Self improvement isn’t possible for the person who refuses to take control of their life. Without taking control, the victim mentality rules the day — your satisfaction at any given moment dependent on external events.
Establishing a growth mindset and a sense of mindfulness are two cornerstone habits that are necessary to start taking control.
This article is important, but don’t forget to check out what I consider the most foundational posts on this site:
Things can happen to us every day that we have no control over, and it makes us feel like victims. The victim mentality is so common that we rarely even notice it.
We don’t have to be victims in life though.
Being a victim in life isn’t about things that happen to you. Victimhood happens when you resort to blaming other people or outside circumstances when faced with life’s challenges.
The victim mentality says “It’s not my fault” whenever something undesirable happens. It doesn’t recognize any personal responsibility.
You can choose to take control though. Victimhood is like always playing the part of a passenger, getting taken to this place or that with no choice of the destination.
Taking control is like becoming the driver. Embracing life’s challenges and choosing which direction you will go.
In this article, we’ll explore how the victim mentality and being free of blame robs you of your power to create change.
We’ll look at how we have the power to be “response-able”, and choose our response to any circumstance or condition.
“Look at the word responsibility – ‘response-ability’ – the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditioning, or conditions for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of conditions, based on feeling.”Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
The Power to Respond
At one point or another, we have all felt at the mercy of external circumstances.
Sometimes to the point where things feel out of control and there is nothing that can be done to improve them.
Here’s the thing though, regardless of what happens, you have the power to respond.
Things are never going to go your way 100% of the time, but you don’t have to be the victim.
You have the power to respond. Additionally, choosing your response is one thing that will always be within your control.
Stop Having a Victim Mentality
Once we become adults, we realize that not everything that feels good is good for us. Junk food, heavy drinking, mindless television. The list goes on.
We also know how rarely this knowledge alone is enough to prevent us from engaging in these activities.
Conversely, the things that are good for us generally don’t feel good in the moment. Eating healthy, exercising, budgeting, etc.
The result is that unless we are intentional about doing things that are good for us, we will naturally gravitate towards the things that aren’t.
Unfortunately, one of the patterns that feels really good that gets us in trouble is the victim mentality and being at the mercy of external circumstances.
Let’s say you typically meet up with friends every Thursday after work for a happy hour.
One particular Thursday, your boss asks you to stay late to work on a project with an approaching deadline. You stay at work and miss the happy hour as a result.
The next Thursday you show up and your friends ask “what happened to you last Thursday?”
Without a second thought, you say something along the lines of:
- “My boss made me stay late“, or
- “I had to stay late to work on a project“
You might then go into complaining about how your boss is always riding you, how someone else could have stayed late, or other victim-like statements.
Even the initial response was reflective of a victim that had no responsibility whatsoever. The boss made me…, I had to.
In reality, neither of those things are true. Your boss cannot force you to do anything. You didn’t really have to stay late.
You’re an adult with free will and could have explained to the boss that you had plans and couldn’t do it.
Of course, choosing that option may not produce best long-term result, depending on what your goals are. That isn’t the point though.
The point is that you did, in fact, have a choice. Realizing that you made a choice to stay late is a step out of the victim-mentality.
Failing to see that you had a choice absolves you of any responsibility. The problem is that by not recognizing your role in the situation, you also render yourself helpless.
When you don’t recognize your role in a given situation, your entire focus is on things that you cannot control.
In the specific scenario before, you only focused on your boss requesting you to stay late. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about that.
By only focusing on that, you’re saying there’s nothing you can do. You render yourself helpless.
It’s easy to focus on the boss’s actions. He or she is to blame. You’re innocent.
Being innocent and laying the blame elsewhere feels good. Taking some responsibility doesn’t necessarily feel good.
The former is laying on the couch and watching tv. The latter is going for a long run.
The attitude of focusing on external factors, of turning your attention to the things that are out of your control to justify your blamelessness is the perspective of the victim. The passenger.
Undesirable things happen all the time that we can’t control.
They happen to all of us. The question is, after the bad things happen, what are you going to do?
The victim is blind to this part.
The victim just focuses on what is happening outside of his or her control in order to feel okay about him or herself. To justify a sense of innocence.
The victim wants to know who they can blame. They question why it is happening to them and believe that it shouldn’t be happening.
Furthermore, the attitude of the victim is one of anger due to perceived mistreatment.
The victim first feels relieved with the soothing of “it’s not my fault” and then euphoric with the “it shouldn’t have happened to me”.
“They did it wrong and they should pay” or “They broke it and should fix it”.
It’s like drug. It’s an upper and downer at the same time. It relaxes and energizes you, and once you try it, you’re hooked.
