How to Stop Playing the Victim Game
Challenging negative voices is the way to overcome a victimized orientation.
Posted Apr 30, 2013
Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears. —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
One of the principle ways that people mismanage their anger is by playing the role of victim. In a previous blog post, “Don’t Play the Victim Game,” I described the characteristics of individuals who, because they feel uncomfortable with their own anger, become trapped in a victimized orientation toward life. In response to readers’ questions, I’ve asked Joyce Catlett, my co-author of The Ethics of Interpersonal Relationships, to delineate several “remedial measures” that people can take in order to avoid playing the victim game.
To reiterate the underlying dynamics of this problem, I explained that many people adopt the victim role, albeit unintentionally because they are afraid of their anger, deny its existence in themselves, project it onto other people, and anticipate aggression or harm from them. With this expectation and high sensitivity to anger in others, they may even distort other people’s facial expressions, imagining that they have malicious intentions. The anger that they would have experienced in response to frustration or stress is transformed into fear and distrust of others and into feelings of being hurt or wounded.
People who become mired down in feeling victimized tend to view events in their lives as happening to them and feel ineffective and overwhelmed. They also operate on the basic assumption that the world should be fair, which is a child’s way of thinking. They tend to project the circumstances of their early childhood, where they were indeed helpless, onto present-day situations and relationships, and fail to recognize that, as adults, they have far more power than they had as children.
There are ways to shift from the victimized stance, characterized by passivity and behaviors based on negative power, to a more adult stance characterized by active coping and personal power. People can become aware of and identify specific destructive thoughts — critical inner voices — that promote victimized feelings; and they can take steps to develop more constructive approaches to dealing with their anger.
Identifying Critical Inner Voices that Promote a Victimized Orientation to Life
To move out of the victimized posture, it is important to identify critical inner voices that focus on injustices, such as “It’s not fair. This shouldn’t be happening to you. What did you ever do to deserve such treatment?” These destructive thoughts encourage passivity and helplessness while discouraging actions that could change an unhappy or untenable situation.
Low-grade anger and distrust are aroused in people whenever they are “listening” to voices telling them that others dislike them or do not care about them or their interests. “They never take your feelings into consideration. Who do they think they are?” “People just don’t give a damn.”
In the work setting, many people have resentful attitudes based on voices telling them that they are being exploited: “Your boss is a real jerk! Nobody sees how much you contribute.” “No one appreciates you.” “Why do they always get all the breaks?” Similarly, voices that advise individuals that they are victims of mistreatment by others contribute to feelings of being disrespected or persecuted, for example, “They’re going to make a fool of you. They don’t respect you.” The feelings generated by these ruminations lead to inward brooding, righteous indignation, and a desire for revenge. Recognizing and challenging negative voices is the major way to overcome a victimized orientation.
Constructive Approaches for Dealing with Anger
First, it is important to emphasize that anger is a simple, irrational emotional response to frustration and does not require any justification; it is ok to feel whatever one feels. The degree of anger is proportional to the degree of frustration rather than to the logic or rationality of the circumstances. When people attempt to rationalize their anger and then feel victimized, they get stuck in the angry feelings in a way that leads to an unpleasant kind of brooding that alienates others and is dysfunctional.
Therefore, in terms of action, people need to drop certain words from their vocabulary like "fair," "should," "right," and "wrong." In a relationship, the term “should” often implies obligation. For example, someone who says, “Because we’re together (married), my partner ‘should’ love me, ‘should’ take care of me, ‘should’ make love to me” is operating from a victimized position. When people tie their feelings of frustration to the expectation that someone is obliged to satisfy them, victimized, paranoid feelings inevitably arise.
By challenging these habitual ways of speaking, individuals will discover a different form of communication that involves taking full responsibility for their feelings and actions and yet leaves them free to explore alternatives. In an intimate relationship, partners can learn to talk about their anger in a non-dramatic tone and admit any feelings of being victimized. This type of communication is less likely to arouse counter-aggression and enables people to deal with their anger in a way that causes the least amount of pain to one another.
It would be constructive for people who typically express their anger in righteous indignation or victimized brooding to relinquish the basic assumption that they are innocent victims of fate. It would also be important for them to give up a sense of entitlement and to recognize that they do not inherently deserve to receive anything in the way of good treatment from others. It is more adaptive to accept the idea that the world does not owe them anything — neither a living or happiness or nice surroundings. Taking the victimized position that one is entitled to something better contributes to feelings of being cheated that, in turn, exacerbate a sense of helplessness and impotent rage.
Taking action to change situations with which one is unhappy directly challenges a victimized orientation. For example, if one feels stuck in a bad relationship or a seemingly untenable work situation, one can explore oneself to determine if one’s passivity has had more to do with the situation than one thought, and then strive to be more proactive and self-assertive. It is also wise to avoid complaining about these unfavorable situations to others in a style that "dumps" the problem on the listener. In one’s interactions, it is crucial to become more aware of the distinction between sympathy and empathy, and to stop asking for or giving sympathy. Expressing sympathy as well as trying to elicit sympathetic responses from another person are damaging in that both reinforce victimized thinking.
In accepting angry emotions in oneself, one is less likely to act them out destructively or to adopt the role of victim. Ideally, rather than suppress or deny the emotion of anger, one would acknowledge angry responses while clearly distinguishing between feelings and actions. As people give up victimized attitudes and acknowledge anger as a basic part of their nature, they are able to choose how to express angry feelings in ways that are constructive, ethical, and aligned with their best interests and goals. The self‑limiting, victimized perspective no longer controls them or their lives.
Read more from Dr. Robert Firestone at PsychAlive.org.