The “Victim”. We all have them in our life, maybe you are one of them, maybe you work with one, or maybe you are married to one. One thing I have learned in the last 15 years as a coach, there are two things that no one likes: 1) being called a “victim” and 2) dealing with a “victim”.
Let me be clear, there is a difference between 1) the phenomenon of actually being a victim of trauma or a tragic event in life (victimization) and 2) living a life with a victim mindset (an attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s view, response to and interpretations of situations).
I have met many victims of trauma that do the work necessary for themselves to live a productive life post-trauma. These people are heroes in my book and not what this article is about. Rather, this article is about the latter — the “it’s-not-my-fault, the-world-is-conspiring-against-me, and there-is-nothing-that-can-help” type. The type that embody helplessness, powerlessness and resignation. The type that avoids responsibility for the results in their life.
The Victim Pattern
The victim mindset is a habitual way of looking at life — an automatic orientation towards the events in ones’ life as unfairly getting the short end of the stick or being taken advantage of. This mindset leads one to feel powerless in confronting circumstances. It also ensures that no matter what, it is never their fault (to include personality traits that they don’t have the capacity to alter in themselves). Because humans be and act consistent with the way they see the world, a person with such a mindset will be and act as a victim.
It is important to understand this is a pattern, and as such, there was much “practice” put into this now automatic way of being in the world. At the same time, it is not a personality trait, and while patterns are tough to break, they are malleable and can be worked through if the commitment is there.
Why Choose the Victim Mindset
If you are going to make a difference with a person who embodies the victim mindset, it is imperative that you realize that such a mindset is not irrational nor illegitimate. If you saw life the same way they did, you would likely be and act similarly.
No one really consciously chooses to be a victim. It is more a way we fall into, and we fall into it because, it works. It becomes a strategy to deal with life — whether it is staying safe in one’s comfort zone, numbing oneself, finding company, getting attention, avoiding being responsible for something in one’s life, etc. I have met many otherwise extraordinary people who just cannot be with what they perceive as failure in life — that life isn’t going the way they want — it is just too painful. To deal with this, they maintain their cover by explaining away the responsibility, and in the process unknowingly give away their power to change the situation.
The attention, sympathy and time that a person can get from victimhood is validation that they really are a good person and if circumstances were just different, they would obviously be thriving. It’s a way to “save face” in the midst of any kind of failure. For some, this way of being was role-modeled by parents or other caregivers and has been the only method to deal with things that don’t go the way they are supposed to go.
A victim mindset can also be created by very legitimate concerns that are not getting addressed, and as such, a learned helplessness ensues. This person has learned in the same way that we learn anything — repetition of a particular pattern over time — speak up, get ignored, speak up, get ignored, speak up, told to shut up. The complaint was legitimate, but it ceased to have a commitment to change overtime as the person has learned nothing will change.
What to Do
There is never a one size fits all approach because we are humans and we are all very different; however, I have found the following to be useful and productive in supporting a person locked in the victim pattern. You will see that the heart of this approach is revealing they have a choice, creating an authentic commitment to something, and generating the responsibility for acting consistent with that commitment.
WARNING: The following steps should only be attempted if you genuinely care about supporting a person, otherwise, you won’t want to do what is outlined below.
Step 1: Check Yourself and Drop the Label
“She is such a victim, I don’t want to deal with her” or “victims are so draining”. This is the “anti-victim mindset” — and anything they say is likely to be regarded by you as complaining or whining — more proof of their victimhood. To actually effectively deal with the victim mindset, you have to stop being righteous and superior about how they are ‘such a victim’.
Get yourself in a position of genuinely wanting to support this person to end their own suffering and take productive action (as opposed to ending your suffering of their victimhood).
Also — if you are a victim-hater, you may hear victim when there is real legitimate communication wanting to happen. An entire executive team of an organization that had a culture of “anti-victim” missed some very serious indicators that something was really wrong leading to high turnover, lower performance, and bills not getting paid. When people lower in the organization would complain, they only heard ‘victim’ and shut them out and increased the demands. When they realized that their label of “victim” was preventing them from really hearing important information, they were astonished at how they had actually perpetuated the situation and began to shift how they interacted with their employees.
Step 2: Validate don’t resist
They are resigned and that means they have given up on something that they saw was possible. Anything you say into the mood of resignation will be shot down. This means that trying to convince or reason through the use of logic will not work. A mindset is just that, a mind that is set — the more you resist, the more the mindset will persist in defending itself.
Validate that they have the view they have. This does not mean agree with them — agreement can add fuel to the fire. Rather, just acknowledge what they said “I hear you say corporate doesn’t care about supporting you in the field and no one cares about doing the right thing anymore” or “I understand what you are saying — there are no available jobs anywhere and no one wants to hire you.” Again, you saying what you heard does not mean you agree with it, just that you heard it.
Part of validating is getting not only the words, but also the mood and emotion behind what they are saying. Step into that resignation, the despair, the righteousness, the unfairness of it all. If you had that narrative and that mood, you would likely sound the same way they do. Don’t be so superior to think you haven’t been or couldn’t be in the same space they are at a different time — it is a human phenomenon.
Such a mirror can sometimes create enough of a space that the “victim” can actually hear themselves.
Step 3: Speak to and listen for commitment
Resignation is the mood that happens when you have given up on some possibility that you saw — some commitment you had. It’s what happens when you don’t think something is possible. The good news about that, is that deep down, there is some commitment.
What possibility has this person given up on?
When we speak to someone, we are often speaking not to the person in front of us per se, but to our judgment of the person in front of us. So if we are speaking to a victim, we will elicit a victim response. If we are speaking to a committed, capable person, we can actually elicit a committed, capable response.
First, you need to get their alignment to have a conversation to support them — you might say something like “I can see that this is not a great situation for you, are you interested in a conversation to see if we can see a possible way out?”
Once you get their commitment to even have a conversation, we will want to elicit the next level of commitment — a commitment to be or act consistent with what they would like to see changed. There are a few possible questions depending on the situation that can elicit some level of commitment:
· Who are you committed to being known as in your life regardless of the situation? Even in the crappiest of circumstances, how do you want to be perceived?
· What have you given up on? If the circumstances were different, what would you really like to see happen? Are you willing to stand for making that happen even if it seems unfair and uneven at times?
· If you could have things turn out a different way than they are, but you would have to put in an unequal amount of effort over a long period of time and you may not get credit or recognition for it, would you be up for making it happen?
· If you could have it your way, what are you really committed to underneath it all? What would have you feel like you could get done what you need to get done?
· If you knew this situation wasn’t going to change, would you make the choice to stay here?
The key here is a rendition of the “given that” technique. “Given that … the situation is terrible, no one likes you, the world seems to conspire against you, and there is no end in sight …. Who do you want to be in spite of it all?” In other words, I’m not going to argue over the situation itself or try to convince them it’s not so bad, I’m going to accept that it is “so bad” and take it off the table for discussion. Then the only question is, well, who are you committed to being in the face of it all? What values do you want to display?
An analogy is being on a sports team where the coach says something like “okay, the other team is twice our size, the field is uphill, the grass is spotty, and it is snowing … given all that, how are we going to win?” The coach looks at the playing field and devises a strategy to win on that field, not some other field she wishes her team was playing on.
If it seems the only thing they are committed to is being in this mindset, you might take a risk if you think you have enough of a relationship and point it out, “Can I say something really straight? I would really like to support you, but it feels like you are pretty set on (and maybe even invested in) there not being a solution — am I picking up on that correctly?” or “Seems like you have gotten in quite the FRUMP — do you want to come out of it or prefer to stay in it?”
Step 4: Incorporate the physical body
Changing the narrative is very important, but it will have little staying power if the physical body is left out. A victim mindset has an accompanying body stance — it is generally a bit more slouched and concave. You rarely see someone standing up confidently ready to taking on the world saying they just can’t get a break in life.
I incorporate the body by asking some more questions such as “If you were respected by the executive team, how would you be standing and holding yourself?” I will then encourage them to stand that way. “How does that feel?”
There is a growing body of research showing the relationship between the way we hold our body and the effect on our feelings of power. This research even shows that the way we hold our body has neuro-chemical effects such as the release of testosterone or the stress hormone, cortisol. It is hard to be powerful when you are hunched over. It is hard to be powerless when your chest is up, arms back, head high and legs steady.
Step 5: Support action
Once you have established a new commitment with the body to match, start to move into action. If this is strong enough, you can simply ask, “what action do you now see to take?”
If you weren’t able to really get a strong commitment, you can take what they said in step three and ask them what it would look like if they were being that now. “I hear you say that you want to work in a place in which you feel valued and can give 110% and feel good about it…if you got into that mode right now, if you knew you were valued and could give it your all… and you held yourself with that pride, what would you do differently? How would you be different?”
The person you are supporting will often say something that is obviously the way that they should be acting to get what they want. At this point, you can simply ask them what they think would happen if they just started being that way and acting that way. Almost always they will see that they could get the better result. I then like to set it up as an experiment, “How about we experiment and just see what we can make happen with this different way of being and acting — are you up for that?”
Other possible questions to get action:
· How would someone who was known for X act in this situation?
· What would be an expression of [X value]? What would be the way of being or the actions?
· If you knew you wouldn’t fail, what would you do?
The motivation for taking new actions may be high at first, but if the person does not see results right away, they can sink back into the mindset, so you want to set it up to be a long-term experiment and that it takes consistent, repetitive action to see a difference over time.
Remember, we are looking to alter a well-practiced pattern.
Step 6: Follow up
Because this mindset has been a well-practiced pattern, it will take consistent follow up to help establish a new way of seeing the world and acting within it. Keep the new commitment alive by continual conversation — otherwise it will not last long. Call them, check in, write an email, send a text, “hey, just wanted to let you know I am still inspired by what you said yesterday” or “how did the new actions go?”
Don’t be surprised if you check in and they didn’t take the action or if they are down again — they need a reminder and you may have to repeat the conversation again. Remember, we are only doing these steps because you really want to support that person.
Will This Work?
Each person is different, each situation is different, and you are different than me. I’m a coach, so it is easy for me to get into these conversations quite naturally — it may not be for you. Nonetheless, I hope you can take some nuggets from this article to improve your capacity to deal effectively with people who have fallen into this pattern of the mind. At the very least, if all you get from this article is a little compassion for the humanity in the other person, you will be more effective regardless of what you do.