You can’t turn on the news these days without witnessing the aftermath of one violent crime or another, often involving an angry assailant, firearms and innocent bloodshed.
From racially spurred violence in the U.S. like Ferguson and Charleston, to ISIS terrorists in the Middle East and dictators who justify massacres of innocent citizens to achieve personal power or ethnic cleansing, assailants like these all share a common trait: they perceive themselves to be victims of external circumstances beyond their control.
For Hitler, it was the Jews; in Charleston, black southerners; for ISIS, anyone daring to speak out against their radicalized interpretation of Islam. Like Hitler, Jim Crow lynch mobs and the Unibomber, people who see themselves as victims are often the most dis-empowered, angry, and violent, and are destined to become tyrants of those around them, in one way or another.
According to many spiritual teachings, the “victim mentality” comes from an unhealthy attachment to the ego, which results in spiritual separation from our true, higher self - the soul - and an over-inflated sense of the little, material self. This false sense of self can lead to a superiority/inferiority “God complex”, which falsely blames and punishes others for life’s circumstances while denying individual personal responsibility for creating them. Psychologically speaking, the victim mentality can result from unresolved childhood abuse or other traumatic events in the past, where the person in question was not capable of taking care of or protecting themselves properly. As a result of that initial dis-empowerment, even after the trauma is over they remain stuck in the self-limiting belief that they are still weak, vulnerable and powerless victims who have to “defend themselves” against others in order to survive. Here, the tyrant is born.
Because our society often rewards those who are ill or have been hurt with sympathy, care and affection, being a victim offers an emotional payoff: getting attention and energy from others without having work for it. Over time, each sympathetic payoff becomes like a drug: the more attention the victim gets for a sob story, the more identified with it he becomes, and the more energy and attention he will selfishly demand from others to sustain this distorted, energy-draining self-image. Without personal responsibility, someone else is always to blame. This dangerous cycle of exteriorizing responsibility can manifest in a number of ways: an energy vampire who steals life force from others but still believes the world owes him something; a bully who assaults others physically or verbally to “protect“ herself from harm; or a terrorist who believes killing others is the only way to protect his race or religion.
Whether you’re faced with your own feelings of victimization or find yourself tyrannized by someone in your life who is stuck in a victim story, to heal, move forward and achieve serenity it’s essential to break out of this destructive cycle. Here are a few steps you can take to overcome the tyranny of victimhood in your life:
- Honor Your Feelings. People who feel victimized are usually angry, which is often a defense mechanism for suppressing deeper feelings of sadness, fear and dis-empowerment lying just underneath the surface. Where there is truth, there is peace. Where there is peace, there is true power. To honor and express your authentic feelings and uncover the spiritual truth of your experience, it’s important to take time out regularly to journal, talk things out honestly with someone you trust, or get help from a professional therapist. This can help prevent unexpressed feelings from escalating inward as depression or projecting outward as anger, blame and aggression.
- Take a Fearless Personal Inventory. According to spiritual teachings, we all create our own reality. But fundamental to a victim mindset is the belief that others are somehow responsible for our lives. Instead, step into responsibility by holding yourself 100% accountable, especially in situations where you feel the most wronged, dis-empowered or emotionally charged. How did you help create or contribute to the situation in thought, word, or deed? In what way is this a part of your spiritual lesson this lifetime? In what ways could you be the change? Don’t stop the process until you achieve a sense of peace and serenity, and feel fully accountable for moving your life in a new direction. If you need help with this sometimes difficult process of introspection, there are many twelve-step programs that utilize personal inventories as a foundation to long-term healing.
- Cultivate A Deeper Faith. When we surrender humbly to a higher power in our lives – whether it’s God, the Universe or a Guru, it’s easier to accept the fact that we are just tiny parts of the larger fabric of creation. Cultivating faith provides us with broader perspective on our most important life lessons, and places negative experiences and perceived wrongs into a larger context of a benevolent power’s master plan. As we deepen our trust of Universal Law, karma or God’s will in our lives, it becomes easier to surrender to life on life’s terms, even when we’re forced to deal with something unpleasant. The attitude “this too shall pass,” reminds us of the temporary nature of all life’s difficulties and challenging relationships. By practicing spiritual acceptance of our current circumstances, we build faith that something greater than us has a plan beyond what we are able to understand in the moment.
- Forgive. Without true forgiveness, it’s impossible to let go of the pain that keeps us stuck as victims. Many people hold onto bitterness or resentment under the false belief that it will force others to change, accept blame or take responsibility for their hurt. Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison hoping it will kill your enemy: it’s useless. Instead, realize that we’ve all hurt someone and we’ve all been hurt by someone; it’s a part of life and therefore each one of us will either require or have to offer forgiveness at some point. Practicing forgiveness weekly, daily or even hourly can help loosen the hard crust of bitterness and allow the tender softness of serenity to bubble up in your consciousness. Often, we must start by first forgiving ourselves. Practice this mantra: “I forgive myself for everything I have ever done, not done, said, not said, thought and not thought.”
- Be The Change. “If you spot it, you got it.” This self-help slogan means that if you’re emotionally charged about someone else’s behavior (e.g. angry, indignant, sad, or frustrated) it’s likely they are simply serving as a mirror reflection of your own unexamined emotions or behavior. We all have blind spots. Under the law of karma, for every action, there is a reaction; for every cause a consequence. By “being the change”, we are choosing to actively humble ourselves to life’s master plan, to have the courage to be the bigger person in moments of conflict, and to take the high road toward acceptance. This may mean taking responsibility for our part in a conflict, walking away from an abusive relationship, or speaking truth to power when it’s hard to do so. We are powerless to change people, places or things other than ourselves. Acceptance of this truth marks the beginning of healing, and can catalyze profound spiritual growth.
In the words of Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life:
"As long as you think that the cause of your problem is "out there"--as long as you think that anyone or anything is responsible for your suffering--the situation is hopeless. It means that you are forever in the role of victim, that you're suffering in paradise."
You can’t always control what happens to you in life, but what determines the peace, joy and calm we all seek is how we respond to life’s events. Ultimately, the choice is yours.