Playing the Victim, learned helplessness and how to take charge of your life.

I once had an eccentric Latin professor use the word “victim” to explain grammatical concepts behind certain noun declensions. I believe he had been trying to help us remember cases and word endings, and to determine the direct object, or “victim” in the phrases we were learning. Deciphering who was doing what and to whom in Latin sentences was difficult, as the sentence structure and word order is different.

(this link perfectly explains what I think he was trying to get at)

http://teachinglatin.com/basic-grammar/parts-of-a-sentence/

Determining this in real life can be difficult as well. Victimology, victimhood, victim mentality and “playing the victim” are all terms used to describe the notion that an individual or group believes that they are perpetual victims, always having things done to them, always the “direct object” in a sense, in life. The difference between being a victim and victim mentality is quite obtruse, as even the dictionary lends credence to victimhood:

2:  one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent <the schools are victims of the social system>: asa (1) :  one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions <a victim of cancer> <a victim of the auto crash> <a murder victim> (2) :  one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment <a frequent victim of political attacks>

(taken from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/credence)

I personally believe that victim mentality mainly arises from incidences, namely trauma, in which the group or individual in fact, was a victim( more on this later). But the basic difference as far as concepts go is that a victim is someone who suffered through something, usually a crime. In some way the victim was cheated, neglected, abused, injured, degraded, oppressed, and/or dehumanized, during a particular event, or even several. The likelihood of being a victim of something, in one way or another, is fairly high for most of us in life. Yet someone who was a victim was able to move past whatever happened, for the most part, and did not let it affect everything else; the situation and their status as victim was not internalized and did not become part of their baseline functioning and belief system. Whereas someone with victim mentality is walking around with the belief that they were, are and always will be, a victim of life, essentially.

Symptoms of this mentality include a sense of entitlement, learned helplessness, underachievement, and paranoia. Those who play the victim do not believe that they are responsible for anything they are experiencing in life, that things only happen to them and that they are powerless. But the reality and active state of playing the victim is quite complicated,  in certain regards infuriating, and even interesting for an observer.

I know, because I have realized that I play the victim. People have flat out told me that I do, even recently. But I made the initial discovery quite some time ago through reading,  upon self reflection  and soul searching. I allowed it to sink in, or as much as I have been able, as  this discovery is quite hard to stomach. People who play the victim, like myself, are often sensitive people with low self esteem who get hurt easily and  have gone through a lot of trauma, so it is very painful to to think that they are to blame for their predicament, that others may actually have some reason to dislike them, and that they are not as innocent, perfect or deserving of special treatment as they think. This is, however, a realization that will free them from the victim mentality and help to separate the sufferer from their own drama vs. the drama of everyone else. It will allow them to hopefully solve some of their own problems and give them the power to handle situations where they are true victims..

What made me realize that I had a victim mentality? What was it that I did specifically that put me in the prison of victimhood? Well, for one, I didn’t take responsibility  for unhealthy, undesirable scenarios I found myself in, and wasn’t even sure how I wound up in them in the first place. I believed, (and still find myself still believing sometimes) that I was helpless, alone, unloved, and most importantly, that I deserved and was entitled to certain things. Whenever I experience something I don’t like, my internal monologue tends to go something like this:

How dare bad things happen to me! I don’t deserve this! What is so wrong with me that this is happening? Why does no one pay attention to all the bad things that happen to me! My life has been so hard! Aren’t I a good person? Good things should just happen to me, I shouldn’t have to work for them! I deserve it! God is mean, God hates me, everyone else hates me, life is hard and no matter what I do it doesn’t matter and things won’t change. This just can’t be!

Yeah. That’s one hell of a pity party. Playing the victim often means feeling sorry for oneself. I have often refused to take action to improve my life because I actively tell myself that there is no way I am or could be responsible for my predicaments, and that no matter what I do, if I put forth effort and attempt to change the way I do things, I won’t accomplish anything.  In actuality, many of my problems result from my laziness, inaction, sense of entitlement, exaggeration and personalizing of events. I am sometimes smug and don’t think I am like other people in the sense that I have to work, solve my own problems and find my own happiness. Now once I realized this, (and continue to take note of it), and once the person who has a victim mentality realizes this, they may be interested to learn how it developed.

It is important to understand that a victim mentality often arises from family of origin, negative and traumatic childhood experiences, and learned behavior patterns. NOW that being said, many will take this as yet another opportunity to shift blame. What I believe it actually should be is an opportunity to gain invaluable insight, to reflect on one’s self, and to then work to recognize the impulses and thoughts behind their actions that put them in the position of being a perpetual victim.

