I Was Astonished to Learn I Had Victim Mentality
I was not, and never have been, a pessimist.
I never thought the world was against me. Or “poor me.” Or, “No matter what I do, nothing turns out right.” My victim mentality was much more subtle than that. I thought pretty highly of myself — I knew I was intelligent, strong, capable. I wasn’t waiting around for someone to come fix my life.
When I came across people with obvious victim mentality, they pissed me off. There was no way I was like “them.” What changed things for me was this: I realized I was thinking, “If they would only just [fill in the blank] then everything would be ok.” That is victim mentality.
This realization was an absolute game-changer for me!
I was shocked to learn I had internalized this way of thinking. Victim mentality can be a really sneaky mindset, especially if you’ve ever been victimized. Understanding that I had victim mentality changed everything for me. For example, I used to blame the world (like traffic, the toothpaste cap) for my difficulties. This shift helped me understand what things I can and cannot control. Then, I was able to take action on things within my power to change. I can’t tell you how much more ease and comfort, peace and serenity I have in my life now. It’s incredible.
Here’s what I learned about victim mentality, and how to get over it.
The main problem with victim mentality is that there is no motivation to act. If we truly believe we’re not at fault, or the cause of something, we’re not going to do anything to change it. Why would we?
There is a difference between being an actual victim, and having victim mentality.
Many people who have been terribly victimized do not have victim mentality. And countless others (such as myself) have gotten rid of their victim mentality. Even if you have a reason, you don’t have to feel like a victim. Feeling like a victim creates non-action.
Victor Frankl is a perfect example of a victim who didn’t have victim mentality. He was a holocaust survivor who was in several concentration camps in WWII. Anyone would agree that he was victimized. Yet he said, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” That ability to choose is what victims lack. Frankl chose to help others in the concentration camps in whatever small ways he could. He chose to make meaning out of his life by helping others.
So let’s dive in a little deeper.
Victim mentality is a subconscious mindset.
Victim mentality is not a weakness, it’s a subconscious mindset. It’s a mentality we’ve adopted that we can change. I am living proof! It doesn’t mean we’re not strong, amazing capable people.
The truth is, no one would purposely choose victim mentality. The most insidious part of victim mentality is that it’s subconscious. We’re not even aware that we have it, and that it’s governing our lives.
That’s why I didn’t realize I had victim mentality. It was subconscious. Becoming aware that you have victim mentality is the largest part of the solution. Being on the lookout for that kind of mentality is the next part of the solution. Here’s what to be on the lookout for.
Victims are defensive and blame.
Getting defensive is a clue. We only feel the need to be defensive if we feel attacked. When we have victim mentality, we feel like people are against us, doing things to us, out to get us. Of course that makes us defensive! If you’re feeling defensive while reading this article, you probably have victim mentality.
Victims complain. A lot. We’re always the victim of our story if we have victim mentality. “They did it to me.” Have you ever asked yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Or “Why won’t he ever…or why doesn’t she ever?” Some people go through life asking questions like this. They wonder why all these bad things keep happening to them.
Victims blame. I really didn’t know that I was blaming others (or the universe) for my shit. The way I first noticed I had victim mentality was in thinking about my relationships, especially romantic ones. Since I’ve always dated men, it would go like this, “If he would just [fill in the blank] then our relationship would be fine.” That meant I saw him as 100% responsible for our relationship. Oh, wait — not everything in the relationship. I was responsible for all the good things in the relationship and he was responsible for all the bad things in the relationship!
What’s funny is that, when talking to friends about their relationships, I’d often say, “You’re 50% of the relationship, so you’re 50% responsible for it.” But I couldn’t see that as true in my own relationships! Talk about being a victim! I was thinking and acting as if I had no part to my play in my own relationships (of which I was 50%!).
I thought this way for my entire adult life but didn’t recognize it for what it was. I lived as if I had no part in creating the shitty things in my life. I (subconsciously) thought it was all due to other people and forces. I was a “victim” of the circumstances (though I wouldn’t have used that word). As I moved along in my 12 step recovery process, I began to see the many ways in which I had victim mentality. As if I had no agency, no possibility of affecting the world around me. Especially in my relationships.
When we blame others, we are waiting for them to change in order for our lives to change. That means our lives are not going to change. What’s difficult here is that this blame is often unconscious. We don’t see it as blame, we see it as an explanation — my misery would end if they just [fill in the blank]. We give up responsibility for our feelings and conditions when we think like this.
Who do you feel is the cause of your discomfort, anger or dissatisfaction? If someone came to mind just now, you’re probably blaming them. You’re holding them accountable for the state of your life. To be clear, I’m not blaming you for doing this, it makes sense. As Brené Brown says, blame is the discharging of pain and discomfort. Instead of taking responsibility for our own pain and discomfort, we discharge it by blaming others. It’s easier. Especially if they’ve done something to us. But it’s not effective. Not if we want our lives to change for the better, anyway.
Victims need villains.
Victims are blamers, so villains are the ones they blame. Through recovery, I realized that my father wasn’t doing things to me, my father was doing things. They had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t personal. Insert daughter, same behavior from father.
We victims need a villain. We give the power to the villain in our minds and in our lives. When we do that, that person is in charge of how we feel. We’re never going to feel better until they change. That’s a losing battle! The only person you can change is you. If you’re waiting for them to change, you’re doomed (i.e., a victim).
We’d never consciously choose to be victims.
And we’d probably never choose to allow that person to control our lives, but that’s what we’ve done. We’re giving them the power to determine the quality of our lives. We can take that power back.
If you’re devastated or shamed by something someone says, you’ve become a victim of their words. What they say and think has to do with them, not you. The reason you feel devastated or ashamed is because you believe what they say. If you realize this and take credit for feeling devastated or ashamed, you still have power.
Brooke Castillo gives a great example of this. Let’s say someone accuses you of having blue hair and you don’t. You won’t care because you know you don’t have blue hair. It’s also unimportant in terms of your character. It doesn’t hurt you. But if they said, “You’re thoughtless” that hurts. It hurts because, on some level, you believe it’s true. It also hurts because you care more what they think about you than what you think about yourself.
If you think about it, there has likely been a time in your life when you were thoughtless, so it could be true. And if you accept that as true, there’s nothing to defend against. If you were to say, “You’re right, that probably was thoughtless of me, I’m sorry” you’ve released them from being the villain. You’ve stepped away from being a victim. You’ve taken back your power to define your reality, and to determine how you feel.
You can be your own villain.
You can be your own villain and victim. For example, thinking, “I’m not good enough” or “there’s something wrong with me” makes you both the victim and the villain. This is extremely common in the rooms of recovery. People who have been in recovery a while will often admit, “I used to believe I was uniquely flawed, no one had it as bad as me.” Recovery shows us that there are millions of people who’ve had it as bad off or worse than us. We can no longer claim being “uniquely flawed.” Understanding this brings us out of victim mentality. It’s not just you!
Here’s an example of being your own villain that most people can probably identify with. People who have repeatedly tried to lose weight or get fit might think, “something’s wrong with me, I can’t lose weight.” This means they’re being both victim and villain. If they say it’s their diet plan, fitness instructor, family or food commercials that are the problem, they’re blaming. Millions of people have gone on to lose weight and or get fit after years of trying. They’ve done so by taking full responsibility for their lives. Blaming others robs you of the ability to take full responsibility for your life.
Victims don’t take action.
If we think and feel that someone else is to blame for our situation, there is no motivation to act. Why would we act on something we see as not our fault? Or not within our scope of responsibility?
If we truly believe we have nothing to do with what’s going on, of course we’re not going to do anything about it! Why would we? Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” That is, if we believe we can do something, we will continue working on it until we get it done. But if we believe we can’t do something, we’re not even going to try! This is how victims think. The biggest problem is, we don’t even know we think it!
This is the real insidious part of victim mentality, we don’t realize it we have it. Once we realize it, we’re able to come out it — it means we take ownership of our lives. We realize we’re in charge of what’s happening in our lives, no one else is. We have choices.
The antidote to victim mentality is taking action. Take one action toward changing your life for the better. And then another. And then another. Victims often have a whole slew of reasons why they can’t take action. They focus on all the barriers in front of them. Sometimes those barriers are other people, and what they think of you. Which means you don’t allow yourself to begin making changes.
Beginning is the most important part of any change process. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In recovery we say, “Do the next right thing.” Not the 57th right thing, but the next right thing. Once you take one action, you’ll feel empowered. Then you can take the second step. Then the third. But if you never begin, there is no journey!
You actually do have choices!
If your life isn’t turning out the way you want, it’s up to you to change it. If you continue to blame others, or wait for others to change, nothing will change. The evidence is right in front of you. If you’ve been waiting for others to change and they haven’t, it isn’t working,!! There’s your evidence.
One of the greatest freedoms of my recovery is that I have lots of choices, and I know it. Before recovery there were many areas of my life where I didn’t even realize I was making choices. I felt like I “had to” do certain things or believe certain things. These things didn’t feel like choices, but they were. Then there were the areas of my life where I didn’t even realize I wasn’t making choices. Waiting for others to change was one of them. Once I learned that that was how I’d been operating I was able to change my mentality. You can too.
Perspective shapes your life experience.
