For all of us: Victim mind-set erases choice
First I want to make a clear distinction between being treated as a victim and having a victim mentality. Itís not like the old horse and carriage, we can have one without the other. For abusers actually to feel victimized by the people they are hurting emotionally or even physically is a classic scenario. On the other hand, we may be genuinely victimized by someone and still not think or respond like a victim.
Refusing to think like a victim: Sojourner Truth, an African American woman who escaped slavery and was a strong abolition activist, attended the National Women's Suffrage Convention in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered her powerful "Ain't I a Woman?" speech.
Only women were allowed to speak and she was such a powerful speaker that an effort was made by opponents of the movement to discredit her by humiliating her. She was ordered to go to the women's room and bare her breast to prove that she was a woman.
Sojourner Truth was offered a choice between not speaking and being humiliated. But she refused to stay in the confines of that "no-win" choice. She refused to think like a victim. She chose to speak ó and as she went to the womenís room to "prove" she was a woman, she said with power and grace, "It is to your shame, not mine, that I do this."
The problem: We slip easily into victim mentality when we we try to get exactly what we want in less than ideal circumstances and when we can't, we allow ourselves to be trapped in no-win choices. Often, we aren't even willing to consider any choice other than the ideal choice. When we are in victim mentality, we donít see the range of choices we have and we wallow in resentment. We feel helpless.
The solution: In order to eliminate our victim mentality, we must:
Start by accepting the reality of the situation instead of trying to achieve the ideal.
- Find the best choice available within the reality of the circumstances, and then
- Accept that choice instead of resenting it.
Below are examples that show how to do that in various circumstances/relationships:
For friends: You're late, I wait!
Victim mind-set: If I want to see my friend for tea or coffee, and she is chronically late, I may feel victimized by the choice between having to wait or not getting to see her. I wait and then feel disconnected and irritated.
Empowered mind-set: If I donít want to be a victim I have many choices. I can accept that my friend is always late and chose to:
- Be late too.
- Take a good book and have a 15 minutes of quiet time.
- Meet at a place near where I have other errands and let her know that Iíll wait ten minutes (or whatever suits me) and if sheís not there, Iíll leave.
4. Meet her at my house so I can keep doing whatever I want till she gets there, and if she doesnít arrive before my next appointment, she wonít get to see me.
Holiday dinner variation: They're late, we wait
Victim mind-set: How many of you out there plan a holiday meal and have certain relatives or friends who are always late. You hold up dinner, the food gets dry, held in the oven on warm, or cold on the counter.
You and the rest of the family and guests sit around pretending that you are having fun instead of waiting, or openly complain or arguing about whether you should wait a few more minutes or go ahead and eat. Here we have a whole room full of people in feeling helpless and frustrated.
Empowered mind-set: You let the late-arrivers know ahead of time, "Weíre gathering at 2:00 and weíll eat at 3:00. If you get there late, just come on in and join the meal."
Now, everyone can have fun, eat, and not be so angry when the others do arrive. (Just make sure you donít assign them to bring the turkey, pasta, ham, or whatever your main dish is!) This sounds so simple. What stops us from doing it?
For couples: Trying to get what you need from someone in a bad mood
Note: Iíve made the names generic so either person could be a man or a woman.
Victim mind-set: Sandy asks Marty "Would you like to go to that movie tonight that weíve been wanting to see?" and Marty says passively "Whatever you want."
Sandy snipes, sarcastically, "What I want is for you to have some enthusiasm about having a date together tonight!" Marty returns the fire, "Look, I said Iíd go. Do you want me to do a dance?!"
Their choice is now to go that movie, slumped angrily in their seats, or stay home and be at war with each other.
After getting a non-committal response about going to the movies, Sandy can ask:
Questions: "Would you like to have a date tonight or would you rather not?," and/or, "Is there anything youíd like to do that you would feel enthusiastic about?," and/or, Are you withdrawn because youíre upset with me for some reason? If so, are you willing to talk about it and clear the air so we can feel close tonight?"
If Marty does not respond in a way that meets Sandyís need to be connected, then itís time to shift gears, perhaps saying:
Predictions: "I'd love and prefer to do something with you if we can be close and have fun. If you arenít wanting to connect with me tonight, I think Iíll ask a friend to see the movie with me rather than feel depressed about it."
