Like most people, when things are not going my way I can resort to complaining.
But is my venting just a moan, or am I actively working to change an unacceptable situation? The former perspective portrays me as a victim, the latter as a champion of my own destiny. I know which label I prefer!
I remember a time when I was convinced that my boss did not like me and was, in my view, treating me unfairly compared to my colleagues. At that time, I worked shifts and it seemed to me that she (my boss) repeatedly allocated all the undesirable and unwanted shifts to me. I remember being rostered to work four consecutive Christmases in a row. I did more night shifts than the others, and most of the bank holidays were, yes you’ve guessed, allocated to me. To exacerbate my disquiet even further, I applied for funding support to do my Masters degree and was refused, despite other colleagues being fully supported. Yet, moaning about these situations did not help me!
The psychology of victim thinking is that we look to blame others, or external circumstances out of our control, for the things that are not going well in our lives. It is so easy to blame someone else for our troubles – our friends, employers, the government, and even our loved ones. When we do this we are giving our sense of control and power away. This can foster negative feelings such as helplessness, frustration, anger, resentment, anxiety and low self-worth. Inadvertently, we risk portraying ourselves as poor unfortunates who need to be rescued from this stuck, unhappy state!
Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. He wrote over 39 books and is particularly renowned for his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning based on his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps. We have much to learn from him about avoiding victim behaviour and exercising choice.
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” Viktor E. Frankl
The reality is we always have choice. We can choose to opt for victim behaviour, and wear people down with our endless tales of woe about how the world has conspired to prevent us from getting what we want or the opportunities we deserve. Or, we can choose to respond differently to the unfavourable situation and hold ourselves and others to account for helping make the new desired state happen.
As a coach I work with all sorts or different people in different circumstances. Take Chris and Alex, for example (real people but not their real names). Both were well qualified and experienced and had applied for an executive position. Both were unsuccessful and approached me to support them in their application for another role. I was curious about their reactions to the situation and struck by their respective different responses to similar disappointing news.
Chris talked earnestly about the situation and told me: “I’ve booked a meeting with them to get feedback on how I did and what I could do better on” and “the good news is I’ve spotted an even better job and so, in a way, it’s OK that I didn’t get it”.
When I asked Alex similar questions the response was “I think it was a stitch-up” and “it was the Chairman’s fault that I didn’t get it, I could tell that he didn’t like me at the interview”.
Chris seemed to instinctively avoid becoming a victim of the unfavourable circumstances and viewed the negative result with an internal locus of control by accepting personal responsibility for the outcome and committing to do better at the next opportunity. Alex, however, did the opposite. I noticed subtle signals of victim behaviour creeping in. The negative result of the interview was attributed to factors, or people, outside of Alex’s control.
In this real example Chris remained positive and optimistic whilst Alex fell into victim behaviour, expressing feelings of anger and disempowerment. Clearly, my sample of two people does not constitute scientific evidence!
It is not always easy to maintain a positive mindset – especially in the face of adversity. One way to avoid victim behaviour is to step outside of the circumstances for a moment and ask yourself three questions:
- What am I feeling right now?
- What part am I (inadvertently) playing in perpetuating the way I feel?
- What can I do, that is within my control, to change things?
When I was complaining about my boss treating me unfairly, I was inadvertently edging towards victim behaviour. Only when we accept that events are largely a result of our choices and actions are we likely to be more pro-active in shaping our own lives. I accept that it is easier said than done, but having an awareness that we can change things for the better is a step in the right direction.
The end of my story was good! Eventually I stopped moaning and realised that it was in my gift to change my situation. I applied for and got a new job with a new supportive boss. In doing so, I rejected blame and a victim mind-set and accepted responsibility to improve my situation.
This is not about minimising situations where people have fallen victim to terrible or unlawful circumstances. Such incidents clearly warrant our unreserved empathy, compassion, and support.
Notwithstanding this, to be effective, I know that I must embrace the belief that I can consider my options, exert control over my choice, then take positive action to improve my situation. In doing so, I place the issue within my locus of control and acknowledge that I have the power to make change happen. I encourage you to do the same.