None of us like it when someone plays the victim. We like it even less when we recognize that sometimes we do too.
Let's take a look at what constitutes "playing the victim." But first, two caveats: (a) There is such a thing as a victim, someone who clearly is the victim of a fate that has no possible bearing on his or her behavior. Some examples, made extreme for purposes of clarity, would be someone who loses everything they have in a natural disaster, a victim of rape or robbery or murder, or a pedestrian crippled by a drunk driver. And (b) contrary to some popular media myths, most people who come for therapy are not interested in blaming their parents for their problems nor are they interested in seeking sympathy for their victimhood. Most people are interested in figuring out what they can do to make their lives get better.
Still, all of us may occasionally fall prey to feeling ourselves as victims when we actually have a lot more choices than we admit to ourselves. What does it mean to be a victim? I think there are many ways we can define this, but let me suggest a few to get the wheels turning: seeing ourselves as being powerless in a situation where we actually have resources and options to do more than we are doing; seeing ourselves as innocent parties on the receiving end of someone else's misbehavior without recognizing our contribution to the struggle we're engaged in; developing an identity that is based upon grievance and complaint, which may indeed be true in part, but which also serves to define us through a sense of limitation, lack, and injustice.
These are just a few of the ways we can fall prey to that seductive pull toward self pity and grievance, nursing perceived slights and wounds while the rest of the world moves past us. If you sometimes feel yourself prone to these pulls, what are your options?
The first thing is to recognize you're doing it. I tell my clients to "turn off the history channel" -- those reruns of old history we play endlessly, tapes which reinforce our beliefs about ourselves as helpless, the world as hopeless, or other people as heartless. The second thing you can do is to focus on your strengths. Energy follows attention, and if you focus on your strengths you get stronger, even as focusing on your weaknesses makes you weaker. The third thing to do is to let yourself dream. Our day dreams and fantasies contain the seeds of our potential. Yes, seeds need to be planted, watered, fertilized and tended, but if you don't let yourself dream your biggest dream you are stunting your growth before you even start. The fourth thing you can do is practice not being a victim. There are a gazillion ways to practice new skills and strengths, whether it's learning to speak more assertively to say what you want (instead of complaining about what you don't have), or learning to apologize and accept responsibility for when you've messed up.
The final thing I will recommend -- and it's the final thing only because of space, not because these are the only things one can do -- is to practice gratitude. There is no surer way to turn off your sense of what you think you lack or what you think you haven't received than to focus on all the things you have. Especially those of us who have been born and raised in this country and have never known the physical insecurity of war or hunger -- we all have a duty to those less fortunate to appreciate just how lucky we are.
Next week: Guest blogger Deborah Leeds describes grieving and loss.
Do you have a question about struggles with your partner or within yourself? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is accepting new referrals.