This post was originally published on July 24, 2014.
“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.” — John Gardner
These words resonate with me a good deal. For years, in fact, victimhood has been a very powerful drug for me. Since a rather young age I felt like a burden to the world, devoid of a meaningful voice. Growing up, those feelings only became more tangible; my parents seemed to not understand me, friends repeatedly made fun of me and partners emotionally drained me. So in my teens I arrived at to the only possible conclusion: If there was a God, he hated me. This is quite dramatic a scenario—a very ungrateful one, too—given the fact that I survived my past fairly unscathed. However, it took me years of therapy, an intense mindfulness practice and working with a new sponsor to understand that playing the victim was just another of my coping strategies to get through life. Turns out that being a martyr and blaming people for my miserable existence is an addiction—and one that only today I am finally kicking.
“Can you see the pattern, Alice?” I recall my old therapist asking. I still lived in Italy and wasn’t sober. I actually wasn’t remotely interested in recovery at that time; I was actually waiting for another prescription of Xanax and, ideally, her magic words to fix me. The only theme I could see was my recurrent misery and people hurting me. For some reason, I’d tell her, I always ended up in a weak position, whether it was at work, with a man or with friends. When she suggested that I might be getting something out of my victimhood, I felt outraged and insulted. Now I know that she was referring to the psychoanalytical concept of secondary gain.
As I got older, I only became more and more the stereotype of self-pity; I considered my problems unique and would act on them with subtle, passive-aggressive and masochistic behavior to punish anyone I perceived as the enemy. I was so paranoid that I only considered one possible outlook on life: tragedy. People were either out to get me or, when showing something remotely close to care, only being charitable. Self-pity was ugly and never healed my wounds, but it seemed to anesthetize them somewhat. However, just like every other drug, its effects wore out quickly and always gave way to the same withdrawal symptoms: shame, depression and resentment.
Every journey in recovery has been slow for me. And the most important lessons are those that I keep learning during the times of struggle. Finally seeing a shift and taking a stand against the martyr syndrome was an important step for me, so evident in its manifestation that I can easily pin it down. A month ago, I met with my publisher and opened up to him about some work frustration I’d been having. He gave me wise advice in return and the meeting ended up being very successful. But when I got home, I felt the urge to apologize to him for having spoken up—that is, to send him a victim email. But before hitting send, I paused. I asked myself whether I had done anything wrong. Apologies come as a consequence of an erroneous act; I had only been myself with somebody who sincerely cared, somebody I work with. What was the real motive behind my desperate need to apologize? I did not send the email.
The act of constantly apologizing has been until recently one of my subconscious tools to make myself subordinate to other people and also how I manipulated them into having to care for me. But that day I broke the pattern of enabling the twisted role-playing.
The truth is that self-victimization never yielded any positive result, and its effects on my psyche have been as detrimental as those of other substance abuse. I am still not sure whether I was trying to escape harsh judgment coming from others or if I simply needed protection (which I never found anyway).
My mindfulness teacher tells me that it’s like training a puppy to not jump on the couch; by following the same strategy, I have to train my brain to drop old and unhealthy thinking patterns that don’t serve me anymore. There is a voice in my head screaming at me every day. According to it, I am worthless and nobody loves me, and if I listen to it, I can transform into the selfish, bitter and martyr Alice overflowing with self-hatred and envy. I can excel at that—I did it for years.
So although the sick whisper hasn’t disappeared, today I have the choice of not buying into my thoughts. Today I know that life doesn’t happen at me. I make that choice when I go grocery shopping and think people are judging me or when I deliver a column, send out an interview request or even when I (rarely) go on a date. This process, I believe, is not only empowering and self-loving, but it’s also an act of love toward the people who care for me. At the end of the day, it is a reward to look in the mirror and see the reflection of a person I am still not familiar with, but am actually starting to like.