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  • Reverend James Squire

The Power Of The Innocent Victim

Martin Seligman is the person who is the father of positive psychology, the latest significant development in counseling. He changed counseling from a disease model (what’s wrong with you) to a health model (what’s right with you). He is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Philadelphia Behavior Therapy Association. We met in an interesting way. I was teaching two of his children in an ethics course. I gave a presentation on what was covered in the course at a parents evening including a unit on positive psychology. Marty’s work influenced my teaching and counseling. He has published 30 books and 350 scholarly publications. Marty’s wife, was present for that evening. Following the presentation she can forward and said, “I have got to get you and Marty together. Would you and your wife come to dinner?” I have heard invitations such as this for many years with nothing occurring. Mandy was different. She called a few days later and invited Vicki and me to dinner. She asked if I would mind that leaders in education in England and Australia would be present as well. I said, “Not a problem!”

Later my oldest son and I would have lunch with Marty as they both discussed the nature of the attributes of people who thrived in life referred to as flourishing.

Marty’s claim to fame was his discovery of the phenomenon of “learned helplessness.” This was first done with animals in a lab where certain animals couldn’t get food without receiving a shock. Other animals didn’t get the shock and were able to keep moving across the shocking area to get the food. Finally, after getting shocked a few times the first group of animals in the experiment just gave up and wouldn’t cross the electric area that had been set up. Marty discovered that this phenomenon occurred in people as well. People learned to be helpless when they have been traumatized and didn’t feel they had any control over their lives. This led to depression. The other area where this occurs is people who control others by never giving up a victim mentality.

We have heard this phrase, “innocent victim,” many times since the onset of the war in Ukraine where innocent children and adults have been killed by the Russian military. We hear it as well when the mass shootings have occurred throughout our nation. None of these people deserved to die the way that they did. They were innocent!

But there is another variation of this phenomenon of the “innocent victim” that is a different expression of learned helplessness for in counseling one can discover the power of the innocent victim mentality that is very different from those who are innocent victims. It is referred to as “the power of the innocent victim.” People don’t often realize that there is incredible power in this role of innocent victim and it works against not only the victim but also against those around them.

Someone with a “victim mentality” can feel pleasure when they receive attention or pity as a result of their misfortune. They may get a perverse thrill from showing off the injury caused by others and creating a sense of guilt in those around them. Refusing to accept responsibility for a problem can be liberating as well. A modern-day version of this is periodic statements by Trump on how he is being persecuted by fake news and various hoaxes from folks who are attempting to discover criminal behavior on his part.

This can be a problem in counseling for the therapist because the client can cling to the sense of lack of responsibility and can manipulate others around them by producing guilt in the significant people who are part of their lives.

One of the important aspects for the counselor in any counseling situation is to pay attention to how the person makes you feel because they have an investment in you feeling a certain way. It’s called transference in counseling. The innocent victim mentality can leave others feeling helpless to do anything to help the individual. That continues to allow the person with a victim mentality to be in control of the situation which ironically works against them and the people around them. This sets up a circular pattern where they continue to control others by an “oh woe is me” attitude. How could you possibly expect me to take responsibility given what I have been through. The answer, of course, is to point out that they can’t control what others have done to them, but they can CONTROL THEIR RESPONSE. That is easier said than done.

However, there is a positive side to learned helplessness that has kept Sadie the Wonder Dog safe. We have an electric fence that covers our property. Before I purchased it from the fence people, I tested it on myself to make sure it wouldn’t hurt her. The electric shock surprises the dog. It doesn’t hurt them. They just don’t like it.

When I first telephoned the electric fence people, I told them that I didn’t think that it would work on Sadie. She doesn’t feel helpless or avoids anything. She is the embodiment of high energy. Quite to my surprise it worked. She doesn’t like surprises even if a steak is a few feet beyond the fence line.

The fact that it works for Sadie gave “learned helplessness” renewed belief on my part regarding Marty Seligman’s important work in psychology. It keeps her safe! Good for Sadie, but not so good for people who suffer from those ailments discovered by Marty Seligman that lead to depression as well as the power that can hurt individuals who have a victim mentality that also hurts those people around them.

When you hear Mr. Zelensky talk about innocent victims in the war in Ukraine, think about innocent people suffering through no fault of their own. When you hear Trump whining about fake news and hoaxes, think about a victim mentality where someone wants to control others and not take responsibility for his actions. There is a world of difference between the two perspectives.

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