Numerous books and articles have been written under the title “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” referring to the narrative that shapes our perceptions and feelings. Perceptions of unfair treatment is one of the most common narratives couples describe in chronic miscommunication and unproductive conflict. Using this narrative we find comfort acknowledging that we were mistreated and can usually cite numerous examples of the other person’s bad behavior. Healthy examples help us practice compassion for ourselves and acknowledge our needs openly. Unhealthy examples tip into self-pity and resentment of the other party, inadvertently treating them like villains, which makes us the victim.
Acknowledging victimization plays an important role in recognizing patterns of abuse and gaining permission (from self) to escape. Outside the context of abuse, the victim narrative creates a paradox that perpetuates cycles of conflict. By assuming the role of “victim” over hurt feelings we make others responsible for how we feel. In one extreme we surrender our power and settle for the short term relief of self-pity. In another extreme become a fragile bully with our sensitivity, claiming offense until the “villain” makes amends. Seldom will we acknowledge behaviors described this bluntly because they are so subconscious we often don’t recognize the unintended manipulation in our reaction (“Don’t you feel bad for me? I’ll make you pay for that”).
At some level we know what we are doing. Parents often teach their children to “use your words” in lessons of individual responsibility and communication. The lesson to communicate overtly about what we want continues throughout life. Instead of playing games of assumption or complaining that “they should know better,” we can push past the discomfort and engage in the healthy conflict of asking for what we need or want. This might be the most honest form of relationship.
Matthew Gallagher, LCPC