Perhaps you have heard the not too complementary joke about psychotherapists; that the reason they get into psychotherapy is to solve their own problems. Well, speaking for myself, I can say that this is absolutely 100% true! Furthermore, I think the world would be a better place, if more people would take this approach: namely, seriously taking up studies and practices to resolve their own issues and become more of who they truly and authentically are. We do not have to look very far to see that most of the people we know, and particularly those in leadership positions at all levels, to realize that the way they are dealing with the world and handling (or mishandling or ignoring) problems in the world seems to be an outcome of their own unresolved problems, and is decidedly outwardly focused.
I have an ongoing curiosity to know what motivates some people to attempt to resolve their own issues while very many “blame” others for their difficulties. Of course, those in the latter camp see what they are doing not as ‘blaming’ but, rather, as accurately assessing where the problem lies: outside themselves, and within someone or something else—generally speaking, with the world. This tendency to blame the world outside for difficulties is strongly associated with assimilating a victimhood identity: “I didn’t do anything (problematic, wrong, causing trouble . . .)! I’m the victim here, and I’m not to blame.”
Indeed, we can be genuine victims of accidents or others’ intentions to hurt. In such unfortunate situations, one may have done nothing or little to invite, let alone cause, problems. One may be a genuine victim of misfortune or another’s wrongdoing. However, being a victim in this sense is not the same as accepting victimhood as a victim identity. Victimhood as an identity may start from being a genuine victim, but one can then evolve it into an identity that one chooses, without sufficient awareness, to wear: “I’m the victim.” How does this happen? Why would one let this happen? What are the ill effects or consequences of living within the victimhood identity? What does one have to do to resist and prevent this from happening, or at least perhaps more realistically to grow beyond this? I will use my own history to illustrate the case.
I experienced a goodly amount of challenge as a youngster, and I certainly didn’t think I deserved what came my way. I didn’t see that I did anything to merit suffering from the challenges I faced. Many days I spent feeling very sorry for myself and questioning, “why me?” I should add here that as a child I was indeed subject to circumstances that affected me negatively, with physical and emotional hurts and scars. The problem, in my case, lay in the reification of such circumstances into a victim identity that persisted into adulthood.
I wish I could tell you in all honesty that, today, after many decades of working on myself persistently and consistently, my victimhood identity has been completely dissolved and transformed. I am the first one to know that this is not the case. I can say, though, that, when I find myself hovering in the vicinity of the victimhood identity, my awareness kicks in almost immediately and recognizes the small very young part of me that feels very helpless and at the mercy of the world and anyone who I perceive as coming after me. From my experience, then, I can suggest that the potential to slip into the identity of victimhood when feeling very helpless and at the mercy of circumstances can be high.
Looking back, it occurs to me that one of the guiding hands that helped me not to slip into victimhood is my father’s explicit encouragement to not give up, and to fight. I do recall when I was in my teen years and telling my father about something that I was particularly distressed about. He advised me firmly: “you have to fight, Allan!” (My given name prior to taking Avraham as my name, which was the closest translation in Hebrew to Allan)” I could hear a bit of desperateness in his tone. Come to think of it, I would also say that there was some value and atmosphere in my family that suggested not giving up, but rather “pushing back.” Definitely, I’ve had that attitude increasingly throughout my life about challenges I have encountered.
Even with all my fighting and not giving up, the small voice of victimization within persisted and was reminding me of my inner darkness—my shadow material. At that point, I moved increasingly into directly dealing with my inner darkness. Over the years, I became convinced of Carl Jung’s words that elaborate that there is gold within the shadow and that this gold is waiting to emerge and be polished. This may sound magical and wonderful, and I was convinced over time of its reality and merits. But what was the actual process of discovering the gold within my shadow and polishing it?
The process included my searching for many things: soothing my pain; understanding my experience, especially the darkest and most hidden parts of me; and how I was put together and conditioned to have such experiences that included dealing with troubles in the ongoing martial art of relationship. Increasingly, over time, I was looking for deeper meaning, openness, honesty, authenticity, ways to matter and contribute, all with great hope, and wishing that all these would lead me to the ultimate meaning of everything. I came to call the multidimensional work that I was doing within myself, Inner Work.
Inner Work is not simply a cognitive work, like problem-solving or cognitive figuring out. So much of who we are and what we know is in the unconscious realm that is known mostly through images, metaphors, body sensations, intuition, energetics, subtle signals, and obscure and barely noticeable flickers out of the corner of our eye. My quest in the earliest days, which was mostly about relief from my discomfort and unhappiness, eventually led me to the pursuit of these elements that have been the territory of sages, philosophers, religious leaders, mystics, and truth seekers of all sorts.
I am engaged in an ongoing multidimensional search into how to be connected to myself, connected to another, feeling my connection to all others and all of being, exploring this through mindful, physical, emotional, and energetic aspects of my life and the integration of these. I am a seeker, for sure.
Further through paying attention to the old adage, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear!” I have come to understand this as meaning that my job is to increase my readiness along with associated awareness: as the teacher is always present and my challenge is to notice the teaching of the teacher in the moment and overall. So, really, what I’m doing is trying to fine-tune my instrument and that instrument is my whole being!
Increasingly, I find my work as a therapist moving far away from the usual realms of counselling and psychotherapy that are problem/solution oriented and, especially, that come out of a pathologizing disease-oriented perspective. The latter tends not to be concerned with full aliveness, alertness, joyfulness, ecstasy, and connectedness as substantial and meaningful goals. I believe that aliveness and alertness are key ‘symptoms’ of living fully in the moment. Imagine working with a therapist who is fully alive and alert, who is living fully in the moment. Someone whose very presence is healing by virtue of being an exemplar of a whole human being, perhaps more realistically stated a person who was obviously in the process of heading in that direction of wholeness. Wholeness, healing, and reaching towards optimal possibilities are definitionally connected. And imagine— whether you are a therapist, or not —increasingly becoming such a person.
The current reality is that very many of us are too exhausted and stressed out by the increasing demands of everyday life. Our aliveness and vitality are sapped and zapped into submission. Too tired to explore, investigate, experiment, or to think “outside the box,” we end up behaving like a machine–at best a half-broken one—that just repeats its moves again and again. What a nightmare! If you find yourself caught in this state, I would say that you are likely to descend into victimhood identity and live with a combination feeling of flatness and fearfulness.
In the most encouraging way possible, however, I would further suggest that you can move towards seeing the distressing symptoms as signals to pursue your own inner work towards personal freedom. I shall repeat, as I have done in many other writings of mine, the words of Don Juan the Yaqui Indian medicine man, written about by Carlos Castaneda in Journey to Ixtlan: “The ally will show up as your worst nightmare!”
What could I suggest that may help you to stay out of any victim identity and move towards being a seeker? Here are a few possibilities:
Notice the patterns of your experience. For example, I used to wonder, some years ago now, why it was that all my relationship choices seemed to manifest similar behavior. I invite you to ask yourself this question. I imagine you can guess what the answer was for me!
I have come to know that much of what causes my trouble is hidden from me: it’s within my personal Shadow. What I have come to know is that noticing the small flickering clues and then pursuing them accesses rich material for my work. For example, a person frequently has a heavy feeling but that is so normal for them that they do not even notice this experience. Noticing and questioning regular experiences is a way in. The art of discovering what is hidden in the normal is noticing how you actually are in the moment, especially body sensations and felt-sense, and investigating this way of being.
Entertain a healthy skepticism towards ways of being that ‘work.’ For example, a person is always smiling and expressing positive feelings. However, they may not be able to express negative or ‘hard’ feelings, and consequently frequently manifest a reaction that is not honest and authentic for the moment. Noticing what is missing is a clue to follow.
Remember the famous line about history that also applies to us. If we don’t learn from history, we are certain to repeat it; our personal history.
Discover patterns of ways of being; those that are generative and those that are degenerative and supportive of stagnation.
Buddhist psychology suggests that there are four states of being (known as The Four Immeasurables) that support healing and reclaiming one’s authentic core: 1) lovingkindness; 2) compassion; 3) empathetic joy; and 4) equanimity. In psychological terms: lovingkindness is treating yourself, others, and all dimensions of the world with friendly and authentic respect; compassion is having a kindly feeling towards yourself and others when suffering is occurring; empathetic joy is the feeling of happiness about your own and other’s happiness; and equanimity is like being centered and in a calm and clear state that enables you to be receptive to whatever you encounter in life. These are markers of being to have in mind as you work towards wholeness and freedom.
A final thought:
For most of us a felt sense that we matter matters. I don’t think it’s a big stretch to see that there is a strong interaction between this felt sense for ourselves and an ongoing process of contributing/contribution to others is a given.
Once again, many thanks to Heesoon for her help and support with this Field Note.