How to Escape the Victim Trap

Victims are stalked by bad experiences, unaware of the trap they are in where a button is stuck on ‘repeat’.

‘Bad’ experiences can help us develop wisdom and internal wealth. They can also set us on a life path that is more meaningful and fulfilling. Yet victims turn ‘bad’ experiences into a stalker who follows them in the shadows at night. Running from such a stalker quickens its step, creating a life constricted by fear.

To free yourself from this life-sucking trap, first understand how you fell into it. Sometimes it is not obvious. There are many ways of becoming a victim besides experiencing the terror of rape, physical assault, or child abuse. You may be a victim of bullying, jealousy, emotional abuse, or your inability to say “no” to other people’s needs and always putting them first – not only at a cost to you in time and energy, but emotionally or financially as well.

Less difficult to see is how you might be a victim of your own bad choices or early family programming. This would include for example, the roles a family consciously and unconsciously assign each family member. Some of the most damaging roles are being the family scapegoat, the person responsible for making their parents ‘happy’, the ‘fixer’, the surrogate spouse, or becoming the ‘parent’ to a parent.

Several years ago I learned, in quite a dramatic way, what I needed to do with the ‘stalkers’ who haunted my life. On a shortcut through a car park on my walk home from a lake, I heard a dog barking from a nearby house. I took little notice of it until an urgent voice within me said, “Turn around and face the dog!” I did, and was shocked to find a black dog closing in on me with its teeth bared and a menacing look in its eyes, snarling so savagely that all the hairs on my neck stood on end. Heart pounding, I lunged forward and kicked out. It backed off for an instant and then came at me again. After kicking out at it several times, the owner finally arrived home and the dog ran off.

What would have happened if I had not obeyed that inner voice to turn around and face the dog? The dog would have caused deep and nasty wounds if it had sunk its teeth into my leg. And this will certainly happen when you refuse to turn around and confront the ‘stalkers’ in your life. They will grab you by the leg and won’t let go.

A neighbour I hardly know, called in yesterday morning quivering like a frightened child. She had come to warn me about a stalker who was keeping her and her daughter awake at night. A wide-eyed-victim-look shaped her moistened eyes in a “why me” question mark. As the tale unfolded, I learned that she thought the stalker was probably her forty-year-old, drug addict stepson who was paying her back for shutting him out of her life. She said that for self-protection, she was seeking a trespass notice from the police that day.

Her state of mind clearly indicated that she had chosen to become a victim of her stepson’s payback mentality. Instead, she could have empowered herself and learned something from this unpleasant experience by going into self-observation. For example, she could have asked herself, as I did, “Who or what is the stalker within you?” But with a startled look bordering on “Are you mad!” she hardly skipped a beat in continuing her tale of woe.

Silently I asked this question of myself, and found that I was looking my own stalker in the eyes: a person who has an investment in endless problems they are compelled to hold onto like a lifeline. I began to send her love, but felt a barrier in the way. I interrupted her and said, “Love yourself.”

“But I do,” she protested.

I knew she was telling us both a lie, for a woman who claims to love herself does not put up with freeloaders for the duration of her holiday – especially after she had just complained about how frazzled she felt after all the visitors she’d had. Her inability to say no to the constant stream of people I’d seen threading their way through the bush-clad path to her house made her a victim of being used for their advantage. While it saved them from paying premium holiday rent on a popular island, it cost my neighbour the quiet and peace she needed.

I knew then that there was nothing further I could do or say that would be of any help. Since I had already allowed her to use up a precious thirty minutes of my writing time, I suggested that she could install a bright spotlight that turns on when movement is detected, wished her well with setting up a trespass notice, and said that I needed to get back to my writing.

Reflecting on my own inner stalker after she left, I could easily see that she was also a martyr. How many hours of creativity had I given up trying to ‘fix’ other people’s problems or meet their needs? How many hours of happiness had been robbed worrying and fretting over other people’s problems I could do nothing about? Just as importantly, how much had I burdened others with my own petty problems and self-pity?

Aren’t outer mirrors wonderful! They give us the opportunity to see something within us that we ourselves need to change or release. For example, one of my outer mirrors had allowed me to see that I was caught in the victim trap of the ‘knight in shining armour’ who dashes to rescue people in distress. Before I could free myself from this trap I had to understand how narcissistic and selfish it was of me to continue this role.

