Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Victimhood and Self-Destructive Behavior

"Taking responsibility for something and self-blame are horses of two entirely different colors. The former is empowering; the latter is paralyzing." ~ John Rosemond, Ph.D.

"You cannot see red flags while wearing rose-colored glasses" ~ Jim Woods, M.D.

Whenever I get into discussions online about people whose behavior is self destructive and which therefore exposes them to dangerous situations, the same old argument comes up again and again. It is sort of the inverse of the argument that comes up when I discuss parental misbehavior.  I am accused of “blaming the victim” or “bashing parents” as the case might be. 

Of course, there are an infinite number of situations in which people are victimized or during which other bad things happen to them, and they bear absolutely no responsibility of any sort for what happened to them. That goes without saying, but I guess I have to say it anyway. (Lets see how many readers totally ignore what I said in this paragraph).

But those are not the situations under discussion.

Alternately, I may be accused of “condemning” those whose behavior I am discussing, rather than just describing it and elucidating its consequences and origins.

I guess I am being critical in the sense that I don’t think self-destructive behavior or bad parenting practices are good things. Does anyone?  But even if I am being critical, that’s a long way from “condemnation.” In fact, 
I have a lot of empathy for the reasons why people behave in self-destructive ways. But it is actually very unempathic to pretend that their behavior is not self destructive. That would be a lie known even to them, and lying is not an empathic thing to do.

Part of the reason these sorts of issues come up is quite understandable. In many cases in which people have been victimized even though they have done nothing to put themselves in harms way, victimizers have a long and storied history of accusing their victims of somehow having invited the abuse they received, and blaming them for it. This is easily seen in the history of the legal defenses used by rapists, for example.  “She was wearing provocative clothing.”  “She was just playing hard to get and wanted it.” And way too many sexist juries bought into this bullcrap.

I absolutely agree that these kinds of accusations are heinous, lame excuses, and/or completely bogus. They are usually outright lies.

Again, not the issue that is the subject of this post.

There was the situation in the news not long ago where a high school girl got so drunk at a party that she completely passed out. The party was attended by fellow students from the football team. She was gang raped while she was unconscious.  Somehow, pointing out that perhaps she bore some responsibility for putting herself in harm’s way is suddenly translated into “You are excusing the rapist.”

No I’m not. Those are two completely different issues and they are being conflated. The two issues intersect, but they are two different issues nonetheless. Nobody is saying that the rapists should not go to jail and even burn in hell for eternity. But that hardly negates the fact that the victim’s behavior put her in harm’s way. 

It’s almost ironic that people who get upset about discussing the victim’s role in this situation often seem to think that a large percentage of men are pigs who think rape is OK. If that were indeed true, then passing out at a party would be a particularly dangerous thing to do.

If instead of being raped the girl had when she passed out fallen down and cracked her head open on a concrete floor, would we say that the only one bearing any responsibility for what happened was the floor? Sorry, but the argument that no one can talk about what the girl did because some rapist A-hole might be inspired to defend himself by trying to blame his victim is highly problematic. In fact, it’s stupid. If you want to talk about how to handle people that employ manipulate arguments, that's great, but it's another discussion entirely. 

I’m mincing words here. Someday I’ll tell you what I really think.

It’s also bad policy. If we want to help self-destructive adults take better care of themselves, absolving them of any and all personal responsibility for their fate is counterproductive. The first step in addressing a problem behavior like drinking until you pass out is admitting that it is, in fact, problem behavior.

Another highly important point: Taking responsibility for your own actions and acknowledging it is not the same thing as beating yourself up about it. As Dr. Rosemond points out in the quote at the beginning of the post, self-blame is indeed counterproductive. However, conflating that issue with the issue at hand is another argument based on emotion, and not on reason.

How about the issue of whether the girl might have no control over her drinking? People who think alcoholism is a disease may try to advance that point. Unfortunately, this gives the girl the message that she’s just a helpless, ineffectual human being with no intellect or self control. What a great, empowering message to give to someone. If you are helpless to do anything about this issue, why bother to even try to work on yourself?

A version of this whole argument also comes up regarding domestic abuse. If anyone brings up the issue of why someone (particularly a female, but there are also plenty of men who stay in abusive relationships) did not get out at the first moment an abusive pattern was becoming evident, they immediately get accused of blaming the victim. 

Likewise, when someone attempts to look into the psychology of the abusers and what makes them do such horrible things, they immediately get accused of "making excuses" for the abuser. Bull.

Recently there was an article about women whose boyfriends murdered their children. The murderers of course went to jail, but so did the women. They were charged with endangering their children and not protecting them by having made no effort to get out of an abusive relationship. The author of the article was naturally outraged that the mothers would be so "victimized."

The usual argument in this situation is that the abused spouse is afraid to leave because of threats of more abuse, and they or their family members might even get murdered. This argument of course makes the ridiculous assumption that the abuse is not going to escalate and that there is no risk of being killed if they stay. In the cases described in the article, the women did stay, and their children are now dead!

The women who make no effort to get out of a relationship in which they are continually beaten up are indeed afraid to leave because of something. However, that something is obviously not a fear of more beatings.

