How To Move From 'Victimized' To 'Victorious' In A World of Chaos

by Steven Reeder, ACC

It was Thanksgiving 2014. I got to make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Grand Canyon. That day, I witnessed history: the entire canyon was filled with fog. What I did not witness was the Grand Canyon. I was a victim of Mother Nature.

I was very unhappy.

How often have you had your plans ruined by the weather? Or frustrated that you don't have enough money to get the bills paid? How many times have you said, "Thank God it's Friday?" Ever feel like the world is in such chaos, you just want to hide under the bed? Or that you're stuck on memories that distract you from being the best you can be? How often have you said to yourself, "Why is this happening to me again?" "Why does this always happen to me?"

If you've ever had these kinds of thoughts or feelings, you're experiencing the very normal and natural sense of being a victim. Oh, that word. We do not like to think of ourselves as a "victim," as it implies weakness. Yet being a victim simply means that you are "at the effect" of something outside of yourself; where you feel powerless to change or influence the outcome. At its core is a fear that you cannot succeed or survive in the physical world. It's a learned response based on negative past experiences.

Feeling this way occasionally is very normal and natural. Yet as I'll share here, its numerous morphings and manifestations often go unnoticed and unaddressed when compounded. The depth of impact it's making on our current culture and our psyche is truly underestimated. It's important to understand how the scope of victimhood plays out in all of our lives.

With the proper perspective, we see victimhood not simply as a definition or concept, but as a pattern and progression of behavior known as an archetype. The archetype of "the victim" is one of the core archetypes surrounding self-esteem. When this archetype goes ignored and under-developed, low self-esteem propagates both at a personal and cultural level.

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I recently had the pleasure of watching the Fred Rogers documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" While I certainly remember watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a child, I did not recall that in his later years he was mocked by the likes of Fox News. Their commentators argued that he was the origin of a generation who had grown up being told they were special. By their estimation, this scourge of telling children they're special created a generation who are "entitled" and "snowflakes" who crave a participation prize for everything they do.

Thankfully, Fred Rogers lived long enough to address this falsehood, and shared exactly what he meant when he told every child watching that they were special. (Response to follow.)

One week after seeing the film, I then saw The Daily Show host Trevor Noah make a behind-the-scenes commentary about how victimhood has been weaponized by... a prominent political figure... in order to energize a following. Trevor Noah's and Fred Rogers' separate observations synthesize into one big, clear picture an archetypal perspective toward better understanding how and where victimhood is currently directing both the course of our cultural character and your own personal life.

In defining "victim", you might assume the most basic, literal interpretation that "being a victim" is just that: being assaulted, being robbed, being taken advantage of, or any other kind of incoming aggressive attack. This is where &emdash; for people who have not experienced much in the way of being physically attacked &emdash; many people will say they don't feel like a victim in their lives.

However the patterns of this archetype are like layers of an onion, which need to consciously peeled and explored in order to build healthy self-esteem.

That peeling usually doesn't start until enough bleak or discouraging thoughts and feelings pile up and become overpowering. If we get trapped in our head, a stream of constant worry and rumination persists. The result can range from a chronic bad attitude to or clinical depression. I don't need to tell you that it can feel very defeating and demoralizing to believe you have no options.

What to do? First, if you believe you are chronically depressed, please seek the counsel of a medical or health professional. Advances in treatment have shown substantial progress. Learning about your depression treatment options will help you decide which approach is right for you.

To see beyond the literal "victim" state and grasp the breadth of the archetype, we must keep one truth in mind: people make change based on pain. When the status quo is no longer tolerable, people move into action.

The lowest level of action is that of the victim becomes the victimizer. Convinced their circumstances are someone else's fault, they channel their frustration and indignation into making sure someone - or everyone - else suffers as much as they have.

"If you do not transform your pain, you will surely transmit it."
- Fr. Richard Rohr

Besides the active victimizer, there's also the passive victimizer. The passive victimizer turns their victimhood into currency, using their victim story as a way of absolving any responsibility they might take toward empowering themselves. Their victimhood becomes a calling card to get what they need, or to express unresolved pain without repercussion. "Don't you know what I've been through? I've never gotten anything I wanted or needed. That's what entitles me to demand it."

This all sounds very clinical, but how does this entitlement play out in the world today?

