I grew up in a family that had it's fair share of dysfunction and problems.
Out of respect for my siblings whom I love, I won't go into all the details, but there's enough material for the makings of a sequel to Osage County. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but only slight.
Someone once told me I should write a novel using my family members as characters. That was after I told her about a distant cousin who poisoned his obese and petulant wife and hid her sizable body in an upright freezer. He told the judge he killed her because he didn't believe in divorce.
Fortunately there wasn't anything quite that dramatic in my immediate family, but there was enough craziness to merit years of self-work in adulthood. I DID experience love and support from both of my parents, and that's a foundation that can heal many wounds.
Nevertheless, I'm sure I'm not alone in suffering pain and emotional trauma from childhood experiences. In fact, every single one of us, even those born into emotionally healthy families, have something that scarred us along the way. If you're alive and have reached maturity, you can't escape it. Life simply presents difficulties that cause deep and lasting pain.
I will openly admit as a younger woman I sometimes used my childhood “story” as a way to gain sympathy and as an excuse for my behavior. It's hard to escape this when you get feedback from people who validate how much you've suffered and how hard it must have been for you. For the moment, or maybe for many years, it feels good to have someone look at you with sympathetic eyes or give you a pass when you fall apart or act irrationally. I succumbed to the victim mentality.
Over time, you begin to see how hitching your wagon to this distant story is tethering you to a self you really don't want to be.
But eventually, your story only goes so far regardless of whether it began in childhood or later in life. Over time, it becomes a very distant story — one that happened so long ago you can't really remember if the details are truly the details or only your retelling of the details. You are simply in the habit of feeling and behaving like a victim. And over time, you begin to see how hitching your wagon to this distant story is tethering you to a self you really don't want to be.
Please don't think me insensitive.
I know how certain childhood and adult life events can stick with you for the rest of your life, no matter how much therapy and self-work you might undertake. There are some experiences you never forget and that trigger a flood of emotions in the most unexpected scenarios. For some people, wrestling with these emotional demons is a daily battle. I'm not trying to undermine this real and true pain.
I do believe, however, that as adults we must reach a point of reconciliation with our stories. Eventually we come to a fork in the road when we're faced with a choice. Is our story just a story — or is it who we are?
If we continue to allow our childhood pain, or any pain for that matter, to define us and serve as the reason for living a compromised life, then we'll forever be stuck in a victim mentality.
What is a victim mentality and what does it look like?
Victim mentality is a learned personality trait in which a person feels powerless and unable to cope or take action in difficult situations. This person tends to see him/herself as a victim of the negative actions of others, and continues to feel this way even after the negative situation or actions are no longer real or relevant.
Quite often the sense of powerlessness is learned behavior originating from childhood when core needs were not met adequately. That's why this mentality becomes so ingrained — it's had lots of time to simmer.
But any negative, traumatizing event that makes us feel powerless can foster a victim mentality. It becomes a coping mechanism to survive fear, pain, and to reclaim our basic psychological needs of safety, love, affection, belonging, and self-esteem.
Unfortunately, it's not a very attractive or empowering mindset. Here are some of the behaviors of a person with a victim mentality:
- tends to blame others and won't take responsibility for themselves or their actions
- assumes others have negative intentions or “have it out for them”
- views other people as happier, luckier, or better and has a “poor me” attitude
- tries to elicit sympathy or pity from others by feeling sorry for themselves or telling (sometimes exaggerated) stories
- acts helpless and isolated in order to avoid discomfort or responsibility
- tends to have a negative outlook and sees “the glass half full” even when their lives are good
- can be defensive and self-absorbed
- often focuses on the past and blames past events for current circumstances
- unwilling to take risks with an exaggerated fear of negative outcomes
- focuses heavily on problems and with complain about them with others
- tends to reject constructive criticism or attempts to help them move past victimization
- exhibits low self-esteem and self-confidence
- expresses feelings of shame, self-blame, and depression
Even though one with a victim mentality might feel some short term pleasure from getting sympathy, avoiding difficulties or discomfort, or reliving past events, that's pretty much all they get.
Over time, people with a victim mentality become creepy and off-putting to others around them. Their blaming, stories, and negativity get old, and the people closest to them begin to feel manipulated and uncomfortable.
As adults, regardless of the pain we've experienced in the past, it's our responsibility to our loved ones, and more importantly to ourselves, to initiate healing, self-awareness, and positive change. We must be willing to seek appropriate help and support; find useful coping mechanisms for dealing with pain and fear; and step out of our comfort zones to take the risk of being vulnerable. This is the only way to empower yourself and move from a victim mentality into a state of self love and self acceptance.
Letting go of the victim
If you see any of the traits of victim mentality in yourself, the first step is recognizing how this state of mind is kicking your butt and stealing the joy from your life. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from remaining a victim. Self-empowerment is the most liberating, exhilarating feeling in the world.
Here are some steps toward releasing the victim and regaining your power:
All change begins with awareness. When you recognize yourself as someone clinging to a victim mentality, and you see how it's holding you back from living a full and happy life, you've taken the first step toward recovery. Of course self-honesty is essential. It may be embarrassing or uncomfortable to admit you have this mindset, but it is truly a courageous shift toward growth.
In order to heal and move past your inner pain, you must forgive. You must forgive other people who have harmed you, and you must forgive yourself. Holding on to anger and pain doesn't change the past or change the person who hurt you. It only poisons you with resentment and negativity. Make a daily decision to forgive and be determined to live a successful and happy life in spite of your past.
Make a proactive decision to no longer allow your story to serve as an excuse for anything. Take personal responsibility for your choices and behavior. Empower yourself as the CEO of your own life.
Your past pain is only one part of your life. But you have so many other experiences, people, and things to feel happy about. Identify everything you are grateful for in your life right now. Write them down, and mentally or verbally express gratitude about them every single day.
If you've been dealing with a victim mentality for years, it will take some time to shift to a new conscious mindset. Be patient and loving toward yourself. Acknowledge your efforts and successes and be gentle with yourself when you falter, as you likely will. Your intention for positive change will keep you moving in the right direction, even if you fall back into old behaviors on occasion. Personal growth takes time and practice.
What experiences have you had with a victim mentality either in yourself or with someone close to you? How have you handled it or made a positive change? Please share your thoughts in the comments.