Monday, November 16, 2009

Playing the Victim

Overheard at a Risking Connection® training: "Well, you know Jeff. He just likes to play the victim."

What is wrong with talking this way?
How do we understand this behavior?
What can we do about it?

What is wrong with talking this way? Why did I cringe when I heard it? It is because of the blaming quality- the statement that Jeff likes to play the victim, as though it is a deliberate choice he makes every day among the many delightful possibilities open to him. Although minor in itself, it leads to an annoyance with the boy, a frustration that he doesn’t see how much better his life would be if he would just stop this.

How do we understand this behavior? When asked to describe Jeff further, the staff member said that he constantly uses his past abuse as an excuse for not trying or for failing. He also picks on other kids (instigates, to use a residential favorite word) and then blames them for whatever fight begins. So why would a kid do that? It is because he sees absolutely no possibility of success through competence. In other words, he has no confidence at all that he could succeed on the basis of his talents and natural skills. He has had no experience of being loved or appreciated for who he is. All the goodies of life and of relationships have come to him in the context of his problems, of reparations for his abuse, of sympathy for being picked on. That is the only way he knows to engage others.

So, what can we do about it? The road to change is through helping Jeff experience other types of competence and success. And this will be difficult, as he will be afraid to try things and will quickly revert to his old standby methods that have worked so well. But with patience staff can support him into positive experiences, achievements, maybe even triumphs. These must include positive interactions with peers, fun, play, every day social back and forth. He doesn’t know how to do this, staff must teach and model. It will take many repetitions for Jeff to believe that people like him for other reasons than his problems.

When Jeff experiences the possibility of competence and fun, we will notice that he "likes" to play the victim much less.

1 comment:

Steve Brown said...

This scenario also raises the question of why we as treaters often react so strongly to children who "play the victim." I think there are a couple reasons. One is that it helps us to deal with our helplessness when someone doesn't seem to want to help him or herself. When saying they just "play the victim" and putting responsibility solely in their camp, it takes the responsibility off of us to figure out why. Thus, we don't feel so helpless.

Also, children who have learned through experience to use their "victim-ness" do so because it can be extremely powerful. This is usually not a conscious process but just something the child has learned over time. A supervisor once told me "in every masochist is a sadist." There is a tremendous amount of anger and rage in this expression of "victim-ness." Because of this, annoyance, irritation, and anger often get evoked in us. We then place blame back on them to ward off our own anger. Relating in this way can be a very powerful way of the child getting another to give in to his or her demands, to meet their immediate needs. Have you ever had a child say, "you can't do this to me, you're torturing me, it's not fair, how can you do this..." We often feel very guilty about what we've done, a limit we've set, and feel pulled to reverse our actions, yet also angry at our feelings being "played with" or "manipulated." Blaming the victim can be a way of us acting out that anger.