That’s the title of a book I once read by Diane Zimberoff. Catchy, huh? There are many of its kind that teach us about the mentality of playing the victim in our own lives. Self-pity is a big theme. And although I’m an advocate of self-help books that teach us (or remind us) how not to get caught up in this so-called victim “trap,” I’d also like to acknowledge a different example of the victim trap in which the title is perhaps more suitable.
(One of my favorite books that beautifully illustrates this on a larger scale about our choices and where we want to be in our lives is The Awareness Journey by Daniel Slot.)
The word “trap” in itself means to cage something in against its will. If that something escapes, it is not caged in and therefore the trap is not what it claims to be or do. By claiming to be in a victim “trap” we claim that we are in fact helpless. If one is given the tools to dismantle a trap, it is merely a box.
An historic and shitty event occurred accidentally in the world of psychology when psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier had been experimenting on dogs. One of the experiments was to have dogs associate an order of events; similar to Pavlov’s dogs associating hearing a bell before feeding time with the association proven by premature salivation in the dogs’ mouths. However, Seligman and Maier’s dogs were to relate a feeling of discomfort with the sound of a beep. In hindsight, this was neither kind nor well thought out. Rather than the harmless result of simple salivation, these dogs were faced with the unnecessary and repeated activation of their fight or flight response, one that drowns the nervous system with adrenaline, reserved only for the rare moments when one’s life is in danger and they need to survive. To activate it repeatedly depletes the system, lessens its affect, takes a huge toll on the body, brain, and emotional body as we are unable to function at a higher intellectual level (aka, Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs or the energetic body’s Chakra system).
We are given two natural options as animals when our survival is threatened; To fight by challenging the threatening stimulus resulting in either victory in which the threat is eliminated or personal death in which other than the loss of life, leaves us emotionally unaffected due to… well, death. The other natural response is if the fight response isn’t logical (aka, death is inevitable) we flight, or flee. As in, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE.
What happened after being repeatedly subjected to a stimulus the dogs could neither challenge or escape, is utterly heartbreaking and hauntingly familiar. They simply did nothing. They heard the beep. They remained lying on the ground, awaited the shock, whimpered through it, and did nothing.
Perhaps it can be supposed that if they couldn’t escape, they had learned their efforts were futile and that is why they now did nothing. But the repeat experience, over and over, brought about an unexpected outcome. Even when an obvious opportunity to escape was presented to them, the dogs remained on the floor. The trauma had solidified absolute helplessness in them. Because when we experience trauma, when we are unable to control a situation we cannot escape from, the result is worse than the death that naturally should have occurred had we failed at either fight or flight. We instead experience a true living hell; Living the rest of our lives after our hope has died.
This is learned helplessness. It doesn’t occur from our own mental abuse of ourselves or a habitual attitude of blaming others, backing ourselves into the victim corner. It is a neurological reaction caused by our inability to act.
When we consider the homeless, addicts, the people once close to us in our lives who seemingly just “gave up,” we are seeing the effect of learned helplessness. It is also a theorized cause of chronic depression; when one has no control over the outcome of an event in their lives of which they also cannot escape. Or war vets suffering from PTSD, unable to connect to their loved ones or to anyone.
Similar to any mental health diagnosis found in the modern day Diagnostics Statistics Manual, everything is on a spectrum. Because you experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar, or attention deficit disorder does not mean you need treatment or medication. It doesn’t mean you would even be diagnosed. But experiencing just a few of the symptoms, puts you on that spectrum albeit at the very low end of being affected. The populations mentioned in the above paragraph would more than likely be placed on the extreme opposite side of the spectrum of learned helplessness.
However, there is a spectrum. And more than likely, even on a minute and perhaps subconscious level, likely we have experienced a loss of hope after repeatedly feeling as if we had no control.
There have been a handful of times in my life where I truly felt victimized. Without the tools to physically fight, as many women are raised without, my response is simply to walk (sometimes run) away. As situations have proved, this isn’t always sufficient or an option, and I have in fact been faced with having to physically defend myself in the moment. I am ok. I have prevailed. I am grateful. But there is now something I must defend myself from every day since and that is my body’s (now natural and learned) responses to similar stimuli.
I cannot be scared anymore. I don’t say that as if I’ve developed a lack of fear and am now a tough cookie. I mean it quite literally. If a friend comes up behind me for a surprise, I jump about three feet, my entire body floods with adrenaline, I want to cry and throw-up at the same time.
Similarly, when I am walking alone at night when one such attack happened, or when someone stands too close to me at the train station, or someone who shares physical traits with a past predator makes eye contact with me on the subway, my body physically reacts.
These things haunt me. I can rationalize after the initial moment, sure. But what cannot be taken away is my developed physical response; fear. To me, this is the trap. And unfortunately, rather than the “victim” trap, which I feel illustrates that lack of control in the situation, a more accurate word that comes to mind is “prey.”
To have “prey” is premeditated. There is a target perceived as weak, a target vulnerable to intimidation. There is want to cause harm to another so that the attacker can feel powerful.
As a woman, if I find myself alone with a man or have a feeling that someone may be following me, or in any sense have felt unsafe or betrayed, I am shamed for expressing my concerns to men, even those closest to me. When in reality, I wish to God I wasn’t afraid. I wish my body didn’t begin to sweat, my heart-rate elevated, my skin blotchy, and all my senses on high alert. I can rationalize, yes. Not every time that happens means I’m in danger. But my physical responses say it’s happened too many times not to be on full alert. Because happening even once is too many times. I admit my anger for this, that I have been made to feel weak, unsafe, and essentially helpless, has made it difficult to have the patience to explain this to good men with good intentions and mere confusion regarding the women’s movement. I cannot be that person because it hurts too badly.
Even if its been 30 years which seems to be a popular excuse, I guarantee those physical responses are still present in that woman or man or person. A biological-level fear cannot be escaped. I can’t imagine men feel that way when they find themselves alone with women. Which doesn’t mean they’re “bad.” It just means they’re unaware of it or the frequency of it, when they already cannot relate to the situation.
Two opposite sides of a spectrum.
I would also like to note that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical attack to illicit this type of effect on a person. Verbal abuse is very real. The effects of sexual harassment are very real and go far beyond the moment. The same physical responses occur because they are on the same spectrum of sexual abuse. Even conversing about an event, a victim relives it. You will notice the physical signs. That’s in part, a very big reason why rape victims don’t want to speak in a court of law let alone come forward at all.
When someone is angry on any political platform, in any relationship, in any work environment, anger is a strong response to cover hurt. Chances are, what they defend has been their very real experience and they now have physical responses that make them feel as if they are under attack just by an associated subject being mentioned. And there is no compromise when a person is in that state.
We need understanding in our world now more than ever. We need compassion. We need empathy. We not only need it in our government but we need it amongst our people. Without taking control, without exercising our right to vote, without being emotionally responsible and going to therapy when we need it, without doing our absolute best to respect one another and certainly our human rights, we voluntarily step into the victim trap and throw away the key. The physical response trap stems from hate. Which we can only combat with our own compassion and awareness and standing up to bullying when we see it. Teaching our children to stand up to bullying when they see it. Teach both men and women how to defend themselves and children from a young age to treat others how they would like to be treated.