As an advocate in the criminal justice system, I’ve seen my fair share of trauma. I’ve seen domestic violence rip families apart, and sexual assault tear into the psyche of victims. Yet of the hundreds of cases I’ve worked, the hospital rooms and houses I’ve been called to, and the many rape exams I’ve been present in, I’m always astonished at the power and the sheer resilience of the human spirit.
You don’t have to be a victim of a crime or even have experienced trauma to feel like a victim, especially in a culture that is constantly encouraging us to take offense from every word and action. There is no magic bullet for curing yourself of the victim mindset, but it is possible to accomplish – and we’re better off in the end. Here’s the key to stop being a victim and living a richer, fuller life.
Recognizing the Victim Mentality
Trauma is a word our culture really likes to throw around with little to no knowledge of what it actually entails. Trauma is many things, and though we’ve now appropriated it to encompass everything from being criticized by others to being offended online, there are important distinctions to be made within the term.
Real trauma trespasses on our sense of security. It operates by taking control away from us, and leaves us powerless as to how we function in a space or frame of mind that’s dysregulated and unfamiliar. We are often left feeling like we have no idea how to cope, causing us to experience hopelessness and despair. Trauma can result in detachment from reality through dissociation or spiraling out of control. Any kind of event on a huge scale that results in these reactions – sexual assault, life-threatening illness, natural disaster – is what’s known as “big T” trauma. Big T trauma not only impacts the rest of our lives, but it will likely affect our ability to function physically, mentally, and emotionally in the day-to-day as well.
Let’s be honest for a moment: The majority of what we see labeled as “trauma” today just doesn’t fit the criteria of big T trauma. It may not even fit the criteria of little T trauma, the everyday events which impact our mental health. Little T trauma can indicate everything from a fender bender or financial trouble to moving across the country or a bad breakup. Though it feels earth-shattering at the time, we can recover over time from little T trauma. Encountering little T trauma repeatedly may negatively impact our health, but we are much more capable of coping with this kind, compared to its larger counterpart.
Having worked with victims of big T trauma for several years now, it feels childish and overexaggerated to see people claim everyday conflict or direct communication as trauma. More often than not, these individuals have wholeheartedly thrown themselves into a victim mentality and exhibit all the classic signs: a need for attention, a refusal to take responsibility or blame, a sense of powerlessness, self-sabotage, ingratitude, codependency, and resentment. A victim mentality is a comfortable place to be because it reaps consistent rewards for its participants – they escape blame on a constant basis, garner attention and sympathy, receive validation for all of their actions, even toxic behaviors, and they don’t have to put forth much effort or take risks.
Breaking the Cycle
We are all the main characters of our own lives, at least in our own minds. When we wholeheartedly embrace the role of a victim though, we center our entire being around the aggrandizement of our own pain and the misfortunes we’ve experienced, real or otherwise. Not only is a victim mindset usually overblown, but it’s also exhausting to maintain.
The victim mindset requires our constant oppression. We are powerless as to the direction of our own life, and every bad thing that’s ever happened to us is the fault of someone else. We aggravate and inflame every difficulty and setback, and we do it constantly. We need continuous validation from our loved ones, and negative attention and criticism make us feel like we’re being violated. All of this adds up to a miserable existence.
Not only is a victim mindset usually overblown, but it’s also exhausting to maintain.
We owe it to everyone around us and, most importantly, to ourselves to break the cycle of perceived victimhood. But we can’t accomplish this without first accepting and taking ownership of our own behavior. When we’re so accustomed to worshiping our own pain, this can be the hardest action to take.
Taking responsibility is difficult. But it’s also what’s required to function successfully in the adult world. Blaming everyone and everything else isn’t productive, nor are the excuses and justifications we make for our own behavior. Learning to accept things as they are, good or bad, is not only a more realistic way to behave, but it's easier in the long run. We can also help ourselves by choosing gratitude over resentment. Gratitude leads to happiness and breeds a mindset of contentment. Yes, life is hard and unfair and unforgiving, but we are alive, and we have agency and the power to change our circumstances. We’re not powerless, and that’s definitely something to be thankful for.
Live Your Life in Spite of Trauma
Why do we owe it to ourselves to ditch the victim mentality and choose resilience instead? There are a number of reasons. For one, science shows us that resilient people are happier. Overcoming adversity (real or otherwise) is never easy, but summoning the strength to bounce back from obstacles and move on makes our future path clearer and more hopeful.
Secondly, if we choose to bask in our misfortunes and the pain of the past, we’ll never be able to truly take advantage of the present. Living in the past, especially when we’ve been wronged, is tempting. But we can’t change the actions of others or our own errors. We can only move onward.
And finally, part of adulthood is the significant realization that we are steering the ship. We may not always be responsible for the obstacles thrown at us, but we’re responsible for how we react to them. Psychotherapist Seerut K. Chawla (who is always sharing valuable and sometimes hard-to-acknowledge nuggets of mental health wisdom on her Instagram and Twitter) writes, “Learn to control your emotions instead of trying to control other people. No one is obliged to view the world through your lens.” Chawla also advocates for altruism instead of obsessive introspection, and hard truths instead of constant validation.
Choosing to believe that we’re the victim of toxic behavior (when in reality, it’s just behavior that we don’t like) or believing we’re being gaslit instead of being told what we want to hear is often more convenient and more comforting than knowing that we’re not actually oppressed. But engaging in that mindset is the precursor to chronic unhappiness.
Life always comes down to choices. We can choose to believe the entire world and everyone in it is against us, or we can take our blows and forge ahead. If narcissism rather than authentic trauma is actually the issue at hand, we’re in danger of alienating everyone around us by living in delusion. If actual trauma is at play, we risk letting the perpetrator or the incident that’s responsible govern the rest of our life, rather than taking back our own power and choosing to live with agency and clarity of mind.
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