Another hidden assumption in public arguments is that the woman is so helpless and stupid that she cannot figure out a way to leave. Again, if that is true, why should she even bother to try to get out? Of course leaving is risky, and there are no guarantees that something really bad might not happen. Again, however, there actually IS a guarantee that bad things will continue to happen if they stay. 

Are these people saying that women are just too weak, helpless, and stupid to figure out a way to get out or to get help, especially now that help is far more readily available than it used to be? (And our past history in that regard is indeed a disgrace, so go ahead and pretend I didn't just say that if you must). Is that supposed to make them feel good about themselves? In fact, those things are just what abusers want their victims to think about themselves, so people who worry too much that women will feel "blamed" if someone points this out are in fact aiding and abetting the abusers!

Many women are quite able to successfully leave a bad relationship - but then they go back. And in therapy we see patients all the time who get out of one relationship with an abusive man, and then get involved with another, leave him, and then get involved with yet another one. What's the common denominator in those cases? Are we "blaming the victim" if we look at the woman's pattern of choosing abusive partners?

One other tantalizing clue. If you ask an abused or formerly abused partner why they stayed (at least those that come in contact with therapists), they are far more likely to answer, "Because I love him!" than "Because he threatened to kill me and my family if I left."

Another issue is that some percentage (of course not all by a long shot - I have to spell that out too, I guess) of abused partners are indeed verbally vicious and provocative with their abusive mates. Now, I can say in no uncertain terms that no one has the right to beat up anyone no matter how provocative they are. Again, no argument there, so bringing up this point is yet another diversionary tactic from addressing this point. (Let's again see how many readers seem to miss this last statement). But to pretend that some people do not compulsively poke a stick into a hornet’s nest is to live in Fantasyland.

In an exchange in the comments section in one of my posts on my Psychology Today blog, I mentioned that psychologically healthy women (and men as well - men abused by their wives and partners are not at all uncommon) get out of a budding relationship at the first sign that they are seeing a controlling and abusive partner. Earlier on, the risk that the person leaving might be stalked and killed, while not zero, is much lower than it becomes as the relationship progresses.

I was then drawn into an argument about whether or not people who do get involved with abusers do not realize that this is what they are dealing with until it’s too late.

I again think it’s extremely naive to think that people can’t see what to many people would be obvious. People who are self destructive are frequently “in denial” and lie to themselves all the time.  The old story of the wife insisting that a husband is not having an affair as she washes another woman’s lipstick off his shirt collars while doing the laundry comes to mind. Therefore, accepting someone’s initial description of how idyllic a relationship that later became abusive was at its beginning is probably not wise.

I discussed a frequent occurrence in the therapy of patients who had previously been in abusive relationships: a lot of time patients in therapy will say at first that there were no early signs that their ex-spouse might become abusive. Before long, however, it turns out there were more red flags right from the very beginning of the relationship than one might find at a rally of Chinese Communists, and the patients sheepishly admit that they chose to ignore them. Consciously.

The response I received: “Could this be because the therapist has browbeat them into admitting something that really isn't true--that they didn't know how to recognize them? They don't give out manuals to teenage girls on how to spot abusive guys before they ever go on their very first date.”

I replied: “I guess you'd have to ask my patients if they think I browbeat them, but unfortunately that's not possible. But I don't. And no interpretation is necessary when it's they themselves who are clearly admitting what they were doing and adding relevant details in a highly coherent fashion right on the spot." And I never even accuse them of contradicting themselves, let alone browbeat them. I use a well known and very gentle, non-confrontational psychotherapy technique that's very effective in getting people to open up. I'll describe it in an upcoming post.

Perhaps the patients were all little Dostoyevskys who are able to spin a complex fictional yarn at a moment’s notice that has no plot holes - just to tell a therapist what they think the therapist wants to hear? Without even knowing what the therapist wants to hear?


But of course, you cannot see red flags if you are wearing rose colored glasses, as Dr. Woods pointed out. The question of why some people are attracted to controlling and abusive partners is not answered by saying they are just too stupid to recognize abusive and controlling people. In fact, since they usually grew up with people like that in their families, they are probably better than the average person at recognizing them.

The answer as to “why” lies in the family dynamics discussed throughout this blog.

It is a very wise rule to not jump to any conclusions at all about the role of a victim or apparent perpetrator in any situation until the whole story comes out. And there is almost always far more to the story than you hear at first. The plot, shall we say, has a marked tendency to thicken.


  1. Great post, the truth almost always lies beyond a polarized zero sum game about who's to blame more.

    Looking forward to description of your technique for drawing people out.

  2. Preach it, Brother!

  3. We've come a long way, baby!

    Having said that, I'm going to cross-stitch that
    quote by Jim Woods MD into a throw cushion
    for my couch.

    With most of the free world sitting on their duffs working social media, the only exercise we/they/us
    get is leaping to conclusions.

    Had you heard of the case here in Australia
    about Rosemary Batty/Greg Anderson/Luke Batty?

    So many people jumping to conclusions, I think the poles are in danger of shifting.