Conversation with a Victim

By Greg Baer M.D.

March 18, 2007

On we have chat rooms which are moderated by Real Love Professionals at specified times during the week. Recently I observed an interaction between one Real Love Professional, Lisa, and a woman, Sandra, who had been studying Real Love for about a year.

Lisa: I invite anyone to begin with whatever comes to mind.

Sandra: Ok, I am dealing with feeling resentful and not wanting to take it out on my partner.

Lisa: You're feeling resentful about what?

Sandra: My husband and I have had some tension lately. When he gets stressed, he becomes verbally abusive. I'm trying not to reciprocate his hostile verbal communication and I have it all pent up and I need to find a place to be more loving.

Lisa: So when he is verbally abusive, how do you feel, and how do you respond?

Sandra: I know he is just feeling scared and empty and I am sorry about that, but I still feel hurt and take it personally.

Intellectually, Sandra has some understanding of the cause of her husband’s anger, but she is still so empty and afraid herself that she feels victimized by his behavior. When people feel victimized, they rarely respond in productive ways.
Lisa: What do you say to him?

Sandra: I say, “I am not loving enough to listen to those kinds of words.” And then I leave the room. I choose not to put myself in the abuse.

Lisa: When you say, “those kinds of words,” what are you really saying?

Sandra: I don’t know.

Lisa: By “those kinds of words” you mean “those terrible, unkind, hateful, mean-spirited words,” don’t you?

Sandra: Well, yes, because they ARE hateful and mean-spirited.

Lisa: So let’s look at what your words say about what you believe. You believe that YOU are being wounded by terrible, hateful words. You believe your husband is unkind and mean-spirited TO YOU. You state that YOU are being abused. And it’s all so horrible that you couldn’t possibly stand it anymore, so you leave the room. Isn’t that pretty much the picture?

Sandra: Pretty much.

Lisa: So you paint a picture where you are a complete victim. Everything is being done to poor you.

Sandra: But it IS being done to me.

Lisa: I have no doubt that your husband says unkind things to you. No doubt at all. But you are not a stick or a stone. You have a choice about how you feel about what he says and a choice about how you respond to him. So let’s look at your response. With your words and your behavior you tell him — quite loudly, in fact — that he is hateful and mean. You tell him that he’s an abuser. You tell him that he’s responsible for your unhappiness. You tell him that he’s a monster. Above all, you tell him that your principal concern is for yourself, not him, which means that you’re telling him that you don’t love him. THAT is the worst wound you could inflict upon him. I’m not justifying what HE does, but I am telling you that the way you respond to him is just as unloving as the way he treats you.

Sandra: So I’m supposed to just stand there and take his abuse?

Lisa: You see, THAT is the problem, that you see it as abuse, rather than understanding his behavior as a response to his emptiness and fear. You feel like a victim, so you respond like a victim: with attacking, accusations, whining, and finally running. It all comes across as “I don’t love you” to your husband, and then he responds with even more attacking. Without meaning to, you make everything much, much worse.

Sandra: So what am I supposed to do?

Lisa: Instead of acting like a victim, you could give him what he really needs. You could love him. That would change everything.

Sandra: Love him? You’re kidding. Love him when he’s talking to me like that? Love him when he’s called me !@#$% face? I don’t think so.

Lisa: You’re not listening.

Sandra: What do you mean?

Lisa: Earlier in this conversation, you said, “I am dealing with feeling resentful and not wanting to take it out on my partner.” You said you wanted to learn a way not to take your resentment out on your partner. I’m trying to tell you a way that you could revolutionize your life, a way to leave the crushing burden of resentment behind, and a way to finally experience a healthy relationship. But you keep telling me how you’re right and how changing is impossible.

Sandra: But I don't have to take that abuse. There are better ways to communicate!

Lisa: There are better ways for BOTH of you to communicate, but I can’t help HIM, because he’s not here. I can only try to help you. Would you like to hear how you could change the way you see things and respond to them?

Sandra: So when someone is being verbally abusive, you have to listen to it?

Lisa: I didn't say that. Not at all. I said that I could help you see this in an entirely different way and then respond to it differently. Can you give me a specific example of what he says?

Sandra: I TOLD you already. He calls me a !@#$% face.

Lisa: I believe you, and that certainly is unkind. But can you put it in a sentence? People don't just walk up to you and say, !@#$% face. They say it in reference to something you did that they didn’t like or something you didn’t do that they wanted.

Lisa asked this question in several different ways, but Sandra couldn’t or wouldn’t respond. Why? Because she knew — consciously or not — that if she described her husband’s exact words, he would be describing some negative characteristics of Sandra that were TRUE, and Sandra didn’t want to talk about those. Victims can maintain their position of victimhood ONLY if they are RIGHT and everyone else is wrong. If victims admit to being wrong, they lose vital justification for their self-righteous position, and that would be intolerable.

Lisa: I'm not pushing you for fun. I'm pushing you because you have a chance here for a real breakthrough. Hang in there.

Sandra: I don’t want to talk about this anymore.

Lisa: You don’t have to, but if you quit, you lose. Your quitting is also one of the reasons your husband gets so angry at you. What you’re doing here you also do with him.

Sandra: I’ve had enough of what you’re saying. I think you’re being unloving.

Lisa: Again, this is what you do with your husband. In just a very short time here with me, you have insisted on being right, you have acted like a victim, you have attacked me, and you have said that you were about to run away. And that’s all without you and I having any history, without my hurting you in any way. I can only imagine how much you do this with your husband. You have created a world where people have to agree with you, and if they don’t, you accuse them of being monsters and then defend yourself against them. You do that with your husband, just as you’ve done it with me.

At this point, Sandra chose to sulk, saying nothing, so Lisa turned her attention to the remainder of those who were in the chat room.

Lisa: Let’s look at what Sandra could do differently with her husband. Let's say her husband comes at her and says something really stupid and mean. I have no doubt that he really is like that with her. He says, “You don’t do anything I ask you to do. You’re worthless. You’re a !#$% face.” There is no doubt that that’s terribly insulting, but she has already established over a period of many years that defending herself NEVER works. Never. Hasn’t worked even one time. Neither has being right or blaming him or running. So why keep doing those things?

Mark (another chat room participant): So what can she do?

Lisa: Why is her husband behaving badly?

Mark: Because he’s empty and afraid.

Lisa: Yes, and he’s empty and afraid because he doesn’t have enough what?

Mark: Real Love.

Lisa: Exactly. So what could Lisa do, instead of defending herself?

Mark: Love him?

Lisa: Yes.

Mark: But by the sound of it, she isn’t CAPABLE of loving him. She doesn’t feel loved enough to love him.

Lisa: Oh, I agree that she doesn’t feel loved enough to love him in a complete way, but she could give him SOMETHING loving. She could take one of the early steps TOWARD being loving.

Mark: Like what?

Lisa: There are many choices, but I suggest two here: listening and telling the truth about herself. Both of these can be very loving acts, and they don’t require a fully developed ability to love.

Mark: When you say LISTENING, do you mean she should just sit there and take it when he’s yelling at her?

Lisa: Not at all. That’s just HEARING. A dog can do that. I’m talking about real listening. Why do you think he gets so angry at her? In great part because she DOESN’T listen to him. He gets louder and louder in the false hope that he might be able to MAKE her listen.

Mark: So what does real listening look like?

Lisa: If Sandra REALLY wanted to hear what her husband was saying — as opposed to being right and defending herself — she’d say something like this: “Sweetie, over the years, I’ve ignored what you’ve wanted more times than I can count. I’ve been selfish and thoughtless. I probably won’t change that overnight — I’m way too slow for that — but I can make a commitment to begin trying to really listen to you and pay attention to your needs. So would you be willing to tell me again about some specific things I do that bother you? I’d like to really listen this time.”

Mark: Wow, that would be different than what she’s doing.

At this point Sandra couldn’t resist jumping back in.

Sandra: You’re telling me I’M the one who is wrong here? HE is yelling at me, cursing, and treating me terribly, and you’re telling me I’M wrong?

Lisa: Are you being unconditionally loving toward your husband? Are you focused on what he needs? Are you being accepting and forgiving and compassionate?

Sandra: But what he’s doing is just WRONG.

Lisa: I agree, but HE’S not here for me to talk to. And you can’t change him. You’ve proven that with extensive experience. The only person you can change is you, so we’re talking about you. When he is ugly to you, are YOU unconditionally loving? Are you being loving when you get angry or insist on being right or stomp out of the room?

Sandra left the conversation again, running in the chat room as she did at home with her husband.

Lisa: So we said that one loving thing Sandra could do is to really listen and tell the truth about herself, and I gave an example of what that could look like. Can you imagine how her husband would respond if she said those things?

Another chat room participant: I got tears in my eyes when you said what she could say to her husband. If my partner said anything like that to me, that would be the end of any argument.

Lisa: Telling the truth about ourselves is that powerful. So is genuinely listening to other people. Then she could keep going. She could say, “I’ve made so many mistakes with you. For one thing, I've acted like a victim for years and years, and now I can see that I've caused you a lot of pain as I’ve done that."

Sandra: You talk a lot, Lisa.

Lisa: You want me to talk less?

Sandra: I just don’t think you necessarily know what is true.

Lisa: Oh goodness, I don’t have a need to be right here, but don’t we already know for an absolute fact that what you’re doing in your marriage isn’t working? Don’t we know that you need to do something different? How could you lose from trying it? You want people to talk less only when they disagree with you. You do that with your husband. If people agree with you, if they sympathize with you as a victim, you love to hear them talk. A lot. The more the better.
Sandra: I just think you’re too aggressive. I think you need to be more gentle.

Lisa: That is certainly possible. I suggest to you that you’ve been a victim all your life, and right now that lifelong pattern is killing both you and your marriage. You are quite miserable, and nothing you’ve ever done has helped you get out of this deadly rut. You haven’t LET anybody help you, because as soon as they suggest that you might be the problem, you become defensive. You attack them, or you make them feel guilty, or you run. So nobody ever reaches you. This victimhood is killing you, so you might consider taking the help however it comes instead of focusing on the potential flaws of the person offering it. You can find flaws forever, and that approach will only keep you in the same miserable place. So far you’ve told me how your husband is wrong, and you’ve told me how I’m wrong. How are YOU wrong? What contribution do YOU make to your own unhappiness?

Sandra: I’m not feeling loved by you.

Lisa: You couldn’t, because you have defined love as people giving you sympathy and agreeing with you and doing what you want. But all that is not love. Love is accepting you with your flaws, and you can’t feel loved because you refuse to admit any flaws.

Sandra: I think you are missing the point.

Lisa: That is ALWAYS a strong possibility, but again, we waste time talking about MY flaws. YOU are the one who came here describing a miserable marriage, a marriage where there is serious conflict, a marriage where your partner calls you a !@#$% face. So there might be a possibility that YOU are missing the point here somewhere, and we’re trying to help you find it. You need to understand, though, that I have no attachment whatever about how you do that, or whether you do it at all.

Sandra: I think it’s time you looked at yourself.

Lisa: Sandra, I’ve done that rigorously for years. I’ve told the truth about myself hundreds and hundreds of times. So far you haven’t done it once, at least not in this conversation, and again, I don’t need you to. But YOU need the experience, or you’ll stay the same. Right now you’re more interested in being right than in changing. And that is one of the reasons your husband hates being around you. You simply won’t admit being wrong. You’d rather talk about him, or about me.

Sandra: That’s a lie.

Lisa: So tell the truth about yourself. Describe how YOUR mistakes have caused much of the unhappiness in your life or the tension between you and your husband.

Sandra couldn’t do it. In fact, she left the chat room. In her defense, she wasn’t WITHHOLDING the truth about herself. No, she literally couldn’t SEE the truth. When people feel like victims long enough, it becomes a deeply ingrained habit, and in order to maintain their position they MUST blame the people around them for how they feel. Sandra just could not entertain the thought that she might have some role in causing her situation, because then she would lose her role as a victim and with it all the advantages of moral superiority, self-righteousness, complete lack of responsibility, winning the sympathy of others, and so on.

Lisa certainly was direct with Sandra, but I wouldn’t begin to criticize her approach. When people feel and act like victims, they literally cannot be happy, nor can they enjoy healthy relationships. They are crippled, and they live in a world where they are virtually doomed to stay the same. The moment people try to help a victim, he attacks them, makes them feel guilty, and so on, so those who are trying to help immediately back off, and once again the victim is left in his miserable, lonely world. Lisa was trying to help Sandra off the Field of Death, and there is no more noble effort.

Many people would say — and some of the people in the chat room did say — that Lisa pushed Sandra too hard. Perhaps at times she did, but I suggest that occasionally pushing a bit too hard is a risk worth taking, and it’s far more loving than doing nothing at all. Sandra had been miserable for a lifetime, and no efforts in her entire life had ever broken her free of the chains of victimhood. Would it not then be worth doing something different, even if that involved making her a bit uncomfortable?

I was a surgeon for twenty years, and in that time I recommended to thousands of people that I hurt them in order to save their lives or improve their health. In almost every case they were grateful for my intervention, even though I caused them discomfort. Most of us have been mired in old attitudes and destructive Getting and Protecting Behaviors for our whole lives. Changing these patterns requires an emotional and spiritual revolution. How could we suppose that that kind of momentous change would take place without discomfort?

I have seen Lisa’s approach used hundreds and hundreds of times with other victims, and many of them — perhaps even a majority of them — have responded with unspeakable gratitude that someone finally helped them understand their feelings and behavior. Once they understood their victimhood, they were empowered to begin taking the steps to escape its grasp, and that is literally a lifesaving process.

I highly recommend reading the book Real Love and Freedom for the Soul — Eliminating the Chains of Victimhood, which can be found here. In it there is an extensive discussion of victimhood: its causes, its manifestations, and what we can do to greatly reduce or eliminate its effects in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

Two Phone calls

This morning I received two phone calls. The first was from an experienced Real Love coach who the night before had attended a memorial service for a man and woman who had died on the same day. The couple had recently been divorced but for financial reasons were still living together. During one of their many arguments, the verbal and physical violence steadily escalated to the point that she grabbed a gun, shot her husband, and then killed herself. They left four children behind, ages seven to seventeen.

The second phone call was from another experienced Real Love coach, who talked about participating in an online chat session the night before. We talked about this session in our last blog. The facilitator of the session, Lisa, tried to help a woman, Sandra, who was unable to see the crippling effects of her own victimhood. Lisa initially invited Sandra to simply tell the truth about herself in a gentle way, so she could feel seen, accepted, and loved — and also so she could begin to make different choices — but Sandra would have nothing to do with the truth. Lisa then told Sandra more and more directly about her victimhood, in the hope that she would realize how terribly blinded and disabled she was by this condition.

It can be very instructive for us to examine the consequences of these two events. When two people argue in anger, they have a powerful need to be right and are consumed with a lust to fill their own cravings for praise, power, and safety. In the case of the couple who died, imagine how powerful their need was to be right by the time their argument escalated to the point of death. Their selfishness had utterly blinded them. The woman who shot the husband was especially blamed for her behavior. At the funeral she was barely mentioned.

Now, imagine that we could hit the Rewind button here and go back in time to a point where the argument between the couple was just beginning to heat up. We have a chance here to literally save two lives and to preserve the parents of four children. What would you be willing to do to help? What actions would be justified in making that happen?

You might begin by suggesting that they calm down. You might share some of the principles of Real Love. That would be a reasonable beginning, but what if these efforts completely failed? What if the argument continued to intensify? Would you give up? Or would you have the moral courage to continue in your efforts a little further?

Would you be willing to raise your voice to get their attention? Remember, one or both of them might criticize you for raising your voice, and later on there might be others who will also find fault with your approach. But in view of the seriousness of the situation, would you be willing to raise your voice anyway? Would you even be willing to scream, “Hey, look at me! Listen to me! Seriously, you need to shut up! We’ll figure this out but right now, shut up!”

Would you be willing to do that, even though some might criticize you for being harsh or intrusive? In the face of that much pain, extraordinary means are sometimes required, and certainly a raised voice would be justified, and perhaps required.

But now let’s suppose that even a raised voice is insufficient to get the attention of these two people who are drunk with anger, and in that moment, emotional insanity Is now the time to walk off? (Yes, assuming your own well being is not in jeopardy. Play along with me.) Now will you give up and walk off? Knowing that the consequences of not helping are dire, would you be willing to walk over to one of the combatants and physically throw her over your shoulder — choosing her only because she was probably smaller than he was — and take her outside where she couldn’t continue to fight with her husband?

Would you be willing to do all that to save two lives and possibly the lives of four children? If you did that, few people would criticize you. On many occasions, firemen have rescued people from burning buildings, and in the process of violently exiting the building have broken an arm or a rib of the person they’re rescuing. But no one has suggested that it would have been better to leave the person in the burning building. Extraordinary circumstances sometimes require extraordinary measures.

Now let’s examine the second scenario, the one with the woman who was acting like a victim about her marriage. (You can read a great deal more about that in the main body of the blog immediately above.) Lisa was the facilitator of that chat room session, and she had the moral courage to increasingly “raise her voice,” in speaking directly — perhaps even bluntly — to the woman who was acting like a victim. In that situation, however, there were some in the chat room who felt that she had acted unnecessarily harshly. They were critical of her approach.

Why the difference? Why do we agree on the need for extraordinary measures where they would prevent a shooting, but many of us do not agree with the approach of someone who directly confronted a victim? Actually, the answer is easy. In the case of the shooting, we can justify almost any preventative behavior, because we’re talking about life or death, while in the conversation with the victim we reason that the stakes are not nearly as high and do not justify intense or potentially “harsh” measures.

What we might be failing to realize is that someone who has spent a lifetime using victimhood as a Getting and Protecting Behavior is also in a life or death situation. I mean this literally – not figuratively or hyperbolically – to the point that their children are orphaned as with the couple above. When asked to help, how can we claim to love someone while we stand by and do less than we can, less than is required?

In the chat room scenario, Lisa realized that Sandra was quite blind to her incorrect judgments and harmful behaviors — suffering literally from a kind of emotional and intellectual insanity — and she made a decision that she would try to help Sandra see the truth, even though she knew that Sandra would resist the truth. Such a decision requires considerable emotional and moral maturity, as well as a well developed ability to love.

It’s easy to love and teach someone who is prepared to accept what you teach and who can easily perceive that you are trying to love him or her. That requires little moral maturity. It can be quite difficult, on the other hand, to love and teach someone who is blind to what you’re saying and highly resistant to change, and who also perceives your efforts to help them as an attack.

Helping such people can be very much like jumping into the water and helping a drowning man. When people are drowning, they become quite desperate. They no longer see the world as it really is at all. They see everything only in terms of how it could either help them or hurt them. Period. And in their desperation, they reaction with all their energy to maximize their survival and minimize their pain.

If you jump in the water to save such a person, therefore — which any good lifesaving course will tell you should be your very last resort — you will literally be taking your life in your hands. As you swim close to the victim, he will focus his entire attention on your every move, and again, rather than seeing the truth about what you are trying to do, he will filter what he sees according to his needs and fears. Regrettably, fear has the almost uniform quality of grossly distorting the truth, so when you reach out to help the drowning man, he will usually see that not as gesture of goodwill but of potential threat and will violently bat your hand away.

You will then attempt to get closer, so you can get hold of his shoulder or his shirt, but now he sees you only as a flotation device and will violently grab your shoulders or head, pushing you under the water in an attempt to keep himself afloat. Unless you are an experienced lifeguard, you will find this situation highly problematic and possibly even deadly. If you are a trained lifeguard, you’ll known that attempts to reason with someone in a complete state of panic will often fail, and then you’ll have to physically take charge of the situation. You may have to spin the man around to create a position where towing is possible, an action which can be moderately violent, and if the man drags you under the water you may after to take action that could even hurt him.

This situation is urgent. You might make mistakes, but so what? We know for certain that doing nothing will result in death, and if you want to save a life here you have to do something both definitive — something that has a real chance of success, not some half-measure — and immediate. This is not a place where you can go back to shore, think about it, and come back in an hour. You have one chance at this.

