The Shrink’s Links: Being and Nothingness

Bringing you the best of mental health every week.

If you read my last post, entitled Avoid Playing the Victim, you would have come across this example. I stole it.

The fourth sign [of playing the victim] 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.

I ripped off the bit about the waiter from the French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. I owe a lot to Sartre. Of all the philosophers, he probably has influenced my thinking more than any other. It’s time I gave him his due and his own link within these pages of the Shrink’s Links.

To Sartre, this waiter was an example of a person reducing himself to an object, rather than simply being as he was. Sartre believed that the waiter had to play at being a waiter as a way of denying that he, at that moment, had other possibilities. For instance, the more annoyed he was at the customers, the more perfect a waiter he had to be. The waiter said to himself, I can’t be rude right back to that rude customer, I have bills to pay. I have no choice.

That’s not true, says Sartre. Of course he has a choice. We all have choices, always; but we want to trick ourselves into believing we don’t. Sartre, who wrote his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, in the middle of France in World War II, had a radical belief in human freedom, a strange thing to have as people were being strafed by planes and led away to concentration camps. Perhaps that is a testimony to the freedom he asserted. We can believe what we want, despite evidence to the contrary.

You can imagine that, in my work as a therapist, I come across many people who think they are not free. People who put up with a lot of terrible situations, who are horribly victimized, simply because they believe the have no choice. People who accept the part of victim as their identity, precluding the possibility they could be anything other than a victim. Then there’s the folks who believe that they have no choice but to take that drink, shoot that dope, hit that wife, be depressed, or act like an ass simply because circumstances or genetics dictate that they do so. It’s my job to show them there’s another way. Sartre comes in handy then.

I will admit that Sartre’s book, Being and Nothingness, from which I stole the waiter, is a tough read and, in a therapy sessions, the less that is said about cranky incomprehensible French philosophers the better. In fact, philosophy is seldom something that can help people feel better or even do better. People often need real human connection, rather than rationale and abstract arguments, and the ones inclined to turn to philosophy need real interaction more than the others. That is not to say, though, that therapists shouldn’t have their thoughts grounded in the thinking of people who had the time, talent, and inclination to think things through.

So, if you are a therapist, or if you just want to think like one, read Sartre before you tell anyone that they just can’t help themselves. Read Sartre if you want to recognize self deception.
Click here to read Sartre.