This is not to say that sometimes these stories aren’t true.
However, if the only thing you focus on is how you’re innocent and other people did it to you, you’re not going to have power to change the situation.
A Personal Experience With the Victim Mentality
My father and I never had a close relationship.
My parents were divorced when I was young. So young that now I don’t even remember them being together.
Mississippi was our hometown but we ended up moving to the Midwest. All of us moved, but my father moved back down South after the divorce.
As long as I can remember, my father lived almost 12 hours away. My sister and I would go visit for a couple of weeks over the summer and that was pretty much it.
He would sometimes come up for the holidays.
This was the norm, year after year until I grew up. 50 weeks with mom, two weeks with dad.
There was never much talking on the phone with him and we never built a close connection.
The summer visits stopped once I was about 15 or 16.
Once I became an adult my mother started asking about my relationship with my dad.
Not directly asking about the relationship, but questions like: “When was the last time you spoke with your father?” or “did you remember to call your dad on his birthday?”
At first those questions really annoyed me, and my responses probably reflected that.
You see, I always believed that my father should be the one to make an effort to have a relationship with me. Not the other way around.
Why should I have to make an effort?
My attitude was that he was at fault for us not having a relationship. I still believe that to a degree because he never set the foundation.
However, upon deeper reflection I realized I was casting myself as the role of the victim. Assigning his past behavior as the sole reason for the current status of our relationship.
Is it true? Maybe. Probably. But that isn’t what matters. If I’m 100% focused on his actions as the reason for my issue then I’m giving away all my power to do anything about it.
Then I realized I had the power to influence our relationship, if a better relationship is what I really wanted.
I could easily commit to calling him once a week. If he didn’t respond to my efforts then that’d be on him. At least I tried.
When I recognized my ability to influence the relationship I realized that I was making a choice. A choice to try or a choice not to try.
It also dawned on me that I didn’t desire a more intimate relationship with him. I love him and I know he loves me. I’m not looking for anything more and that’s okay.
Will I regret not trying to have a deeper relationship once he’s gone? I don’t think so but it’s possible. I’m okay with that though.
I’m okay with it because it’s a choice that I’m making. I am not playing the victim by blaming him for us not having a close relationship nor am I waiting for him to make an effort.
At the end of the day, I’m in the driver’s seat and I’m choosing to be at peace the way things are. Without any resentment and minus the blame.
We Can Be Response-Able
We don’t have to blame circumstances, conditioning, or conditions for our behavior.
The story of the victim is always justified because it’s generally true. Undesirable things happen to us all of the time.
When these things happen, the natural reaction is to look for someone or something to blame. We need to feel like it’s not our fault to be okay.
As stated before, the issue with this is it blinds us to the opportunities to respond to the situation.
We are blind to any part of our participation in the problem or situation.
Failing to see how we participated in the problem also means we don’t see ourselves as being part of the solution.
Whoever or whatever created the problem needs to resolve it.
This kind of thinking makes us a prisoner to our circumstances, waiting on something external to change before we can move forward.
It’s no way to live. While we may not have created the problem, we are certainly suffering from it.
In other words, anything that causes you suffering is your problem. Not anyone else’s. You have to own it.
You must take responsibility to do something about it rather than play the victim and avoid any sense of duty.
If you don’t, you’ll continue to remain a victim and continue to give away your ability to respond to situations.
This isn’t victim blaming
Most of the time you aren’t responsible for what happens to you. Occasionally you are but the lion’s share of the time, you aren’t.
You are always able to respond to what happens to you, which is the transition from the victim mindset.
The story of the victim is everywhere, just pay attention. Whenever something goes wrong, listen to how people explain things.
At work, on the news, in conversations with your friends and family members. Listen to how people explain and talk about bad situations.
We’re all telling stories of being victims and it’s rarely noticed because it’s so common. Everyone is doing it.
We have to be intentional in order to stop the stories and start telling new ones.
The first step is awareness. We must recognize things as they are before we can change them. Start actively listening for the story of the victim.
Victim Mentality Conversations
The most common way to listen to the story of the victim is to listen to conversations.
Let’s face it, people love complaining to other people.
Someone who feels victimized is quick to tell their story to other people. Unfortunately, other people usually add gas to the fire.
By saying ‘add gas to the fire’, I mean people tend to encourage the victim mentality and continue to build the story with the questions they ask.
Again, everyone is doing it.
And because everyone is doing it, a cycle of codependency is created where everyone is helping everyone else be a victim. Taking compassion on one another and eliminating any sense of responsibility.
So what kinds of questions are asked that continue to build the story of the victim?
Here are a few:
- What happened to you?
- Who did it?
- What should they have done?
These questions aren’t explicitly stated word for word (usually). They are the questions that get addressed during the dialogue in some way, shape, or form.
Notice that all of the questions focus on something external. It’s all about the event that happened and the roles that other people played.
What happened to you?
Whether the victim starts talking about what happened to them or a friend sees them in distress and asks, it always starts here.
The conversation begins by talking about what external event acted upon the person.
Something bad happened, now let’s talk about how things outside of yourself made it happen.
This makes sense, no one in their right mind is going to begin talking about their role in an event without talking about the event itself.
However, the conversation could shift away from the victim mindset at this point. But it doesn’t. It usually continues with the external focus.
Who did this to you?
This is often answered with the first question.
“My boss made me stay late” identifies both what happened to you and who did it to you.
There’s always a guilty party. Always someone or something that created the trouble for you.
What should they have done?
The boss could have asked someone else to stay late.
Of course. Why did they have to ask you when there were other people that could have done it?
The boss is the problem and should have done something different so there wouldn’t have been a problem.
These conversations go nowhere
These conversations feel good but they go nowhere.
They feel good because no one involved in the conversation is responsible. But they go nowhere because the entire focus is on things that can’t be changed.
Everyone in the conversation feels a sense of righteous indignation but there is no positive outcome. No impetus for change.
Taking Control & Becoming the Driver
Since being the victim is all about focusing on what happened and who is responsible, taking control and being “the driver” is the opposite.
What happened, happened. We can’t change that. We can only do something about the way we respond.
It could be something as small as someone failing to keep a promise or as big as being laid off from work.
There are a multitude of things that bother us. Each one is an occasion to flex your responsibility muscles.
We can feel like victims at the mercy of circumstances, or we can choose a better path. The mindful path where we understand that’s just the way things are and determine the best way forward.
By adding the part of the story that’s within our control, we don’t solely focus on the event that happened.
The boss asked you to stay late. That’s true, but it’s not the end of the story. You chose to stay late. It was a decision that you made.
You chose to work late instead of attending the happy hour. You made that choice because being seen as a team player is more important to you than missing one happy hour.
The price of not seeing that you had a choice would leave you feeling victimized and perhaps even wronged.
The choice you made doesn’t matter. What matters is that you see that you made a choice. And that puts you in the driver’s seat.
This is a shift away from being the victim.
We love to see our part when good things happen. It’s easy to feel responsible when we win. It’s more difficult when bad things happen. When we lose.
Being the driver, you begin to see your role no matter what. win or lose.
In fact, it’s most important when you lose. It’s important to ask questions about how you contributed or participated.
Only when you make yourself part of the problem can you make yourself part of the solution.
Sometimes you’ll discover how your behavior influenced a negative outcome. With this information, you can modify your behavior to create a different outcome.
This isn’t possible if you don’t see the link between your behavior and the outcome.
Even if your behavior had nothing to do with what happened, you can still focus on you. What can you do next?
Committing to choose your response to difficulties creates pride and peace of mind.
This doesn’t mean there will always be success and things will always go your way. There’s never a promise that events will work out the way you want them to.
The promise is that you will distinguish yourself and choose your behavior towards success with integrity.
You Can’t Control the World
Truth is, there are sick people out there and sick systems. Because of this, bad things are going to happen. It’s unfortunate but it’s reality.
People will do unjust things and the unfair systems will produce unjust results.
It’s only natural to blame the person or system because they deserve to be blamed. They are doing something unjust so it’s a normal attitude.
Being in the driver’s seat allows you to always be prepared to respond.
The driver mentality is “I can’t stop that, but I can respond better to that.” The victim mentality is only “I can’t stop that.”
The victim mentality is a fantasy where everything is always okay. It believes undesirable things are going to happen. And when they do, they shouldn’t have happened.
When you take control you make the best of every moment you can with the given situation.
You, like anyone, has no idea what will happen tomorrow. With the driver mentality, you trust yourself to respond. You are prepared.
The solution is never going to be a world that doesn’t present difficulties. The solution is a world in which you are equipped to deal with them.
The Driver’s Questions
When you are the driver rather than the victim, situations bring about different questions.
Remember the questions that are common in victim conversations: What happened to me? Who did it? What should they have done?
With the driver mentality, the questions are different.
The driver asks questions such as:
- What challenge am I facing?
- Did I contribute to this in any way?
- Could I have done anything different?
- Can I do anything now?
Unlike the questions with the victim mentality, these questions largely focus on what you can do.
Remember, focusing on what the other person did or what happened to you lessons your ability to influence the situation. And completely eliminates that ability if it’s your sole focus.
What Challenge Am I Facing?
Nothing is good or bad. All situations are challenges. At least that’s how the person with the driver mentality sees things.
Regardless of the situation, they ask themselves what the challenge is.
When my mother would suggest I needed to call my father, my initial reaction was to be annoyed. My first thought would be he never tried to have a relationship with me, why should I? or something similar.
I immediately focused on his actions (or non-action) and considered it a bad situation.
What I needed to do was feel the emotions and ask myself what challenge am I facing.
The challenge I was facing was that I never reflected on how I felt about the relationship. Whenever my mom brought it up, my negative emotions were evidence that I needed to confront how I felt.
Once I did that, I understood where I stood and had the ability to choose my next move.
Did I Contribute To This In Any Way?
Can you see any way that you could have done something different to avoid the situation or be better prepared to handle it?
In my personal story, I obviously didn’t have anything to do with my parents getting divorced. Likewise, I had no control over the effort my father put into being more involved in my life.
From a contribution standpoint, I don’t believe I contributed to the situation in any way.
It’s important that I asked the question though instead of just assuming that I played no part. Victim’s don’t even ask the question.
Could I have Done Anything Different?
If you did contribute in some way, could you have done anything different?
Notice I said could and not should. Should is a victim’s word that brings associations with guilt.
Recognize if you could have done something different. With that knowledge you can behave differently next time. When a similar situation arises again.
Only think about whether it was possible to have done something different. Not if you or someone else thinks you were supposed to. This is the difference between could and should.
Going back to my personal experience with my father, I don’t think that I could have done anything differently.
I believe this because I never thought about it growing up. I was okay with the way things were so there was never a reason to make a change.
Can I do Anything Now?
This is the most important question and one that victims rarely ask.
It is the most important because it is forward focused. While the prior questions are self focused and can bring clarity to the role you played in a given situation, they are still focused on the past.
Asking if you can do anything now puts you squarely in the driver’s seat.
It forces you to think about what you would like to happen and how you can influence that outcome.
Do you really care about the situation or do you just like being the victim?
Asking what you can do brings this into the light. You might not care at all. And it’s important to realize that if that’s the case so you can let it go.
But if you do care, and there is something you can do – great. You have to summon the courage and go do it.
After you’ve asked all of these questions you can also ask what lesson you learned.
If there’s a lesson to be learned you better figure it out. Otherwise you’ll end up in a similar situation in the future. Suffering for no reason other than your inability to confront the problem.
Some Problems Can’t Be Solved
In a perfect world, we would always have the precise formula to respond in a way that produces the outcome we want. Every single time.
Some things just don’t work out in the end. We live in a complex world and most situations involve too many variables to consistently produce perfect results.
Even so, we can still be the driver rather than the victim.
There’s always a way to choose a response that will keep your spirits up when things go sideways.
This response requires acting with values that keep your integrity in tact at all times.
We all want to be proud of ourselves. Deep down, this is even more important than success for most of us. We would rather not succeed in a way that we feel proud of vs succeeding immorally.
When you think in terms of expressing your values, it’s sometimes the worst possible circumstances that give you the opportunity to express them.
You can’t prove that you’re not just a fair weather sailor until you have weathered a storm.
Life will inevitably bring depressing, difficult, or undesirable circumstances. Instead of saying “Oh no, why me…” you should be saying “Yes, here is my chance…”
The chance to prove what you’re made of and what values you truly believe in.
No matter the situation, the person with the driver mentality will always subordinate their feelings to their values.
In other words, they might feel annoyed but express patience. Feel fear but act with courage. They could fear the consequences of the truth but tell the truth anyway.
In that way, you really start to separate yourself from the victim mentality.
You choose to express your values in the face of difficult circumstances, and become an inspiration for other people to live that way too.
The victim mindset is all around us. In fact, it’s difficult to break away from it because it’s woven into the fabric of our society.
However, with mindfulness and the right mindset it can be overcome.
Reading this one article won’t free you from it. Reading 10 or twenty articles won’t either. You must become mindful and notice situations where the victim mentality manifests in real life.
Then take the courageous step and try to steer yourself and others away from it.
Remember, the event that happened and the pain caused from it are real. You should never try to deny this.
What isn’t true is the belief that this is where the story ends.
Focus on what you can do and steer your thoughts and conversations to solution oriented directions as much as possible.
The more you do this, the more it will become second nature. Before you know it, other people and situations won’t bother you as much.
Because you know that you’re in control, regardless. At least when it comes to what you do — your behavior. You’re prepared to handle whatever is thrown your way and help others do the same.
Additional Reading: All Articles on Taking Control