Throughout our lives, we will all experience existential highs and lows. We will feel emotional extremes – from tears of happiness to the pain and numbness of a gut-wrenching heartbreak. After all, none of us is immune from the comedy, tragedy and unpredictability of life.
Because pain and hardship are unavoidable, we all may feel victimized at some point in our lives. Maybe you’ve lost a job, been cheated on, were bullied, or were in an accident.
For some, the unfortunate circumstances are much more severe. Life challenges are inevitable, yet experiencing a suffering a tremendous hardship or experiencing a calamity are quite different from taking on a victim mentality.
The idea of playing the victim is as old as time. In the biblical story of Genesis, Adam said, “I didn’t do it. She told me to do it.” Eve said, “I didn’t do it. The snake made me do it.” The wheel of blame has been turning ever since.
Taking on a victim mentality is one of the primary ways we as human beings give away our power to others. While we frequently cannot control the challenges that enter our lives, we can control how we respond to them.
A victim mentality keeps us stuck in a toxic state of righteous indignation and pain – one of the most disempowering mindsets we can adopt.
Why is it that two people can suffer similar incidents of indescribable pain, yet one will recover quickly while the other will sink into the depths of despair? Why do some people demonstrate consistent resilience in the face of adversity, while others adopt the righteous indignation of victimhood? Are they weaker in mind and spirit? Or do they unconsciously adopt a victim mentality without even realizing they have given up their personal power?
These are the questions I explore in my book, “Fulfilled”, which provides concrete tools to help people transform the following deeply held core belief:
To: I take my power back and create the life I want to live.
1] Taking Responsibility
Rather than taking full responsibility for our lives, sometimes it seems easier to blame our problems on an unjust world or a difficult childhood. I do not at all mean to imply that there are not very real situations that truly victimize the people they afflict.
Genocide, violence, war, homelessness, hunger, poverty, discrimination, disease, rape, domestic abuse, human sex trafficking, natural disasters and global warming are profound human problems that require widespread change.
On the other hand, recognizing that we have control over how we respond to our challenges, and becoming involved as an agent of change on the social and global level, can be incredibly empowering.
An example of this is Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for girls’ education and the world’s youngest Nobel Peace laureate. At the age of 15, Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman.
Despite a long and difficult recovery, she never once gave up her power and eventually become a prominent education activist worldwide, co-authored the international bestseller ‘I am Malala’, gained admission to Oxford, and continued to advocate for female education worldwide.
On a more personal level, blaming others can be far more comfortable than noticing the ways that we ourselves are responsible for our lives. A woman who was cheated on may blame her ex-boyfriend for why she’s never had a successful relationship since their break-up 10 years ago.
Someone who has been fired from every job he’s ever had may be convinced that he’s cursed with a series of horrible bosses, defending that it has nothing to do with his chronic tardiness.
For people who play the blame game, point fingers, and choose to remain the victim, the powerful decision of defining who they are belongs to the perpetrator and the circumstances that surround them.
But we are only victims for as long as we choose to be. The decision to learn from heartbreak, failure, and even humiliation is up to us. By taking responsibility towards all aspects of our lives, especially our attitudes, we can rise above victim mentality.
2] Owning Your Thoughts
While hardship is inevitable, often the real source of stress in our lives is internal, not external. Our minds are inherently far more powerful than we realize—powerful enough to create our life experience. In this way, our thoughts and emotions hold tremendous energy.
Often, what we hold in our hearts and minds colors our entire world. For this reason, harnessing the power of our thoughts is another important way to rise above victim mentality.
A poignant example of this is Viennese psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl. While in the concentration camps, Dr. Frankl observed was that what differentiated those who survived and from those who did not were the thoughts that went through their minds.
Everybody’s external circumstances were similar, but people’s thoughts were strikingly different. Frankl watched as many prisoners remained healthy, while others became sick with malaria.
Some tried to live each day with hope, while others deliberately ran into electric wires to end their lives. Given the prisoners’ horrific conditions, it would be understandable for everyone to feel miserable and fall into deep suffering.
Yet Frankl observed first hand that some were able to remain positive most of the time.
