People often ask me, “What does a psychotherapist do? What happens in psychotherapy? The short answer is that a skilled therapist can help people identify what bothers them about other people in their lives, and then help them figure out how to change the situation. The key to achieving this goal is to resist the temptation of victim-think. Victim-think means assuming that because you are helpless and powerless to force other people to change (true), that you are equally helpless and powerless to do anything about people who annoy you. That is not true.
I often encounter people who have fallen into that trap. Based on their experiences, I have come up with a tried-and true list I call: “Nine Things to Say to Yourself to Combat ‘Victim-Think.’”
- What am I allowing him to do to annoy me?
- How did I convey the impression to her that it would be acceptable and tolerable for her to act this way?
- What in my thinking is causing me to feel upset and angry, rather than saying he “made” me upset and angry?
- What past actions of mine have encouraged or enabled his now obnoxious behavior?
- What, in my attitude or behavior, is she counting on when she treats me this way?
- I can choose to have nothing at all to do with him from now on. I can also choose to have less to do with him than I currently do. How much is up to me.
- What do I gain out of allowing this behavior to continue without protest or comment on my part?
- What do I currently do for her that I can stop doing if she refuses to change?
- What am I able and willing to do for her that I don’t currently do, provided she stops the behavior I don’t like?
I usually bring out this list when I hear people arriving at the wrong conclusion about how they feel. So I have three more items that are examples of things NOT to say to yourself, lest you fall prey to victim-think:
- He makes me so angry! Correction: Nobody MAKES you angry. Your thoughts make you angry. Emotions, like anger, are the result of thoughts you have and beliefs you hold which might – or might not – be valid.
- I’m sick of being treated this way! Correction: You probably tolerated the behavior for too long, at least in front of him. You have to show intolerance rather than tolerance if you want change.
- Why does she act this way? Correction: This question cannot usually be answered. And even if it is, so what? Understanding a person’s irrational, mistaken or contradictory motives can be interesting, and can lead to insight if you are hired to counsel that person. But beyond that, it’s of little or no value. One’s energy is better spent identifying one’s own role in the problem and correcting behaviors that may be encouraging the very behavior one dislikes.
Unless someone is holding a gun to your head or is outright lying to you, you are never really a victim. Ironically, most of these people about whom you might complain would willingly change their behavior, at least around you, if you conveyed the right thing to them. I’m not blaming people for others’ choices or irrationality, but I do hold people responsible for getting that irrationality out of their lives. We all have the power to do that. All we have to do is stand up for ourselves and make it happen.