How Victims Become Abusers — The Insidious and Destructive Nature of Victim Identity

It’s been hard not to notice the number of stories in the news about female public school teachers getting into trouble for having sex with male students. Even as I write this I saw another one last night. A twenty some odd year old female teacher had sexual contact with a fourteen year old male student. This wasn’t an issue when I was young, I had never heard of a female teacher seducing her male students. A colleague of mine published an article on her Linkedin account on this very topic. She specializes in sex addiction as well as perpetration and trauma. The article addressed this issue and talked about a common thread among these teachers which is that this appeared to be a way for them to reconcile unresolved issues from their teen years. When they were in high school they had felt slighted or ignored by the more dominant males and this was their way of taking that power back. That’s well and good but there’s a bigger question here: How do people get to a place, mentally, in which they are able to justify abuse?

This question also came up recently on another website in which someone asked how two kids can from the same abusive home and one of them becomes an abuser and the other does not. There’s obviously some interesting psychology to be excavated here and I can’t help but to think that if we crack this code and work to adopt it as part of common sense than we can be more effective with breaking the cycles that happen in families. Why do some of the children grow up to break the cycle and why do others grow up to perpetuate it and become abusers themselves? I believe that the answer lies within how we think about victims and what it means to be a victim.

Who is a victim?

Children are true victims, no doubt about it. They are powerless to control most of the situations around them including what is done to them, where they live, who they interact with, who they are exposed to and countless other ways. Dealing with child abuse is truly the ugliest and hardest part of my job and one is forced to believe that a person has to be extremely sick and warped to do the things to kids that they do. But where does victim hood extend to? Who is a victim and who is not?

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish holocaust survivor and a first hand survivor of the most horrific acts in our modern age was an advocate of resiliency. He taught people that they could adapt and overcome anything and if anybody had the right to make this claim, certainly it was him. Frankl was a victim, certainly, nobody can argue that but for anyone that has read his book or watched any of his lectures, you know that he certainly didn’t see himself that way.

Elizabeth Smart is arguably of the same mindset. I remember where I was when I heard that she had been found alive about 9 months after she had been kidnapped out of her home. Because I am from the same local area, it was big news. I remember seeing flyers asking people to join search parties that were looking for her. A coworker had said that she was certainly dead after a few short weeks; he had previously done police work in San Diego and was speaking from experience. Elizabeth was torn from her home and her family by a psychopath who declared her as his wife. It goes without saying that she endured months of abuse and trauma. To this day she is a motivational speaker, she has inspired millions who have also endured sexual abuse but if you ask her, she’s not a victim, she doesn’t see herself that way. It’s not who she is. It’s not her identity.

I want to use a little bit of psychobabble to some parameters on this. Victim hood is either acute or it’s chronic. For Frankl and Smart, it’s acute, like a seasonal cold. Their victim hood came and then it went. But for others, it’s chronic and pervasive. It’s not just an incident or a temporary situation, it’s their identity. Being a victim is who they are. And even though I’m a firm believer that people are allowed and entitled to be as wrong as they set their minds to be, victim identity is like a mental plague. It’s not enough for chronic victims to stay locked inside their own homes, hating their own lives, being miserable on their own until they die. Victim identity warps people. It warps their thinking and it warps their emotions and they feel compelled to share the ugly message of being a victim.

Victim Identity Warps People

Lately I’ve been looking at the psychology of identity and applying it into my own work and trying to determine how much of a person’s dysfunction is rooted in two or three bad habits versus a prolonged and established pattern due their commitment to a certain identity. Clients want change, they want a better life, they are tired of the same problems recycling constantly but most people will quit and go home if they are confronted with change that requires them to question their identity. It’s easy to spot who has a victim identity and who is not. When a new client comes in they ask one of two types of questions. 1) How do I make needed changes? 2) How do I make everybody else change? The second question comes from the perspective of a victim, it’s a question that strongly indicates that this person has a victim identity. The, “everybody else in the world is a problem and I need to figure out how to make everybody else change,” type of philosophy is the warped types of thinking that I’m talking about but I before I get into more detail about this, I want to talk more about the role and importance of the perceived sense of self; the identity.

I might, for example, get an unemployed twenty year old who is depressed and living in his parents basement and he’s explaining to me that he’s a gamer. That’s just who he is. Working a job will carve into his gaming time and put a damper on his future in professional gaming. Meanwhile, mom and dad are getting ready to dump all of his stuff on the lawn and change the locks on the doors. In order for him to accept and understand that perhaps his commitment to his identity as a gamer is preventing him from getting places instead of taking him there, he has to stop ask the question: “If I’m not a gamer, than who, or what am I?” When he asks this question and answers it, honestly, he might find himself falling into a rabbit hole where only dark and scary things wait for him.

There’s little, if anything, that leaves a person feeling more empty, depressed or alone than a person who doesn’t have something to identify with. I’ve noticed that this is one of the elements that is at the crux of a personality disorder. They are highly attached to others and the behavior of others because it’s the only thing that helps them feel a little less like an empty shell; a person without an identity. Naturally, people are quick to attach to an identity. Sometimes almost like musical chairs; the closest one is way better than none at all.

When we have an identity, we are associated with a group. We acquire that much needed sense of belonging. Group exclusion meant death for our early ancestors. Expulsion from your tribe certainly meant that your death was imminent and so early people would naturally attach their identity to the group and conform their values in order to ensure that they are included. But times have changed. In the age of the internet, when machines do all the things for us, we can be whatever we want. We actually have the luxury of choosing our values and then choosing a group that matches our values and even though the vast majority of us would claim that we choose our values first and our identity second, we all know that’s just not true. This is one of those actions that we reserve for everybody else and never ourselves. That person just conforms to the people around them, but not me.

