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Don’t Act Like A Victim (Even If You Are)

Note: Please note that there are true victims, i.e., people who — through no fault of their own — have been abused, injured, maimed, or otherwise wronged. True victims come in all shapes and sizes, walks of life, locations, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and preferences. This post is not an attempt to belittle or degrade them in any way. Instead it will describe the differences between the ways that people can and do respond to circumstances beyond their control.

A man goes out for a leisurely hike in the mountains just outside of town one beautiful morning, something he enjoys and does quite often. He obeys all the rules and stays on the trail. Unfortunately, he accidentally falls into a deep hole that was obscured by falling branches and leaves. Bruised and scraped up, he finds it difficult to climb back out. He is understandably frustrated at the bad luck that has befallen him and wonders, “Why me?” The very real pain from the fall is something that deserves attention, but his bigger problem is being stuck in the hole.

Holding a one-man pity party occupies him for a few minutes but the novelty wears off quickly. Other people pass by the top of the hole and call down to him. The fellow hikers sympathize with him and agree that he’s had some bad luck. They even ask if he’d like some help and he accepts their condolences and some food and water, but he refuses to have them pull him out. He enjoys the pity of those who find him in those conditions and he has no compelling reason to go anywhere else.

In fact, all the attention is kind of nice. Being a stranded, injured hiker is much more fun than being anonymous back in town. Each time he recounts the terrible event, the description becomes more vivid, detailed, and scary. Everyone seems to be able to identify with his predicament on some level because hey, who hasn’t had some bad luck?

Those who pass by are confused at the man’s reluctance to accept help, especially when none of them would want to trade places with him in the dark, dirty hole. The trouble is that people figuratively choose to stay in the hole all the time!

Why does that choice seem so attractive? Usually (whether they realize it or not) it’s because they think they stand to somehow benefit from victim status. Maybe, like the man in the story, it means new-found attention and sudden interest. Book sales, radio interviews, and TV appearances are much more compelling if there’s a personal interest story that sparks emotion and grabs headlines.

Another benefit that people expect is special treatment as a result of their — real or perceived — misfortune. Such treatment can take many forms and may come from family, friends, fellow citizens, coworkers, private/public institutions, or local/state/federal governments.

Other people secretly like being a victim because it offers a convenient excuse for any of a number of shortcomings. If something happened to me, and it was beyond my control, it follows (the logic goes) that I’m somehow no longer responsible for my behavior. The way I am and act are a result of whatever tragic event(s) took place. Feel sorry for me and excuse basically anything I do!

Were society to adopt the kind of “moral relativism” that would be required to properly contextualize each person’s actions, it would dramatically alter the way our justice system works. Murderers who grew up knowing only the violence of the streets would have to receive lighter sentences than those from better neighborhoods, simply because it’s all they ever knew. How could any reasonable person expect something different from someone so obviously disadvantaged and emotionally scarred? (Especially compared to someone who made the same mistake but knew much better.)

In reality, those of us who are capable of rational thought always control our response, even when it wasn’t our choices that led to the misfortune.

If I get in a car accident due to someone else’s mistake, is it productive to spend all my time complaining about what I’ve gone through? Should I subject everyone I encounter to an unsolicited, lengthy rendition of the whole sordid story? Am I not justified in being angry, sad, disappointed, and vindictive?

Whether or not a feeling or action is justified usually depends on a person’s perspective. Even if I am legitimately justified in having any of those emotions, there are better ways of handling the situation.

In some way everyone is a victim of an injustice, some greater than others. But does acting like one really help you in any way? Does wallowing in misery and self pity move you forward or help you overcome whatever obstacles may stand in your way? Does expecting special treatment from others empower you to effect the necessary changes and keep you in control of what happens?

To express the thought succinctly in a less formal way: Yeah, that sucks. So what are you going to do about it?

The hiker in the hole would be well-served to find a way out. He might then look for ways to prevent other people from suffering in the same way, or help those who do. He might use his experience to avoid making the same mistake again. However, he’ll eventually need to go on hikes again and put the past event behind him. If he doesn’t go, he effectively gives up control over important areas of his life that he had previously enjoyed.

I’ve found that being presented with unfortunate circumstances provides an opportunity for active decision making and personal growth. Rising above injury (or injustice) and the tendency to claim victim status is the most effective way for me to get through the situation and come out stronger on the other side. I’m the only person who has the ability to do that in my life, even when it seems easier to stay in the hole and complain.

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