Everyone has at least one great victim story. Circumstances, past or present, where you’ve felt mistreated or powerless in the face of misfortune. You may have been deceived or simply let down by others. Sometimes it’s the situation itself, rather than the actions of another, which leave you feeling cornered.
In business and in our personal lives, we’ve all been the injured party at one time or another. Last month we looked at the story of Troy, who remains blind to his own role in the issues plaguing his team. The problem with the victim mindset is that we compound the injury, allowing toxic resentments and a sense of helplessness to cloud our path forward.
This is true whether our victim story is big or small. Unexpected traffic, the hotel receptionist who swears she can’t find your booking, the terrifying blank screen of your laptop or the smashed glass of your phone – in the crazy busy lives we lead, these sorts of surprises can test us just as much as challenging relationships.
When coaching clients who find themselves blaming others or resigned to a bad situation – and even during my own post-mortem at the end of a relationship – I remind them that it takes conscious effort to shift out of a victim mindset. Simply noticing it is the first step in that process.
The tell-tale signs
It’s not always easy to spot when you’ve gone into victim mode. Half the battle is becoming aware. In what situation do you feel powerless? Or frustrated, sad, confused or resigned? What are you angry or resentful about? When we get stuck feeling that we have no control over what’s happening to us, we take on the role of the victim – which prompts the question: What story are you telling yourself about this event or relationship?
Acknowledging the benefits of the victim mindset
As Troy’s case demonstrated, the victim mindset can serve us in the short term. His exasperation with “the complete fiasco” he discovered inside his company meant he could let himself off the hook in tackling thorny issues. In my own case, I got hooked into my interpretation of the betrayal I felt from my ex as a distraction from the painful feelings of my breakup and my role in the situation. When you are in the victim role, you get to be right, and “they” get to be wrong.
Your “victim story” doesn’t have to be as big as the end of a job or a relationship. If it’s not travel headaches or technology gone wrong, it might be your team missing a deadline because one person didn’t pull their weight. Or your neighbor’s tree damaging your roof (or the builder who keeps promising to repair it but never turns up). Maybe a storm cancelled your flight to an important meeting that went ahead without you. Whatever it is, all “victim stories” have three things in common; they:
- Involve your misfortune thanks to something or someone else.
- Serve you temporarily, as we outlined last month.
- Ultimately harm you and your health.
Stewing in the victim mindset eventually makes us bitter. As Nelson Mandela wrote, “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” The bad feelings we hold toward another are toxic – not to them, but ultimately for us.
Consider the alternative
Once you have your victim story in mind, the trick is to explore what happened from a different angle. It’s not about blaming yourself for what’s occurred, you’re simply testing the ways in which your own actions or your interpretations are limiting how you move forward.
Ask yourself: What might have I done differently? What could I do differently now?
Why wouldn’t you want more personal power?
We’ve already examined why someone would choose victim mode with Troy’s story. There are clear payoffs. So why adopt a responsible mindset? Because the price of remaining the victim is too high. We hold onto our dramas and the you-won’t-believe-what-happened-next updates to our friends and family, at great expense. These stories give away our personal power. We lose respect. In serious and ongoing situations, powerlessness leads to resignation and poor health. We become ineffective and stagnant. Life – the good, bad and the ugly – happens to us, not through us.
If you remain in a victim mindset, events happen to you, leaving you powerless to influence a better outcome.
Practice these 4 steps
The next time you feel cornered by events beyond your control, practice these four steps to expand, rather than shrink, the choices available to you:
- Notice emotions are clues. If you’re feeling frustrated, angry, resentful or hurt, pay attention.
- Ask: What story am I telling myself about this situation? In what way does this version of events serve me? (Last month’s post lists the situational, physical and emotional benefits to victim-mode.)
- Experiment with re-framing the story. What could I have done differently and what can I do now to influence a better outcome? Are there actions I might take or alternate interpretations which enhance my personal power in this situation?
- Shift: From “reactive” and powerlessness to a more responsible, creative and empowered mindset.
The more you catch yourself in victim mode and re-frame the story you’re telling yourself, the more skilled you become at unearthing all the previously unseen options available to you.
Have a team or a leader stuck in the victim mindset?
We can help you lay the groundwork to shift perspective and take new action towards high performance. Contact Us.