If you’ve ever blamed yourself for something that was done to you, you’ll know what I’m talking about here. If you’ve ever said, “Well, it was really my fault,” when someone else hurt you, then this is all going to sound very familiar.
In psychology, the tendency for victims to see themselves as deserving the harm done to them is often attributed to just-world thinking: the idea that the world is fair, evil is punished, and good is rewarded. Therefore, if I was harmed, then I must have done something to deserve it.
I disagree. I don’t think it’s about just-world thinking.
Now, this is only my opinion. I’m not an expert and I haven’t read any rigorous studies on how victims come to view themselves negatively in light of the harm done to them. I’m only going on what I remember of myself and how I’ve reacted to things. So, I could just be a freak. Or not be remembering right. Or not be putting the pieces together correctly. But I think these ideas are worth considering.
I have several hypotheses about how perpetrators and victims think and feel in relationship to one another during violent interpersonal attacks. These hypotheses interlock. One of them has to do with how trauma affects the brain. (See The Scent of a Lion: Trauma and the Brain.)
If activity in our pre-frontal cortex is reduced during life and death situations (which it is), then I posit that our understanding of ourselves as separate and distinct individuals is also shut down to at least some extent. I don’t know what structures in the brain are involved in constructing our self-image, and I would imagine it’s a rather complex precess, but it seems like the kind of thing the pre-frontal cortex would have to be involved in.
In addition, if we were traumatized as children, our self-image and inter-personal boundaries would not have been fully formed in the first place. If you were very young at the time of a traumatic event, you may have had little or no sense of yourself as a separate person at all. Many people understand this to mean that we view the world in narcissistic ways as infants and toddlers–that we see others are extensions of ourselves. But that kind of thinking involves a sense of “me” in the first place, which I don’t think we necessarily have at that age.
What I think, based really only on what I remember, is that we see the world in a blurred way. We have thoughts and feelings and we sense the thoughts and feelings of others, but we aren’t always entirely clear about who is having them or where they are coming from. We may be clear that other people are distinct from us as actors and doers, but not as feelers and thinkers. We don’t entirely understand that everyone has unique motives, beliefs, and emotions and these may or may not be the same as ours. This doesn’t mean we assume they have ours, but that we don’t always know whose is whose, and we sometimes end up with other people’s feelings and views in our own heads without realizing that they aren’t ours.
Whether we were children at the time of traumatic events or adults, I think we revert to that kind of blurred thinking during traumatic events because of the suppression of the pre-frontal cortex. Our ability to sense motives and emotions is not affected–that’s a more primitive brain function–but our ability to understand who is having what feeling is.
And this goes back to another previous post, about how perpetrators think (Why Evil?). If someone who harms us sees us as being less than fully human in order to avoid their own empathic distress, we know at the time that they harm us that they see us that way. Their views will be evident in their expression, body language, and tone of voice.
But we may not know that it is the perpetrator who sees us that way and not us. The thought is out there, in a sense, floating around in the ether, without any particular owner or initiator. Later, when our brains are up and fully running again, and we try to make sense of the event, we may assume that the view of ourselves which is now strongly associated with the event in our minds is our own.
In other words, we introject the perpetrator’s view of us. It is not so much that we take the perpetrator’s view of us into ourselves and make it our own, as we don’t know whose view it is in the first place. It is simply there. So we assume it must be ours.
And if we hold that assumption for many years, other thoughts form up around it. Our view of ourselves as less than human, as undeserving and without value, becomes supported by other incidents in our lives. We act based on that belief, which sometimes also causes others to see us in that way. More evidence. Before too long, the views our perpetrators held of us in order to commit violent acts against us are firmly entrenched in our own minds as who we are.
So it isn’t really a surprise that all of the ways that perpetrators think in order to commit acts of harm against others are typically noted in the ways victims see themselves and come to understand violence done to them. For example, victims often see themselves as deserving ill-treatment. They feel guilty for transgressions that are imaginary or inflated or that they cannot name. They see themselves as less than human, as bad, or evil, or apart from society, or as simply having no value. And they often minimize or deny their pain, or fail to see it as being important. Just like the perpetrator did.
The perpetrator’s thinking can be like a virus. During a traumatic event, our immunity is down–our ability to keep our own minds separate and autonomous from others is diminished–and we catch it. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Violence is always about violation. When we lose our ability–even temporarily–to see ourselves as separate from someone who harming us, it is a violation of the mind and not just of the body.
Part of the healing from trauma involves rebuilding those shattered boundaries, and reconstructing our sense of being a separate person–putting what is the perpetrator’s outside of us, and reclaiming what is ours.
Also of interest:
Candida Abramson. (2011, December 20). Under My Thumb–Controlling Spouses, Part VI: The (Self) Blame Game. https://candidaabrahamson.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/under-my-thumb-controlling-spouses-part-vi-the-self-blame-game/
Lazarev, Sergei. (2011, September 10). The Alchemy of the Self. http://lazarev.org/ru/interesting/full_news/alhimiya_samoosoznaniya/
The Red Flag Campaign. http://www.theredflagcampaign.org/index.php/downloads/