Are you a victim? Do you put yourself in the role of a victim rather than owning up to and taking responsibility for yourself? Today I want to talk about why we fall into the role of victim and how we can step up and be responsible for ourselves.
“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”
There are a lot of things that happen to us in life. As the stoics have told us time and again, there are very few things that we control. In short, we control our thoughts, our choices, and our actions, and that’s about it. So if we control so little, doesn’t that make us the victim of the circumstances that we have no control over? When things go wrong, can’t we just blame it on the universe? Other people? The government?
Sure. We can always do that. We can put the blame for our unhappiness on someone else. It is always a choice that we can make. But, if we want to actually be happy, grow, and make progress in our lives, blaming others is a waste of time. The sooner we move out of the role of victim, the more likely we are to create happiness, and actually accomplish the things that we want to in our lives.
So why do we allow ourselves to become the victim in so many ways? Why would we let go of the power we have and put ourselves in a place of weakness?
“People think that if they complain about life, life or the world might change. But of course this does not happen. You cannot change Nature and its laws. It is what it is. No amount of complaining, resentment or mourning will help. Accept, let go and move on.”
— @TheAncientSage (twitter)
One of the main reasons that we fall into the role of victim is that it gives us an alibi for failing at something. Often we try to make ourselves feel better by making the reason for our failure something or someone else. If the reason for failing is external to us, then we feel like less of a failure because it was due to something else that we do not have control over.
Coming up with excuses also removes the pressure from having to make changes and actually do something about the situation we find ourselves in. If we can place the blame outside ourselves and find some other reason other than ourselves for why we failed, then we don’t have to change. Change is hard and we will look for all kinds of reason to not have to put in the work to improve.
I know that in the past that I would fall into this way of behaving. Much of that had to do with growing up in the church and the turbulent home life I had growing up. In both cases, if I had a good excuse for why I had done something then often things went more smoothly and I didn’t get in as much trouble as if I had just owned up and taken responsibility for my actions. If I could come up a good enough excuse, there was good chance I could escape punishment for my actions.
This bad habit took a long time to become aware of and even longer to remove from my way of operating. But just like everyone, I sometimes fall into coming up with excuses for my not so great behavior. It takes a lot of effort to change this kind of behavior, especially when it worked so well in the past.
Another reason why we will play the role of a victim is that it brings us attention. Most of us want to be noticed by others, and playing the victim, we have something that sets us apart without having to put much work into it. Rather than putting effort into something and receiving attention for our actions, our self victimization allows us to feel important with little work.
There are people who continuously cast themselves in the role of the victim for whatever life brings their way. Every new setback is something to complain about and to tell others about how unfair their life is and garners even more attention.
Secondarily to garnering attention, playing the victim can garner sympathy from others. When we are the victim and are in a position of weakness, it plays on the sympathies of others. On the whole, people like to help others who are in need, and this exploits the natural tendency that most people have to helps others. Garnering sympathy makes us a feel like we are loved and that people care for us, but again, it can easily be used to manipulate others into getting us what we want.
The sympathy we get from others in our victimhood also becomes a way of validating our feelings and our sense of righteousness. The more validation we get, the more we feel like we don’t have to make any changes to our behavior. Because we feel like we are “right” in our feelings of being a victim, we continue on on this role without ever really questioning ourselves.
Growing up I remember a relative who always had something wrong with them. Their spouse and other family members were always doing everything for them because their wide ranging ailments were used as excuses to not have to do anything around the house. Every time we would visit my dad would joke that we shouldn’t ask how they are doing because they might tells us and we’d be there all night listening to the never-ending list of ailments and calamities in their life.
Sometimes we will use our victimhood as a way to fit into a group. When we find fellow victims, we can bond over the ways that we were wronged. Victimhood becomes a sort of social currency. Because we get that validation from others, we can stay stuck in that role, convinced of the “rightness” of our position. This aspect of playing the role of a victim can be the most dangerous because it allows us to stay where we are without anyone else questioning our belief. The reinforcement and validation of others makes it easy to never question it ourselves either.
Often we will use victimhood to try and control other people. In the role of a victim, we hold onto the idea that we have been wronged. We feel like we are in the “right” and try to use it as leverage against someone else. We may try to control them by trying to make them feel guilty and shame them into do what we want them to do.
“To complain is always nonacceptance of what is.”