Establishing an identity in being a victim is arguably the most destructive identity that a person can take on. When I say ‘victims,’ I am referring to the act of adopting victim hood as an identity rather than those that have been victims in isolated situations. Chronic victims instead of acute ones. When an individual adopts a victim identity, it warps them, to the core.

Heroes and Villains…

Victim identity causes a person to see the world in black and white. There is no middle. There is no gray. The victim lens that they look through causes intense hatred which severely inhibits their ability to see the gray areas and nuances of human beings. Everyone is either a hero or a villain and before long, it expands to thinking in groups. Everyone that belongs to Group A is automatically a hero because they are a victim and everyone that belongs to Group B is automatically a villain because if you’re not a victim, you’re definitely an abuser. And thus we see how victims paint all of society in extremely broad strokes.

We have all witnessed the blinding nature of hatred but fail to see it in ourselves and when we see the world in heroes and villains, we don’t stop ourselves when we start believing that everyone in the villain group deserves the most severe punishments even for relatively small infractions. Victim identity prevents us from realizing that we have actually become a villain. Victim identity warps us into thinking that it’s okay when I do it. When we see ourselves as a victim, we are unable to see ourselves as a villain. I can’t be a villain, I’m already the victim. And since I’m not a villain, that automatically makes me a hero. Victim identity tells us that certain people and certain groups of people, who we believe are the villains, deserve to he harmed. Even if our behaviors perpetuate cycles of abuse, they deserved it and that makes it okay. Any harm that we have caused to the villains obviously makes us a hero and the lines become more and more blurred.

Never in the Wrong…

When we take on a victim identity, we’re never wrong, we never make mistakes. This type of thinking is extremely dangerous and completely irrational. All of us make mistakes, all of us misstep, all of us cause unintentional harm. It’s unavoidable. People get along and relationships function when the parties involved are able to stop, take a step back and say those relationship mending words… “I’m sorry.” Victim identity does not allow us to do this. After all, we are the victims and if we, as the victim, do something horrible, we did it because we were harmed first. And because we believe that we were harmed first, it justifies the harm that we caused. Well, I wouldn’t have slapped you if you hadn’t made me angry. In other words, my abusive and violent behavior, is your fault. And because I already see the world in black and white, in heroes and villains, that makes me the hero, and you the villain.

Even when we, as a victim, perceive that we have caused harm to another and feel the pain that naturally comes from it, we will most likely double down. If we admit fault, we would have to admit to being the abuser and that would force us to go against our identity, the core of who we really are. It would force us to admit that we are the villain, instead of the hero and because we believe that villains deserve the most horrific of punishments, we would be forced to admit that according to our own standards, we deserved the most severe punishment.

Persecution Complex…

I believe that the most insidious side effects of the victim identity is the tendency to see persecution where it does not exist. When we get written up at work, it can’t possibly be because of a poor work performance, it’s because we’re being persecuted. The villain is, once again, out to get the hero. Seeing persecution where it does not exist makes the victim think that they are fighting back against villains, creating justice and making the world right; they are, once again, the hero. Because we see the world as though we can never do anything wrong, every situation where something bad happens can only be explained by persecution. Past due bill? Persecution. Speeding ticket? Persecution. We will look at the world and all the people in it through the lens of persecution. There is no uniqueness, nuance or alternative explanation. Persecution is the only possible explanation. When we already see the world and everyone in it as either a victim or an abuser, it warps us to believe that people are persecuting us when they are not and because we believe that we are doing something heroic by punishing abusers, we then become the abuser.

The Solution…

The solution to the victim lens is accountability. Frankl wrote in his book that no matter what the Nazi’s did to him, he could still choose how to think and how to feel and that made him free. Frankl taught that it didn’t matter happens to you, you can choose how to react. If you ask me, that makes him a hero.

Being a victim isn’t heroic. It’s ugly and warped. Accountability is the solution. When something bad happens to us we have a choice, we can adapt and overcome or we can adopt a victim identity and when we do that, the event and the person that enacted the abuse is still controlling us. And what we fail to understand is that when we take on a victim identity, we become the villain to the most important person in our lives. Ourselves. Living a life of hatred and anger isn’t living. Becoming the abuser because we’ve been warped by our persecution complex is an ugly and horrible thing to do to ourselves. We blame others for our misery and fail to understand that there is one person that is completely responsible for it; ourselves. Our misery is our fault because of the lens that we choose to view the world through. We have ourselves to blame. That’s accountability.

These female teachers that perpetrate against minors see themselves as the victims. They paint in broad strokes. They have been victimized and therefore see themselves as the hero. They are punishing the evil males that they believe once victimized them and in their minds, it justifies their abuse. But I’ve spoken to this before, the crisis that is happening with our teen boys. They are committing suicide in record numbers but society just looks the other way. Why? Have we painted an entire generation of young males as villains and abusers before they even have a chance to figure out their own identity? The most troubling thing, for me, is that in the age of the internet, the victims are yelling through the loud speakers. Everyone that is in group A is a victim and a hero and everyone in group B is villain and abuser. It’s an ugly thing to teach young people that they are either a victim and therefore a hero. It absolutely strips them of their ability to become personally powerful. Abusing others isn’t powerful, it’s not a strength. And it’s equally ugly to teach a generation of young people that they are a villain and an abuser. We must learn to stop listening to and validating the victims because they are the true abusers.