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The Myth of Victim Mentality

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Why do people who are in abusive relationships stay in them?

Why don’t battered women leave?

Why doesn’t a kid who is bullied just hit back?

The common answer is that some people identify with victim-hood as a way of avoiding responsibility for their own lives. Some people just like to be abused and get some kind of pleasure from it. For kids, it’s part of their social development to learn how to live in a tough world.

These are all outdated and easy catchall explanations that blame the target and allow bullies and tyrants to continue to abuse with impunity. We know that abuse is wrong and thankfully we are slowly gaining legal ground that offers protection and accountability. But we still want to blame the target. Why?

The biggest reason, in my opinion, is that this is the easiest answer available that absolves us of the conflict we want to avoid. If we admit that the bullies and tyrants are the problem, then we have to do the hard work of confronting the reality, or worse, the bullies themselves. We have to file the police report, talk to the principle, and provide a safe haven for someone knowing that we now have our skin in the game. It is easier to be a bystander and attribute the control to the person we could never be – a victim.

People avoid conflict as much as they can because we haven’t been taught how to fight fair. We don’t know how to take on the bad guy. And worse, sometimes the bad guy is someone we know or even love. It’s just so much easier to think that this person who is nice to me would only treat you that way because you deserve it, asked for it, wanted it.

So what do we do?

First – let me repeat the premise that victim mentality is a myth. People do not choose to be abused. They adapt to it and learn to exist in and around it in order to survive. Depending on their age and level of brain development they initially go into shock and then their brains adapt. This adaptation is now being studied as part of a new field of brain research called Interpersonal Neurobiology.

What this new field of brain research is showing us is that the brains of people who experience trauma adapt in a way that makes them further vulnerable to abuse. It is not a conscious choice to stay in an abusive situation. The part of the brain that enables us to use reasoning and the capacity to problem solve is literally taken offline during times of high stress and trauma. And when this is repeated over weeks or years, especially in childhood, parts of the brain can literally be damaged.

Why do people who are in abusive relationships stay in them?

Why don’t battered women leave?

Why doesn’t a kid who is bullied just hit back?

It is because they have not yet developed or have lost the capacity to solve the problem themselves. They are locked in a room with a terrorist and they can’t even see the door.

They need our help. Most importantly, they need our compassion and understanding. Someone who is battered, abused, bullied is not enjoying the experience. They don’t deserve it. They want things to change.

Now that you know that, what will you do next time?

If you are interested in learning more about Interpersonal Neurobiology:

http://drdansiegel.com/
Interpersonal Neurobiology PDF
Being a Brain-Wise Therapist: A Practical Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology