One of the most harmful mindsets you can have is to think of yourself as a victim.
This way of thinking makes it nearly impossible to find financial or personal success and undermines your capacity for relationships.
Yet this mindset is not uncommon – we’ve probably all experienced it to some degree. For some, though, it can take on a more pervasive atmosphere in their lives.
As researcher at Tel Aviv University Rahav Gabay and her colleagues have shown, this mindset has four specific qualities that lead to three particular biases and one onerous tendency that can skew our view of the world.
Today we’ll look at how to move away from having this kind of mindset and reorient toward taking effective, positive action.
Changing a “victim” mindset is much more complicated than the kind of “get over it” advice that’s so common and useless. We have reasons for feeling like victims. We may have been seriously harmed in some way. Or maybe at some point it seemed like a good strategy to deal with challenging circumstances – and eventually became a habit.
Whenever we look at our habits or mindsets, it’s essential to start with compassion – to understand that we often began building certain habits of action or thought because they were the best we could do at the time, even if they ended up harming us later.
But if our habits are harming us, it’s well worth looking at them honestly and with courage.
We’ve all been hurt. Many of us have had traumatic experiences, and some of us have been the victims of abuse, crime or other kinds of serious mistreatment.
But those experiences are separate from holding an idea of ourselves as victims. We can experience trauma or abuse and not see ourselves in general as victims. And on the other hand, we can see ourselves as victims when we have not been traumatized or abused. There is not a consistent cause and effect to this.
A Common Thread
The four qualities that Gabay and her colleagues have found express a tendency for victimhood are…
- We want others to affirm our condition and suffering.
- We see ourselves as having very high moral standards and everyone else as immoral.
- We are preoccupied with our own victimhood to the point that we minimize, lack empathy for or are oblivious to the pain of others.
- We spend time dwelling on how we’ve been wronged and talk about what others have done to hurt us, rather than look for actions we could take to improve our situation.
This orientation leads to three biases…
- Interpretation bias: We see offenses – big or small – as being more severe than do those without this mindset. We also expect to be hurt, and so we look for anything that affirms that expectation.
- Attribution bias: We assume that anyone who hurts us has done so on purpose, and we feel our negative emotions longer and more strongly than others do.
- Memory bias: We tend to remember negative, hurtful experiences more easily and often.
And then the onerous tendency: It also makes it harder to forgive, and it inclines us to desire and seek out revenge.
There’s a common theme of helplessness to all of these. The focus is almost entirely external – what other people have done or not done, the unfairness or malevolence of external structures or practices. When we think in this way, we believe that for anything good to happen, other people must change, the world needs to change – and until that happens, I’m stuck here as a victim of all of this.
Now, the truth is there’s plenty of bad behavior in the world, plenty of unfairness, unearned pain and suffering. And every one of us has been hurt by somebody. Some of us much more than others.
There will always be an imbalance, ambiguities and misunderstandings, and there will always be at least some suffering and pain in life.
A victimhood mindset undermines our ability to roll with these typical troubles, deprives us of a degree of our own agency and puts us at the mercy of outside forces.
Success at anything involves a focus on our own strengths and weaknesses and what we personally need to do to succeed.
When we focus instead on how we’ve been wronged, slighted, offended or hurt, the focus is on other people and unfair circumstances – forces very often outside of our control. It also keeps us orbiting around those negative feelings and experiences – coloring our perceptions and the meaning we make of them. This can create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But this is something that we can change.
Changing Your Mindset
First, we must acknowledge that we hold such a mindset. Look for the qualities I’ve listed above, and be honest with yourself about whether – and to what degree – you have these tendencies and biases. To change anything, we must be willing to look at what’s true.
This is not something to feel ashamed of. It’s likely that these were habits that you developed in response to circumstances and that seemed like a good idea at the time. Besides, shame is usually a harmful and misplaced emotion in general.
Then gently reorient yourself toward what you want. (The exception is if what you want is revenge, since revenge is part of the same victimhood mindset. If what you want is revenge, stop, refer to the above qualities again, and think about something positive that you want to attain or achieve.)
Next, identify the obstacles to reaching what you want, why you want it, and the solutions to overcoming those obstacles.
Knowing why you want what you want is important to finding the energy to make the change. It has to matter, or you won’t do it.
When I work with people who have experienced trauma, I find there is often an energy that has been thwarted by the trauma. An essential step in healing is to reconnect with that energy – a sense of healthy aggression. This is not violence or revenge, but the physical and emotional energy that allows us to move toward what we want or set a clear boundary for what we don’t want.
It’s essential that this emotional energy be tapped into at a pace and dose that we can contain and integrate.
This helps us recover the thwarted fight-or-flight reactions that were frozen in the shock of the trauma. By experiencing this capacity gradually – with only the intensity we can integrate and contain – we regain the personal power that was locked away from shock (I go into this in more detail with references in my Mastering Emotions, Moods and Reactions Workbook).
Integrating the sense of effectiveness that this kind of healthy aggression allows is a different path entirely from a victimhood mindset.
We can’t think our way out of rumination. We can’t move forward while holding on to resentment and bitterness. And we can’t see a positive future through the expectation of being hurt.
A victim mindset is a closed loop.
With compassion, we must acknowledge that we’re in it and that this way of thinking has played a role in our own suffering; then we must find a way to step outside of that mindset and begin taking deliberate and effective action to improve our lives.
The result can be tremendously liberating and opens the door for greater success. It also provides a deeper sense of happiness and well-being.