Most people find life difficult, and the odd bout of self-pity is quite understandable. Unfortunately, many turn this into an art form and develop what can only be described as a victim mentality.
Thinking Like a Victim
Those with a victim mentality often have a vague sense that they are being picked on somehow – that some malignant force is working against them and undermining any attempt they make to improve their life. The British novelist Anthony Burgess once remarked that outgrowing this feeling and accepting that the universe is indifferent is part of the maturing process.
‘Victims’ adopt a largely passive attitude towards the world. Their life, they feel, is something that happens to them rather than something they create. Consequently they will be quick to blame others and slow to accept responsibility. And, since they feel they have little control, they will expect someone to save them when they run into trouble. Indeed, some spend their entire life waiting for someone or something to ride to their rescue and make everything better.
Victims also tend to be fantasists. Since they feel they have no control over the present (and what’s the point of trying to take positive action anyway – it always goes wrong), they spend a great deal of their lives thinking about the past or the future. Victims while away many an hour immersed in past failures and dreaming of what might have been “if only…”.
The so-called ‘martyr pose’ is also common. Some people see themselves as tragic heroines in a bad Hollywood movie or trashy novel. They will go for long walks on their own, head bowed, drifting through the empty, gloomy parts of town as though they were characters in their own drama.
Perhaps the worst kind of victim is the one who actually enjoys their predicament. Some people revel in and savor bad news, expecting everyone to feel sorry for them and wallowing in the pain. On the other hand, when tragedy befalls a friend or work colleague, and sympathies switch, they will bitterly resent it. Few individuals are quite so repulsive as those who demand sympathy yet have none to give others.
If someone was lonely and miserable before they developed a victim mentality, they are likely to be even more lonely and miserable afterwards.
First, relationships suffer. The healthiest relationships involve two mature, independent, self-reliant individuals who both know they could survive on their own should things not work out. This may not sound very romantic, but a partnership must be founded on authentic love and affection, not drama. Unfortunately, many people are seeking either to rescue someone or to be rescued. The rescuer is usually insecure and in search of a someone who will be so dependent they will never leave. The victim is passive, insecure, and looking to be saved. Put the two together and you have a relationship based not on affection but fear.
Victims also tend to do badly in other areas of life, especially work. Many expect to fail. Indeed, some like misery and failure; it feels safe and comfortable. Success, on the other hand, is scary. Unfortunately, those with the victim mentality often self-sabotage, unconsciously willing things to go wrong so that they can return to their misery and gloom. Plus, there is the added pleasure of saying “I told you so” to anyone who dismissed their complaints.
How to Overcome a Victim Mentality
In order to overcome a victim mentality, the individual must first be aware that this is what they have developed. Many people are quite oblivious to the fact. And if it is suggested to them, they will react with anger and denial. After all, no one likes to think of themselves as whiney and self-pitying!
1) Take Responsibility. This does not mean blaming yourself. When disaster strikes, such as the loss of a well-paid job or the end of a relationship, the person affected will often resent those who tell them to toughen up and “take responsibility”, replying “but it isn’t my fault”. Of course, that may well be true. It may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility to do something about it. Army recruits are taught to “adapt and overcome” – make this your motto.
2) Do not escape into fantasy. Animals live in the moment and are guided by instinct alone. Human beings, however, can imagine alternative lives. Unfortunately, some escape into these fantasies altogether. Not only do they imagine the life they wish they had, they imagine the life they feel they ought to have. Inevitably, they are then tormented by the contrast between what life is and what they wish it was. Many people indulge in what can only be described as a lifelong sulk.
3) Drop the sense of entitlement. The world owes you nothing. Spending your life wishing you had a house as big as your sister’s, or a career as exciting as your best friend’s, guarantees nothing but bitterness and anger. A quick glance through a history book should be enough to end the sense that you’ve been hard done by. If it isn’t, go and visit a children’s cancer ward.
4) Turn your focus outward. Those with a victim mentality tend to be self-obsessed. The more you focus on yourself, the more likely you are to feel hard done by. Of course, you may have good reasons for feeling that way – but so does almost everyone else! Try to do some good for others. And attach more importance to life’s trivial joys, like a hot bath, a walk in the snow, or a coffee with friends.
5) Change your story. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you that it is irrevocable, do not believe them.” Everyone has their story – or their version of it. But this can be changed. Start telling yourself a different story, one in which you are not the helpless, hard done by victim, but a fighter who was knocked down and is now back on their feet. You can see your life as a cruel struggle or a triumph over the odds – it’s up to you.
Playing the victim will paralyze you. If that wasn’t bad enough, it will also antagonize other people. Imagine the following: two of your work colleagues are diagnosed with cancer on the same day. You commiserate with each in turn. The first says, “it’s not fair. Why is it always me? Other people just seem to sail through life. It’s as if someone up there hates me.” The second smiles, thanks you, and replies “it was kind of you to make the effort to come and find me. I’ll be OK. I was lucky to catch it so early. In any case, I’ve had a good life – better me than a child.” Which one do you want to hug?