A victim, according to Webster’s dictionary, is a person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, killed, cheated, or fooled by someone else, or harmed by an unpleasant event.
Everyone gets attacked, injured, cheated, fooled, and harmed during their life — if not physically, then emotionally. And everyone gets harmed by unpleasant events. We’re all victims, in moments, to life’s challenges and difficulties — life’s lifeness.
It’s psychologically healthy to acknowledge the suffering and feelings of powerlessness that accompany such experiences. And yet, there are those people who feel like victims all the time, regardless of their circumstances. Those with a victim mentality are always being victimized, at least in their own mind. They maintain a consistent victim identity and see life through perpetually victim-tinted glasses.
We all know people who seem to be constantly commenting on some injustice done to them — how others are denying them what they need, want, and deserve, controlling them against their will, and making them do what they don’t want to do. Or how life is against them and the universe is designed to punish them, personally. Perhaps you yourself are someone who experiences life this way.
Neither feeling like a victim of life, or loving someone who’s convinced they’re the victim of life, is easy. Both are painful. Consider the following people, and storylines, all of which have shown up in my office...
Mary and her husband, Phil, are leaving on vacation. Mary has done all the booking but has asked Phil to confirm the taxi pickup time. The morning they’re scheduled to leave, Phil (who knows the flight time) nonchalantly mentions that the car is confirmed for a time that's too late to assure making the flight. Mary asks Phil if he corrected the time, to which he responds that she must have booked it at the too-late time, because it’s what the company had in their log.
Mary is frustrated, confused, and angry. In response, she decides to do nothing about the car pickup time and instead opts to stew in rage and fury at her husband. She spends the remaining three hours before the car comes constructing a victim narrative in which Phil is controlling her and stealing the vacation she booked, earned, and deserved. As she sees it, Phil’s decision to not change the car renders her powerless to get what she wants. She decides to take the chance to keep the pickup time as is, potentially missing her flight and giving up her vacation — all this to hold true to her victim identity and prove that her husband is out to destroy her happiness.
Peter’s narrative is that he’s always being controlled by others' demands and that his life is never his to decide. One recent morning, his adult daughter expressed feeling cold in the house (while wearing a t-shirt) and asked Peter if he knew of any way to raise the heat because it appeared to not be working. This sent Peter into a full victim mentality and its accompanying rage.
He was certain that he was being intentionally controlled by his daughter, and also that he now had to spend the day figuring out how to fix the heating system so that she would not have to feel uncomfortable. He was convinced that if he didn't immediately attend to her problem, he would be punished and blamed and held responsible for her unhappiness.
He was, as he saw it, a victim to her needs with no say over his own life. Just the previous day, he had fought with this same daughter about his having had to clean her room because she wasn't doing it herself, and the fact that she was ungrateful. She responded that she didn't care if her room was clean: That's why she wasn't doing it, and that if he was doing it, he was doing it for himself. Peter screamed back, "I have to do everything for everyone in this house, and everyone else gets to do what they want to do."
Lisa has not had a day off work in a month, in part because of her own choice and in part because of the company’s busy season. When her much-awaited day off finally comes, she awakens to the pitter-pat of rain on her roof. Lisa spends the first two hours of her first free day in a month torturing herself with thoughts about how God is always punishing her, and the universe is against her. All she wanted was to lay outside on a blanket. Was that too much to ask? Obviously.
For Mary, our friend about to miss her flight, victim mentality stems from an inability or unwillingness to take ownership of her own wants and needs. Regardless of the poor choice her husband made, Mary wanted to catch the plane. She wanted to feel relaxed on her way to the airport. She wanted a vacation. She also wanted a husband who would make sure the time of pickup took care of her wants. Three of these four wants were possible; one was not. But instead of taking charge of getting what she wanted, which would have been as simple as picking up the phone and changing the pickup time, she used her energy to fight (in her own mind) with her husband about why he was doing this to her, and why he was taking away her vacation.