What helped me work through my victim mentality was the following:

A)Recognizing childhood experiences, trauma and vulnerabilities that led to my present victimhood:

I was bullied by a lot of kids and excluded quite often as a child and adolescence. At the same time, I was also put on a pedestal as in some ways I was talented and mature (this is fairly common with Asperger’s). So while in a sense I was known as a semi- “star”, I was also bullied for not having a lot of friends, for not being a bad-ass, for being somewhat of a nerd, and even things like the make-up I wore and the way I walked (kids are mean).  As a child I was also very, very sensitive and had a strong, pollyana like view on morality and right and wrong-I couldn’t stand violence, even curse words, or talk or images of raunchy sex and drug use.  I firmly believed, and still to an extent do, that these things are damaging and degrading. (see my post on purity). Thus the world around me, where these things are often in your face on tv, the internet, in magazines and even the street, was very traumatizing to me as a child. Also, for whatever reason, being hit on, asked out or even kissing anyone was overwhelming for me as well. As a youngster I didn’t know how to handle budding sexual feelings or what to think if someone was interested in me. While I have always been very passionate, being sensitive and unsure of myself made for complicated feelings when it came to intimacy. I remember a boy kissing me when I was 4 years old and I cried! I also remember someone telling me “f- you” when I was about 13 and it also made me cry. This might seem silly to you, but I use it to illustrate how I was deeply affected by seemingly minor things.

The point is, being very sensitive can mean that the world, especially the negative, is overwhelming to you. Admitting that you are sensitive, while it may be hard, especially for men, can help you understand that you may take things harder than others, likely especially in childhood. Knowing this is one step into understanding why you may feel victimized when others do not.

As I grew up I hid my inner sensitive child (as most of us do) and pushed her way down in order to survive. I talk more about this in my post on being your authentic self. While you don’t want to entirely get rid of your inner sensitive child, you don’t want to let him/her out all the time. Its about balance, like with everything in life. If you are struggling as a highly sensitive person like myself, check out these resources in addition to my blog on being your authentic self  :

 

B) The realization that I have black or white, all or nothing thinking.

Black and white, all or nothing thinking is a symptom present in many different mental disorders, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome (all of which I have been told I have by different psychologist and psychiatrists at one point). This type of thinking enhances victim mentality in that someone who plays the victim sees every situation as all bad or all good. They don’t see bad events as a challenge that could potentially teach them a lesson, build their character or even lead to something good happening. They ruminate on bad things that happened in the past and don’t see their part in it or how not to repeat the same mistakes. They neglect the gray areas, the nuance, the ambivalence – everything is one extreme or the other. This leads to extreme emotions and reactions, which can then lead to extreme beliefs like perpetual victimhood.

Being bullied and being very sensitive while also being told I was talented, unique and special led me to black and white/all or nothing thinking in regards to life. I believed I deserved things, and thus if something bad happened, I deserved it, and if something good happened, I deserved it as well. I was better than most people as far as my talents, but much worse than people as far as my social standing. This led to victim mentality and low self esteem. Reading a book about self-esteem confirmed this. I believed that I was better than people because of my talents, yet less than them because of my lack of “coolness”.

Here’s another example that illustrates victim mentality and black and white thinking:

Sally, who plays the victim, is speeding to work because she woke up late. While it is her fault she woke up late, she feels entitled to do as she pleases and justifies this because of past bad things that have happened to her, including her mother having been an alcoholic, her father abandoning the family, and several dysfunctional relationships she’s had, even though these have little to do with her present circumstances. So she speeds to work, trying to avoid being more late, and she gets pulled over by a cop and gets a speeding ticket. Sally sees this as being all bad, the end of the world, etc. She begins ruminating about how bad things always happen to her and how her life sucks and on and on. Instead of reflecting on her part in the events that led up to her speeding ticket and taking it as a chance to improve and do better the next time, she sees it as yet more proof that everyone is out to get her and that nothing ever goes right for her.

C) The realization that my family was dysfunctional and that many of my reactions and behaviours were in fact, not my own.

My mother, as I write about in other posts, has some narcissistic traits, obsessive compulsive traits and in some ways plays the victim. Usually when something doesn’t go her way, she flips out, cries, protests, throws temper tantrums and has even become violent. She can become a whimpering child, or yell and throw something if say, the printer jams or the toast burns . She refuses to see how her anxiety, reactions, and  beliefs are part of the problem and end up making things worse, and causing her family problems as well.

My father in many ways also exhibited narcissistic traits, but his was less covert, and who knows, may have been less damaging. My father was also likely bi-polar, so his reactions made less sense as they came out of nowhere for an observer and would build and build until he was in a full-on violent rage.

I used to think that my parents were different, that my father was the “bad” parent; he was incompetent, incapable, etc., and that my mother was the “good parent”. Yet years later I started to realize that my parents had some very similar flaws: They both often functioned on anxiety. Anything that required a process, where they couldn’t see the end in sight, was too hard and overwhelming for them. My father and mother both did something called “end-gaining”; they were always thinking ahead, trying to “get” somewhere, tying to force an outcome of a situation rather than let it happen naturally.

Now this might seem a good way to prevent not being a victim, but in reality it was a way to avoid problem solving. My parents would overreact at the slightest perceived wrongdoing and if they didn’t get their way it was someone else’s fault, usually God’s. Now whether or not things are God’s fault, (basically, what is predestination or free will and when God steps in or does not) is an extremely complicated question and one I’m not sure I can answer, but I’m pretty sure that we make our own choices with most things and even if bad things are happening we can choose how we react. My parents chose to react mostly negatively and often feeling sorry for themselves. I learned by their reactions that when something doesn’t go your way, when bad things happen, you become angry, despondent, and feel sorry for yourself. You don’t focus on solutions or what you can learn from the situation so that maybe you can prevent it from happening again.

Through all of this, I have come up with a list of ways to avoid and to help dismantle the learned helplessness and victim mentality present with many people.

1.) Don’t take everything personally

Someone was rude to you? It happens to most everyone, and will continue to, good or bad, traumatic past or not.

Someone rejected you or broke your heart? It happens to most everyone, and will continue to, good or bad, traumatic past or not.

You got injured? Sick? ”

You didn’t get the job you wanted? You got laid off?  ”

Another example of how someone plays the victim and takes things personally:

Jim got picked on when he was a kid by other boys. When he joined the marine core, he endured harsh treatment by drill instructors, even though others did as well. He  developed the belief that there was something inherently wrong with him, that his bullies were right.. He failed to see that his bullies were mean and picked on other people too. He stays stuck in this belief without working to heal and love himself and move on, and thus in the present day when he has a boss, colleague, friend or girlfriend that points out something he does wrong, offers constructive criticism or teases him, he sees it as getting bullied again. Instead of realizing that maybe they have a point to what they are saying, that they are trying to help and don’t mean harm, he takes it as all negative and feels essentially like he is still that helpless  boy victim he was in childhood. In fact, he may look at every criticism he ever gets as a slight against him. Instead of looking at it as a chance to improve himself, he takes it to mean he is getting picked on.

2) Develop Perspective

Everyone in life will experience things they consider negative, and most of the time more than once. Notice I use the word consider. Perspective is very important in life and something that people with victim mentality very much lack. They fail to see the possible positive aspect(s) of things that happened or are happening. They don’t even look for them and don’t wish to try. They believe that God and everyone has it out for them, that even small things happening to them have everything to do with them. They essentially believe, in their black and white thinking, that they are simultaneously all powerful (in that they only attract the negative and more than most) and powerless (in that they can do nothing to stop it).

Here’s where I go into some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy techniques to help with perspective: It is not what happens to us necessarily, but what we believe about what happens to us that matters. People with traumatic pasts who play victim often hold onto beliefs about what happened to them and don’t ever examine these beliefs, and it is these beliefs that end up contributing to future problems and victimhood. The cold, hard reality is that people who play victim often end up inviting things they consider negative to happen to them, repeatedly, as they fail to see how they play a part in the situation. They also view things happening in the present as directly tied to things that happened in the past. I know this is true for me. It is hard for me to admit, but it is true. They lack perspective

While many of us victims like to tell ourselves that we are perpetually unlucky, always passed over, always being hurt, etc., the reality is is that the vast majority of us have been lucky in some ways, unlucky in others, passed over in some, not in others, etc. Also, who is to say what is necessarily right or wrong, bad or good, lucky or unlucky? How can you tell if something  that might seem bad in the moment won’t actually turn out to be beneficial in the future? It is impossible to say. Depending on interpretation, there are a MILLION small things going RIGHT and WRONG everyday. You could’ve been hit by a car last week but weren’t, the curling iron could’ve singed your head and ruined your prom date but it didn’t, your grandmother could be diagnosed with dementia and sign away your inheritance to her neighbor’s cat but didn’t, etc.

