Victimhood, pain, and politics

Below is some writing I shared on my personal FB page in the days following the outbreak of protests in response to the killing of George Floyd.

At the time, like many of us, I was unfamiliar with the social justice movement or its ideology. I had, in fact, been living under a rock for years, secluded from all kinds of news and political events, focusing entirely on my own inner work.

So, when I first heard about the movement and its purported aims, it seemed like a real emergence of pain, with a sincere intention to rectify that pain, from a therapeutic philosophical perspective. It looked like a tragic national outcry, and a real opportunity for healing and growth. In those initial days, I felt angry at our spiritual institutions for failing to grasp the depth of public pain, failing to respond to it adequately, and missing the mark on the moral leadership through that pain. (Prefering of course, as they always do, to gloss over the hard stuff.).

Then I got to reading more and more of the ideological material of the movement, and I got to know it and understand it on a deeper level. It turns out that I mistook the movement’s clever rhetoric for the good faith cries of people in pain.

It took some time, and learning, and interactions with activists, to recognize the bad faith, the falsehoods wrapped in the appearance of wisdom, the immature petty hatreds and contempt, the regressive emotionally unintelligent thinking, and the deeply pretextual nature of any stated desire for any kind of healing or reconciliation, or even for actual justice itself.

The emerging ideology doesn’t care about truth, or growth, or actual resolution of any real problems. And if you’ve read anything I’ve written here so far, you know that I care deeply about those things (even when truth is completely paradoxical and contradictory). I also care about actual healing. I also care about real pain, and courage, and justice, and morality. And I am very much opposed to hatred, bullying, false cries of victimhood, dishonesty, interpersonal domination, abdications of personal responsibility, and destruction for its own anarchistic sake.

I’m going to share what I wrote initially anyway. I wrote it from a sincere place of compassion and understanding for real victims of injustice, and some wisdom and depth for the bystanders. Perhaps those people who are really suffering and are seeking to heal, and those who are adjacent to the suffering and seeking to help, might benefit from some of the discussion below.

_________________________________

I spent the last few days reading one carefully edited prepared statement after another, from our mainstream spiritual leaders and organizations, parroting the same nonsensical robotic language, paying lip-service to a problem they continue refusing to actually address, because no one wants to talk about real pain.

I am deeply deeply disappointed by the emotional and spiritual ignorance, stupidity, tone-deafness, platitudes and bypassing of all the difficult and painful stuff spirituality is meant to help us navigate. Statement after statement from people who claim to work with authenticity and truth, who wear the mantle of spiritual leadership (the steering of souls through human experiences of suffering), and not one real heartfelt word from any of them. It’s very upsetting.

(This is a good time to make the following note – if your spirituality does not have extensive doctrines or methods or teachings for dealing with the darkness of real pain, if it glosses over and avoids pain, if it whips out lofty ideas in response to real pain, if it seeks to quickly fix or dispense with victimhood and the messy ugly stuff of life, you are not dealing with an authentic spiritual tradition. Please beware and find a more authentic practice connected with the human experience.).

The same ol’ rhetoric of false unity and pleasant sounding abstract spiritual ideas aren’t going to cut it anymore. Victims do not want to be united to evil perpetrators in some phony peace-keeping way. It’s time to have some grown up conversations. And the field of professional spirituality, if it intends to remain relevant, will have to do a much better job of real wisdom guidance on matters of real life suffering.

“Vibrating higher,” or “meditation as a path to color-blindness,” or “remembering our oneness,” or discarding the “delusion of separation,” or “remembering that we are all God’s children,” or proclaiming phony love, or prayers, or identifying with our “spiritual radiant immortal unaffected” essence while discarding our human experience is not going to get us through this problem!

These things hurt real victims of pain and pummel souls already in torment. Only actual truth and real awareness work will get all of us through this. It is time to grow up, and it is time to have difficult real conversations, not crappy pain avoiding double-speak, masking ignorance, discomfort, and apathy.

We cannot merely read the stories of pain and injustice, and grow from them in any way, or empathically support our fellow humans in any helpful way, if our insides are not compassionately receptive or open to hearing stories of pain. Spoiler alert – they are not!!

And because we are not actually able to internalize or maturely handle the pain of others, all we can offer are objectifying mechanical responses, completely devoid of empathy and real solidarity, which hurt and isolate victims more than their original trauma.

So instead of sitting and criticizing and telling you what’s wrong with all the old approaches, buckle up, because I’m taking you on a little ride into the depths of consciousness.

I want to address some of the internal dynamics that are important to bring to awareness as we watch what’s happening around us, and feel a whole bunch of stuff in response.

What I’m going to say has to do with victimhood, and our own relationship to pain, but it’s a bit complicated, so bear with me. I am painting a contrasting picture, with very broad strokes, just to give you an initial sense of which way to go. This is a lens, not the only one. This is a fertile area of exploration, not the only one. There are plenty of other avenues to explore, but I offer this as a starting place for real work.

I offer this description of the dynamics for intellectual understanding and navigation, but the real stuff, the real transformative change, is in each person’s own self-discovery work and practice. Take this in, if it’s helpful, but still do your own exploratory work. Find your versions of this inside yourselves, so that you can begin healing it.

Part I – The healing of pain

I posted yesterday, and many times before, the general proposition that victimhood is something that needs to be healed. There is no question about that. Wisdom always ferociously demands that all kinds of pain be healed and worked through fully and properly, because unprocessed pain leads to tremendous suffering and unjust results for everyone. Forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness, even when you feel it’s unforgiveable and the injustice persists. I’m talking here about the real dirty work of it, real trauma healing, and not the phony forced versions.

This truth, this demand for healing, is generally felt as unfair by victims; they don’t want to forgive that which is unforgiveable, and they are right to feel this way for many reasons. Not only do victims have to endure the pain and injustice, but they must then also bear the responsibility of healing, all while the perpetrator typically gets off scot-free and none of the injustice changes. It’s tremendously unfair, always. But that’s how it works. That’s the ugly truth of it. That is the nature of human suffering and the relationship with evil. Victims must heal their pain, evil rarely if ever apologizes or acknowledges wrong-doing, and justice (even when it is possible) does very little to mollify pain on its own.

This seemingly unbalanced burden of forgiveness is repeated in every single spiritual tradition there is. There is a reason for it. It is part of what being human means, and suffering and healing are the path of spiritual growth for the soul. Blessed are those who suffer, who are persecuted, who are the victims of injustice. That is the way their souls have chosen to grow in this lifetime, by learning the lessons of pain, suffering, and injustice, and Spirit demands that they take responsibility for healing and processing their pain.

Part II – Bearing Witness to Pain

But it is not enough to tell victims to heal and leave it at that. We all have a much larger individual responsibility (beyond repairing and reforming the external structures). We must do the inner work of repairing our own internal structures, and taking responsibility for our emotional and psychological selves too. If we are all going to grow from these experiences and do better, we must learn what it means to support our fellow humans when they are in pain. That’s generally called bearing witness to pain or being present with pain.

To do this, we actually must allow the pain of others to affect us and transform us. It is hard, but that’s part of the bystander’s soul work and lessons to learn. The victim is not alone in her healing burden. All those around her must also do their own work and show up to support her correctly. This is often where we run into problems. Most people like to think of themselves as good listeners or compassionate supporters, but they aren’t. They are just unaware of how poorly they handle other people’s pain.

Being a “good” caring person does not automatically make you good at being present with pain. It is actually quite challenging and requires a significant amount of inner work to be able to do it properly and effectively, without adding your emotional stuff to the victim’s burden.

These are more subtle unconscious currents within us that require awareness. These currents inform a lot of our behavior, and how we handle and respond to victims. These same currents also stand in the way, blocking those who work for justice generally, which always involves dealing with legitimate victimhood. These currents create divisions and separations between us; they push us apart and away from one another, which prevents us from loving, connecting, engaging, feeling compassion for real victims, and standing together on the right side of morality, which always fights for justice.

Part 3 – Extreme Victimhood and its consequences

Now, I’m going to go to one extreme of the victimhood problem for a moment, which will be unpleasant but important to understand. Victimhood-as-a-persistent-identity, victims who completely refuse to heal and refuse to process their pain, perpetrate their own kind of evil. Wisdom does not support that, and Spirit is always unsentimentally harsh with those who claim this position.

Victimhood is part of the ego’s identity and is very often used as a weapon – a tool of emotional control and manipulation – wielded by narcissistic bullies and other types of personality disorders. It is used as a justification for all sorts of things like domination and tyranny, interpersonal power grabs, abdication of responsibility, and refusal to admit mistakes, grow, or change. Sometimes victimhood is used to punish and silence, it is used to guilt and oppress, it is used to monopolize and win, it is used to compete, destabilize, and recast reality, very often hurting the real victims in the exchange.

Take the example of Trump here, and his endless claims of being a victim of unfair this or unfair that, while at the same time sadistically bullying and trying to dominate and exploit everyone he encounters. You see it rather clearly in his case. Victimhood is a running theme, a common psychological tactic, used by narcissists like him, to position themselves above others for exploitation and personal gain.

Victimhood is tied internally to specialness and superiority, and ultimate victimhood confers a false moral high-ground, ground upon which gradiosity is built. Trump’s claims of victimhood inoculate him from any sort of criticism or personal responsibility. Under his victimhood umbrella, he gets to do and say whatever he wants – lie, cheat, scheme, and get away with everything. Narcissistic victimhood always mischaracterizes what’s really going on, and invalidates actual truth and the real victims. You can see for yourself how dangerous and psychologically damaging it can be to all those around him.

And so anyone who has a narcissist in their lives (all of us, whether you know it or not), intuitively, through lots of experiences, comes to understand that not all claims of victimhood are real. They are sometimes the concocted fraudulent mental state of nefarious people, who masterfully use that position to guilt, blame, and demand all kinds of things on emotionally manipulative grounds, without ever having to take any personal responsibility.

This jaded and critical (some would say mature and experienced) relationship to victimhood develops quite naturally and unconsciously – we develop a kind of aversion to it, a kind of visceral rejection of victimhood wholesale, because having been trapped and fooled by it in the past, we fear the trap of the manipulator again. Anytime someone comes along with this victimhood identity, we roll our eyes and tune them out. Some people who are more naive, who haven’t been burned in the past, will placate, pity, coddle and sympathize with the narcissist’s victimhood, but those of us who have been to the rodeo before reject it immediately and without much conscious awareness of why.

This creates a very categorical approach to the victimhood of others, and while it does filter out all the phony manipulative victims, more or less, it doesn’t allow in any of the real ones. This is a form of armoring or self-protection, but in reality it is an overly numb and cynical position that doesn’t allow for real compassion to emerge when necessary. The heart and love become blocked off from real connection and authentic relating, and we can’t show up correctly for real victims who need our emotional support. It is as though our minds have made a mental formula: victim = manipulative liar, and we can’t then tell the difference when confronted by a real victim who deserves our help and support. We cannot feel real compassion when the circumstances morally require us to do so.

You see the problem here, I hope.

Part 4 – Denial of Victimhood and its consequences

Now, I’m going to go to the other extreme and will tell you about the complete denial of victimhood and what happens there. If you yourself have been a victim of narcissistic abuse, if you grew up with one of these people at home, then your own victimhood was always severely denied, negated, and dishonored, by the narcissist and his/her enablers, but worse yet, by you yourself.

Narcissistic parents or caregivers don’t ever allow the child to be a victim – to feel hurt, or express that hurt, or have that hurt repaired. Parental feelings and needs always overshadow the child’s, giving the parent a monopoly over suffering (they always have it worse), while at the same time immunity from any kind of responsibility (whatever happens, it’s never their fault).

The child learns never to talk about their hurt feelings, never to acknowledge them, and to always blame herself for having any kind of hurt feelings in the first place. She begins to hate her own feelings and her own pain, because that’s the psychologically safest thing to do in the vicinity of a narcissist. This is a form of self-abandonment and denial of the authentic self. We all experience this to various degrees, it’s just much more severe in the context of a narcissistic parent.

As children in narcissistic homes, we learn very quickly to deny our needs, our feelings, and especially the places we’ve been hurt by others. We deny our own victimhood, but even more than that, we learn to hate it. Our victimhood, our expression of pain and request for justice, for an acknowledgement and an apology, for a change in future behavior, represents a monumental threat to our narcissistic parent. Narcissists never ever react well when confronted with harm they’ve caused. Look at how Trump is reacting to people who are in pain – domination and punishment. That’s what narcissists always do.

So to express victimhood, to express pain, as a powerless child, would only induce more punishment and harm. But as feeling caring children who love their parents without question, it’s even more complicated than that. Expressing our victimhood would have caused our beloved parent pain, emotional turmoil, shame, and exposed us to their vicious retaliation. That creates both guilt and fear in us as children, fostering an internal emotional connection and loop between victimhood and extremely complicated negative unpleasant feelings. (Guilt and terror do not feel good in the body! Especially not for little children who are often isolated from the emotional support of wise adults.).

