10 Steps to Self Esteem: Bonus Step 1 - Overcome Victim Mentality
Welcome to the first Bonus Step for the 10 steps to solid esteem series.
It’s not circumstances that make you a victim but attitude.
Everyone can feel like a victim sometimes. If I get mugged, then I certainly have been ‘victimised’. Someone has deliberately targeted me. But just let them try it another time!
General life circumstances, even though not deliberately targeted at me, can make me feel like a ‘victim’ just because problems so often seem to resemble bananas and come in bunches. I might just feel overwhelmed.
Or I might feel as if I am the victim of myself. Why am I addicted? Why am I always angry? Or so down on myself all the time? (I’m happy to say that I don’t actually have any of those issues, but you get the picture.)
The most perfectly happy people (happy in a general sense) can sometimes feel they have fallen victim to:
their own shortcomings.
This is normal. And it doesn’t preclude having a thoroughly fulfilling life (remember all the work we’ve done in this series on spotting and outwitting all-or-nothing simplistic thinking).
However, it’s not uncommon to feel like a victim occasionally, this feeling needs to be short lived. We need to bounce back quickly.
But for some people a sense of victimhood has been built into their identity and ongoing reality. It has become the way they relate to the world and shapes many of their expectations of future reality.
And what is it exactly that makes us feel that we are a ‘victim’?
There is always something you can do
What drives out hope and makes us feel like a victim is a sense of powerlessness.
When we feel that we are entirely trapped by a person, circumstances, our own psychology (or a combination) and that there is nothing we can do about it – then we feel like a victim.
But if we can only stop ourselves thinking in all-or-nothing, black-and-white terms and take note of all the subtle shades in between, it turns out that there is always something you can do, whatever your situation, whether it’s change the way you think, stand, sit, or – yes! – feel.
We can all feel like a victim until we reassert a sense of control.
I once heard about a man who had been kidnapped in an African country. He was a resilient character and actually went to see a hypnotherapist about other issues related to sports performance. He just happened to mention his experiences of kidnap and torture and he was asked what it had been like to be the ‘victim’ of torture.
Remember this, his response:
“Well, you see, I didn’t really feel I was a victim, because I made the rules...”
He was asked what he meant.
“Well – I never really felt completely trapped. I knew I would yell out in pain, but I made a rule for myself that I would only scream after eight seconds, which I would count up as slowly as possible in my head. I would never eat all the food they gave me, I would always leave something behind, no matter how little there was. And in my mind I would travel far away from that place and just be somewhere else...”
Incredibly, this man had maintained some sense of having control over his life even under those dreadful circumstances. So, although he was perfectly well aware what a desperate plight he was in, he did not feel himself to be just a helpless ‘victim’.
Research has borne out his experience. Those who maintain some kind of sense of control during traumatic times – even if they have to generate this sense in some rather creative way – are likely to suffer less both during the experience and later, once the traumatic time has passed.
It’s a cliché, but not a bad one: “We can’t change the wind but we can always adjust our sails.” And often ‘adjusting our sails’ can have a major influence on how events turn out.
We can distinguish between having an occasional sense of being a victim and victimhood –the habit of feeling like a victim, feeling helpless when you aren’t really helpless.
Lessons in victimhood
If we experience feeling helpless and powerless in one situation (or repeated similar situations), that emotionally (and sometimes physically) painful unpleasantness can impart a powerful lesson. So powerful that we can misapply that lesson to othersituations where it really doesn’t belong.
This is known as ‘learned helplessness’.
It reminds me of the old tale of the caged bird who experiences a long period when it certainly isn’t able to fly free. But one day the cage door is left open accidentally. Now the bird could flutter away to freedom – but it doesn’t. It stays in the cage and continues to behave as if it is still trapped, when it isn’t...
So someone who was once desperately poor may become genuinely wealthy but still constantly worry themselves sick about money.
Someone who was unable to speak up in class at school through fear of being laughed at (because that’s really what happened) may feel totally tongue-tied years later as an adult when asked to introduce themselves to a group.
A man or woman who had been bullied by someone bigger when young may feel afraid to speak their mind later in life.
And so on.
It’s as if the emotional mind needs to play ‘catch up’ and come into the full realisation that you and circumstances have changed.
We can behave as if we don’t have any powers, any control or any influence over ourselves or events, when in fact we do.
“What’s the point of even trying to get a job?”
“Who is ever going to want me!”
“Someone like me could never do something like that!”
Think about this: Overcoming victimhood means taking back a sense of control – even if just in small ways.
A word of caution
People can slide into despondency and even depression in part because of how they deal with the issue of control.
This may happen if they believe they:
have far less control over their lives than they really do, leading to a sense of helplessness, or
should control stuff that is not their responsibility to control (see Step 3).
We can sometimes influence other people’s moods, or whether our teenage son does his school work, or what other people say or think. But believing we can or should have absolute control over aspects of life is a recipe for anger, frustration and ultimately dejection.
Some people swing between feeling they have no control to feeling they should have total control, which can slip into ‘control freakery’ and negative perfectionism.
So, in short, how you deal with the notion of ‘control’ is really important.
Exercise • From victim to victor
Draw four columns down a piece of paper.
(1) In the first column, make a list of any areas of life where you feel ‘totally powerless’. This might include things you want to do, how you relate to particular people, your health, and so on.
When X swears I just can’t stop myself getting in a rage and shouting at him, and we always end up having a row.
(2) Can you identify times or situations when you are more likely to feel powerless? Note these inthe second column.
(3) In the third column, note down why you feel you should have some influence in these situations. Then ask yourself “Is this realistic?”
(4) For those situations where you feel it is realistic to want some influence, note down some small ways (really small is fine) you might change how you act in those situations and so expand your influence.
You might choose to communicate differently, to think different thoughts, or change how or when you respond to something.
When I hear X swearing, I will say to myself “There he goes again. But I don’t have to do anything about it. It’s his responsibility.”
(5) Take one of these scenarios and imagine it in your mind as if on a TV screen. See yourself being in that situation and acting more as an influencer than a victim, using your new approach.
Small changes are beautiful, and lead to big changes.
Remember – you are not a leaf to be blown around in the wind and your strengthening self esteem will lend weight to your sense of who you are.
I hope you will make full use of this Bonus Step to help you make changes that will enhance your sense of having some real (and realistic) influence over what happens inyour life.
I think you will really enjoy the final Bonus Step – ‘You’re Worth it’.
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