Recently, I’ve been doing some work with an organisational client on the Drama Triangle. Stephen Karpman’s famous model is now in its 60s and still creating ‘aha’ moments for people and teams.
I often ask groups to tell me which corner of the drama triangle they know most well by standing on a large model of the drama triangle in the room. What I’ve noticed is that the ‘victim’ corner is often most empty. Many organisational leaders pride themselves on not playing the victim. They may see victim-like behaviour in others and judge it harshly. Seeing others as incapable or weak, they may rescue them or persecute them and in doing so, feel superior. I’ve got curious about the this. When a leader sees victims everywhere but in him/herself, what is the cost?
When I encourage clients to talk about the victim role, there is often a curl of disgust on their lips. Words such as ‘needy’, ‘downtrodden’ and ‘useless’ are spat out with a screwed-up nose, as if a bad smell was in the air. This distaste is completely understandable. There are obvious downsides of victimhood in life. We may see victim behaviour in others as a blocker to progress in organisations. Those who resist or complain are seen as slowing the pace or not getting on the bus. If we get stuck in our own victim mode, we might be consumed by worry, terrified to take risks or responsibility. And this stuckness might feel hopeless.
But the victim holds some hidden gold that I want to draw attention to. It has helped me on my own developmental journey to find what there is to appreciate about my inner victim. The victim archetype is sometimes called the ‘orphan’. This simple change of label is helpful. It is a reminder that we have all been defenceless in our early lives. Even if we have escaped adverse childhood experiences, we all know in our bones what it is like to be completely reliant on others, unable to fend for ourselves. There are five gifts that can be learned from the victim archetype.
Gift One: Compassion
The experience of defencelessness has within it the first gift; the ability to see that everyone matters, just as they are, even when they are vulnerable. The gift is compassion. The victim archetype has no defences and no pretences. The victim part of us is innocent and worthy of care.
Gift Two: Realism
Our inner victim is realistic, it knows that bad stuff can and does happen. When bad stuff does happen, our victim can say “so there it is”. It does not deny that bad things happen or rail against them. This gives us a head start in coping. This part of us wastes no time wishing things were otherwise.
Gift Three: Savvy
Our victim has an early warning system for exploitation. When balanced with other sides of ourselves, this provides just enough savvy. This savvy can help us protect ourselves and others.
Gift Four: Interdependence
Our victim knows how to get help. A dependent baby knows how to cry for sustenance, it the most effective support-magnet in human society. When we let our victim archetype balance our heroic, self-sufficient sides, it helps us build interdependence with others. It can stop us becoming an island.
Gift Five: Resilience
One of the fears we have about getting friendlier with the victim part of ourselves is a fear of collapse. But our victim did not die – it is a survivor. It’s fragility and defencelessness hides a kernel of deep resilience. Our inner victim may have gone through some major stuff, it may fear annihilation or abandonment, but it lives on, unextinguished. It represents resilience in the face of what might seem unbearable, and the hope of emerging stronger.
Integrating the inner victim is not an easy piece of personal development work. But I think it’s essential work for leaders. If we don’t know our own vulnerability, we will project it onto others and continue to persecute or rescue our colleagues, both of which are deeply disempowering behaviours.
With gratitude for and due credit to the work of Carol S Pearson.