Therefore, taking psychological solidarity with our narcissistic parent against ourselves, (because that’s safest), we would come to hate the entire sphere of our feelings, pain, complaints, etc. We would learn to just get over everything, to accept the shittiness of the world as it is, and never try to do anything about it. We would have learned that fighting for something better, protesting or demanding change, goes absolutely nowhere with a narcissist. Protesting of any kind exposes you to further harm. So, the internal message is don’t even bother trying; just shut up and take it. The greater your capacity to tolerate abuse, the better person you are.

The enablers in the family would have reinforced this silence and denial of victimhood, pleading with you not to ever rock the boat. Themselves unable to control the narcissist’s destructiveness, their only way to keep the peace was to silence the victims. Children of narcissists learn that making any kinds of claims of victimhood, ever opening our mouths to say that we’ve been hurt, threatens the entire fabric of the family relationship, and usually ends with them attacking and destroying us further.

Adult victims of narcissistic abuse who claim their victimhood go through horrible treacherous family stuff as a result. As they begin their real healing journeys, they are routinely denied, disowned, scapegoated, and booted from the family for speaking their truths. All of this means that we have learned over and over to never ever allow ourselves to be the victim, even when we actually are.

We are never sure of our victimhood, of our feelings, or of our right to speak up about them. Our minds become programmed against allowing any of those feelings. And we become prideful about that. Many people have this very strong aversion to victimhood of any kind, most importantly their own, and they proudly proclaim that they are never victims, and they derive a sense of strength from that position.

But it also means that no one else around them is allowed to be a victim either…

You’re beginning to see the problem here too, I hope.

It takes a lot of work and therapy and healing to begin honoring our own victimhood, and even coming around to the idea that we’re allowed to be a victim, and that that is a morally right and safe position to occupy.

Narcissists try to gaslight you out of this position all the time!

Naturally, if you haven’t done any of this psychological heavy lifting, when you see others claiming their victimhood loudly, refusing to just get over it, and demanding change, it makes you react negatively to them. Your own negative association with victimhood becomes activated. You then want to give them the same instructions you give your own feelings – stop complaining, get over it, deal with it, nothing is going to change or get better, stop being so entitled about it, that’s the reality of life.

That then also pushes up all kinds of immediate criticisms directed at the victims, solidifying your rejection of them, instead of rejecting the evil they are protesting.

Sound familiar?

Do you get how this works out, and why victims then feel even more hurt, angry, and abandoned?

Part 5 – Conclusion

All of these inner experiences, wherever you happen to be between the extremes, unconsciously informs how we deal with the victimhood of others. We don’t have a conscious choice about it; our wounds, our unprocessed stuff, pushes up these mental attitudes and informs how we feel, and how we relate to others, and even how we vote. (Our politics are very much an expression of this very psychological landscape.).

And so we might know intellectually on a conscious-values level that it’s right to stand with victims, yet our feelings prevent us from doing that authentically, even if we wear a fake mask of solidarity.

We are being asked now to look closely at our unconscious material which keeps systemic racism and injustice in place. Use this time and crisis wisely. Take this opportunity to look honestly at what is actually arising within you in response to people vocally claiming their victimhood. Look at how your real feelings respond to that, despite how you behave socially.

As you do this work, get really still in order to hear what is actually arising within you in response to the protests. If you feel instantly critical about how the protests are being conducted, if you feel instantly distrustful of the voices that are complaining, if you feel a strong internal resistance about what’s happening, unable to offer your authentic love and compassion, (or forcing it, against how you really feel), I urge you to investigate some of the threads I’ve mentioned here.

It’s our own lack of awareness and healing that prevents solidarity with others. Most often, the unconscious material that informs our responses has nothing to do with skin color or race of the victim (it is an equal opportunity rejector), and instead has everything to do with our own pain, our own methods of dealing with life, and especially our relationship to victimhood. By doing this difficult work, we all have the opportunity to unblock our own hearts, allowing us to feel real authentic love, and with that, tenderness and compassion for all kinds of other people who are legitimately in pain. Then we can read the stories and hear the voices of victims and really show up authentically and correctly for them.