Hardly a day goes by that we don’t complain, criticize, blame, gossip, or compare ourselves to other people. I certainly struggle with it.
I’ll take 30 minutes to journal or meditate only to hop in the car to grab my daughter from kindergarten and silently (ok fine, not so silently) curse everyone in the pickup line who doesn’t understand the basic concepts of driving a car. All of a sudden I’m tense, grumpy, and sometimes downright furious. And all of that mindfulness work to put me in the right headspace for the rest of the day? Yeah, it’s gone right out the window.
It’s a small example, but one that demonstrates how easily we turn to emotional reasoning (I feel it, therefore it must be true) to dictate and justify our reactions. And despite our best efforts, emotions are very difficult to control. But we do control them.
Every response we make to people and events—whether it’s out of habit or consciously thought out—is a choice. A choice to take ownership of our actions or to place blame on someone else. It’s our choice to say who is in control of our lives. Either you run the day or it runs you.
How (and why) we love to play the victim
The victim mentality—the idea that we are not responsible for our actions and circumstances—is a story that, quite literally, goes back to the beginning of time. Adam blamed Eve for eating the forbidden apple, who in turn, blamed the serpent for persuading her.
Today, thanks to the internet and social media, blame, criticism, and a general lack of acceptance have become a regular part of our daily dialogue.
Popular articles like "The Coddling of the American Mind" and "The Rise of Victimhood Culture" highlight the increased sensitivities that have emerged in the workplace, and in our high schools and universities. Comedians aren’t performing at college campuses because students "can’t seem to take a joke." Books aren’t being assigned in class for fear of causing distress.
As sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning discuss in their study on microaggressions and the victimhood culture, we are being taught to respond to even the smallest offense. And instead of resolving the issue on our own, we depend on others to validate our status as a victim.
But all this does is create a mindset of powerlessness.
We fall into disempowering patterns where we blame others, bemoan circumstances, and engage in self pity.
- "If only X, then things would be better"
- "Why her not me?"
- "If I were in charge… if things were up to me…"
David Emerald, in his book Power of TED, calls this victim mentality the ‘dreaded drama triangle’ after a concept developed in the 1960s by Dr. Steven Karpman where we play any (or all) of three roles:
As victims, we focus on everything negative in our lives and feel wronged by those who judge and criticize us.
As persecutors, we judge and criticize others, typically out of a place of anger and spite.
Finally, we turn to rescuers—whether in the form of another person, vices, or some other way to numb or distract ourselves—for relief.
That’s why complaining is such a great self-defense mechanism.
It’s the perfect way to convince ourselves we deserve better when things don’t go our way (without actually having to do anything about it). It’s far easier to complain and criticize than create, lead, and act.
When we perceive our circumstances to be external, we give ourselves permission to not apply ourselves and move forward.
We don’t grow, mature, and learn from our mistakes. Even though we know that to be a great leader, entrepreneur, or creative, we must do the opposite.
We must invest in continuous growth, recognize our shortcomings and errors, and accept that we are responsible for our fates.
How we can ditch the victim mentality and become empowered
The antidote to David Emerald’s Drama Triangle is called The Empowerment Dynamic.
Where victims focus on problems, creators get clear on what they want, and become empowered to create outcomes for their own lives.
Persecutors become challengers, who help them learn and grow in their journey of self exploration.
And finally, rescuers act as coaches—someone supportive who helps the creator move toward their desired outcome.
The same problems, challenges, and events are there. We just look at them through a different lens.
In order to shift out of victim mode, we have to take time to reflect and ask ourselves:
- What is our ideal outcome?
- What is the intention behind our responses?
- Who are we blaming for the things that happen to us?
- What are we turning to for ‘rescue’?
One philosophy that is based around continuously framing life’s obstacles in this empowering manner is found in the works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and other Stoics.
Stoicism is based on the idea that we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it.
We become dissatisfied with our lives because we rely on our emotions to dictate our thoughts and actions as opposed to logic and rational thought.
We forget that obstacles and misfortune are rich opportunities to learn and grow.
Writer and marketer Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, draws on these Stoic principles to share stories of great historical figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas Edison, among others, who looked at failure and challenges as a way to grow stronger.
It’s one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles, or discouraged or upset by them. This is something that few are able to do. But after you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, so you’re looking not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within it. As Laura Ingalls Wilder put it: "There is good in everything, if only we look for it." Yet we are so bad at looking. We close our eyes to the gift.
It’s our nature to believe that things are supposed to be a certain way, and so we refuse to accept them when they’re not.
We’ll whine about an annoying coworker when we could be studying their shortcomings and looking for ways to improve our own conduct and performance.
A simple exercise to shift out of this victim mentality is to try a period of ‘no complaining.’ And by no complaining, I mean no gossiping, judging, and swearing. My own efforts to abstain from complaining has made me realize how powerful words are as influencers of our thoughts.
We think in words, so the words that we say affect the words that we think. In the same way that affirmations and positive mantras influence how our brains filter and interpret information (this 2012 study actually showed that positive affirmations and mantras can decrease stress, improve decision making, and performance on challenging tasks), being conscious of the way we talk about other people teaches us to to select our words more carefully, recognize the things we’re being negative about, and focus on solutions and positive responses.
So, instead of thinking, ‘All you people need to learn how to drive your damn cars,’ I’m now saying to myself ‘This is the nature of school pickup lines, so I’d better download a couple of great audiobooks to keep me company while I wait.’
I admittedly default to the former before recognizing my unhealthy reaction, but it’s a profoundly effective exercise in bringing more awareness to my words and thoughts.
By doing this with everyday annoyances, challenging situations, and the larger problems we all face, we can improve our ability to stay calm, positive, and action oriented in stressful situations.
Buddha said "our life is the creation of our mind."
While Aristotle said "It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it."
We can’t avoid hardship and discomfort, and it does us no good to shield ourselves (and the next generation) from it. We must face our obstacles because, as Socrates taught over 2,500 years ago, it is through the process of experience and constant questioning and reflection that we grow and succeed.