— Eckhart Tolle
Ultimately, we play the role of the victim because it’s a way to try and control the situation around us. It also allows us to feel morally superior without having to take responsibility or make changes to our behavior. So what can we do to be more aware of when we are acting like a victim, and take more responsibility for ourselves?
One of the key components of stoicism is that we have to understand what we do and what we do not control. When we try to control things that we don’t have control over, such as the opinions of others, or other people in general, then we’re wasting our time and energy, and it turns us into victims. When we are not controlling the things that we can control, then again, we allow ourselves to become victims because we could actually be doing something about the situation, but we’re choose not to.
Sometimes it’s hard to see that we’re playing the role of victim. We feel righteous about our position and we hold onto the conviction that the other person needs to change for us. But the thing is, as much as we might want the other person to change, we have no control over them. We can sit around all day wanting them to change for us, but if they don’t want to, there is very little that we can do. By making our happiness dependent on the will of others we actually give them control over us.
“It is our own opinions that disturb us. Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss your judgment about an act as if it were something grievous, and your anger is gone.”
— Marcus Aurelius
One clear way to recognize when we might be trying to control other people is if we are angry with them. Often, we are angry with someone because they won’t do something we want, and we try to use anger to control them and get them to change or do something. I know that I often did this with my ex-partner. When she was annoyed or disappointed with me, I would try and argue with her about why she shouldn’t be.
Now, much of this was driven from a fear that if she was upset with me that she didn’t love me, which is a trauma response that I have from my childhood, but it’s no excuse for my behavior. Nonetheless, it was my way of trying to control her by trying to change how she felt about me.
Rather than stepping up and owning my feelings about the situation and giving her space to have her have her feelings about it, I would cast myself in the role of the victim and make it her fault that I felt uncomfortable and angry. Doing so pushed her farther away from me because no one likes having someone trying to control their feelings.
Point of View
“If we know only our own side of the argument, we hardly know even that; it becomes stale, soon learned only by rote, untested, a pallid and lifeless truth.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
One tool that we can use to help pull ourselves out of being a victim is to put ourselves in the other person’s point of view. This isn’t easy to do, especially when we’re convinced that we are in the right. But, if we only pay attention to and know our side, then we do not have even close to a complete picture of the situation. Our own point of view may be severely limited because we have let our emotions take over, or we may just have a limited amount of information.
“Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.”
Another thing to consider when you’re acting like a victim, is to understand what exactly it is that you are upset about. Are you upset that someone pointed out a flaw of yours? Did they say something mean or gossip about you? More to the point, is what they said actually true? We don’t like being called out on our bad behavior. But if you find yourself upset at someone for pointing out something you actually said or did, then you are arguing with reality. In this case, we need to step up and own our behavior.
“Emotions are easily hijacked by illusory threats that tap into our insecurities. We can’t be strategically dynamic if we are always on the defensive. We are more effective when we realize how many things don’t require any response at all.”
— @TheStoicEmperor (twitter)
“At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts, emotions, and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited, or to remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned, and incapable of being harmed.”
The most important step to getting out of victimhood is taking responsibility. Now when I talk about taking responsibility it includes a few areas.
First, we need to be responsible for our emotions and reactions in any situation. This can be incredibly challenging because it often feels like our emotions come from what someone else did or said, or what life sent our way. Our emotions are actually formed by the meaning that we give to an event, so trying to blame how we feel on someone else is a mistake.
Also, when we put the blame of how we feel on someone or something else, we are letting something outside of ourselves have power over us. We are allowing circumstances or what others do control our moods and emotions.
Most importantly though, the area of responsibility that falls to us when we no longer want to play victim, is that we recognize that we need to be ones the take action in our lives. While you may not be to blame for whatever happens in your life, you are the one who is responsible for doing something about it. Waiting around for someone else to fix things leaves you powerless.
Even if someone else did something that put in you at a disadvantage or harmed you, they may not want to change in the way that you expect them to. Since we don’t control other people, you need to step up and do what you can do, rather than waiting around for others or the world to change for you.
Playing the role of victim is something that is easy to do. Doing so is a way to escape having to do the hard work of taking responsibility for your life, and putting in the work to improve your life. Taking that kind of responsibility means that in any situation you are able to find opportunities for growth and improving your situation. It takes awareness of yourself and the situation. It takes a willingness to control what you can, and let the rest go.
When you place blame on someone or something outside of yourself, you forfeit the power you have to do something about it. So the next time you find yourself a victim, rather than waiting for someone else to do something, ask yourself, “What can I do in this situation?”, then step up and start doing it.
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