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How to Break the Bonds of Victimhood and Build Self-Esteem

How to feel better about yourself and more empowered in your life

Many people feel a lack of personal power in their lives as though they are controlled by outside forces more than by inner choices. Now I'm not referring to psychoses or OCD here, but rather what is called the "locus of control" (LOC). People with a strong internal LOC believe they have a lot of control over what happens to them whereas people with a strong external LOC tend attribute what happens to them to external factors. For example, people with an internal LOC who get a good or poor grade on an exam will likely praise or blame themselves whereas people with an external LOC will usually blame outside factors like the teacher or the test.

What's more, usually due to traumatic experiences, often in early childhood, some people feel actually victimized and have a hard time time escaping the role of victim. Even worse, many people unwittingly perpetuate the victim role by failing to stand up for themselves or promote their best interests thereby making their LOC feel even more external.

These folks are usually unassertive, people pleasers who have a hard time saying "no" without feeling anxious or guilty. As a result, they frequently have advantage taken of them, or simply put other people first on a regular basis. Consequently, they often feel even worse about themselves because their "self-reflective ego" (i.e., the part of the mind that engages in critical, self-evaluation) is unhappy with how they are behaving or treating themselves. Often, the final outcome of this pattern of relating to oneself and others is to feel poorly about oneself and suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem stemming partly from a strong, external locus of control.

The best solution to this problem is a simple two part strategy of learning to be more assertive and of putting oneself first on occasion.

By being assertive, one connects with a feeling of personal power and control that is the very antithesis of victimhood and places the LOC squarely within oneself.

Balancing and prioritizing one's preferences and desires over those of others tends to boost self-esteem because the mind feels a sense of pride and satisfaction in this type of self care.

Depending on individual circumstances, even small steps in these directions can make big differences. Over time, with consistent effort, important shifts in self-concept occur that help people break the emotional chains that may have been anchoring them to low self-esteem and feelings of victimization. In essence, behaving assertively and with balanced, self-interest starts to shift the LOC from external to internal sources.

Assertiveness and self-prioritization are skills that require some learning and practice. A good starting point for building one's assertive muscles is to avoid saying "yes" when you want to say "no." For example, if a food server at a restaurant asks if everything is okay, don't hesitate to mention that your steak was a bit tough or not cooked the way you asked for it. Or, if someone says "Is it okay if I smoke?" tell them "No, it's not." Keep in mind, because of the self-reflective ego, assertive behavior is often its own reward and sometimes just speaking one's mind, having one's say, or using one's voice is the victory regardless of whether or not the other people agree or comply.

To practice putting yourself first, start small by expressing simple things you want or like such as going for tacos instead of pizza, or lobbying for the movie you'd rather see instead of just agreeing to watch what someone else wants to see.

By practicing these two basic psychological skills, you can empower yourself, please yourself, and develop a much stronger internal locus of control which, in turn, helps to break the bonds of victimization and low self-esteem.

Keep in mind it's okay to say "no" without feeling guilty and never confuse enlightened self-interest with selfishness.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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