While in the camps, Frankl spoke with hundreds of fellow prisoners and came to the crucial realization: even in the concentration camp where all external freedoms were stripped away, no one could control what we thought in our minds.
Most of our lives are created by thoughts that are completely unconscious to us. Therefore, becoming aware of the automatic thoughts that take us down the wrong roads is so important.
To be clear, the goal is not to eliminate* negative thoughts, but to become more aware of them, accept them as a part of who we are, and in the process, gain more control over them.
Mahatma Gandhi espoused the virtues of doing this when he said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” While thoughts may seem to be outside of our conscious control, learning to be more aware of what we are thinking is a vital step to relinquishing victim mentality.
3] Cultivating Forgiveness
Do victims of unfortunate circumstances adopt a victim mentality and continue to play the wounded animal to fuel their cravings for attention? Or do they continue to suffer because they feel that the perpetrator or the cause of their pain does not deserve to be forgiven?
And while there are human sins and horrible acts that seem inexcusable, is the act of forgiveness to relieve the perpetrator of their depravity or is it to release the victim from the weight of having to carry around the anger and anguish that burdens them?
Another effective way to relinquish victim mentality is through forgiveness. When I worked in Rwanda in 2009, I befriended a man named Jean-Baptiste Ntakirutimana.
Jean-Baptiste was of Tutsi origin. His neighbors – a family with many children who would all come over to Jean-Baptiste’s home for dinner – were Hutus. When the 1994 genocide occurred in Rwanda, Hutus began killing Tutsis in what felt like a “kill or be killed” situation.
Tragically, Jean-Baptiste’s neighbor named Paul, who used to be fed by Jean-Baptiste’s mother almost every day, brutally murdered Jean-Baptiste’s mother.
Understandably, Jean-Baptiste was horrified and enraged. Paul went to jail as soon as the genocide was over. For fourteen years, Jean-Baptiste carried in his heart rage, pain, resentment, and a desire for vengeance.
During this time, he also began to lead a national forgiveness program across the country of Rwanda. Through his work, he inspired individuals to use the power of faith and God to find within themselves the courage and strength to forgive the perpetrators of the genocide and move forward with their lives.
In 2008, Jean-Baptiste went to visit Paul in jail. Jean-Baptiste had spiritually prepared for this day the whole year prior through meditation, prayer and fasting, among other activities. Paul thought Jean-Baptiste had come to the jail to kill him. Instead, Jean-Baptiste forgave Paul then and there.
Jean-Baptiste describes this as the most liberating moment in his whole life. He could finally let go of all the pain and anger he had been carrying inside of him. A powerful example of harnessing one’s personal power through faith and forgiveness, this story illustrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome even the most tragic of obstacles.
People choose to hold on to past grievances for different reasons: they feel the other person does not deserve to be forgiven; it gives them a sense of righteous indignation; they receive a lot of energy from maintaining the victim mentality; they don’t see forgiveness as an option; they don’t know how to forgive.
These are just five of the many reasons people can hold on to grievances all the way to the grave.
To be clear, forgiveness does not mean that you are condoning what happened in the past, or that you are okay with it happening again; quite the contrary. It means you are done giving your power over to a toxic mindset that is no longer serving you.
But the paradox is: the person who most benefits from forgiveness is not the person being forgiven.
The person who will most benefit from forgiveness is you! When you are able to find it in your heart to truly forgive somebody and let go of the grudge you have been holding, you can finally let go of the sadness, hurt, anger, resentment and vengeance that you have been carrying around in your heart, sometimes for years.
Jean-Baptiste is proof that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness but a display of faith and strength. For those who adopt victim mentality, forgiveness means relinquishing the power that being the victim has given them.
As Christian theologian Lewis B. Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Letting go of victim mentality requires strength and courage. Although none of us can change what happened to us in the past, we can choose how we see ourselves in the present and what we do with our lives.
By taking full responsibility for all aspects of our lives, owning our thoughts and cultivating forgiveness, we are able to make huge strides towards relinquishing victim mentality and living a fulfilled life.
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