Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Victimoid Cruelty

Originally posted on February 10, 2011

I coined this term to describe a type of subclinical emotional abuse that arises not from the cruel person’s feeling of power, but rather a kind of grumpy defiance. I also think that for every situation in a marriage or family where there’s recognizable emotional abuse—not to speak of the other kinds of physical or sexual abuse—there may be twenty or a hundred of examples of victimoid cruelty as “sub-clinical” but nonetheless hurtful dynamics.

The “perpetrator” is a well-meaning person (s/he thinks) who works hard (probably does), but has limited insight or any inclination to introspection. This person experiences him- or herself (I’ll just use the masculine pronoun from now on for convenience’s sake) not as mean so much as rightfully put-upon by uncaring incompetence at all levels, from the “gummint” (i.e., government -—which may include the local tax collectors and regional regulations as well as national laws) to co-workers, superiors, subordinates, and especially family. All are sources of the sense of betrayal—people who it seems offered an implicit promise of being helpful or competent and who have faulted grievously on this promise. Obviously they just don’t care enough, or so it seems. Resentment, rants, blaming, all seem like plausible responses, and even these reactions don’t respond adequately to the perceived enormity of the fault. At times it escalates to “they should be taken out and shot at dawn—without breakfast!”

It’s amusing if it weren’t so toxic to those around, being dragged into that storm, having to hear how “they” shouldn’t do this, or “they” should fix that. Alas the loved ones find that they too are not infrequently transformed into displacement targets: “And you’re no better!” When people who do victimoid cruelty are looking to find some comfort in their paranoia and the offender is too far away or too un-identifiable, well, they look around: Their so-called “loved ones” can be found to be not living up to what it seems proper to expect of them!

As a psychiatrist who has done family therapy, it was not atypical for me to hear a parent if not saying explicitly, then expressing attitudes like these: “I’m only here ‘cause this kid is messing up our life. There’s nothing wrong with me or my wife.” Or, once they become more comfortable and are talking about their lives, this kind of thing: “I can’t believe people are so dumb! How can they have the nerve to seek public office? And (turning to a spouse), you, I’ve told you! But you still won’t listen! If you cared you’d understand! I’m not dumb! I’m surrounded by dummies! Considering the enormity of their stupidity, I feel entitled to feel betrayed, angry, to rant and rave! There’s nothing wrong with me, because I can see clearly! (At least it seems to me that it makes sense!) Why do they resent me? I try hard to make a good life for them! They’re ungrateful and worthy of blame. You won’t believe how hard I try not to be as angry and mean as I feel.”

As I said, the term “emotional abuse,” suggests that the abuser is feeling powerful, enjoying the cruelty, like a spoiled mean little kid tearing the wings off of flies. Alas, there are some who really do that, but my point is that far, far more common is the cruelty that emerges from people who are struggling against what they feel are overwhelming stresses. These stresses are the modern counterpart to what what  Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet , says in his famous soliloquy—you know, the one that begins with “To be, or not to be, that is the question.”  A bit later, he lists his stresses:  “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? (i.e., when he could just stab himself with a knife). Might we translate that list into modern frustrations with government regulations, policies, taxes, inflation, loss of retirement funds, scams, etc.?

We’re talking about seriously counting one’s burdens, not blessings. A comparable list of modern equivalent stresses are prevalent and these support anyone in their feeling justified in being grumpy about their victimhood. Much of the Tea Party rage comes from this “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”

Let’s be honest that they are somewhat justified. That is to say, there is a lot of mediocrity, incompetence, and limited consciousness around. Indeed, the human species as a whole is at most 14% evolved in their consciousness from the caveman days—and for a lot of folks, a lot less. (My friend Zordak from another planet—as I playfully use this thematic device—notes that many species are much farther along, consciousness-wise.)  So it’s easy for dumb people to experience other people as dumb (projection) for, say, not understanding them when the victimized martyr is (he thinks) being perfectly clear, if the other person would just try and understand, just listen, for goodness sakes. The idea that the speaker is by no means clear is inconceivable. He thinks-feels, “I know what I’m trying to say.”

However, what’s missing is the awareness that perfectly smart, caring people can engage in misunderstanding communications! It happens all the time. It recently happened to me (as I note in another recent blog). Often I myself (with a lot of education and introspection and sensitivity to interpersonal dynamics, etc.) don’t know half clearly enough what I’m trying to say. In people who do victimoid cruelty, they feel they do know what they sort of mean and are infuriated that the other people involved don’t get the message clearly. Such people may lace their positive intentions with curses and defensive posturings so that any outsider watching this conversation would think the speaker hostile. And if this were pointed out, it would be met with incredulity: “What, me?!? After all I do for these ungrateful others (wife, family, co-worker, supervisors, etc.)” It would just end up being more fuel for the fire inside. It would be too shaming to be compatible with the threads of self-esteem needed to stay in the game.

So consider the complex of those inclined to feel victimized even as they are cruel to others. Sometimes this is not overtly cruelty, either. Many are just grouchy, or cold, acting hurt and reproachful, as if the other person hasn’t done enough. There are lots of variations. If you know one of these folks, you feel bad that you haven’t done enough to make them feel better. They are able to subtly communicate that it is they who are the victims, they are the one who are hurt because they feel betrayed! Never mind that it might seem to the outside to be the behavior of a petty tyrant; from the perpetrator’s view he’s just trying to even up the game. (As I said, please don’t take this to be only referring to men; there are many women caught up in this sour pattern, too.)

This pattern also explains to some extent why many people wouldn’t think of asking anyone for therapeutic help: There’s nothing wrong with them: The problem is how to make the others—the less powerful family members, usually—live up to their expectations. (They can’t understand why some kids rebel in their homes.) It also explains a fair amount of the resistance of some family members and even the primary patient in therapy: They don’t want to change their deeper attitudes—those are okay—they just want help in getting relief from the pain (usually anxiety, depression, or a bit of both) of the consequences of the (to them) entirely natural and justified behavior that goes with those attitudes. Their spouses leave them, their kids rebel, they can’t understand why—after all they’ve done—they imagine that it is they who are the victims.

What to do? Teach psychological literacy, and one key principle is to be curious about how you yourself might be mistaken. This is called intellectual humility. It can only be learned in a school system that doesn’t depend on fear and shame as a motivator. In the present system, kids become allergic to shame and develop a hard and somewhat brittle shell of false pride, which feeds the aforementioned system. Really, it’s far more complex and there’s no simple answer; but it starts with the idea of humility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *