Thomas Fiffer pinpoints 5 signs that a ‘victim-player’ is playing you and shares 5 traits of true survivors.
Well you are such an easy evil
Such a sensuous sin
Sometimes I don’t know where I’m going
‘Till I’ve been taken in
—Alan O’Day, Easy Evil
We’ve all heard their sad stories and been sucked into the tragedy and drama. They have an unfair boss. Or horrible parents. Or a back-stabbing best friend. Or an ex bent on their destruction. And sometimes—all of the above. They spin a sob story to profess their innocence, confirm their helplessness, and engage our sympathy. They never tell us what they did—their role in the saga—or what they are doing about it, other than nursing their wounds and plotting revenge, but focus instead on what’s been done to them and what they wish someone (that someone soon to be revealed as us) would do about it.
Let’s call these people victim players, or VPs for short. And let’s make an important distinction between real victims, people who have suffered hurt and abuse at the hands of others—particularly those they trusted—and VPs who, while they may have experienced real injury, devote the bulk of their energy to playing the role of the victim and reaping the rewards it affords instead of pursuing healing to become functional and whole.
Below are five red flags that will help you determine when a VP is playing you, along with five contrasting traits of true survivors.
1. Grandiose rewards for small acts. The VP’s strategy starts small, and that’s what hooks you. You’re asked to do a minor favor, something seemingly innocuous and inconsequential that causes you little trouble or expense. Perhaps it’s picking something up on your way home from work, doing some Internet research, or making a quick call. Often, there is something inappropriate about the request—such as calling in sick to the unfair boss on the VP’s behalf—but whatever it is, it won’t require much effort. Then comes the reward. A huge bunch of flowers. Theater tickets. An expensive bottle of wine. A gift utterly out of scale with your action that lets you know just how much it meant to the VP. Small investment, huge reward. Sweet deal, right? Well, bait isn’t called bait because it’s sour and unattractive. The next request will be a bit bigger, and the reward somewhat smaller, given humbly as all the VP can afford right now. Then come the IOUs, which the VP’s strapped circumstances will make you hesitate to cash in on. Your reward is now the relief of the VPs anxiety and the feel-good you get from helping someone “in need.” And the cycle is just beginning.
2. Hero worship. As you become the VP’s helper, your stature grows to heroic proportions. You are the knight in shining armor, the dragon-slayer, the indispensable one, and the one who can do no wrong—at least, until you refuse a request. Don’t be fooled by the VP’s false worry about how much stress he or she is causing you, how much he or she owes you, the sacrifices you’re starting to make in your own life, or statements that turbo-boost your ego and make you feel superhuman. The VP is playing out a well-rehearsed dysfunctional pattern, and while you’re being put on a pedestal now, you’re being set up for a big fall.
3. Progressive transfer of responsibilities. Pretty soon, you’re doing things for the VP that he or she is perfectly capable of handling—and frankly should be—and you may start to feel used. There’s always a reason, an excuse, a mitigating factor that prevents the VP from, say, picking up kids from school or camp, shopping for groceries (you shop, you pay), dealing with family issues or finances, even co-parenting with an ex. Eventually, all these tasks and more begin to fall on your capable shoulders. It’s one thing to be helpful to someone. It’s another entirely to enable them. The VP has chosen you carefully because you fail to make this distinction. Your involvement deepens to the point that removing yourself—which at times you consider—would devastate the VP, leaving him or her to fend for herself in a cruel world filled with uncaring friends and vicious enemies. The hook was barbed, and now you’re stuck, because pulling it out will cause you pain—the pain of abandoning a person who depends on you—along with hurting the VP, who, you conveniently forget, got along just fine before you came along.
4. Use of guilt, bullying, and emotional blackmail to gain compliance. By now, your own life is in turmoil. You’re having to make uncomfortable tradeoffs, to choose between serving your master and attending to your needs, which seem to pale in comparison to the VPs. Your parents want you to come for dinner, but the VP is having a crisis. Your child needs help with homework, but the VP has to unload the horrors of the day. Your friends want to get together over the weekend, but you’ve got an errand list a mile long. And forget about taking a walk or going to the gym. You actually feel selfish when you think of yourself, and the VP magnifies this by minimizing your needs and accusing you of selfishness. “How can you think of seeing your parents at a time like this?” “Homework is not a crisis.” “Are your friends more important than painting my porch?” “All you ever do is go to the gym. What about me?” You may hear shades of narcissism in these statements, and many VPs display narcissistic tendencies. If you insist on your own agenda and refuse to do the VPs bidding, you will be badgered unendingly and threatened—either by the prospect of the VP’s life collapsing without you and this demise being your fault, or with horribly unpleasant consequences. Chances are the VP has gotten you to reveal a few secrets and vulnerabilities, and these can and will be used against you to keep you in the game. Compromising your position at work, lying about you to friends and family, or flaming you on social media are typical threats the VP uses with great success, and it is your own fear of acknowledging being stuck and calling out the VP for what he or she is that keeps you a prisoner.
5. Character assassination. This is the death blow that ensures your enslavement. At first, you were a hero. Now, you are no better than all the rest, in fact, worse than all the rest, a selfish, uncaring, ungrateful asshole, a pathetic excuse for a human being, a dick, a pussy, a bitch, a c**t. If you were up on cloud nine before, you’ve now descended to the deepest pit of hell. You thought you were a good person, but a good person doesn’t hurt a poor victim who’s been badly hurt before, trampled to near death, and who trusted that good person and asked for assistance. Now the VP has you by the short hairs, because your need to be good outweighs your need to be sensible. Seeing yourself as bad, as a wounder or abandoner, no different from the ones you and the VP commiserated about, proves too much for your psyche. You implode, and the carefully built walls of your life, which the VP so skillfully encouraged you to erode, collapse in on you and bury you under the rubble. Without help, there is no escape.
In contrast to the five red flags that reveal a VP, the five traits below are common to true survivors, people who have been through tragedy and determined not to let it define them.
1. Resilience. Survivors are fighters. They overcome things, and they are proud of their accomplishments. They don’t get upset over small stuff and don’t manufacture crises. They’re already part of a supportive community, and they get appropriate help if and when they need it. A survivor doesn’t need to enslave a pawn, as he or she himself may have been similarly trapped. The very thought is distasteful.
2. Genuine concern for your welfare. If a survivor asks you for a favor—small or large—your own needs will be considered, and there will be an option to refuse with no guilt. A survivor does not try to overstep your boundaries and fully expects you to maintain them.
3. Progressive self-reliance. A survivor has determined to leave being a victim behind. A survivor may need a lot of help walking in the beginning, but each step is a step towards greater independence. The last thing he or she wants is to dwell on the past (though it remains haunting) and to depend on another person for emotional or financial security.
4. Appropriate appreciation. A survivor says thank you in a way that’s commensurate with your contribution. You will feel gratified, not overwhelmed.
5. Engaging you in their healing process. This is the ultimate sign of friendship. A survivor considers you truly helpful and a blessing not if you enable dysfunction and dependence but if you participate as a partner on the journey of healing.
Photo—Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr