The Seductive Drama of Victimhood
How the left loses its way
I grew up in a chaotic household full of shouting, emotional manipulation, and, occasionally, violence. The dynamics would be recognizable to any member of Al-Anon, though my parents were one drink a month types who would never dream of lighting up a joint, much less a crack pipe. There were no opioids or benzos or any other mother’s little helpers. My mom did have an alcoholic father, so I suppose we came by our codependent chaos somewhat honestly.
I write this as I am clearing out the remnants of 40 plus years of accumulated possessions from my parents’ house. The house has been sold and must be vacated in a few days; my parents have finally moved to the assisted living unit they’ve been paying rent on since the beginning of the year.
What took them so long? Why did they spend thousands of dollars a month on a home they weren’t living in? They intended to move right away, but every time they took a look at all the stuff piled up in closets and drawers— the magical cleaning products ordered off Amazon, the gadgets advertised late at night on television, the industrial packs of toilet paper, trash bags, and neon-colored drinks purchased at Costco, the bowling ball that hasn’t been touched since 1974 but might be used again some day— they became overwhelmed and collapsed in exhaustion.
Addictions exist in all kinds of forms. They are rarely so intriguing and dramatic as heroin or meth; they are mostly mundane and unremarkable. It has become a leftist cliche to say that capitalism causes addiction, which is true enough insofar as it invents new things to be addicted to. But capitalism didn’t start the fire. It merely threw fuel on something that’s been burning since the world was turning.
We all end up addicted to something, whether it’s work, sex, food, shopping, or attention. The late Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating called these common, universal addictions the “emotional programs of the false self.” Each one of us has a very real human need for safety and security, esteem and affection, and power and control. The problem is that our ego, which is to say the body-mind which is required to navigate the material world, is often not very good at meeting them. Due to the inherent trauma of being a fragile, mortal, finite being, it develops all sorts of crazy schemes to satisfy these needs. So we begin to believe that if we eat the right foods and take the right supplements, we can live forever. If we stockpile enough money and possessions, we can control the chaos around us. If we conform our bodies to our ideal of beauty, we will always be worthy of love.
These strategies aren’t all bad in and of themselves. Taking care of our bodies, developing financial security, presenting ourselves in an attractive light… there can be very positive! The problem is when we become identified with them, so tied to these beliefs and behaviors that we no longer know who we are without them.
One of the key ways these addictive tendencies show up in movement spaces is through the drama of victimhood.
Almost everyone comes into movements because they are feeling some sort of personal pain. When I was young, my father suffered a traumatic brain injury. Very quickly, my family went from a comfortable, upper-middle class existence to being bankrupted by medical bills and struggling to make ends meet. This experience, more than anything, is what turned me toward leftism and activism. I am passionate about universal health care because I’ve seen how medical catastrophe can devastate a family. I don’t want to see financial catastrophe added on top of it.
There were other experiences that shaped me— the low wage jobs I worked as a young adult, where sexual harassment, shorting paychecks, and the capricious whims of management were daily indignities; the struggle to pay for college without parental assistance; the sexism and casual misogyny of a church that taught me women were made to be subservient to men. By the time I was in my late 20’s, I was ready to fight all the evils of the world— capitalism, patriarchy, racism, colonialism, empire, you name it.
People who have been trained as organizers understand this; it is the core element of persuasion taught in many unions and other advocacy organizations. Get to know someone, understand what their pain story is, and you can move them. Tell your own story, fill it with emotionally resonant details that people can identify with, and you can move a crowd. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Understanding how people’s minds and emotions work is a necessary element of persuasion, and persuasion is critical if you want to build support for an idea or action.
This tactic of sharing your story of pain to move others is called public narrative. It works because humans are social creatures; we have what are called “mirror neurons” that fire in response to strong sensations in other people, attuning us to their frequency and allowing us to feel what they feel. This is an evolutionary adaptation that has made us extraordinarily cooperative; when we feel the pain of others, we want to alleviate their suffering.
But evolutionary adaptations, like anything that is useful, are a double-edged sword: what is beneficial and constructive in some circumstances can quickly become destructive and counterproductive. Virtually all religions and spiritual philosophies that have stood the test of time tell us that much of our suffering lies within, that we suffer because we do not see the world clearly. Any good therapist will tell you that while feelings are important, the stories we tell about those feelings are not necessarily true: “Feelings are not facts,” as one of my friends likes to say. Even physical pain is not immune to the influence of the mind: people with certain pain disorders have a nervous system that has become trapped in a negative feedback loop so that even the slightest provocation can create severe pain. When it comes to chronic pain management, the cutting edge of research is in neuroplasticity, resetting the brain and nervous system to decrease the overactive pain response.
The spiritual prescription for escaping this illusory suffering is to take a step back and to disidentify with the pain by surrendering to something bigger than yourself. This is as true for animist, indigenous cultures as it is for Buddhist and Christian ones. What happens when an entire mass of people loses the spiritual wisdom of our ancestors and identifies with the pain and suffering to the exclusion of all else? Something like what we see now on the contemporary left. People flinging their pain at one another in an endless orgy of recriminations and call-outs.
The Karpman Drama Triangle is a tool from family systems therapy that can illuminate some of these dynamics for us. The basic idea is this: Many of us, early in life, learn to relate to others and get our needs met through the lens of victimhood, inhabiting one of three roles. Sometimes we collapse and become helpless to elicit sympathy and response, taking on the role of the Victim. Sometimes we become pathologically helpful, seeking to alleviate the suffering of others while denying our own needs, becoming the Rescuer. Sometimes we become angry and accusatory, seeking punishment in an attempt to eliminate an outside source of suffering, becoming the Persecutor. People tend to have a default role that provides their entry into the triangle, but once you’ve been sucked in you will rotate between all three roles.
If you’ve dealt with any kind of addictive or co-dependent dynamics, you will recognize this very easily. As the oldest child, I tend to take the role of rescuer, as do most activists, clergy, and healers I know. But I can certainly see myself in all three. Acknowledging the truth of the drama triangle does not mean that there are never victims who need rescuing or oppressors that need to be stopped. The drama triangle is what occurs when our ego mind-body becomes identified with the story of victimhood, believing that we will get our essential needs for security, esteem, or power met by inhabiting one of these roles and living out this story.
This identification plays out in ways that our often very subtle; the ego is very good at keeping its machinations hidden from our consciousness, because the moment we see what is happening, the game is up. So we learn to unconsciously pick, project, and provoke: We gravitate toward situations that will allow us to constantly rescue others so we will be worthy of love and respect; we project our feelings of helplessness onto the world around us to elicit sympathy and help in order to feel secure; and we provoke others into fighting us in our quest for control.
I sometimes joke with colleagues that nurses go into nursing because we all grew up in co-dependent families. There’s a lot of truth in that idea and for anyone with “save the world” tendencies. We choose situations— professions, relationships, etc, that allow us to re-live the dynamics of the past in the hope that we might change it. But we quickly become stuck in these dramas of our own making. I saw this play out over and over again during my time in the activist community.
There was the brilliant young organizer and theorist who had accomplished quite a lot and received accolades for his work, but was still stuck in his teenage drama of being constantly misunderstood and bullied by the rich kids. The trauma survivor who had become an accomplished healer yet remained mired in self-loathing and self-pity, insisting that every perceived slight or thwarted desire was an example of abuse and oppression.
And me. Despite earning a good income and having friendships with a lot of wonderful men, I was convinced that all my financial problems were due to capitalism, and my relationship problems were due to the inherent sexism, misogyny, and lack of “doing the inner work” in the men I was dating.
And beyond that, even in those who were more grounded and circumspect in their approach to justice, I found a curious addiction to struggle and battle. Their sense of self worth was caught up in being stalwart warriors for justice. They exhibited a grim fatalism, a determination to keep fighting and defending and caring for everyone’s needs but their own, despite the toll it took on their physical and mental health. I wondered what would happen if they actually achieved the things they were fighting for. Would they even know how to exist in any mode other than struggle?
I write these things not because I hate the left and wish to wash my hands of all my activist and organizer friends. I write because they are some of the most gifted and creative people I know. I write because I see a beautiful, blazing potential waiting to be unleashed; a power to nourish and create new worlds that comes only when we release the stories and dramas we’ve been unconsciously playacting and root ourselves in something deeper and wider and far more ancient than any notion of victim and perpetrator, oppressor and oppressed, good and evil.
This is the field of the Divine, The Ground of All Being, Ultimate Reality, whatever you choose to call it. It is the source of all life and love, it contains all things, darkness and light, death and birth. it is the place you go when you do a lot of prayer or meditation or psychedelics. It is what Jesus and Buddha and all great mystics speak of, or attempt to. Words always fail us as we approach the Mystery.
I know this can sound like a spiritually bypassing cop-out. I used to think the same thing. I used to do a lot of Centering Prayer meditation as well as Vipassana; I found it useful in calming my anxiety, but struggled with the instruction to surrender myself to the divine or to become empty.
The weird thing meditation did do, however, was open me up to a spiritual power that I couldn’t deny. I had a really clear vision of someone who I didn’t meet until months later; they ended up being a very significant person in my life. I got clear instructions one day to hike to the top of a mountain, despite my resistance, the nagging perception that I needed to walk up would not leave me alone. I finally did, arriving at the top just in time to see a man fall and break his neck. I was the only one around, I am a medical professional, I helped him.
These experiences led me to seek out something that radically changed my life: a year long psychic development program. Despite my reservations about some of the new-age language employed, it felt very right, and upon meeting the instructor, I trusted her. In choosing the psychic program, I was seeking something different from the traditional spiritual development I had experienced: empowerment rather than self-abegnation. I wanted agency, the ability to use my intuition to make change.
The most important thing I learned in that year was to see myself not as a helpless victim of fate and systems of domination, but as a spirit who chose to enter this body, this life, in this time and place, with these particular challenges, in order to learn grow, and contribute to the world. Is this literally true? I have no idea, or rather, I have no way of proving that it is. All I can say is that this single concept liberated me like no other, and provided a framework for resilience.
When I encountered someone who infuriated me, I was taught to see them as a mirror, someone who had come into my life to reflect something that valuable back to me. When triggered, I would go into meditation, ask for a symbol of what was being reflected back to me that I needed to heal, and use the energy healing tools we were taught to clear it. Weirdly, I would find my relationships with people miraculously shifting. Sometimes, without a single word being exchanged, I would find the offending person had unaccountably changed their tune and became open and receptive to me. Sometimes I was the one who changed, and I found myself feeling deep compassion rather than irritation for the other person’s foibles. Sometimes they would simply retreat from my life, and I no longer had to deal with them.
Over time, I found that my perspectives on people and problems were shifting. I was able to see more sides of a situation. Instead of worrying about who was wrong and who was right, I was able to ask, “what do I need to do?,” and get the next step. I had more objectivity and detachment. I was identifying less with the stories and dramas I was living, and more with this eternal spirit who had chosen to enter a body. The end result was not much different than what I had learned from Jesus and Buddha.
I tell this story not because I think everyone should do a psychic development program. It is definitely not for everyone. But I do think we all need some kind of spiritual practice that connects us to something bigger than ourselves, whether we understand that as God, the gods, the Universe, or simply the Earth. It’s why AA has always insisted that the way out of addiction is developing a relationship with a higher power.
This path is not about denying materiality and the body. It’s about keeping one foot in the world of material reality and one in the world of transcendence. It’s about learning to inhabit it without getting stuck and tripped up in our emotional stories. It’s about letting the creative power of the universe flow through you, the power of dissolution and decay and ferment and growth, over and over again. It’s about finding your place in the ecosystem of existence.
I find this a helpful analogy: Imagine you are walking through a dark wood. You lose the path, and soon find yourself lost, tired, hungry, and scared. You have no idea which way to turn, panic begins to engulf you and you fear you succumb to madness. All of the sudden, you remember, you have a friend to call on, the Eagle. You whistle for him, and he swoops down, picks you up with his talons, and carries you up, high enough to survey the whole terrain through which you have been sojourning. You see that a few miles to the north is a village where you can find refuge. The eagle may not necessarily cut out all your work for you, he places you back where he found you, and leaves you to go on your way with a broadened perspective. You remember that despite having lost your compass, moss prefers to grow on the northern side of the trees; armed with this wisdom, you begin to make your way north.
Meditation, prayer, and other spiritual practices are like this. They allow us to leave the overwhelm of our nervous systems not so we may permanently escape them, but so that we can find wisdom that allows us to work within them.
And yes, we might still fight and resist and take sides, if that is what we are called to. But when we’re not not married to the identity of Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor, we can do it with a lot more freedom, creativity, and joy, and a lot less damage to our bodies and minds. We become more flexible and able to bounce back from disappointments and find ways through conflict. The first step is to let go of the story we’ve been gorging ourselves on.