And that is all that Lisa was doing with Sandra in an emotional sense. She saw that Sandra was drowning and irrational. She offered a helping hand. When Sandra slapped that away, she became increasingly direct, not to fulfill any agenda of her own but simply because she knew that more direct action was required. Sandra had already proven over a lifetime — and over a year of studying Real Love — that soft half-measures were completely ineffective with her. Lisa had no idea whether she would ever have a chance to work with Sandra again, and she wanted to do as much as she could with that once opportunity.

Does this mean we are justified in taking a cavalier and thoughtless approach to being direct with people, or even harsh on occasion? Oh, heavens no, but we must also be careful not to err on the side of being afraid of doing what is necessary, afraid to take the lifesaving course of action because other people might not like us. I have now seen hundreds victims respond positively to exactly the approach that Lisa took, and they have written and spoken to me with comments like these:

  1.  "All my life I was surrounded by victims, so it should be no great surprise that I become one myself. But you see, because I was surrounded with this behavior from birth, I thought it was normal. I didn’t realize I was a victim, so I felt entirely justified every time I blamed everyone else for my unhappiness. In the process I became more and more unhappy, and ruined one relationship after another, but I didn’t learn a thing from all that. I blamed everyone else for that too. And then you came along and taught me the principles of Real Love. But still I kept blaming people, so one day you really got stern with me and said that until I recognized what I was doing, I would stay unhappy and would continue to ruin relationships. You may not remember this, but you really cut me deep that day. I didn’t like it at first, but then I realized you were not mad at me. You weren’t telling me I had to change, only that you were trying to help me see a way to be much happier. You were just trying to help me. I finally listened, and now my life is more different than I would ever have guessed possible. Thanks for having the courage to keep telling me the truth, even when I was being pretty difficult."
  2. "What a victim I was. I was always right, and nobody could tell me anything. If anybody tried to show me what I was doing wrong, I defended myself and made their lives miserable until they quit. I made it impossible for them. But you didn’t quit. I attacked you, and you didn’t quit. I whined, and you didn’t quit. I lied to you, and you didn’t quit. I ran away, and you didn’t quit. And finally you got through to me. I’m so grateful that you didn’t quit. I’m so grateful that there were times you stuck in there and shook me when I demanded sympathy. It’s made all the difference."

Crazy is crazy. Blind is blind, in whatever form it comes. The death of victimhood is very little different from the death inflicted by a gun. Victimhood sucks the joy out of our own lives and the lives of all the people around us. Rarely do we have an opportunity to stop someone who is swinging a gun, but we often have opportunities to help people who are emotionally dying from the effects of victimhood. Sometimes helping these drowning people requires genuine moral courage and maturity and a kind of boldness that other people won’t understand. But in view of the life or death stakes, are we willing to stick our necks out and do something? Are we willing to even make mistakes? Are we willing to be criticized?

If you knew a friend were about to be shot in an argument — or about to shoot another person — would you leave the room, muttering, “I’m just not qualified to get involved here”? If a friend were drowning in a pool, would you walk away, saying, “I’d hate to make a mistake. What if I tried to help and hurt him”? I hope not. Similarly, people all around us are literally dying emotionally and spiritually from victimhood and other like conditions, and whether we recognize it or not, they are crying out for help.

What are you prepared to do? Will you help? If you do, the risks are real. The people you offer to help may reject your help. They may even reject and hate you. Other people may find fault with your efforts. But the alternative is to do nothing, take a morally immature and cowardly position where we make no overt mistakes but where we do no good either. I can’t tell you which course to take. I can tell you, however, that the path of helping people — even with all the risks, which I have experienced in a great variety of ways — is infinitely rewarding. There is no feeling in the world quite like watching someone rise from the mire of emptiness and fear — a living tomb, really — and experience the joy life has to offer, often for the first time. There is no earthly pleasure to equal the look in someone’s eyes as they shed the shackles of despair, the confusion of blindness, and the burden of Getting and Protecting Behaviors.

For the possibility of creating such moments, I’ll take the risks involved. I’ll take the road less traveled and follow the beat of a different drummer. Whatever you do, make it a conscious choice. Don’t allow circumstances and fear to make your choice for you. Decide how you want to live your live, and how you want to stand in relation to your brothers and sisters, and follow that course with intention.

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    About the author 

    Greg Baer, M.D.

    I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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