“Pain that is not transformed will be transmitted.”–Richard Rohr

Healing hands with love & light

When I was a child, I had a complicated relationship with my mother. She tended to fly into rages with little external provocation, or so it seemed from my brother’s and my perspective. In retrospect, I understand she likely was feeling fear internally.

This pattern seemed to create an imprint that recurred in every significant relationship in my life. My reaction was to feel victimized by the onslaught, which was an understandable interpretation for a vulnerable child. What was complicated, was that I interpreted most people’s anger as a personal affront, in other words, I saw them as perpetrators to be feared.

When one has an imprint this early in life, the awareness accrued from the repetition of this sort of behavior can provide an effective way of clearing the pattern, it just isn’t very easy. My first husband had a rage issue that was exacerbated when drinking alcohol, which he did frequently under stress. I can vividly remember pretending to be asleep, to avoid a confrontation. During an intensive group psychotherapy session, when I was describing a scenario where I was clearly being victimized in my marriage and another group member commented that she had played the role of my husband as “the bad guy,” with her husband. I can remember being shaken from this “victim trance,” because this was a woman who I cared deeply about; she clearly was not a “bad” person. In that moment I was able to see how we are good people, but we get into these archaic patterns with others and act out our unconscious trauma.

Although it would be a long time before I could become completely conscious about this pattern, the genie was now out of the bottle. And not only was this insidious pattern illuminated, but I was now aware that I had complicity, the implication being that if I had a part in it, then I could be part of the solution as well.

Although this pattern of feeling victimized followed me through, probably every significant relationship in my life, my relationship to the “inner victim” began shifting as I was including EMPATHY into the mix.

Dismantling The Victim–Perpetrator–Rescuer Triad

Once I was able to see my group member as having been a “perpetrator” in her past relationship with her husband and child, I could see how anyone could “play” this role; they didn’t have to be a “bad” person. After all, I had empathy for this woman who had been rigorously doing her inner work. It was in this moment that my fear and shame turned into compassion. Eventually, I was able to bring this compassion to myself and then to my former husband.

I began to realize that entering into what has been called the victim/perpetrator dyad was an archaic and tragic attempt to 1) get one’s needs met and 2) release unconscious trauma, I began to see this pattern recurring everywhere in my relationships. Once I began to see this, I was able to begin to dismantle this source of suffering. You cannot change what you do not acknowledge.

The character development of all compelling dramas have these aspects. In human relationships, however, this pattern becomes a defense to cover unconscious pain. It distracts and avoids the tension that authenticity can provoke. In that way, as drama escalates, intimacy decreases. When this pattern is operant, suffering is assured.

The Only Elixir Is Love

For nearly a decade, I have been working with nonviolent communication, a body of work that diffuses conflict through accessing empathy. Empathy towards others was less challenging than accessing empathy toward myself. Initially, it was like breaking a self-destructive habit, of knee-jerk self-condemnation. It took much practice, and continues to, to cultivate self-love. Without the love and empathy for my own pain, I could never transmute the victim/perpetrator pattern, thus perpetuating suffering.

To live life authentically, one has to accept our human flaws. This is not an easy proposition, but fortunately, while we are in our human bodies, we have the time to practice. Living life with less suffering, is a powerful impetus to practice authenticity which can only blossom through self love. Whatever “curriculum” is present in your field, a challenging relationship, a disability in the form of illness or injury, the ingredients are there for transforming suffering into Love.

The only requirement is the desire to courageously face one’s inner demons, our unhealed, unconscious trauma from the past. After all, living with less suffering and more love is the outcome. Why wouldn’t we choose that?