It’s depressing to believe you’re a victim, so why is this thought habit so popular? Victim thinking lures us because it feels good in the short run.
Like a drug, the instant good feeling obscures long-term harm. Here’s how to escape the trap of victim thinking and enjoy the natural power you were born with.
Knowing Your Brain Is the Key
Your brain releases a good-feeling chemical called oxytocin when you find social support. Victim thinking is a fast, easy way to feel social support. In the state of nature, animals stick with the herd for protection from predators. Humans likewise bond in the face of common enemies. The more you focus on common enemies, the more you feel group solidarity. Of course, you have to keep feeling threatened by enemies in order to continue enjoying the oxytocin, so it’s a bad deal in the long run.
The more you focus on common enemies, the more you feel group solidarity.
Another chemical, testosterone, is released when you’re angry. Testosterone creates the impulse to fight rather than flee. Fighting sounds bad, so you tell yourself you’re fighting for the sake of others. Testosterone feels good for a moment as you enjoy a sense of power. But when you make it a habit, anger has harmful consequences. Animals avoid fighting most of the time. Gazelles don't fight lions, nor do they wait for the system to protect them from lions. A gazelle survives by focusing on its next step. I am not saying you should run all the time. I’m saying you should not romanticize fighting; most of the time, it benefits no one except those who persuade you to fight on their behalf.
Your Brain Is Bigger than a Gazelle’s
The human cortex is big enough to create mental images of lions when no lions are there. This enables humans to anticipate threats in time to prevent them. But it also enables us to anticipate threats that aren’t real. Imagined threats feel real when our brain releases cortisol, the chemical that tells an animal it’s about to be eaten alive. If you learn to see threat signals everywhere, you end up with lots of cortisol. No wonder it’s called “the stress chemical.”
Imagined threats feel real when our brain releases cortisol. If you learn to see threat signals everywhere, you end up with lots of cortisol.
Being on high alert for predators all the time doesn't benefit you. Yet this thought habit is widely encouraged and even rewarded. Teachers often reward you for accusations about oppression and victimhood. Students quickly figure out that accusing is easier and more reliable than actually studying. Social groups work the same way. They trust you as long as you share their perceptions of victimhood.
And now for the hard part: Mammals care about status. Every group of mammals has a status hierarchy, and we’ve inherited a brain that cares urgently about its social position. Your brain releases serotonin when you boost your status, and cortisol when you think your status is threatened. This is easy to see in others, though we hate to see it in ourselves.
Raising your status is hard, so we long for a fast, easy way to stimulate serotonin and relieve cortisol. Victim status works! You enjoy a position of moral superiority when you condemn others for victimizing you. Unfortunately, your body quickly metabolizes serotonin, so you have to do it again and again. That’s why people dwell on these accusations so often.
Your brain releases serotonin when you boost your status, but raising your status is hard, so we long for a fast, easy way to stimulate serotonin.
But You Have a Choice
You can enjoy your natural power instead of stressing about enemies. Your brain rewards you with the good feeling of dopamine when you find a way to meet a need. Each step closer to a reward releases a bit more dopamine, so you can feel good just by stepping.
A gazelle enjoys dopamine when it steps toward greener pasture. But the gazelle doesn’t wander when it smells a predator. Thus a gazelle must choose with each step whether to approach the joy of fresh grass or the safety of the herd. You are choosing with each step, too. It’s great to know the decision is yours. You can feel good in the long run if you choose wisely.
Our fear of being isolated and targeted is easy to understand, but if you yield to this temptation, you feel threatened a lot.
But that’s hard to do. Mammals usually run when their herd mates run because an isolated critter is an easy target. Gazelles regularly watch their herd mates and do what they do. You can see how people do this in daily life. Our fear of being isolated and targeted is easy to understand, but if you yield to this temptation, you feel threatened a lot.
Instead, you can challenge your own cortisol alarm. Our brain is designed to protect you from having to touch a hot stove twice. If something hurts you once, your brain builds a pathway that turns on the cortisol faster when you see anything similar in the future. Our ancestors lived in a dangerous world, and we’ve inherited a brain designed to scan for threats. When your life is relatively safe, your brain zooms in on smaller and smaller threats. When you know how you’re producing these alarm signals, you have a choice.
If you refuse to think of yourself as a victim, you have to find another way to feel good about your status. You have to find another way to bond with others. You have to make hard calls about greener pasture. Find alternatives to victim thinking in the short run, and you will feel good in the long run.