The reality is that the universe really is quite random and extraordinary, and often when you look at your life and can’t find anything to be grateful for or think that nothing is going right or ever has, you aren’t considering all the information. Most would consider it a good thing just to be alive, to be able to walk and talk, to have friends and family, a roof over their head, etc. Its very likely that if you are reading this right now, you have access to the internet and a computer. Some wish they had that, but don’t.

Often people who play the victim don’t recognize what is going right because they are only concerned with what is going wrong. They plain don’t see what is going right and what their blessings are, because they take them for granted and haven’t had to worry about them.

I like referring to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when it comes to taking stock of what you truly have and what you don’t.

 

maslow

If you have all or most of your physiological and safety needs met, you are doing better than many people who must fight for these everyday. And if you have most of these needs met with the exception of a couple of them in a couple categories, you are doing better than most! I would say.

And if you don’t have most of these, the good thing is that you likely have less to lose compared to others,  know exactly what you are in need of, and can take steps towards getting these needs met, starting from the most important (the bottom up). Doing so will help you understand the most pressing issue(s) and may just create a domino affect, i.e., eating regular, healthy meals and drinking water will lead to a certain level of stability and health, and having a job will lead to possible friendships and a sense of belonging in addition to income.

Taking stock of what you have and what you don’t, and how exactly you are suffering is a good segway into the next step you can take to stop feeling like you area victim:

3.) Work on solving your own problems

Relying on others to do everything for you is a great way to develop learned helplessness. While it might not be easy, even quite challenging at first, learning how to develop self sufficiency will get you out of the hole you are currently in.

First you have to identify what your problems are.

Second you have to identify the necessary steps you must take to solve each of them, and work to focus on taking one step at a time. If you don’t think you know what the steps are or don’t think you can do it, you are already working toward defeating yourself. Part of learned helplessness is the notion that we can’t do things on our own. How to break free from this is to start doing things on your own. It will be awkward and feel very difficult at first, and you may feel like you are going to fail, but this is how you will learn. You can’t teach someone how to ride a bicycle if you are constantly behind them, steering it and balancing it. Same with learning how to do things on your own- you have to learn through trial and error and even more failure how to steer and balance yourself and eventually peddle down the street. This is what I have started doing about a year ago and am continuing to do, and it is working, slowly but surely.

Third you have to approach solving your problems with a different attitude than you had before. If you believe you can’t solve your own problems, try to tackle everything at once, don’t even feel it is worth trying, and approach any difficulty with the same notion that life is terrible and never goes your way, you’re not going to get very far. Try being positive, having perspective, and trusting yourself rather than other people to do things for you.

I used to and still do to an extent, approach problems with the notion that they can’t be solved or will be too hard. This is self-defeating behavior and leads to a host of negative things.  I soon realized that most of the things I approached with the belief that they couldn’t be solved or it would be very difficult to do so, ended up being solved rather easily and without much effort. We also must understand that life is a constant uphill battle in a sense, with problems that will keep arising until the day we die. While this is sometimes a good incentive for people who play the victim to say “see, there’s no point in solving problems when there’s only more around the corner!”,  this is actually quite a defeatist attitude and it only makes problems worse and multiplies them. There will always be problems in life, but to sit around and not solve them just because, well, there may be problems tomorrow is essentially doing nothing and then complaining about it. Trust me- while there will always be problems in life, solving the most pressing ones will lead to an easier, more fulfilling life and it will actually help with the victimhood stance you have. Once you solve one problem, and then another, you may just find that for the once things are good and you can actually relax and work on succeeding and accomplishing goals rather than sitting around mired in your own suffering.

 

Advice for Aspies: People with Asperger’s and mental illness do genuinely struggle more than most neurotypical people. We say and do things that are interpreted as weird or rude, think and react differently, and simple things that most take for granted are large hurdles for us. And usually this is a lifelong. How can we avoid playing the victim when we know we will always struggle to a certain extent? Well I believe we have to do a combination of what I have suggested in this blog post as well as: learn to accept that we are different and will always struggle, work on our deficits as best we can, and find and focus on those who accept us and our experiences with them instead of those who don’t. This can be a daunting task that leads to over-analyzing and lack of a concrete identity which I address in this post, but sometimes being our authentic selves in addition to the tips in this blog will help lead us to persons and situations where we don’t get bullied or at least struggle the least, I hope.

 

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