The Hidden Victim in All of Us
Ever been in the presence of a person who likes to play "victim"? It's painful, right? Some so-called victims are easy to spot. "Woe is me" is their mantra as they mope around, whining about what life has done to them, and being devoted to their sad state. But, there is a whole other category of people who act in ways that are far more subtle and difficult to recognize, says life coach Lauren Zander, of The Handel Group Private Coaching (www.handelgrouppc.com). The problem is that the undercurrent of complaint and misery that is generated by these "undercover" victims creates stress and exhaustion not only for them but for those who are around them, too.
Taking on a false sense of victimhood has become pervasive, adds Lauren, which is destructive to society. Some people play that role daily. But, mentally, almost all of us fall into the trap of feeling like a victim at least now and then. How to overcome victimhood and be powerful instead? I discussed this with Lauren...
WHAT IS VICTIMHOOD?
At the root of victimhood is an internal power struggle in which the victim sees what he/she perceives as problems in the world around him (this includes his personal world of family and work or even the global environment) yet believes he is helpless to change things.
The sure sign of being a victim is complaining. Victims do it a lot and their constant chatter is about what's wrong with other people. "The innocent is telling his story," Lauren says. "Everyone else is the problem -- the reason it isn't working -- the 'only ifs' are always focused on others and victims believe they are just reporting the crimes of their boss, mother, husband, kids, the school system and the world and how these people and institutions have all wrongly impacted them." This focus on other people makes it hard for victims to look at their own behavior to see it for what it is -- their complaints. Consequently, they adamantly deny they are acting as a victim.
On the flip side, victimhood also provides a subtle reward to the complainer. As victims observe others' failings and how hurtful they are, they set themselves up as martyrs secure in the knowledge that, although they are the wounded party, they are right -- and the feeling of being right is very powerful. "Victims feel heroic for putting up with the bad behavior of people around them and being the good guy in the story," says Lauren. Acting as a victim also places people outside the situation -- peering in and observing the "poor behavior" of others. By declaring themselves to be outside observers, victims assign power to others. Victims may sigh that they are helpless to change a situation -- be it a dominating spouse, a difficult job, a community they dislike, etc. -- but in truth this belief allows them to squirm out of action to change the situation. They blame their spouse or boss or whoever is in the wrong... and then become a martyr, perceiving that they can't change the situation. This, in turn, spares victims the pain of giving up the goodies, be it, for example, the comfort of marriage (even if it's painful), the security of a pay check (even if they hate the job) or the relief of not moving.
The sad reality is that victims are so busy shining their haloes and feeling superior to the "wrong-doers" that few victims are really interested in changing their behavior. But victimhood, whether occasional or chronic, is a passive way of coping. Victims waste energy on complaining instead of putting the energy into action where it can serve a useful purpose. Complaining is an attempt to be dominating because the victims do not help or do anything to change the situation, they simply watch and comment about it, says Lauren. But ultimately this is fruitless because human happiness is connected to productivity and to making a difference. "To have the ability to fix things that aren't working for us, to solve our own problems, this is what feels good," she says. Fortunately, there is a path that leads out of victimhood.
GETTING PAST VICTIMHOOD
Step One: Listen to your complaints. Victims' sighs and complaints cover up a basic feeling -- fear. This is what often lies under the behavior. Complaints often center on something or someone that truly does make victims unhappy, but they are too frightened to take action, even by just speaking up. Instead, they hide behind their whining words. And so the first step away from being a victim is to listen carefully to the content of your complaints and look for recurring themes and what you avoid saying or doing.
Step Two: Locate the fear behind the complaints. The easy rationale for complaining is that it is merely reporting, just observing how it is. But life is not the weather and chronic complaints have an emotional basis. That is where you will discover the fear. Let's say you are upset about the "ridiculous" rules your company has for its employees or perhaps the way your spouse is behaving, and you regularly regale your friends about how put upon you are because of them. The logical action is to quit talking about it and speak up and/or move on. But "action always involves risk because there is no way to predict its consequences," says Lauren, and giving up a job or a marriage is scary territory with lots of risk.
However, if you go to the heart of the matter and identify your fear, you empower yourself to make a choice. You know how you feel and what you fear, and now you are in a position to decide what you want to do with this. Will you take the risk of discussing your feelings with your boss or spouse or even deciding to walk away? Will the pain of change be greater or less than the pain of staying in the situation? While action in the form of communication and/or physical change is the most productive path, you may choose to stay in the current situation, realizing that the pain of change would be too great. By choosing not to change you are acting on real feelings, which makes you no longer a victim in the situation. "Making a decision from a place of honesty -- whatever the decision -- is a big step forward because it negates the victims' belief that they have no choice in the matter," says Lauren. "They see that they have the power to choose to either stay in a situation or leave it."
What about more global issues beyond your personal life such as governmental decisions, the education system or the potential for a bird flu pandemic? Here, too, you have several powerful options. You can choose to get involved in the macro issues by working for or volunteering for an organization that relates to the issue at hand. Or, you can start a program of your own that addresses the issue (that's how programs like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Special Olympics were started). Or, you can choose to do nothing and allow the "powers that be" to handle the situation. As long as you consciously choose to accept the status quo, then you are shedding the role of victim. But, this also means that you shed the role of complaining when you hear or watch the actions being taken.
Step Three: Give up complaining. This is probably one of the most incessant traits of victimhood. This occurs not only on an individual basis, but has become pervasive in the media and among politicians, which makes those who watch the news "victims of their victimhood." Refusing to complain is a major shift but extremely freeing because it shuts the valve to the emotional release found in victimhood. Instead of voicing a complaint, look inward to determine why this bothers you -- and what you can do about it. "The actions called for are generally simple and obvious," says Lauren, "but starting anything is a brave act." Instead of whining that you have no friends, make a plan about how to meet new people. Rather than moan that your job is taking you nowhere, decide what you want to do and start the process of educating yourself for it. The first step you take toward a more productive, victim-free life will lead to the next step... and the next... until one day sooner than you may think, you are there.