Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Victims Inherently Narcissistic?

The question this posts asks leaves me a bit queasy.  Is it possible that victimhood and narcissism are related?  The victim advocate in me riles at the suggestion and yet the victim in me sees it as a distinct possibility, particularly if one becomes stuck in victimhood.  The perspective of a victim is necessarily self-centered, and there is absolutely no shame or judgment that is appropriate for that self-centeredness.  An individual who has suffered relational trauma through betrayal, abandonment or rejection is certainly and rightfully a victim.  And as a victim, she deserves the time and space to process what happened to her.  Indeed most individuals who have experienced relational trauma probably have a long history of not being self-centered enough.

But I'm wondering if it is possible for legitimate victimhood to become chronic and to move the impacted individual into more of a narcissistic state?  When I first began attending S-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and family members of a sexually addicted individual, I was initially repulsed by the idea that I could bear any responsibility in the relational trauma I had just experienced.  And I still believe that the language in some of the conference-approved literature needs to be updated to reflect the partner's experience through a trauma lens rather than that of co-addiction.  But as I am processing through the steps, I am beginning to believe that the hinge that can swing an individual from that of "narcissistic" victimhood to a fully functioning, healthy adult is step four.  Steps one through three facilitate an understanding of our own powerlessness and inability to manage our lives.  But by requiring a heroic and daring moral inventory, step four offers us a way out of that helplessness and powerlessness.  It is the key to moving from being a helpless victim to empowering ourselves for change.

Most people approach step four with reluctance and with fear.  This is particularly true for individuals who come from very legalistic religious backgrounds.  We have spent so much time thinking of ourselves as worms because of poor theology that we are frankly tired of that perspective.  And the traumatic relationships we have experienced have been rife with projected blame and carried shame.  We're tired of being the "responsible" one.  We become paralyzed by the idea that we must now analyze our own part of the equation.

Let me just pause and state for the record, that I do not believe the partner bears any responsibility in the addiction of her spouse--she didn't cause it, she certainly cannot control it or cure it  But she has vulnerabilities from wounds received in her home of origin, culturally or from other victimizing relationships.  These vulnerabilities were exploited, either knowingly or unknowingly by her addict.  This is the core issue that step four addresses--identifying and understanding those vulnerabilities.

Step four is intended to be a compassionate and empathic look at self--at strengths as well as character defects.  It is not an either/or evaluation but a both/and look at ourselves.  Character traits that are now "defects" began as a means of protection or as the Big Book calls them, "Assets gone astray."  As children, we adopted learned behaviors as a defense against a hostile and toxic environment.  Maybe we became a caretaker as a means of obtaining needed affirmation or attention from our parents  For a while, the role of caretaker worked--it provided us with significance.  But as an adult, caretaking becomes more of a liability than an asset because it makes us more prone to becoming involved with an addict.  We tend to view defense mechanisms in a negative light, however, they once were protective actions essential for our emotional survival.  We have just outgrown our need for them so step four invites us to discard those "defects/traits" that are no longer useful.

You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge and understand.  I have found that identifying character traits that have become problematic for me as an adult and seeking to understand why I needed them as a child makes it far easier to lay them down.  The "inventory" is not so much a listing of the "whats" as it is answering the "whys."  Another list of faults or defects is not that helpful, particularly for a survivor of a relational trauma.  But understanding why I have behaved in the way that I have and why these "defects" developed is far more enlightening and leads to a deeper healing.

Step four asks us to stop denying our pain and to cease from blaming and accusing others for it.  Note, that it does not absolve others but simply changes the focus from their bad behavior to our coping behavior.  Step four requires that we become willing to face our true self and to put aside the false self that has protected and defended us.  Step four demands that we become willing to make amends to others we have hurt, including ourselves.

The hallmark of a narcissistic individual is is the inability to feel empathy for another.  Step four encourages us to move into an empathic response towards our own wounded and broken self and to others we have wounded in our pain.  Step four offers the wounded victim a gentle way out of victimhood into healing and wholeness.  Hurt people hurt people so the choice we have after victimization is to allow the pain to transform us or we will inevitably transmit it to others, including ourselves.

A victim is powerless over the events that created her victimhood.  She feels vulnerable, needy, frightened and
very much alone.  Relational trauma rends the very fabric of her soul.  By gently and courageously working step four, the pain of trauma and victimhood can be transformed.  Where there was powerlessness over circumstances and even over self, a new independence of spirit that is empowered for change emerges.  Where there was low self-esteem and the incredible weight of shame, a healthy evaluation of strengths vulnerabilities is born.  And what once felt like an impossible task--making amends and moving forward from victimhood becomes an exciting and rewarding possibility.

I'm not ready to call those stuck in victimhood narcissistic because that would be adding more pain to incredibly wounded individuals.  But I am willing to admit that the pain of my victimhood generated what has become an unhealthy narcissistic bent in me.  So I'm pushing forward ever more eagerly with step four.

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