Open Heart Surgery Into The Victim Mentality (Part 1)
Updated: Feb 4, 2019
I was inspired to write about the Victim Mentality because I have caught myself and others falling into this mindset more often than we'd like. This can have a profound impact on many aspects of our lives, from work and relationships, to how we feel within ourselves.
This is the first part of three. In this part, I will be going into depth to help us understand what is happening at every step of the Victim loop. You might find some passages more emotionally difficult to read as they delve deep into understanding negative emotions and patterns. But I feel drawn to explain it in detail rather than just write some self-help tips. I believe it's important to get a profound understanding of it, so that next time we see it, we can recognise it from a mile away before it happens, not when it's already sitting comfortably in the armchair of our mind, watching the drama that's unfolding behind your eyes.
If you prefer to skip over understanding the process, you can go straight to:
What is the Victim Mentality?
"I'm not feeling happy in my job, I'm constantly arguing with my partner, my sister isn't answering my calls and when I told my best friend about this, she just told me I need to chill out. <<Chill out!>> The one person whom I thought understood me! Oh, and on top of all that, my fridge broke and I now need to find someone to repair it and of course this means I can't go on holiday anymore! I'm at my wits' end! Why is this all happening to me?!"
Have you ever had an inner dialogue that resembled the one above? It can feel overwhelming when "everything's going down the drain" and we feel that we don't have support from the people in our lives.
"When it's raining, it's pouring!" - is what you might be telling yourself.
And what these situations attract with themselves is a feeling that we are stuck. A fear that the situation can't be salvaged. This often triggers stronger emotions inside us, like stress, panic, anxiety or even depression and we might just give into the thought that there's no point even trying.
And while the actual issues might manifest in different ways from time to time (maybe this time it's not the fridge, but the neighbour's cat; or not the sister, but the annoying colleague at work) life does have a way of sending us those apparently impossible puzzles with a somewhat regular frequency.
So... do they have a purpose?
Remind yourself of a time you felt stuck in the past. Or perhaps you feel stuck now. It certainly feels overwhelming and you can't see the way out. But if you're reading this article, I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say you survived it. And maybe you even managed to overcome it.
A great example of this are break-ups because they can be very emotional times. There's perhaps a particular break-up when you felt your world would end, that you're not worthy of love or that you will never meet love again. You might have felt hopeless.
And yet, somehow, you managed to overcome that moment. You picked up the pieces, dusted yourself off.
And you survived.
And after a while, you were able to smile again. And perhaps now you are even in a new relationship, and you might be happier than before. And perhaps enough time and wisdom has passed for you to feel grateful for that break-up and everything it has taught you - and the new opportunities it's created.
And while in the moment it might feel like everything and everyone is against us, we have glimpses of awareness from our past experiences that reveal the potential we as humans possess to overcome hardship. And unless you've lived in a cave for your whole life, protected from any life experience until now, I'm sure you're able to conjure up more than one example when you were able to overcome hardship.
So what IS this thing I'm feeling and what does this mean?
Ever notice that when you are feeling happy, fulfilled and empowered, things just seem to go your way? As if all the stars are aligned and everything falls into place naturally, with little or no effort? And even if the fridge breaks, you find a way to deal with it - your spirits are high and you find creative ways to solve the problems in your life?
We underestimate our potential to fix problems.
Sometimes it's not even the problems (or perceived problems) that are causing us to feel stuck - but how we look at them.
When are are stuck in a pattern of negative thoughts, or "Victim mentality", often it's not the circumstances or people that need changing - but our perspective.
"Victim mentality" or "Victim mode" is a concept that's often received with resistance or defensiveness. We might think "I'm not a victim! That person made me feel this way! It's not my fault!", or "This is just my luck!"
There are certainly situations outside of our control that might cause us to feel that way. If your house just burned down, we can't just tell you "Stop being a victim".
However, regardless of the control we have over the situation - or lack thereof - what matters is how we look at it. And that is within our control.
If you're struggling to believe that our perspective makes such a big difference, I'll give you an example. Victor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor. As far as hardship goes, the Holocaust goes beyond any imaginable (or unimaginable) hardship. I feel that "hardship" isn't even close to encompassing the pain that those people - the few who were fortunate enough to even survive - went through. Yet what Victor Frankl did, is something unique and beautiful: he found meaning in this experience. And he dedicated the rest of his life to helping others find meaning in hardship. You can read more in his book about the Pursuit of Meaning. He demonstrated that the perspective we choose in the face of hardship is within our control.
We might think that being in the "Victim mentality" is wrong, or bad, or that we're somehow weak, or not good enough.
But know that this is not true. And there is no judgement in calling it "Victim mentality".
Even the smartest, kindest and most successful people can fall in the grip of the Victim mentality.
So how do I know if I'm in the grip of the Victim mentality?
The easiest way to recognise it is by checking whether you experience any of the following: complaining, resentment, grievances, helplessness, powerlessness, excuses.
These are some of the main symptoms of the Victim mentality.
How about the dynamics between people when you get stuck in this "Victim mode"?
Why, I'm glad you asked!
When we feel helpless, we often attract people who will try to "save" us from the situation. People who are well-intended, perhaps our friends or family, who offer advice and support.
But when we're caught in the Victim mentality, our answers to the guidance or advice we receive might start with...
"Yes, but....", or
"I've tried that and it doesn't work"
In reality, what happens in those interactions is that they ultimately reinforce our position as a Victim and confirms to us "yet again" that there is no way out.
Let's take these social dynamics one step further. What happens if those well-intended people who try to "save" us happen to be someone close to us (let's call them Rescuers). Imagine the "Try this" - "Yes but" dynamic keeps happening over and over: what do you think might happen?
Chances are that the Rescuer might change their stance from trying to "save" us to putting us down. This is the Persecutor. The Persecutor might end up saying to us "It's your own fault you got yourself into this mess!"
Our focus when in Victim mode
"What you focus on determines how you act. In the position of Victim, you become hyper-vigilant, always anticipating the next bout of suffering" (David Emerald)
In Victim mode, our focus is on our fear and our anxiety. We feel uncomfortable in the anxiety; the anxiety moves us to do something to reduce it. Therefore, the anxiety in itself is a motivator to act. We can take some actions that will help shift the needle. And once the anxiety is reduced, our motivation to act is also reduced.
In Victim mode, we actually need a problem - that in turn causes anxiety - in order to get us moving.
When we act out of anxiety, involuntarily our behaviour will try to compensate for whatever we fear. If we fear our partner doesn't love us anymore, we might try to fight for them, showering them with affection and gifts. In turn, our partner might perceive us as suffocating and overbearing.
When we think our boss doesn't like us, our fear of being disliked will push us to go out of our way to please them so they do eventually start to like us.
People will notice these micro-changes in our behaviour.
I've been told more than once that "I'm trying too hard".
Reacting to the problem therefore reinforces the problem.
If you'd like to ground your understanding of the Victim loop through some theoretical principles, or learn how to break out of the Victim loop, read the other two parts: