By: Jonathan Rios M.S. LMHC, Licensed Psychotherapist
We’ve all been victimized. This is a popular notion these days and it makes total sense. When we identify as an oppressed person who has undergone a tragedy or hardship it will often bring us attention. We may even receive a boost in social status and perhaps mobilize others to come to our defense. Victim culture rewards us when we behave as though we are weak, helpless, and offended. I frequently counsel individuals who don’t want to be “fixed” because their brokenness brings them attention, money, or security. It gets them noticed and that can feel quite nice.
Let’s be honest. Every single person on planet earth has been victimized in some capacity. (Don’t tune me out here). Whether that was earlier today when someone cut you off on the highway, or some teenager took a bat to your mailbox. Perhaps a co-worker slandered your reputation; maybe you lost your house to a natural disaster. Many of my clients have experienced rape or physical assault. These are instances of victimization and there are varying degrees of severity. We don’t want to pretend like these things haven’t happened or sweep them under the rug. We must treat each case with the respect and diligence they deserve.
We are also Victimizers. We’ve slandered others, mistreated others, stolen, lied, abused, neglected, cheated, and misused the things we were responsible for. We have offended others. We’ve grieved someone at one time or another in varying degrees. We are both Victims & Victimizers. We must understand this before moving forward.
Here’s the slippery slope. Once you begin to see yourself consistently as “the Victim” you eventually move into a “Victim Identity”. Victim identified persons quickly move into powerless thinking & living. I’m powerless to change. This is my lot in life. I can do nothing to effect circumstances. I’m oppressed, and someone needs to rescue me. I’m incapable. I’m not competent or confident enough to shift things. This internal environment breeds resentment, anger, hate, bitterness, jealousy, disillusionment, and hopelessness. This becomes a way of thinking, a belief system, and will affect your behavior.
Barbara was in her mid 50’s, severely depressed, suicidal, hopeless, & extremely overweight. A binge eater. She had been in and out of therapy for decades with no result. She reported to therapy this time because she couldn’t stop binge eating & had previously been addicted to pain killers. Barbara was married 26 years. They had been intimate one time in their miserable marriage (wedding night). Her husband was addicted to porn, verbally abusive, living a separate life, and frequently criticized her for her weight and depressed demeanor. They fought frequently about everything. Barbara reported she was absolutely miserable, wasn’t loved, and felt deeply resentful. The verbal abuse and neglect were to such a degree that Barbara contemplated leaving him daily but never actually took the step. Her mother consistently offered her free shelter, as did her best friend. Barbara just couldn’t budge. You see, Barbara was a Victim; an abused and neglected house wife who had bought the lie that she was “helpless, incapable, powerless”. This was her burden to bear. This was her lot in life. This was God’s will. Moving out would require change. Better to stay with the devil you know than move into the unknown. Oh, believe me, we tried to help her leave but you can’t make people choose life, they have to do that for themselves.
Barbara is a classic example of something I see quite frequently in counseling- Learned Helplessness. The term was developed by Dr. Martin Seligman. Learned helplessness is a mindset and approach to life typical of humans or animals that have endured repeated painful experiences for which escape, or avoidance were not possible. The person essentially becomes conditioned to believe escape is impossible, even when opportunities for escape present themselves. In the experiment, the clinicians studied dogs in a large metal crate. The cage was divided in two by a low lying fence. The experimenters would shock one side of the crate, then the other. Eventually they began to shock both sides simultaneously teaching the dog that there was no way of escape. The dog would then find a corner and lie down. Even when the experimenter opened the cage door the dog had been so severely conditioned that he would not move. He had learned the lesson “escape is impossible”.
Is this you? Have you learned the same? Have you been so abused, neglected, criticized that you’ve come to believe change is impossible? Are you exhausted from past instances of failure? Are you crushed by years of underlying fear & anxiety? Don’t buy this vicious lie; people change every day. Here’s the tough part, progress does not happen by chance, it happens by change. You’ve got to buy into that.
What to do:
Remember, we learn fear. We learn “escape is impossible.” We learn this by experience & by observation. What you believe really matters. Think.
We were all dealt a hand in the card game of life. Maybe you were dealt a raw hand. That stinks. It’s not fair. I get it. I’m sorry, I really am. I realize what I’m saying is cold comfort. No need to fake a smile here. I’m not into hype. Let’s call a spade a spade. Bill gates is quoted as saying “Life is not fair. Get used to it.” Seems like an honest assessment to me.
Here’s my question….
What matters now? How are you going to play the hand you’ve been given? Some people choose to look at someone else’s hand (comparison), some people choose to quit (Suicide, escape through mood altering substances, or living in a virtual world), and some people stay in the game and give it everything they’ve got. There’s a beautiful saying in the Special Olympics “Let me win. If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt”. Wow. That’s powerful.
If you find yourself “stuck” in victim thinking here’s your first step. Extreme ownership. Be honest about your dysfunctional belief system. Recognize it but don’t stay there. Talk to someone, preferably someone who can give you honest feedback, a professional if you have to. Recognize that you are believing lies. You have to allow healthy people to give you constructive criticism. You’re going to need insane courage.
Secondly, grab a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle. One side should read “Things outside of my control”. The other side reads “Things I can control”. You’ll notice very quickly the list of things outside of your control is very large and extensive & should include other people. You cannot control other people, you really can’t. You’ll just experience more pain in the end. Things within your control will include, your actions, your beliefs, and how you interpret your thoughts. Take Barbara for example, what could she control if she chose to do so? She could have moved out. She could have separated herself. She could have taken the risk of change…. Instead she chose to FOCUS on things outside of her control such as her husband, her mom’s failures, her past mistakes, her genetics, and all the circumstances that weren’t working in her favor. When we continually focus on things outside of our control we slide into anxiety & worry. We also end up neglecting the things within our control. Hard to do both at the same time.
Third step- Start small but you need to start taking responsibility for your life. Clean your room. Make your bed. Feed yourself a vegetable (or 5). Floss your teeth. Organize your schedule. Begin an achievable exercise routine. Invest in yourself. You alone are the manager of your own life. Stop expecting your life to “magically” get better because you prayed the right prayer. True meaning in life is directly attached to responsibility.
You’ll need to move away from “I deserve” mentality to a more empowered “I’m responsible” mentality. You’ve got to adopt a belief that says, “I’m responsible to do what it takes to make me feel happy”. Stop waiting for God to miraculously zap you with a winning Powerball ticket. “I am responsible” calls us to action. It drives us to go after our dreams and desires. “I deserve” thinking directs us to some external person or power to provide something we need. “I deserve to be happy”, for example focuses on somebody else to make us happy. “I’m responsible” living changes our world.
Fourth Step-get some friends. Some genuine friends. Go to a support group. I know this is scary. Good things are behind the scary door. I highly recommend ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics). Join a church, volunteer, join a sports team, join a meet up group, meet with a therapist. Community doesn’t happen by accident, you have to be intentional. Remember “I’m responsible for finding some friends” works a lot better than “I deserve some friends”. Keep in mind, no community is perfect, some are just like you, some are worse. You’ve got to extend grace here. There’s never going to be a perfect community but there are some really good ones. The world needs you, but you probably don’t believe that. It’s true. We need you. I NEED YOU. I can’t do this alone and neither can you. I repeat, I CANNOT DO THIS ALONE!
Let us be brave in the attempt