I still remember my first visit to Disneyland and how each section, representing a particular theme, was so effectively done that it captured my imagination and I had to remind myself that I was in a make-believe world, not a world of reality. I’ve come to believe that there are certain family histories, dynamics and dysfunctional patterns that lend themselves to family members getting caught living in a particular “state of being” that is comparable to existing in a psychological theme park. One example is living in a theme of victimization.
Imagine that you’re walking down the street when suddenly a stranger approaches you, points a gun and robs you. According to the standard definition of a victim – “a person who suffers a destructive or injurious action” – you have become a victim. Hopefully, you recover from the trauma; deal with any physical and/or emotional problems connected to the experience and get on with your life.
Being stuck in a “theme of victimization” means that an individual continues to exist in a world where one is consistently involved in some aspect of a destructive or injurious action – as the victim, or as the individual causing the harm, or as some other individual who might have tried to help. It also means that those who exist in that world are often unknowingly active participants in continuing to maintain a theme of victimization. To explain further, let’s use the metaphor of going to Disneyland.
We go past the outer gates, leave the real world behind and enter the psychological space of pretend. Here there are several different “lands", each devoted to a particular theme, such as fantasy, adventure or the future. Everything in each land remains true to the nature of its theme: the costumed characters that greet the visitor, the rides, the music, even the food served in the restaurants. Each themed land is self-contained, everything within it consistent with its dominant theme. For example, it would be heresy to have a cartoon character be part of a ride in the land of adventure, or have a fairy tale heroine living in a house of the future. The cardinal rule is that no character can ever leave their designated themed land.
Being stuck in victimization is like being stuck in a psychological space – a “psychological theme park” - with characters consistently acting in keeping with the theme of victimization. As previously mentioned, there are family histories that are particularly effective in influencing the general theme of victimization as well as the specific patterns of behavior.
Like the primary cast of characters in a real theme park, such as Snow White in Fantasyland or Davy Crockett in Frontierland, there are three main “characters” in the “theme park of victimization”: the “victim”, the “victimizer” and the “rescuer.”
Although each family’s history is unique and results in individualized versions of each of these three characters, I have found that there are certain histories that seem to be particularly effective in creating an on-going theme of victimization. One is a history of actually being victimized. Examples include groups or individuals victimized by war, consistent aggression, consistent exclusion or domination. Another is a history of living in chaos – an environment that feeds feelings of victimization. And another could be when one particular member of a family is designated the “victim” or “victimizer” by the other members of the family. A “rescuer” is usually the one committed to helping the “helpless victim.” Remember, like the rules of a real theme park, the cardinal rule of a “psychological theme park” is that no character can ever leave their designated themed land. The trap to avoid is assuming that parents or other family members are necessarily “bad guys”, for each has their own personal history that can and will influence the children in ways that reflect that history. I’ll discuss these issues in greater detail in Part Two of Living in a Psychological Theme Park.
Because I find that actual case histories are effective in clarifying the issues and dynamics being discussed, I’d like to share the story of Sarah. Sarah had recently started college and was feeling totally overwhelmed. She was falling behind in her classes and her grades as well as her interest in the subjects of study were being affected by her disappointment with some of her professors who, she felt, were not showing much interest in their students. She was encouraged to get some help by her academic advisor.
Soon after therapy began, the word “potential” became significant. It was a word she had heard throughout most of her school years. She did, indeed seem to have a high degree of potential, but she also seemed to consistently get caught in something that negated it; a car that consistently broke down; a term paper that got lost; a zipper that got stuck forcing her to be late for an important exam, and so on. I began to feel that I was experiencing a live version of an old television series centered on the crazy antics of the heroine. As we continued to explore her childhood, it became clear that the same pattern had played out during most of her school years, i.e. the bike that broke down, the school papers that landed in the washing machine, even the zipper that got stuck.
There seemed to be nothing unusual in her history that offered any insight as to what she might be caught in. Her mother and father had met in college, had married and seemed to offer Sarah a stable family environment. Both parents, according to Sarah, had fairly normal childhoods, with her father emigrating, with his mother, to this country when he was eight or nine years old. Sarah was particularly close to her father even though he had been unavailable at times because of his work – he worked for an international agency that re-settled refugees and had to travel overseas several times a year. Sarah spoke of her mother as caring and involved and didn’t believe she had been affected as a child by her mother’s struggle with chronic anxiety.
One day, Sarah came to a session complaining of “feeling awful and terribly hung over.” She had been out with friends the night before, had had much too much to drink and had passed out. Her “drinking too much” seemed suspect to me and I pressed the issue, including asking her two key questions: “Did you drink too much, or enough to pass out?” and “Is there any reason why you would need to pass out?”
Our sessions now focused on those two questions. To find new clues for an answer, Sarah began to ask more pointed questions of her parents and discovered a different reality. Further questioning revealed that mother’s anxiety had been more debilitating than originally acknowledged and was deeply rooted in the chaos of her family’s functioning. This led to her mother’s need to minimize any challenge and to avoid taking any risks. Father’s history changed to include a crucial piece of his history. When he and his mother immigrated to this country, they were the only members of their family to have escaped and survived the Holocaust. The father’s professional life, devoted to rescuing people, seemed to me to be tied to the emotional and psychological impact of that horrific experience.
Our questions about her drinking too much and passing out were answered when both parents’ history merged and Sarah said: “I guess I needed to see who would rescue me.”
Her father’s professional life was devoted to rescuing people and Sarah was in a constant state of needing to be rescued. Her unhappiness with her professors wasn’t because they were disinterested, it was because they were unwilling to rescue her. Sarah was caught in needing to be rescued in response, I believe, to her father’s powerful need to be a rescuer and her mother’s message of passive existence. It also raised the important question of whether her father had unknowingly been caught in living in a theme of victimization, playing the role of the designated rescuer of people deemed helpless victims. His wife was victimized by her anxiety and Sarah’s potential was victimized by haphazard negative occurrences, as well as by responding to her father’s role of rescuer by needing to be constantly rescued. Each of them had assumed a role in their psychological theme park.
William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The goal of breaking free of the power of a psychological theme park is, I believe, to acknowledge the past, recognize its power, heal its wounds and keep the space within oneself, as well as the space between oneself and others free of the negative psychological themes of the past. In Part Two we will journey to a place were victim, victimizer and rescuer all unfold into a special place I like to call Victimland.
This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including future blogs of other psychological theme parks. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope you make an early break from being caught in victimization.