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Caught in the Victim Role? What Discussion Reveals

Updated: May 26, 2020

The sixty men taking our Path of Freedom class at the county jail had just completed the exercise in the workbook, “How Much Do I Ge Caught in the Victim Role?” As we began discussing responses, an inmate in his fifties, raised his hand. He moved forward in his seat, his forehead creased in puzzlement.

“These here questions on not talking about an injustice or about how someone did you wrong, can’t talking be a good thing? I mean, I never used to talk about my feelings and took all the blame on myself.” He went on to say that he had suffered bouts of depression at various times in his life, including a serious one after his wife died while he was serving his sentence.

“Us men, we ain’t supposed to share our feelings, that’s the message we get, but can’t that cause problems? It caused me problems when I used to stuff things down.” He compared himself to suitcase stuffed too full so that the next little bump made it spring open and explode over everything. He bravely went on to say he learned through therapy that sharing his feelings allowed him to let go and move beyond them.

This inmate’s willingness to speak openly gave us the opportunity to discuss the difference between telling stories that maintain a victim mindset vs. sharing honest feelings, and between stuffing emotions vs. holding our seat. Had he not shared his struggle, we might not have known how he, and potentially others in the class, were interpreting the questions.

Here’s another question in the Victim Role exercise has led to lively discussions: “Have you ever said ‘It’s not my problem’ and expected someone else to deal with it?” More than one inmate pointed out that taking on problems that weren’t directly their own led them into trouble, and sometimes into jail.

One man said he realized that he started as a rescuer, then felt like a victim, and he would have been better off had he not tried to solve others’ problems for them. “My kid’s mom, she’s always having problems.” His face was both pained and energized as he shared his experience. “She needed things, I gave her the little I had. My wife didn’t like that. She needed a place to live, and I got to where I was living with both my kid’s mom and my wife. That’s a situation nobody wants to be in! I rescued my wife a lot, too. And, I was doing nothing to help myself.” (He struggled with addiction.)

We talked about various ways that question could be interpreted and the importance of setting appropriate boundaries when necessary.

A question that challenges me as an instructor is, “Have you ever felt like you don’t get the respect you think you deserve?” The word “ever” is what gives me pause. If someone frequently feels disrespected, that may well be an indication of holding a victim mindset. But in our culture, virtually all African-American men (and women of all colors) have encountered times when they endured disrespect from prejudiced individuals. How can I say to our African-American students that a “yes” response means they’re caught in a victim role? There’s something healthy about feeling they deserve more respect than they have received. Of course if one gets stuck on deserving anything, a problem arises. But that’s a point that requires explanation.

Our experience with the exercise, repeated each time we offer it, is that discussion is essential to resolve various interpretations of the questions. Even with some disagreement, most students have been astonished to see they had answered yes to all or most of questions. The end result is more awareness. An excellent outcome for an exercise.

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