Any sane person looks for external evidence about who they are and how their behaviour impacts on others. However, a person in a toxic environment may be dealing with a chorus of voices telling them they are awful. This might happen in a family context, in a school or workplace, or anywhere else one person with little power can be made scapegoat, or whipping post. For the person who is fundamentally kind and well meaning, this sort of feedback can cause immense distress and psychological difficulty. And if the harder you try, the more you fail, the more distressed you will become, and the more you may feel you have to stay and make up for your mistakes.
This is a common domestic abuse scenario. The innocent party in all of this may feel personally responsible and may come to believe that they are a terrible person who really must try harder to fix everything. It can be very difficult to find your way out of one of these. I honestly have no idea how anyone does it alone. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard others share tend to suggest that friendship, and the people who refuse to buy into the scapegoat story are key to getting out of one of these roles.
Blaming and shaming isn’t just something that happens inside small, abusive groups. It happens on a much bigger scale with the blaming, shaming and gaslighting of the poor, the disabled, migrants, the mentally ill, the unemployed. We live in a time where those with most power routinely punch down, and blame those who suffer for that suffering. Collective resistance is the only possible answer to this.
If you’ve been cast as the villain in someone else’s story, how do you tell what’s going on? How do you tell if you’ve been obliviously awful? Have you been indulging a sense of privilege and do you now feel hurt for being called on it? Are you more upset about being called out than about the harm you may have caused? These are not easy things for a person to judge. Wounded pride and challenged privilege tend to get defensive at this point. People who mean well try to sort things out, make amends, and improve.
Here’s something it took me a long time to learn. If you’re the sort of person who listens, learns from mistakes, tries harder, says sorry and means it… then you will still fuck up now and then. But, you’ll sort it out mostly. You’ll move forward if you’re dealing with people who allow that. If you’re trying, truly trying and nothing you do is ever right, or good enough, then the odds are that you aren’t the problem here. If you can get it right with some people and not others, look hard at that. The odds are it’s because some people meet you half way, and some people don’t. If you’ve been cast as the villain, you will never be allowed to put things right and move on.
It look me years to establish that if someone was ok with me, it was not simply because they didn’t know me well enough yet to hate me. Sometimes, you have to collect a lot of evidence before you can demolish a role you’ve been cast in against your will. There are plenty of people out there keen to make others responsible for their own shortcomings. If you’re kind enough to internalise that, they will keep shitting on you, and telling you that the shit is your own.
Being a kind person doesn’t require you to keep on being kind when people are routinely shitting on you. It is perfectly reasonable to move away from people who can only criticise you, and for whom you are never good enough. Even when that’s family members. It is perfectly ok to give your time and life to the people who see you as a good thing. Trust them. They may not be labouring under any illusions at all.