Sandy can chose to create an enjoyable evening alone or with someone else. If Sandy insists on spending the evening with Marty ó and can only be satisfied if Marty is enthusiastic about their time together, Sandy will be victimized by Martyís attitude.
Marshall Rosenburg said that when we depend on having one other person meet our needs, we donít see the abundance of choices available to us.
For parents: Falling victim to being seen as the "bad cop" parent
Victim mind-set: Clare and George have a teenage son, Mark, and Clare is upset because George is too permissive with him. If Mark has been told to do chores or homework before borrowing the car or playing computer games, all Mark has to do is promise to do his work later and his gives in.
When Clare refuses to give him his privileges before he has done his work, Mark accuses, "Thatís not fair! Iíll do my homework when I get home!! Iíve got all weekend!! Dad would let me go and do this later!! You just want to mess up my life."
Melissa tells George, "Iím trying to get Mark to be responsible, and I canít do it without your support. He just things Iím the crappy parent and youíre the good guy!" Clare becomes increasingly harsh with Mark and George, and is increasingly seen by them as the one causing the problems.
Clare developed a victim mind-set, feeling helpless and angry when she couldnít get support from her husband for her parenting approach. She took that anger out on both of them. But Clare doesnít have to accept the role of "Crappy Parent." She can continue to see her choices and valid and present them as valid. She can establish her own position with positive strength, saying perhaps:
Statement: "Mark, your dad does let you have your privileges before you do your work. When he is the one deciding what you do, thatís his choice. For me, requiring that you to do your work before privileges is important to helping you become a really competent person in this world. For me that is an act of love, even though itís hard on me when you are angry at me. Iíll continue expect you to do your work first, and I think the day will come when you will actually appreciate it."
Victim mind-set erases choice!
For professionals: Do as I tell you -even if it causes problems!
Victim mind-set: A new manager, William, was hired in Marioís department. Mario, also in a
managerial position, was asked by William to implement a series of changes.
Mario tried to explain to William that three of these changes involved procedures that had been tried before but caused some serious problems.
William seemed to take Marioís comments as a challenge to his authority, and dismissed them.
Mario was frustrated, complained to others, and rather sullenly said he would do as asked. He was worried that in his own managerial role he would be held accountable for the problems he knew would develop. He was afraid to complain to his new bossís supervisor for fear of looking like sour grapes.
Mario, in this case, got some advice and decided to write an email to William to clarify his position. It said:
Statement:"I want to be clear and respectful in telling you the specific problems we had when we previously used the following three procedures you have asked me to implement over the next few months. I am concerned about the impact on the company, and about my own responsibility as a manager, given that I will be directing my staff to put a process into effect that I know is going to cause problems. Since you are my manager, I feel it is my duty to officially report these issues to you."
Possible predictions: "If you want to talk to me about other options, Iíd be glad to do so. If you still want me to implement these procedures, I will do so as efficiently as I can."
If you If you still want me to implement these procedures, I want to have it on record that I reported these problems so I am not held accountable for any resulting problems."
"If you feel determined to implement these procedures, Iíd like to ask that we meet together with your supervisor to discuss it first, so she is aware of the problems we had previously."
Sharon's closing thoughts
The world is not an ideal place. When we look for ideal choices and ideal solutions, we find we have fewer and fewer "choices." We think like victims, which usually involves feeling both helpless and angry.
If we know that we are making choices in situations that are not ideal and we accept that, then we will suddenly see countless choices previously invisible to us. We will feel greater freedom and take more responsibility for the choices we do make.
Doing so, I believe we can dramatically alter how we feel about ourselves and the level of intimacy we have with others.
Sharon Ellison, founder of Ellison Communication Consultants, of Oakland, California, is an award-winning speaker and internationally recognized consultant.She works with people in thirteen different professions and also works extensively with youth, families and community organizations. Sharon has created a systematic way to describe how to communicate non-defensively with far more power and effectiveness than we can have by being defensive. For the story of how she developed this model known as Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, visit her website: PNDC.com, or read the introduction to the paperback edition of her book: Taking the War Out of Our Words.