A few years ago, I met someone new at a party. I’ll call her Sara. After we talked for a while, Sara shared with me that she had just gone through a bad divorce and was left in a mess. I listened for a long time and validated how Sara felt. I felt awful for her.
As I was driving home that night, I found myself worrying a lot about my own future. Sara was about ten years older than me, and although I didn’t want to, I could see myself ending up in her situation somewhere down the line. I didn’t feel secure that I could avoid it.
And it occurred to me that there was a time in my life, when I was a teenager and maybe in my early 20s, that I would not have been as understanding of Sara’s situation. Instead of responding with validation, I might have said things like, “I would never do that!” in response to some of the choices Sara had made. I would have blamed Sara for putting herself into the situation, even though what her partner had done was not okay. And in responding that way, I would have protected myself from worrying that the same thing could someday happen to me.
In some ways, life was easier before I developed more empathy for people. It was easier to have a somewhat victim-blaming mentality, because it made me feel more in control of my own life. If I saw someone in a situation that I didn’t want to be in, thinking that it was the person’s own fault made it easier to reassure myself that the same things couldn’t happen to me.
Developing more empathy and understanding has made it easier to connect to other people and form deeper relationships. And at the same time, it’s made it much harder for me to brush off my personal fears with, “That would never happen to me.” I’ve had to work harder on feeling in control of my own life and feeling secure that I’ll make the choices that are right for me.
When we find ourselves victim-blaming other people, thinking that something bad that happened to someone must have been their own fault when we know deep down that it wasn’t, it’s important that we take a step back and ask ourselves why we’re doing it. Why is it important to us to think that the person we’re talking to must have somehow caused their own crisis? A lot of times, the reason lies within our own insecurity. We like to think that people caused their own problems so that we can feel safer, more in control, and less worried that the same bad things could happen to us.
If I had told Sara that the mess she was in was her own fault, I would have walked away feeling reassured that her situation would never happen to me. But I might have made Sara feel awful. We would have lost the opportunity to connect and potentially become friends. And when I look back on it now, I’m not sure that feeling reassured in that moment would have actually protected me against ending up in Sara’s situation later on. The fact that I had to confront my fear and think about what I could do to prevent Sara’s situation from happening to me was probably more helpful in the long run.
It’s important for us to recognize when we might be victim-blaming due to our own fears and insecurities, and how we can work through our feelings while still validating other people's experiences.