment. They're under a lot of stress and they expect you to understand.

These "professional" victims are also the people who co-opt other people's tragedies. Even though they have never been to New York, have never met anyone from there and have no connection to the city, they will tell you with a baleful look that "everything changed after 9-11." This is not an expression of empathy for those whose lives really were forever changed. It is an expression of self-pity for themselves.

It took me decades to figure out that these people are not good company for me. I did feel sorry for them. I was kind. I did them favors. I listened to lots of sad stories, wanting to "be there" for my "friends." At last, thanks to one particularly needy "friend," I saw an aspect of victimhood I hadn't recognized before: Victims can also be perpetrators.

She was telling me about how her man-friend was always in a bad mood and saying mean things to her. She had just moved in with him and now this? It was just not fair! Ordinarily I would have felt sorry for her, except for this: she told me earlier that he was expecting a monogamous relationship when she moved in. She needed a place to stay so she didn't say anything. Then after he made room for her in his closets and kitchen and bathroom, and all her stuff was moved in and put away, she announced that she doesn't believe in monogamy. Furthermore, she intended to go on sleeping with other men just as she had all along. Which she did. She apparently expected him to understand.

Well, OK. Her life. Her choice. But my sympathy for her evaporated forever after that.

And my eyes were open. I began to watch other people who had victim stories and realized that it makes so much sense. If someone's identity depends on being "abused" in some fashion, what would happen without those experiences? Without a sad story, how would these "victims" get sympathy or help or attention? What might be expected of them? What if they had to take some responsibility? In order to keep the story going, victims have to do something to provoke a reaction that can be labeled as "abuse."  It's sick. It's twisted. I doubt if much of it is conscious. But just watch - it's happening all the time, in private lives and on the world stage.

I learned about a third aspect of this dynamic recently, from my friend, Beth, who explained how people who identify themselves as "rescuers" fit into the picture. Rescuers see a situation and perceive it as abusive. Then they jump in to take care of the "victim" by attacking the "perpetrator," thus becoming  "perpetrators," too. The most interesting part of the whole dynamic is that we are not necessarily talking about three different people: victim, perp, rescuer. The same person can easily play all three roles.

I read a blog post this morning that illustrates this perfectly. It appeared in the New York Times' Diner's Journal: "Why I Got Kicked Out of a Restaurant on Saturday Night." Note how the author starts out as victim (disturbed by yelling in the kitchen), becomes rescuer (going into the kitchen, ostensibly to get the yelling to stop, thus saving diners from disturbance), escalates to perpetrator (essentially doing the same thing to the chef as the chef was doing to his staff - dressing him down in front of other people), then reverts to victim again (when the chef comes out of the kitchen and tells him to leave the restaurant), then becomes a hybrid of victim-rescuer-perpetrator with his post (in which he takes the tone of victim while, via the huge audience of the NYT, he punishes the chef with bad publicity in order to do what? Save other diners from an unpleasant experience in the future?)

Of course, I wouldn't be writing today about this un-holy trinity, this un-love triangle of victim-perpetrator-rescuer, if it hadn't been for Twitter. I don't remember now who posted the link to the blog article above, but thanks! Reading, thinking and writing today helped me take my thoughts beyond where they were when the day started. And if this post gives people a starting point for some of their own observations, so much the better.