Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Victim Personality

I've used the term in writing and, judging from e-mail, haven't ever adequately defined what I mean.

If you've been victimized before, are you a victim personality? Victimized twice? Thrice? Ten times?
Maybe. Maybe not. There are victim characteristics that all predators (and all aware humans) know.

Distracted. Awkward in their physicality. Pleasers. People so domesticated to social norms that they will be predictable and nice even when it is time to be profoundly un-nice. People like this are targets, they are easy to victimize. They are often victimized. They are not what I mean by "victim personalities."

Humans are incredibly adaptable. At the same time they, like all animals, tend toward homeostasis. They have an idea of "normal" and they move toward or attempt to recreate that idea of normal.

Families have a very wide range of behaviors, widely different ideas of normal. Some are abusive, either because it is the pattern the adults were raised with and thus their homeostasis, or because someone is unskilled at raising tiny humans to be humans or because there is evil and one of the parents sees children as victims to be groomed. Other reasons abound, probably.

A child who grow to adulthood in that environment learns how to survive in that environment. That may be the only place he or she does know how to survive. The habits implanted under adrenaline, or fear of death are really strong. They rarely change. The child raised in this environment has no reason to believe that other relationships are less dangerous... but he or she doesn't know the rules of other relationships. Doesn't know how to behave. And fears any error will be punished as severely as an error in his or her family of origin.

This is the genesis of the victim personality. When you only know how to function or how to even survive by being in the exploited or victim role, you seek it out. You recreate the dynamics you know. This can sound like blaming the victim and maybe it is, but it is an outgrowth of human adaptability. If you only know how to function in a pile of shit, you will either seek out or create piles of shit to function in. It's a survival trait.

It's not permanent, or at least it doesn't need to be. The people I see break out of this (and I'd love to name names here because I am immensely proud of some people, but their struggle is deeply personal) first see or guess that maybe their experience of the world is not the world. Then they see that there are other ways to live. And that those ways are possible. And that those ways also have rules, but the rules are learnable. It takes an immense amount of courage, but they learn through experience that failing to follow the rules in a non-toxic environment has consequences, but not the harsh consequences they expect. And that, in turn, lets them be brave enough to risk mistakes as they learn this new world.

I want to say that it requires a safety net, a social network that supports, teaches and encourages, but my experience says different. There might be a few voices of aid and reason, but almost everyone I know made their first steps without any support whatsoever. They come from a world where no one can be trusted and they, generally, need to learn that trust is not a trap. Learning that is not an early step in this process. So they make the first steps alone, and it is an act of profound courage.

Slightly related, not about victim personalities but about the environment that created them. I've seen three common responses to kids raise helplessly in extreme chaos. One group become hyper-competent. A second group believes they can never control anything and become hyper-passive. A third group sees it as a natural state of affairs and transitions to the abuser role when they get to the appropriate place in the script. I see very few come out of this environment simply being normal (possible sampling error, normal is easy to not-notice.)

I would really like to know how much of this is internal wiring; how much early influence (like mentors) during the process of abuse; and how much can be affected by processing the event after the fact. Are there limits or opportunities in different time frames of processing? Can a competent foster parent do things a counselor can (or can't) do much later?


Adrastia said...

this reply to the essay covers some of my response.

"That essay is very good. I have long wished that we would collectively stop using the words “victim” and “survivor” as if they are antonyms, casting “victims” as weak and “survivors” as strong. Being a victim does not make me weak. It simply means other people chose to victimize me, and that says a hell of a lot about their worth as people, and nothing at all about mine. I also hate it when people tell me I am “strong” for surviving - while it sounds like a compliment, it’s a compliment that boxes me in and makes me feel like I’m somehow failing (and being a “victim”) when I don’t feel strong, when I’m not okay, when I’m crying on the floor because of a PTSD flashback or checking the locks for the thirty-fourth time in one day.

Sometimes I’m not strong - and that’s okay. I don’t owe it to anyone to be strong. I’m allowed to feel broken. I’m allowed to be a victim, because I am one, through no fault of my own. I’m allowed to be a survivor, too, because I am one, even when I feel like all I want to do is hide in bed and never come out again. And neither of those words are even close to describing everything I am or everything that defines me".

chrisschrossify said...

I remember being more or less the same kind of person I am now when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. The hard shit that comes after definitely leaves a mark (up until you restore balance) but I think all the circumstances of the first 2-3 years of a person's life add up to/determine what the person's given "logic" and thus general path is going to be. Or not. Still working on that theory.

samenhelen said...

I believe it's both nature and nurture:

Small acts of kindness, small examples of healthy behaviour can make a world of difference to those who endure(d) abuse.
Gavin de Becker wrote some pretty good stuff about that in The Gift of Fear.

Children try to escape abusive situations. When they can't do it physically, they'll do it in their heads. Escaping to real images of kind people or kind acts makes these images very powerful and special, perhaps more special then they were intended to be, but that doesn't matter.
As an adult we can choose our behaviour without it having these lifetreathening consequences. We can choose to be like the images we used to survive or we can choose to be dysfunctional in some way, like the ones who abused us.

I think internal wiring; someones personality and courage helps in making the right choices. Still it's not easy. Changing, going straight trough your fears and jumping in the unknown never is.
But as a victim of severe childhood abuse, I can say it's worth it.

tagrib2002 said...

Thank you for your books and blog Rory. When I read through the questions in the last paragraph closing this blog post, I thought of a book I read a while ago where you can find some answers. It is "Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI" by Robert Ressler.