You are probably surprised that I should write this, so let me explain. It was selfish because I robbed other people of the chance to feel empowered by learning to fix their own problems. Not only that, it reinforced their learned helplessness and further instilled within them a need for a ‘rescuer’. It was narcissistic because my role as ‘fixer’ inflated my own sense of self-worth. Because of my need to be needed, I became larger than life, for I mostly believed that I was the only one who could ‘fix’ the problems in someone else’s life.

So how did I fall into the trap of attracting the unwanted freeloaders of self-pity and martyrdom who robbed so much energy from my creative pursuits? Why did it leave me with such a diminished self-esteem that I felt important and valuable no more? And why did I write in my diary on several occasions that “[Susan or Bob or Joe]…has sucked my energy dry and I feel exhausted”?

Discovering the root cause of this behaviour took me back into my early childhood when my mother, who was unhappy in her marriage and not coping emotionally with being a parent, assigned me the role of being her ‘mother’. She depended on me to be strong for her, to not need her for anything, to listen to her tales of woe and try to make her happy again by loving her unconditionally in a way that she was incapable of doing for herself – or me. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, she starved for this kind of love. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then, that whenever I caught glimpses of my mother in other people, it became a reflex action to rescue them.

Let’s look for a moment at the dynamics of how taking on the role of parenting a parent becomes pathological, for it was certainly pathological within me. This is beautifully described in The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, by Louis Cozolino (2002, p. 227), drawing on Alice Miller’s work in this area:

Pathological caretakers come to therapy primarily because they are depressed and exhausted by their inability to create a boundary between themselves and the needs of others…

Pathological caretaking is an aspect of a disturbance of self referred to as narcissism (Miller et al., 1990). Narcissism is characterized by a two-sided self: one reflecting an inflated sense of self-importance, the other reflecting emptiness and despair. The origin of this formation of the self occurs when a child is looking for love and attunement and instead discovers the mother’s own predicament (Miller, 1981). The child, robbed of self-discovery, compensates by caring for the parents under a real or imagined threat of abandonment.

Bright and sensitive children attune to and regulate the parents’ emotions and come to reflect what the parents want from them. These children will usually appear mature beyond their years, and identify and find comfort in their ability to regulate the feelings of the people around them. Because of their power to regulate the affect of one or both parents, such children are filled with a sense of inflated self-importance.

This description fits me perfectly. It was a huge blow to my ego when I finally woke up and realised that I could not, in reality, ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ or ‘put things right’ for another human being. Essentially it is an inside job that only they can do. It is like the proverbial saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I hate to tell you how much such a fruitless task destroyed my self-esteem. It took me years to learn that when we become adults, we can never turn the clock back and expect others to fill the empty holes left by not having our emotional needs met as a child. As an adult, it takes a strong commitment to self-growth before we can find healing and love within.

So let us return to yesterday. Before my neighbour left, I remember looking into her eyes and seeing my mother’s distress. That’s when I knew she was not ready to commit herself to heal because of the investment she had made in being a martyr. The pay-off for holding onto this role was all the attention garnered being centre stage, recounting tales about how her ex-husband had done her wrong. Ironically, I best helped us both by not allowing her to perform centre stage in my life.

Victims remain victims because they learn nothing from negative life experiences – except perhaps how to assume the role of drama queen. Often they unwittingly choose to repeat the same mistakes again and again, thus enabling them to create new tales of self-pity which keep them trapped on a merry-go-round.

Yet by making a conscious decision to learn from mistakes, poor choices, and negative life experiences, victims can empower themselves with the awareness and self-knowledge to make choices that serve their highest good. Empowered in this way, they become awake and alive on every level. The past no longer stalks them. They have freed themselves from this prison by using adversity to develop courage, compassion, empathy, and enough self-love to face their internal stalkers and drive them away.

The pay-off is increased time and space and energy to live life to their highest potential while following dreams they may never before have dared to dream.

You might also like to read:

Are You A Compulsive Caregiver?
Value Yourself and Stop Being a Victim
Ten Keys to Happiness
Healing Starts with Love for Your Own Inner Child