Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coaching Lessons: Victims No More

A few weeks back one of the commenters on this blog asked whether I knew about Tana Dineen's 2001 book, Manufacturing Victims. I answered that I did not, but that I would soon remedy the defect.

Now I have read the book I can see why the commenter referred it to me. Dineen argues that the psychology industry-- the foundation of what I call the therapy culture-- has been in the business of manufacturing victims, of making us all feel like victims, so that we would be more prone to seek out therapy.

She sees a world where ordinary lives are transformed into melodrama, and where we are told that we have been crippled by unprocessed childhood trauma. If you do not think you are a victim, you are even more of a victim, even more damaged, because you are in deep denial. In the world created by the psychology industry we are all victims and all in need of therapy.

Dineen offers something of an answer to a question that animates Russell Bishop's recent columns on victimization. As Bishop asks, what purpose does it serve to complain all the time, to see yourself as a victim. Link here.

Of course, complaining does not serve any real purpose. It does not help you to move your life forward. It does not pave the way for new accomplishments.

What, then, does it do? Beyond making you apt to undergo therapy, complaining makes you a member of the therapy culture. It allows you to feel like part of a community. You gain entry and membership by transforming your life into a guilt narrative where you are on the side of the saints and angels. The new narrative gives your pain meaning, but it also gives you a stake in its continuation.

I was reminded of Dineen's book this morning as I read Bishop's latest column on victimization. Link here. He sees the problem from a slightly different angle, one that is very constructive. I was struck by his observation: "It occurs to me that many of us are trying to complain our way toward improvement. I find myself wondering what would happen if we could engage one action step forward for each complaint issued?"

Not only do you not accomplish anything by complaining, but Bishop adds that complaining causes you to ignore all chances to take effective action to change your circumstances.

In his words: "... hidden in the complaint was also a kind of demand and sense of entitlement that I deserved better, that the world owed me a better set of circumstances. Not only did I want things to be better, but someone owed it to me."

There it is, the sense of entitlement that underlies all complaining and grievance-mongering. The more you believe you are a victim the more you will believe yourself powerless to do anything about it.

As Bishop adds: "The key is to translate all the energy that goes into complaining into some kind of action."

And also: "The vital question moving forward has less to do with what happened and whom you can find to blame, and more to do with what you can do now that something has happened to you. Indeed there are many ways to respond or react."

Some people have been victims of crimes or circumstances beyond their control. Perhaps you are among them. The crime was real; hopefully, the punishment received by the perpetrator will also be real.

But victimhood can easily turn from a state of mind into a state of being. At that point you will want to confirm your membership in a community of victims and you will even compete with others to see who is the greater victim.

How do you cease to see yourself as a victim? Bishop offers two types of response, two ways to deal with the pain of trauma.

The first belongs to cognitive psychology. In it a person asserts that he is not going to bemoan what he has lost but embrace what he still has. You cannot see yourself as a loser while you are affirming the value of what you still possess.

The second is more telling and more compelling. In the last column linked above, Bishop quotes a woman named Kelly who wrote to him to explain how she overcame a frightening series of misfortunes and traumas, both non-violent and violent. Kelly is unemployed, has run out of unemployment benefits, lost her dog when her house burned down, was raped twice and gang-raped once. And yet she has gotten herself through it all.

Bishop asserts that he finds Kelly's approach to be extraordinarily profound. I do too.

In her words: "Everything that has ever happened to me happened to who I was then. Not who I am now. I'm not denying anything or avoiding anything. I grieved, I raged, I cried, I moaned, I complained, I broke things, I hid in my bedroom and allowed myself to do what I needed to do, to go through what I needed to get over it.... I've never forgotten any of the things that have happened, but I don't wallow in them. I don't wear them like a badge or like armor."

The therapy culture would have us believe that experiences, especially traumas are meaningful, and that we can exorcise their negative influence when we understand them and weave them into a coherent narrative of who we are. It counts traumas are among those events that make us who we are, and tells us that we need to gain an awareness of what they have added to your personae.

Kelly has another approach, one that is far more profound. She insists that these traumas did not really happen to the person she is today. She does not take herself to be responsible for traumas, because she did not choose to make them happen, and, she is unwilling to read her dreams and fantasies as evidence that she wanted them to happen. Surely, they did happen. But, they happened to someone else.

Is she thereby dissociating? I think not. I think she is saying that they do not reflect on her, that they do not say anything about her character, but that she conquers them when she asserts her good character by putting them behind her.


Ralph said...

There was a book published a couple years ago called "The Last Well Person". It was written by Nortin Hadler, a doctor who has some rather unconventional views of the idea of medicalizing more and more aspects of life. He believes that many of the drugs and procedures routinely prescribed don't do much to increase overall wellness and longevity.

His view of most who go to the dr. with muscular aches and pains is that they are really coming into the office saying that they cannot cope (in a mental way).

It was an interesting read.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I too believe that we tend to overmedicate problems. I was reading today about a new book-- sorry, but I can't remember the name-- that suggests that overuse of anti-depressants has actually caused some emotional problems.

And, thinking in terms of the placebo effect, what effect does it have if you go to the doctor and he can always find something wrong, something which needs treatment.

I also agree that many of the people who go to physicians are really saying that they cannot cope. Doctors, unfortunately, are not trained to help them learn to cope.

Dr X said...

"the psychology industry-- the foundation of what I call the therapy culture-- has been in the business of manufacturing victims, of making us all feel like victims, so that we would be more prone to seek out therapy."

This is baloney. It's your fantasy about psychology. The talk show world and books promote a victim centric-view, but this is not fundamentally how psychologists see the world. The idea that the psychology discipline promotes victimhood to lure people into therapy betrays your total ignorance about what psychologists do.

Certainly there are cases of victimhood that damage people psychologically--chronic sexual abuse and some traumatic experiences. But there are many other life difficulties that have nothing to do with victimhood. Most of the work we do falls into the latter category.

Ever heard of positive psychology? Ever heard of cognitive-behavioral therapy? Family systems? Psychoanalysis? At their core, none of the major systems are victimhood-centric.

I can't help but wonder if you're actually the self-promoter in this in this scenario, denigrating psychotherapy to persuade your readers that coaches can provide everything they need.