One of the main themes that reappears again and again throughout therapy is that of the victim. An archetype that has many faces and is extremely cunning in its manifestation. Hidden in the depths of many relationships the victim mentality lays foundations for guilt, shame, drama and conflict, as well as enabling a co-dependency between those caught in its trap. Feeling that you are a victim in a situation is far from uncommon, so much so that it is very likely that anybody reading this either has direct or indirect experience of this dynamic, either personally or professionally, or both.
In order to better understand the victim dynamic we must first reveal the multifaceted face that the victim hides behind, we can break it down to three characteristics masterfully outlined in Stephen Karpmans Drama Triangle. Karpmans model suggests that present in many a struggling relationship hides the Rescuer, the Persecutor, and the Victim. A co-dependant dynamic that nurtures feelings of guilt and shame, instigates drama, and fosters feelings of low self value.
This model helps us understand how regardless of stance or position, as either a rescuer, or a persecutor, if you identify with any of these then chances are that you have either a conscious or subconscious identification with the victim profile. If we break down the hidden agendas of each of these roles we can better understand the stumbling blocks that manifest in many of our own struggling relationships.
A rescuer will typically be a person that thrives in, and surrounds themselves with people that need help. They will be more than happy to help and will go out of their way to find people that in varying degrees are either down on their luck, unable to fend for themselves, vulnerable, or incapable of surviving on their own. Essentially the rescuer is looking for a victim. Someone that they can help, someone that has needs the rescuer is only too pleased to satisfy.
At first glance the rescuer will appear helpful, a faithful resource, someone with all the answers, and always has the time to help those in need. The rescuer will appear altruistic, caring, and nurturing. However, once we begin deconstructing the rescuers position we can see that the main motivation for such a person with this affliction is far less altruistic than we might be lead to believe. Their real motivation is simply to fill a void, to be loved.
Fundamentally, the rescuer carries with them the idea that if they can help a person, please a person, or come to the rescue of someone in need, then in return that person will love them, or at least some variation of love, be it respect, value, or admiration. By surrounding themselves with people that need their help the rescuer builds a coping mechanism to deal with their own deep rooted lack of self love, value, or respect.
Essentially, the root of the issue here is the narrative that the rescuer lives by, that is ‘The needs of others are more important than my own.’ It’s far easier to focus on satisfying the needs of others than it is to satisfy our own needs. In this way we find ourselves caught in a trap, one in which self value is dependant on the ability to please or help another person. ‘I surround myself with people who are able to validate me, as I am unable to validate myself.’ Before long we get caught in a destructive, unfulfilling, co-dependant relationship that not only nurtures resentment but also fosters feelings of guilt and shame.
Sooner or later, whether conscious or not the rescuer will take on the role of the victim. Quite typically the rescuer will come to a stage when they are in need of help, and given they’ve dedicated so much ‘selfless’ energy towards helping and caring for those in need, it’s not too much to ask for a little help in return. However, we need to bare in mind that those the rescuer dedicates so much time to helping are those that are incapable of helping themselves, therefore to ask them to help someone else is simply out of the question. In this way the rescuer will play the victim. They are always there for others, but no one is there for them. ‘After all I do for you can’t you do XY nor Z for me?’ It’s an all too common response and an alarm bell that they are caught in trap.
To further understand the dynamic it would be helpful to look at the relationship from the victim’s perspective. Typically the victim would be someone that has yet to learn how to fend for himself in the adult world. A person, or group, that is for whatever reason, incapable of taking responsibility for their situation, someone that is unable to cope with the demands of society on their own. If we consider that the motive of the rescuer is to take care of the needs of others in return for love and respect, then it’s not too difficult to see how the rescuer and the victim are a perfect but dysfunctional match. The rescuer will take responsibility for all those who are in need, and in contrast the victim is incapable of taking age appropriate responsibility. Deep in the victim’s psyche lies the belief that he is incapable of caring for himself and instead seeks another to do that for him. ‘I am incapable of caring for my own needs. I am unable to take responsibility.’
Very soon however, the victim will begin to resent the help on offer from the rescuer as it only goes to highlight their ‘inferior’ position in the dynamic. Any suggestion the rescuer makes to help is routinely met with resistance or a reason why their suggestion might fail. This not only frustrates the rescuer but reinforces the victim’s perception of themselves as a failure. Whilst the victim might identify with the belief that they are incapable, they do not like to be reminded.
In order to complete this cycle of destruction we must now turn our attention to the persecutors role in this dynamic. Unlike the rescuer, the persecutor is not a pleaser, but instead typically a person who will come across as aggressive, abusive, and routinely blames another to mask an underlying feeling of vulnerability. Essentially they live with the belief that they need to defend their actions, behaviours, or beliefs through aggression, blame, or abusive behaviours. With the idea that the world is out to get them, he must attack in order to defend himself from a world that is deserving of his wrath. ‘Attack is my first line of defence. They deserve what they got.’ Similar to the rescuer and the victim, responsibility here is an issue. The prosecutor has an inherent inability to take responsibility and instead will convince himself that their aggressive behaviour is justified. In this way the persecutor will identify directly as the victim. Claiming that their actions were justifiable and they are simply a victim trying to defend themselves against a cruel and unjust world.
In the same way the rescuer develops a co-dependant relationship with the victim, so does the persecutor. In identifying with the victim the persecutor justifies his aggressive, controlling behaviour, as well as reinforces his perception of the world as threatening and in need of an authoritative figure to rule with an iron fist. Whilst the rescuer will be reluctant to identify with the victim, the persecutor finds it a convenient way of justifying abusive, aggressive, and defensive behaviour. Claiming that they are in fact the victim of unjust behaviour and their own behaviour was in turn a response to another’s behaviour.
As we can see the relationship between the rescuer, the victim, and the persecutor is extremely dysfunctional, and at the root of many challenging relationships. Only when the motives and the hidden agenda from all perspectives are revealed can we see with more clarity the flaws in such a dynamic. Whilst one might identify predominantly with one of these roles it is equally as likely that they are well versed in each of the other roles as well. Often during a heated discussion the dynamics can shift from rescuer, to victim, to persecutor and back again in a matter of moments. And it’s not only in relationships with others that this dynamic manifests, but it’s important to realise that we can have an internal dialogue which might bounce from one to another within the space of a mere moments.
Ultimately, we can see that regardless of the characteristic, whether its rescuer, persecutor, or victim, if you are caught up in the dynamics of such a relationship then at some level the victim mentality resides. It is essentially a dynamic that is as cunning as it is flawed. Cunning in that it can go unnoticed for years, slowly and systematically destroying a relationship. Flawed in that it’s built upon a dynamic that relies on the misfortune of the victim to feed the rescuers’ growing sense of insecurity and the persecutors’ unhealthy view of the world. All the while manifesting an increasing cycle of conflict, drama, and suffering whilst nurturing unhealthy codependent attachments to rescuer, victim and persecutor.
Now that we have identified some of the pitfalls it is important to look at why one might end up in such a relationship and how to break the cycle of rescuer, victim, persecutor. Part II will further explore this dynamic.