So far, I’ve been urging you to bear right on the road to reconciliation. There’s a good reason for this. To the left are all the hazards that come from not taking your injuries seriously enough: cheap pardon and being out of touch with feelings and uncommitted to values. Now I want you to slightly change direction. If you continue the bearing you are going, you’ll go over a sheer cliff. You’ll go from being someone who is speaking out against injustice to someone who is playing the victim.
You’re playing the victim when you fabricate or exaggerate your suffering so that you can cope, seek attention, or justify abusing and manipulating others. You deserve an Academy Award if you act like you played absolutely no part in what happened to you. You’re being a drama queen if you use your injury to extract unfair concessions. Indeed, go down this Playing the Victim road far enough and you will no longer be the victim; you’ll just be another perpetrator.
Sometimes I ask people who have been victimized by something: who would you rather be, the person who had suffered the injury, or the person who had committed it? No one wants to suffer the injury, but in the aftermath, practically everyone would rather be the victim than have to live with themselves after having committed some crime or betrayal. This is what motivates people to play the victim.
People play the victim the same way other roles are played. Certain traits are emphasized and inconvenient contradictions ignored. You become histrionic and dramatic, possibly operatic. You’re certain that your version of events is the only possible version and everything else is lies. You cling to your script and don’t know what to do when the footlights are off. You assign blame and forget that when you point a single finger at someone else, three more are surreptitiously pointed at you. You so strongly believe in a convenient fiction that you have lost touch with the truth.
Early on the road to reconciliation, it is necessary to get a clear picture of the damage done by the person who hurt you. I’ve talked a lot about the pitfalls of cheap pardon and losing touch with your feelings. It’s necessary to acknowledge the hurt and speak out against oppression. The problem comes when you begin to believe your rhetoric too much or become too strident in an effort to be heard.
People might falsely accuse you of playing the victim if they don’t want to hear what you have to say. How can you tell if they’re right? How do you know if you’ve gone too far?
There are four signs that you are playing the victim. Four signs that result in at least four negative consequences.
First, you are playing the victim if it is impossible for your offender to make any meaningful restitution. I’m not saying you have to accept any half hearted apology, I’m saying that you can’t complain about something without giving the person a chance to make it right. She can never meet your terms for reconciliation because you have elevated them to an unattainable level. You require a down payment no one can afford when you expect someone to accept all the blame.
Second, you are playing the victim if you do not see that you have some power to change the situation. One consequence of playing the victim is that you end up feeling powerless because you refuse to see the extent to which you have power. This powerlessness is incompatible with being able to take action on your own behalf. You fail to recognize your own efficacy. You victimize yourself through inaction and indecisiveness.
Third, you play the victim if you have lost your humility; if you fail to admit that there is often a very fine distinction between the abuser and the abused, between the perpetrator and the injured party. You forget that, if not for the grace of God, or random circumstances, you could’ve been him.
Let’s take a marital argument, for instance, an ugly confrontation that results in yelling, name calling, throwing dishes, slamming doors, and sore feelings for days afterwards. Someone started it, someone yelled first, called the first name, threw the first dish, and slammed the first door. One person held on to their hurt feelings longer than the other. It’s seldom the same person who escalates or de-escalates things at each step. The person who called the first name may not have been the one who slammed the first door. It’s often hard to say who started it, or even, when it started. When one person throws a dish; we’ll never know, if she didn’t, that the other might have thrown a dish a minute later.
The fourth sign is hard to explain. Imagine going to a restaurant and getting a waiter who is so attentive, so obsequious, so unctuous, so over-the-top in his waiter-like flourishes that he seems to be a caricature of a waiter. When he praises you for the entree you selected from the menu, you wonder if he’s being sarcastic. You don’t trust him because he doesn’t seem real. He actually is a waiter, but he still seems to be playing a part. There is something inauthentic about him, something that seems faked or forced, something of bad faith.
So, the fourth sign that you are playing the victim is when you are more intent with keeping up the part you play than in just being yourself. You’ve got a mask on so no one can see who you really are.
It comes down to this: you don’t need to play the victim if you are the victim, but you might end up doing so, anyway. You then lose touch with yourself, your feelings, and values, again. You have confused yourself with the part you are playing.
In some cases, when you stop playing the victim and get real about your contribution to the problem, you may just find that you’re really an abuser, all along, and all your complaints were just distractions for the harm you have done. This can be disconcerting, to say the least. No one wants to admit they behaved badly, much less that they are guilty of covering it up. However, when you stop playing the victim, then you are able to see the problem clearly and do something about it.
So, get real and avoid playing the victim. Don’t take yourself so seriously that you lose yourself in the process.