In the case of Peter, who has to drop everything to correct his adult daughter’s chill and clean her room because she won't do it for herself, victim mentality is caused by a sense of powerlessness unrelated to the situation at hand. Someone like Peter starts off feeling powerless and then projects that onto the other, who becomes the one intentionally disempowering him. He lacks the ability to tolerate his daughter’s discomfort without feeling responsible for fixing it. What’s absent, too, is an awareness or curiosity about the root of his real powerlessness, the powerlessness that’s already there before he creates the story of who’s controlling him at the moment. And, similar to Mary, he’s missing an ability to respect and take responsibility for his own needs and wants, which include not wanting to spend the day fixing the furnace.
In the case of Lisa, her victim mentality is a kind of negative narcissism— that is, she has a belief that the universe (and other people’s behavior) revolve around her. Everything happens for, against (mostly against), and in relation to her. And she simultaneously thinks that God, and other people, share a primary intention to punish her.
How to Break Free From Victim Mentality
1. Take ownership and responsibility for your own needs and wants. Determine what you want and what’s important to you. Name it, and do what you need to do to make it happen — for yourself. Don’t waste time blaming or getting angry at those who don’t want or need the same things you do, don’t wait for them to come on board or help you get what you want. Get busy taking care of what’s important to you, and leave the others out of it.
2. Practice saying “no.” If you don’t want to do something and don’t (realistically) have to do it, don’t do it. Remember that you are allowed to have needs, just like other people.
3. Stop blaming. When you hear yourself going into blame stories, whether against other people, the world, life, whomever... say “stop” to yourself out loud, and actually turn your attention away from your blaming thoughts.
4. Become aware of the root of your sense of powerlessness. Before you construct the next narrative on who’s stealing your power, get curious about the underlying feelings of powerlessness that precede all situations.
5. Be kind to yourself. When you’re blaming the universe and life for your suffering, you’re not actually attending to your suffering or helping yourself feel better. By claiming the victim role, you are intensifying your pain. With victim identity in play, you’re not only suffering because of whatever happened, you’ve now added to that suffering the fact that you don’t get what others get, because you’re cursed, life and everyone in it is out to get you, and basically the universe hates you. (Feel better?)
6. Turn your focus to helping others. When you’re in victim mentality, the whole world is about you and your pain. Acknowledge your suffering with kindness, and then consider how you can help another being. As counterintuitive as it may be, the more you feel deprived, you more you need to give. Offering kindness is the surest antidote to “Poor me.”
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7. Practice gratitude. Victim mentality focuses you on your suffering, specifically what you’re not getting. Try flipping your perspective and focusing on something that matters to you, that you do enjoy, and that you do "get." Shift your attention from what you’re missing to what you have.
8. Write a list of the ways you can change the bad situation. When you feel like a victim, you convince yourself that there’s nothing you can do to change your circumstances, but that’s almost never true. Get busy with how you can try and improve the situation, even if it feels impossible.
9. Practice empathic listening. When listening to other people, try listening with the intention of feeling what they’re saying from inside their heart. Stop focusing on what you need to do about what they're saying, what you think about what they’re saying, or anything else that has to do with you. Listen as if you were just ears hearing, without putting yourself in the way.
10. Practice forgiveness. When you play the victim role, you’re deciding to hold onto bitterness and anger and the certainty that you’ve been wronged — often without even investigating what the other's intention may have been. Instead of poisoning your own experience with resentful thoughts, try practicing compassion and understanding for the other. Start a new habit: make dropping resentment and trying out forgiveness a daily practice!
There's nothing good about living as a victim, or with a victim, but with awareness, a desire to change, and new habits, you can outgrow the mentality. A life lived with gratitude and kindness is far better than one of resentment and bitterness at the short end of the universe's stick. Empowerment and self-command are available to everyone, and with a new attitude and new behaviors, they're yours for the taking. The first step is simply to decide that you're ready to stop being a victim. Are you?