The Price of Victimhood

By Stanton Peele 07/29/14

Gabor Maté focuses people on their inner victim.  But most people’s problems stem from their perpetual sense of being victimized.


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Gabor Maté is the Canadian physician who has written of his experiences working with inner city addicts in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Maté’s theory is that all addiction stems from trauma, as do virtually all mental and physical illnesses, and that people need to concentrate on this pain.

I admire Maté’s empathy with victims. Such empathy is an essential tool for assisting people. But I don’t find that addicted and other stalled people neglect their past hurts. Rather, I find they are usually mired in these hurts and feelings of victimhood.

Anyone who has tried to help people, professionally or otherwise, is impressed with the bitterness in people’s experience, how often they blame other people and past events for their pain and failure, so that these “traumas” become all-purpose excuses that both limit them in going forward and explain their failure to do so.

From childhood, all the negative experiences and even “the absence of sufficiently positive ones” that Gabor finds cause lifetime trauma:

“My mother neglected me,” “My father yelled at me,” “My parents never praised me,” “My step mother/father didn’t care for/threatened me,” “My parents didn’t provide me with the opportunities to develop,” “I was bullied in school,” “My brother bullied me,” “I was never encouraged to find a calling,” etc.

At work, people find themselves constantly thwarted, undercut, and not sufficiently supported, which has prevented them from succeeding:

“My boss always criticized me,” “I didn’t get credit for my work,” “My suggestions were ignored,” “I wasn’t in the ‘in’ clique in my office,” “I’ve missed a tremendous number of opportunities because of others,” “Jill, Joe messed up their part of the project,” “I wasn’t given the right equipment, parts, help to succeed,” etc.

In their intimate relationships people feel deprived, not sufficiently loved, the recipients of various forms of abuse:

“My spouse, lover, partner didn’t really love me,” “My spouse didn’t support me,” “Women always wanted me to curtail my dreams in favor of security,” “Men always want to be in charge,” “My spouse only wanted to spend time with his/her friends/family,” “He/she was never receptive to what I wanted,” etc.

These expressions are so common that every therapist/helper must develop ways of dealing with them. For example, a motivational question inviting contradiction from the client might be, “So you’ve been a victim your whole life?” A therapist who believes in letting people give vent to their feelings might say, “Describe every person who has hurt you and how that pain persists.”

This latter might seem to be a Maté-type technique. But the purpose of it isn’t to identify abuse the person has experienced so much as it is to allow people to feel that they are being heard and to move beyond their grievances. Identifying trauma isn’t the goal of therapy, but rather getting out from under victimhood.

That Maté and similar style therapists and theorists dominate our era in thinking about addiction and other psychological issues suggests a culture-wide theme of people focusing on their hurt and victimhood. That is, trauma psychology is more a demonstration of our individual and cultural problems than a solution for them.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.

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Stanton Peele, Ph.D., J.D., is the author (with Ilse Thompson) of Recover! An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. His Life Process Program is available online. His book Addiction-Proof Your Child is a model for the emerging area of harm reduction in addiction prevention. Stanton has been innovating in the addiction field since writing Love and Addiction with Archie Brodsky. He has published 12 books, and has won career awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and Drug Policy Alliance. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.