Last week, we explored the effects of trauma on mental, emotional, and physical health. Today, we examine the four types of people (human behaviors) that trauma produces. Please understand that these are not labels, but psychological behaviors (i.e., individual responses to external stimuli).
The victim is a person who suffers from an injurious or destructive action that’s beyond their control (e.g., accident, illness, violence, sudden or unexpected death, or act of nature). Experiencing any type of trauma shatters our assumptions and sense of morality, fairness, justice, and safety in the world. If you are the victim of a traumatic event, it is not your fault. My use of the term victim in this instance refers to individuals who encounter trauma and choose to forever blame others and reject solutions to improve their circumstances.
Adversity is an integral part of life that cannot be avoided. We can, however, choose to actively confront the obstacles that we encounter. While a traumatic event initially renders us a victim, we do not have to accept it as a life sentence because recovery IS possible.
Most people overcome traumatic events. Yet, some remain paralyzed and view themselves as eternal victims. In 1945, Otto Fenichel, a prolific writer on psychoanalysis, coined the term victim syndrome in reference to people who are perpetual complainers about the unfortunate events that unfold in their lives. To the victim, nothing is ever good, right or satisfying. Believing their lives are under the control of external forces, and that they are defined by their traumatic experiences, victimhood becomes a central part of their identity.
Victim syndrome is a debilitating and self-defeating behavior that perpetuates negativity and sidesteps any sense of responsibility. If it’s not my fault, I don’t have to take responsibility for it. If I don’t take responsibility for it, I will always be a victim. And the dysfunctional cycle continues.
People with a victim mentality always expect and are prepared for the worst, so exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors when interacting with others. Their badge of honor is, “I am miserable. Therefore, they shall share my misery.” Author John Gardner had this to say about the victim mentality: “Self-pity is the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality”. Self-pity is addictive, alters the individual’s perceptions of events, and imprisons them in a fixed mindset where no solutions are possible; thus, their circumstances will not change.
It’s difficult to unravel the victimhood mindset since the victim possesses a fatalistic view of the world. Lacking a sense of empowerment and engaging in high drama, the victim is miserable in their narrow, self-imposed confines of victimhood. You can anticipate that they will always have a running list of expertly crafted reasons why no solution will ever work. Because the victim prefers to remain stuck with no intentions of taking ownership or action to move their lives forward, attempting to help them is not only a frustrating endeavor; it is an exercise in futility.
The rescuer thrives on fixing other people’s problems and can be counted on to provide an infusion of encouragement and support during times of crisis. The rescuer feels obligated to maintain relationships, even at the expense of being used. In their strong need for connection, the rescuer resists conflict, gives too much, and is overly eager to please and accommodate others. This is the person who will give you money, buy you gifts, cook your meals, do your laundry, walk your dog, mow your lawn, and drive your children to and from school with no strings attached.
The rescuer cannot resist the temptation to offer unsolicited advice or assistance and stands ready to save others in the face of human suffering. Unaware of their own underlying motives, the rescuer genuinely believes that they have the solution to everyone else’s problems. They are in a relentless pursuit of needy victims to rescue, so naturally attract people who refuse to take personal responsibility for their own lives or do for themselves.
There are people in this world who genuinely need help, and there is nothing wrong with helping them to positively impact humanity. However, helping becomes damaging when taken to extremes. Rescuing is a form of emotional manipulation whereby the rescuer is so fixated on helping others that the recipients develop an unhealthy dependence, feeling they cannot take care of themselves.
The rescuer adopts a superhero persona to avoid addressing some deficiency in their own lives such as rejection, trust issues, low self-esteem, insecurity, guilt, shame, or the need to control or be controlled. Because they assume the responsibilities and tasks of others, the rescuer enables unhealthy relationship patterns and codependent behaviors.
Hurt people hurt people. This is probably the best way to describe the perpetrator. The perpetrator was once a victim of childhood violence or verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and can be a parent, sibling, spouse, partner, or caregiver. They vary in cultural background, race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, profession, religion, and geographic region. Although the perpetrator can be any gender, studies show they are most often male.
The perpetrator is driven by power, influence, and force and is deliberate in their plans to carry out violence. They make purposeful decisions about their target and the type, amount, and place to inflict harm. They purposely cause harm to others or allow harm to be done to others.
The perpetrator is masterful in presenting a kind, charming, and likeable persona. However, they will undermine confidence, violate relationship boundaries, coerce, intimidate, harass, humiliate, threat, abuse, and control another making the victim doubt themselves. The perpetrator then engages in victim blaming, saying something along the lines of, “You provoked me” or “You asked for it”.
The perpetrator may have low self-esteem, an explosive temper, or rigid stereotypical racial and gender viewpoints. They may be moody, controlling, inflexible, overly critical, jealous, impulsive, unreasonable, manipulative, fascinated with weapons, cruel to animals, and inconsiderate to strangers. Perpetrator characteristics may include but are not limited to threats of violence; substance abuse issues; unrealistic expectations of others; and blaming others for their own deficiencies and problems.
To exert power over their victims the perpetrator may inflict emotional, psychological, verbal, physical, sexual, financial, or spiritual abuse. The cycle of abuse generally involves: (1) the tension-building phase; (2) the violent episode; and (3) reconciliation. The violence, however, does not end there, but the vicious cycle repeats itself over and over again.
Once a person processes a traumatic event and continues their transitional experience with healthy coping strategies, they may begin to identify as a survivor (because they dislike the term victim or refuse to be associated with a negative stigma). The individual does not forget the event but has greater awareness and understanding about the event and the impact it has made on their life.
The trauma survivor has been through the fire, so they may feel defective in some way. They may understandably carry a low sense of self-worth, fear, anger, shame, and guilt along with other strong feelings and emotions. Nonetheless, the survivor has managed to recover from difficult circumstances and discovered how to employ healthy coping strategies to help them move forward in life.
While it may take a long time, the survivor eventually realizes that they have a right to safety, peace, joy, and happiness. Although they do not engage in blaming, the survivor recognizes that the trauma event was not their fault. Realizing that trauma is something that happened to them, not something that defines them, the survivor has reached a point of understanding, finding meaning in, and coping with trauma, grief, and loss.
This concludes the third segment of our October Trauma Series. Next week, we will explore the five (5) stages of grief in trauma recovery.
Until Next Time,
P.S., To learn more about trauma, grief and loss, check out our self-paced mini e-course, Through the Fire: Understanding, Finding Meaning in & Coping with Trauma, Grief & Loss, which includes a complimentary Course Companion Journal.