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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Of Victim Narratives and Radical Honesty

Image by ha11ok from Pixabay

Anna Lembke, medical director of the Stanford Addiction Clinic, has written a book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. It’s terrific and important. One of my favorite chapters is called, “Radical Honesty.” At the beginning she gets right to the honesty part by noting, “The average adult tells between 0.59 and 1.56 lies daily.” (Not sure what a 0.59 lie looks like exactly) For people caught in addictions it is much worse. They develop a Lying Habit.

The core lie of deeply unhealthy people, according to Lembke, is that they are victims who bear no responsibility for what they experience in life. “Patients,” she writes, “who tell stories in which they are frequently the victim, seldom bearing responsibility for bad outcomes, are often unwell and remain unwell. They are too busy blaming others to get down to the business of their own recovery. By contrast, when my patients start telling stories that accurately portray their responsibility, I know they are getting better.”

A bit of an aside (but maybe not really): many “leaders” or “influencers” today tell precisely this kind of story, a story of themselves as victims. They blame some others and accept no responsibility. I am thinking, of course, of Trump and Putin. They seem to have fostered numbers of people united by this ugly spirit of resentment and grievance (although there’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing here. Did these leaders foster such followers or the armies of victims give birth to such leaders?) While I mention these two on the right, both sides in the Culture Wars draw heavily on the victim narrative. Back to the main story . . . 

One of the great things about Dopamine Nation is that Lembke is forthcoming, though not in a cloying way, about her own life. So it’s no surprise when in the “Radical Honesty” chapter she writes about her difficult relationship with her mother. Seeing that Lembke’s resentments towards her mother were something she clung to in “a ruminative and addictive way,” her clinical supervisor and mentor suggested that they adapt the 12 steps of AA (in which he was active) to this problematic relationship with which she was obsessed.

While agreeing to “work the steps” in relation to this addiction/ obsession, Lembke says, “At first it was difficult for me to see any ways I had contributed to the problem. I truly saw myself as the helpless victim in all regards. I resented what I perceived as her inability to accept me for who I am, and my sense that she wanted me to be someone different — someone warmer, more pliable, more self-effacing, less self-reliant, more fun.”

A big part of working the steps is making a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” which means looking honestly at our own “character defects.”

“The truth is,” wrote Lembke, “I am anxious and fearful, though few would suspect that.” Anxiety led her to “maintain a rigid schedule, a predictable routine and slavish adherence to her to-do list” among other things. “Looking back, I realized it couldn’t have been pleasant for anyone visiting our home . . . including my own mother.” And yet one big source of Lembke’s resentment of her mother was that she didn’t visit often and hadn’t worked at developing a relationship with Lembke’s husband and children, even though such relationships did exist with her Lembke’s siblings and their families.

Then this: “As for my resentment toward my mother for wanting me to be different than I was, I realized with a sudden and blinding clarity that I was guilty of the same thing toward her . . . by demanding that she live up to some idealized vision of what I thought a mother and a grandmother should be, I was able to see only her flaws and none of her good qualities, of which she has many.” (emphasis added)

As you might expect, things began to get better between daughter and mother from there. It is a healing story, but also a story that required facing painful truth with radical honesty.

Take-aways: seeing ourselves only as helpless victims is seldom true and never helpful. Accepting responsibility is actually empowering. Facing our own “character defects,” is hard but liberating. Lastly, no big surprise, but still shocking . . . how often when we aren’t facing/ dealing with our own stuff, we put it onto others and judge them.

Lembke closes this story with honesty and grace: “I continue to try to practice this kind of truth-telling in all my relationships now. I’m not always successful, and instinctively want to pin the blame on others. But if I’m disciplined and diligent, I realize I too am responsible. When I am able to get to that place and recount the real version of myself and others, I experience a feeling of rightness and fairness that gives the world the order I crave.”

Church folks will connect our understanding of sin and the need for confession of sin and repentance, as practices of a faithful life, to all of the above. Kind of a weekly 4th Step in AA terms. That said, most churches and believers could do a lot better in focusing on our own stuff in truthful — “radically honest” — ways. We are often judgmental of others (see: log/ splinter thing).

Still, I wonder how much the loss of a healthy faith and of on-going practices of faith, like confession of sin, have contributed in contemporary American life to our recourse to victim narratives, even at the highest levels, i.e. presidents, senators, business executives and entertainment celebrities, etc.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. In your aside, you started a discussion about the larger societal implications of this line of thought. I’m guessing you have more to say about that, and it would be interesting to hear.

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