Fear of who I would be

A client’s problem with “giving up my victim”
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What approach would you take with a client who has “a deep fear of giving up my victim, for then, “Who would I be?”

Considering yourself ‘a victim’ is a perspective on a situation which can develop into a perspective on life. The question is, do we also have the choice to be other-than-a-victim?

I don’t mean to diminish the terrible things that happen to some people, rather I am aiming to highlight that how we perceive ourselves, as a victim (or anything else) is a relationship between one’s self and the world. Which begs the question: how would we like to relate to the world?

I also wonder, is it possible for someone to completely ‘give up’ their capacity to be a victim? I doubt it since the capacity to feel victimised is within us all.

My take on this client statement is that their fear may not so much be about being a victim, but more about the consequences of not being a victim. If we stop considering ourselves as a victim, what then would we have to do? And what would we have to not do anymore? What are we actually giving up?

When a fear is strong enough then just attempting to consider what we would like can be a challenge. However, that’s not a reason to not ask the question – quite the opposite.  One of the main reasons Penny Tompkins and I put so much emphasis on facilitating a client to state a desired outcome is because this can prompt reactions from those aspects of their system that would rather stay the same.[1] As these manifest the client can self-model them directly.

But what if stating a clear desired outcome is not yet within their capacity? When they recognise that their victim is a perception of a relationship, that knowing can be embodied (in metaphor), and they can then set an intention to relate to the world in some other way – even if they don’t yet know what that is. If they set an intention, the contradictions in maintaining a victim position are likely to become more and more apparent. But maintain it they will – if it serves them enough. You may only be able to take a horse to water, but the more times you do the stronger the message gets. Until, hopefully, the horse realises drinking is in its own long-term interest.

“For then, Who would I be?” is a question that creates a perpetual bind.[2] How can they know the answer until they are that person? Again, there is a choice: They can either continue being who they are for many years to come (which presumably is unsatisfying), or they can evolve into the unknown. Only at that point will they be able to decide whether their new identity is satisfying enough, and if not, the process will need to continue.

I have found that, paradoxically, before a person can evolve their identity they often have to acknowledge who they are – warts and all. I am referring to a deep acceptance of ‘what is’.[3] When we accept in this way, change is relatively easy. I am not suggesting acceptance is a precondition for identity change (whatever that is), I am saying this is what I have observed happening in a numerous cases.

The bottom line is, do we really want to change? Of course not. We all have a wish that our problems would just go away. However, when that doesn’t happen, sometimes we are prepared to do what it takes. Then we can start doing little things that are aligned with our preferred identity. Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t messing when he said “Be the change”.

If we are unsure what our preferred identity is then we can make a best guess, try it out and get some feedback from the world. Then we’ll know whether we want more of that, or to try something else instead. This may be difficult and painful, but no one ever said that change had to be easy, simple and painless. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Again no one can know until after they have attempted to make the changes.

A couple of archetypical patterns seem to be involved here:

(a) The need to know how things will be before taking an action to change when there can be no prior knowledge or guarentees. Change is a risky business. And being scared of change is just part of the process. As I see it, recognising, acknowledging and embracing our fears and still stepping into the unknown is what the path of personal development is all about. And it doesn’t matter whether we are at the beginning of the path or 20 years along.

(b) The common belief that change needs to occur inside before there can be a change in external behaviour. This is particularly prevalent within many psychotherapy schools. I believe that change can also happen by changing the outside which in turn will influence the state of our internal world. From a systemic point of view ‘internal’ and ‘external’ work as a single system. That means they work in tandem, each simultaneously influencing the other.

How can we make small behavioural changes at the same time as working to evolve our inner world? This approach has a valuable byproduct. If we start to make changes behaviourally then our system may react to what Stephen Covey in, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls “our private victories”. And the manner in which we react will be information about where we need to put our attention next. On the other hand, if we can’t make even a small change then what prevents us from doing so will also be where our attention needs to go next.

Pursuing this approach can eventually lead us to one or more core patterns. The answer to: ‘What would you like to have happen?’ then becomes the direction for our next developmental step. Naturally our system will divert, distract, ignore and use hundreds of other ways to not address this question. That’s okay. Once it is established which patterns need to be focused on, then we can learn to face the issue – or to decide we not yet ready. Either way, it becomes our choice – and that’s a change.

[Amended 31 Jan 2011]


1. Coaching for PROs

2. What are Double Bind?

3. Accepting Acceptance

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