How to Avoid “Victim-Think”

Rarely does a dinner party or social occasion go by that somebody doesn’t ask me what a psychotherapist does, and what actually happens behind the closed doors of a therapy session. After I resist the urge to mumble something about secret handshakes, decoder rings and electric shocks, I regain my composure and try to answer the question truthfully. One good answer is that a therapist helps people identify what’s bothering them about other people in their lives, and then we work to help the client figure out how to change that situation.

The first way to modify most any annoying situation (especially when it involves another person) is to avoid ‘victim-think.’ Victim-think means that you (accurately) assume that you can’t force other people to change their behaviors and choices. But then you (inaccurately) assume that you’re powerless to do anything about others’ behaviors and choices that you find offensive. Well, that’s actually not the case. Based on my clinical experience, I’ve put together a little list I call: ‘Nine Things to Say to Yourself in Order to Combat ‘Victim-Think.”

1. What am I allowing him to do to annoy me?
2. How did I manage to convey the impression to her that it would be acceptable for her to act this way?
3. What in my thinking is causing me to FEEL upset and angry (rather than saying he ‘made’ me upset and angry)?
4. What actions of mine have encouraged her offensive behavior?
5. What is she counting on, in MY behavior, when she treats me this way?
6. What do I gain from allowing this behavior to continue without protest?
7. What do I currently do for him that I can stop doing if he refuses to change the behavior I don’t like?
8. What am I willing to do for her that I don’t currently do, provided she stops the behavior I don’t like?
9. I can choose to have nothing to do with him from now on, or maybe just less to do with him than I do now. How much is entirely up to me.

The point is that you don’t have to sit idly by and feel like a victim. You have choices that you might not even realize you have. One point of psychotherapy  (and self-awareness in general) is to recognize your untapped power of choice. I’m not referring to power over people — that’s ineffective and unhealthy. I’m talking about heightened power over yourself; something over which you have total and complete control. Once you realize that you are, in fact, capable of managing your feelings, you can refer to another list of mine, which I fondly call: ‘Three Things to NOT Say to Yourself, Lest You Fall into ‘Victim-Think.”

1. He makes me so angry! Correction: Nobody makes you angry. Your thoughts make you angry. Emotions, like anger, are the result of thoughts and beliefs that may or may not be valid. It’s your job to figure that out.
2. I’m sick of being treated this way! Correction: You probably tolerated the behavior too long. You have to show intolerance for it if you want there to be change. Being tolerant of things people do that you might not like, but that don’t hurt anyone, is one thing. But if someone’s stepping on your well-being or peace of mind, you have every right to NOT tolerate it.
3. Why does she act this way? Correction: Understanding another person’s motives can be interesting, but beyond that, it’s of little or no value. As the keeper of your own mental health, your energy is better spent identifying your role in the problem, and correcting whatever behaviors you may be displaying that encourage the actions you dislike in others.

Unless someone’s holding a gun to your head, or is outright lying to you, you are never really a victim. In the great majority of situations, I’ve discovered that we are, intentionally or not, doing something to enable the very behavior we don’t want others to display. This isn’t meant to be offensive or blaming. It’s a simple fact, and is actually empowering. Once a client begins to understand how he or she is actually fostering the very actions they don’t like, they feel empowered to free themselves from the things that cause them distress.

Most people don’t want to be annoying, especially if they value your friendship. Interestingly enough, many of those who annoy you would willingly change their behavior (at least when you’re around) if you were to convey these desires to them. We are not to blame for other people’s bad choices or irrationality. But, in order to be mentally healthy, we ARE responsible for removing that irrationality from our lives. Most victims are of their own making. It’s entirely up to us to exercise our innate power over our own reactions. In the process, we grant ourselves the freedom to change our feelings and attitudes about the behaviors of others.