Your perspective determines the quality of your life. If you think you have nothing to do with what’s going on in your life, as if you have no choice, then you really don’t have choice. However, waiting for someone else to change is a choice. That understanding opens up a world of possibility. You learn that you have been making choices all along, you just didn’t realize it! Now, realize that you’re making choices, and choose differently.
Examples of victim mentality.
In case you’re having a hard time figuring out if you have victim mentality, here are some subtle ways I’ve seen it show up for people. These scenarios might help you see it in yourself.
Situation: A teenager is mad at his parents for him not getting his driver’s license, when another adult offered to help him.
o Mentality: He sees his parents as preventing him from getting his license, when it’s really his belief that it’s their responsibility that’s stopping him.
o Result: This prevents him from accepting help from others, or taking matters into his own hands. It also allows him to keep blaming his parents for his problems. Nothing changes.
Situation: A woman is mad at the people sitting next to her at the beach because they are loud and annoying. She complains to her friends while at the beach and later at home.
o Mentality: She sees the other beach goers as to blame for being loud and annoying. She believes they were doing that to her, which prevented her from taking responsibility for her own life. She could have moved.
o Result: This allows her to keep blaming others for her problems. Nothing changes.
Situation: A guy gets mad that there’s traffic.
o Mentality: He believes traffic is happening to him, when highways were built for traffic, not for him.
o Result: He gets to keep blaming others and the world for his problems. Nothing changes.
Situation: Someone gets mad that people text them late at night.
o Mentality: They think people should know they don’t turn their phone off at night, so they shouldn’t text. This prevents them from taking responsibility for their own life and turning their phone off.
o Result: This allows them to blame others and the world for their difficulties. Nothing changes.
Situation: A woman gets mad that her boss emails her over the weekend.
o Mentality: She believes “she should not expect me to work over the weekend.” The woman could wait until Monday to read her work email (we teach people how to treat us — so teach your boss that you don’t respond on weekends!). And, just because someone emails you on the weekend, doesn’t mean they necessarily expect you to reply on the weekend.
o Result: When we think like this, it allows us to blame others for our difficulties and not take responsibility for our lives. Nothing changes.
On another note, if you work for a company that expects you to be available on weekends and that’s not the kind of life you want to live, get another job! If that’s not an option in this economy, then realize that you’re choosing to stay at that job and that it’s not their fault. It’s your choice. Own it.
Letting go of victim mentality was my greatest gift of recovery.
This shift out of victim mentality was the most profound shift I got from recovery. And I’ve had many! I came to understand the many things I’d been doing to create chaos, drama and dysfunction in my life. I also came to understand what I’d been doing to exacerbate the drama going on around me. This shift has been, by far, the greatest gift of my recovery. That’s because I can stop doing these things now that I know I’ve been doing them! When I was blaming other people, I was doomed to repeat these patterns. If I were to guess, I’d say 85% of the difficulty in my life is gone now that I understand I’m not a victim.
Staying out of victim mentality.
One of the ways I work on staying out of victim mentality is this. In my nightly journal, I write, “Let go of my expectations of others and meet my own needs.” I write this several pages ahead so that when I come to it, it’s noticeable. I’m not going to gloss over it. Every so often when I read it, I’ll realize I was waiting for someone to do something to make me feel better. Even though I’ve largely gotten rid of my victim mentality, I still need to be on the lookout for it.
I try very hard now to take responsibility for how I feel. For example, I was told that I had been defensive and controlling in a meeting. When I looked at the situation, I realized it was true. The meeting leader wasn’t following the meeting protocol and I acted like a jerk about it. I went back to the people in the group and apologized to the group and to the meeting leader. In the past, I would never have been able to hear that, never mind admit that I’d been defensive and controlling! It was difficult to do, but as soon as I did it, I was enormously relieved. I was no longer blaming anyone else for my difficult feelings. I felt more in control of my own life, my own emotions.
If you feel insulted, take responsibility for that. Don’t blame others. When we accept our flaws, no one can hurt us. Nothing can be used against us if we admit it’s true. If someone invites you to a brawl, you can walk away. When you admit that what they say is true, that’s walking away.
You can control your reactions.
You’re not in control of everything that happens to you (obviously), but you can control how you react. If you react as a victim (i.e., thinking you have nothing to do with the situation, or waiting for someone else to change) you’re doomed to be stuck in that position. You see no reason for action. If you truly want a life that is happy, joyous and free, then you’ll need to take action! And victims don’t take action. They don’t think they need to, because it’s always someone else’s fault.
The truth is, none of us would choose victim mentality if we were conscious of what we were doing. As soon as you admit you’re playing the victim, you’re no longer the victim. Taking responsibility is the antidote.
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”