Those who exhibit SBCMB tend to seek to make themselves into the greatest victim in any situation. If somebody in their sphere of influence expresses to them discomfort, emotional hurt or pain—even hurt or pain caused by the person exhibiting SBCMB themselves—they will often shift the conversation so that the “real” issue becomes their own hurt or pain, which they portray as bigger and more in need of empathy. This can happen either overtly—e.g. through breaking down emotionally, walking out of a room, suddenly talking about their own extreme depression or anxiety—or more subtly—e.g. through a gradual shift in the topic of conversation, so that the personal hurts expressed by others become sidelined or seemingly irrelevant and petty, and the main issue becomes the hurts experienced by the person exhibiting SBCMB.
This behaviour of portraying oneself as the greatest victim can give a person a great deal of relational power. It wins them support, sympathy, and moral authority—even more so since victimhood tends to be privileged in our modern world. Of course, it is quite right and natural to show compassion and sympathy to genuine victims. However, those who exhibit SBCMB can hijack this natural sympathy, always laying claim to the sympathy of others by portraying themselves as the greater victims over against others who might otherwise have a legitimate claim. This is not necessarily a conscious activity; as far as we can tell from our personal experience, it seems that those exhibiting SBCMB have such a distorted view of personal reality that they truly believe that they are in need of more sympathy than anyone else in most situations. Thus, when they relate to genuine victims—including and especially victims of their own SBCMB—they tend to consistently “win” the victim game, so taking the support, sympathy and moral authority that might otherwise be given to others. Since they are so good at doing this, it is very difficult to oppose their view of themselves, and to defend other victims, without feeling (and/or being seen to be) guilty of being uncaring and ungracious towards the one who has portrayed themselves as the greatest victim.
This behaviour manifests itself in various ways and at various levels of seriousness. For example, you may notice that the person expects great empathy from you in many situations, but fails to show the same level of empathy to you when you face similar or worse situations. You may notice that when you share your own feelings of hurt or hardship or joy with them, they respond to you in a way that is entirely focused on their own feelings and effectively ignores what you have said about yourself. You may notice that they amplify their own personal hurts while downplaying or ignoring others’ pain. You may notice that several people in their sphere of influence who have a genuine and legitimate grievance against them don’t follow through with that grievance, because they end up regarding it as petty or illegitimate in comparison to the larger hurts being suffered by the person exhibiting SBCMB. You may notice that if you or anyone else becomes a source of frustration for the person exhibiting SBCMB, or a blockage for their plans or projects, they regard this as a morally serious issue and make a great deal of it; but conversely, if they are told that they are a similar source of frustration or blockage for others, they dismiss the issue as being unimportant or simply ignore it. You may notice that if you publicly express any legitimate concerns about their behaviour, they dismiss such concerns while quickly complaining about being victimised.
An illustration: Making themselves the greatest victim
A person involved in leadership whom we know was criticised for his leadership. In the course of defending himself, he shared a story about a woman who had broken down in tears in front of him, unable to stop crying. He then described how the woman had complained to her friends about his unreasonable demands on her. The woman’s complaints (as he described them) actually seemed quite serious, and he made no attempt to deny them. But for his purposes, the complaints against him were evidence that he was being treated badly. That is, he viewed the woman breaking down in tears and expressing her concerns to others about his excessive demands primarily as an important piece of evidence that, he claimed, obviously demonstrated how irrational people were victimising him and causing annoyance and problems for his leadership. He presented the story as evidence for how patient he had been with such bad behaviour, thus to elicit empathy for himself. However, he appeared to show no empathy for the woman and her struggles, nor any sense that there might be a legitimate issue with his own behaviour that he needed to address.
Read the next section: Resisting and transgressing personal boundaries
Copyright © 2021 Lionel and Bronwyn Windsor
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