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The Persecutor-Victim Paradox


Explanations > Behaviors > Bullying > The Persecutor-Victim Paradox

Persecutor thinking | Victim thinking | Stepping sideways | See also


Sometimes it seems people are either persecutors or victims. But sometimes they are both. And they can be either.

Persecutor thinking

Persecutors are the bullies of life. They may not think of themselves that way, but this is how they act as they belittle others in pursuit of their personal goals.

Persecutors enjoy the sense of control from their actions. They enjoy power for its own sake, in the way a miser loves gold. They like to consider themselves superior, with a higher social status.

Persecutors may well have beliefs about people that say 'it's a dog-eat-dog world, you have to fight to survive'. A tough, deprived upbringing could support this. Yet there are many wealthy persecutors also.

The winner-or-loser attitude leads persecutors to conclude that if they do not act in such dominant ways then others will do the same to them, making them the victim. They see life as a pecking-order and that they are either going up or going down this essential hierarchy.

Persecution of others not holds back the victims, ensuring they stay lower on the social order, it also sends a tiger message to others who might try to make the persecutor a victim. 'Do not persecute me', it says, 'I am strong and will make you a victim'.

Persecution can also be seen as the persecutor projecting their bad feelings onto the victim, who is objectifed, turned into an impersonal 'thing' that can be attacked without transgressing common values.

In this way, persecutors are often terrified of being victims and may take to persecution largely to hide their very real sense that they are themselves a victim in some way. Quite possibly, they were victimized when they were younger and are either running away from this and punishing the victim as a substitute for their former selves (or, perversely, maybe their own persecutors). It is in this complex system of reversals that the persecutor-victim paradox may be found.

Victim thinking

Persecutors need victims. Victims are the object of the persecutors' attention. It is by comparing themselves with the victim that the persecutor knows they are superior.

Perversely and controversially, persistent victims also need persecutors, although they seldom think of it in this way. When persecuted, a victim can absolve themselves of responsibility for their lives, blaming all the bad things on their persecutor. They can excuse lack of personal effort and achievement, citing how the persecutor is ruling their lives, preventing them from doing anything. If the persecutor is not actually doing this, the victim can blame more general things, such as 'stress'.

In other words, victims can regress and stay safely in a child state, where they are responsible for nothing and where adults are to be feared and obeyed, yet who will also provide in some way. This unwritten benefit that victims gain is another part of the paradox.

Victims can also engage in unwitting games such as Poor Me or Save Me. Perhaps the most common game that gets played is the Drama Triangle, where the victim is 'saved' by a rescuer.

People can become locked in their victim mentality as much as the persecutors feel they must continue their role. This does not mean that victims are happy people. In fact, they are likely to unhappy. They see no other way and gain enough succor to stay sufficiently satisfied with their lot. Like many people, when they are not unhappy enough to change, the momentum of the current state persists.

People can stay victims all of their life. They can be seen in the battered spouses who never leave, the people at work who like to complain as they seek sympathy but who do nothing to change their circumstances, and those who almost deliberately become 'losers' and never really try to achieve their potential.

Victims typically see life as being either victim or persecutor and so may become persecutors, for example as children grow and feel stronger. There are many stories of the 'worm who turned' as the victim summons up the courage and stands up to their persecutor. Surprised at their success, they may press home their advantage and so flip into a persecutor state.

What must not be forgotten in this patterning is that the victim is often an unwilling and unhappy participant and may as much a victim of circumstance as of the persecutor. To blame the victim for their position is to misunderstand. The persecutor deserves far more blame, although, paradoxically, they also may feel trapped.

Remember also that 'victim thinking' here is about repeated patterns that trap people into a state of mind that perpetuates victimhood. It does not reflect infrequent situations where people become victims because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Stepping sideways

Stuck in the patterns of victim and persecutor, as a surprising number of people are, it can seem that there are only two choices in life, and perhaps that some are fated to live in just one of these whilst others have some fortune or capability to gain superiority.

What is missed in this dilemma is that there are alternatives. When you see life of black, you can miss other shades. And when the shades are just points along the gray from black to white, the potential for the whole spectrum of color may be missed.

It is possible to get off the persecutor-victim treadmill and step sideways into many other roles where the person is neither. Perhaps surprisingly and perhaps not, this realization can be quite a revelation to many.

Transactional Analysis (TA) brings in the notion of the parent and child states that are in all of us, including where the adult becomes persecutor and the child the victim state. TA deliberately adds the intervening adult state, which is neither adult nor child, and neither persecutor nor victim. Adults stand up to bullies, but will not seek revenge. They assert their rights and act with independence and humanity.

Helping those who are being bullied and also those who are doing the bullying often means moving them sideways into this alternative universe. It means helping them find a more fulfilling life where they can be far more than victim or bully. In effect, it is about helping them grow up.

See also

Transactional Analysis, Psychoanalysis, The Drama Triangle, 'Poor me'  Game, 'Save me' Game, Blame Game, Status Game


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