I’ve been practicing law over 21 years, and I’ve seen some horrible things happen to my clients and to their children. Adultery, lying about finances (and just about anything and everything else), verbal / physical / sexual abuse, betrayal — I’ve seen it all. I’ve even experienced some of it myself.
It’s easy to feel victimized by your spouse when you’re in pain. But what I’ve also seen, time and time again, is how staying caught in the cycle of being the victim keeps us stuck. No matter what the case or how terrible the circumstances, I always encourage my clients to stop focusing on their feelings of victimhood and take back their power.
I had a client who’d been represented by someone else before me. The case hadn’t gone well for her, and she’d been sentenced to jail time for contempt of court. This woman had been abused by a controlling and manipulative ex-husband, improperly represented by a young lawyer, and sentenced to jail by an unsympathetic judge. She had endured conditions in jail she that would shock you — they sure shocked me — and were intensely humiliating. By the time I met her she had withdrawn into herself. It was easy to see that her spirit had been beaten down before she ever opened her mouth. For the first half-hour of our meeting, she cried about all the things that had transpired during her marriage and trial. And, yes, they were truly bad.
I could have spent the next half-hour commiserating with her about what a raw deal she’d been given. But what good would that have done? Instead, I asked her to indulge me for a few minutes and to think of how she wanted to feel. She looked at me like I was a bit nuts, but I was willing to proceed unconventionally if it gave her a chance to feel better.
At first, she was simply unable to find the words to describe what she wanted. So I asked, “Do you want to feel like a victim?” Of course, she shook her head no. I said, “You want to feel powerful. You want to feel strong. You want to be able to handle anything, right?” Well, of course she did. But she hadn’t the slightest idea how. In fact, she gave me that classic deer-in-the-headlights stare.
“The first step,” I told her, “is to believe that you’re all those things.” And so we sat together for almost another hour and I asked her about what she’d accomplished in her life. She had an advanced degree. She’d protected her children. She’d had enough strength to leave the man who was abusing her. She’d chosen a new attorney with a great reputation (shameless plug). All of this was ample evidence that she was, in fact, strong and in charge of her own destiny. The heck with anyone else.
Months later, she came in to prepare for the new case we were putting together for her, and she looked completely different. She was resolute, bright and smiling. She was no longer the victim of her life. And it showed in her every smile, statement and gesture.
Yes, bad things are going to happen to us. I could write for hours about all the things I’ve been through myself. But if because of those things, I’d chosen to define myself as a victim, I wouldn’t have been able to go to law school, start a practice, and be here now with you.
We are the only ones who can define us, for us. Choose your definition for yourself.