  • Your own inner monologue might sound like: "I lose; everything is hopeless; I was wronged; I was cheated; life is too hard; there's no point in even trying; this isn't fair; I deserve more; you can't talk to me like that; I'm entitled to compensation; I'm entitled to revenge; I've been a good person, this shouldn't have happened to me; it's not my fault I was hurt."
  • Someone is rude or unkind to you, yet when you call them on it, they defend themselves with a story from the past. "I've had a bad day." "I've been upset lately about _____, so you should give me a break." You're then expected to feel guilty and apologize for triggering them and not being more understanding.
  • A parent strikes a child, passing on not only their own pain, but the only model of parenting they can recall in a stressful moment, and re-enacts how they were treated. Young men who are raised to believe that aggression is the only appropriate form of male expression. He believes that he has to dominate every person and experience he encounters, and always be acknowledged as right. The mask of the bully-victimizer becomes a suit of armor, hiding any notion of being perceived as weak ("a victim"). Living behind emotional walls, nothing gets in or out.
  • A person or group, in a position of power or privilege for a very long time, feels permanently entitled to those privileges, and/or becomes incensed if they suddenly lose the position and the subsequent privileges. This sometimes happens in organizational or political power shifts. Think of someone who's been riding on an empty bus for hundreds of miles, able to stretch out across multiple seats. Yet when that bus pulls in to a city and fills up, that person feels indignant giving up their comfort to accommodate someone else "in their space."
  • Throwing rocks and cursing into the Grand Canyon for fogging up my view. (I did not do that, I swear. But you get it, right? I just drove 1,600 miles. Somebody owed me a free t-shirt or something.)
  • People hypocritically enforcing rules that work for them and ignoring the rules they don't want to follow. This happens in religion with enforcement of specific doctrines aimed at controlling others, but ignoring how other tenets of that religion apply to themselves. It happens in government, when one ruling party follows a set of rules, which then get amended or thrown out when an opposition party can benefit from them. It happens in law enforcement when people feel certain laws should apply to others (i.e. driving in front of me in the left lane? How dare you!) but selectively ignoring other laws (i.e. the posted speed limit in any lane). Selective innocence and justification is often cited across large groups, such as, "Everybody does it so it's okay. " "Meh, it's just locker room talk, I don't really believe that. That's just how I was raised." (translate: I'm over 40, but hey - not my fault, blame my parents.)
  • Political figures activate their base by projecting and reminding their base about how some other group (an arbitrary or specific enemy) is out there "taking what's yours" or betraying the agreed values of the gathered base. "Those people from the other side (of the tracks, of the border, of the aisle, etc.) are coming to take your stuff! Since there's not enough stuff to go around for everyone, you're the real victim here!" [In other words: "you're special."] Often too lazy to investigate the authenticity of the claims (or just happy to have someone to blame), the base accepts the caricature of the enemy, and finds bonding and fraternity within the shared victim state of the base (safety in numbers).

No doubt that reading some of these descriptions might have even pushed buttons for you. Incidentally, feeling you're having your buttons pushed is also a victim-based reaction. Yikes, there's no getting away from it.

Our world is filled in every corner with dynamics of victims and victimizers, and stimuli to set them off. Yet when you can use symbolic sight to understand the depth of the victim archetype, you must then also understand that the empowered side also exists. In a world of duality, light must always accompany shadow.

If we pay attention, the patterns of the victim archetype serve as our internal red flags, meant to show us where we are giving away our power, and where we can make new choices to move from victim to victory, from victimized to victorious.

The first level of the "empowered victim" archetype is when you step up and say, "No more." For someone under the spell of a victimizer, this might mean breaking the spell - and maybe a few dishes in the process - fighting back for the first time. This might sound suspiciously like "the victim becoming victimizer," but done in the spirit of self-defense rather than offense.

The result is usually that the victimizer is shocked and indignant that someone would fight or stand up to them. This makes total sense: most victimizers don't see themselves as being so. They may have simply, over time, developed a suit of armor as a coping mechanism to hide any sign of weakness from the casual observer. So for them, that mask has to stay on at all costs to avoid humiliation. Aggression feels like power to a powerless person, so the victimizer &emdash; afraid of appearing weak &emdash; will be very reluctant to give up this power or have it challenged.

At this level, also consider this from Gay Hendricks' The Big Leap: "Arguments are caused by two people (or two countries) racing to occupy the victim position in the relationship." Each victim is trying to convince the other that, "You're the persecutor! Why are you doing this to me?" From this angle, it's difficult to see how anyone can come out the winner.

Therefore, the second level of the "empowered victim" is the action of taking personal responsibility. Having assessed and acknowledged some level of victimhood, the person now can begin to rationalize strategies of what they can now do to change their circumstances. This can mean leaving behind the people, places, things, or ideas that held them captive, and making wiser choices to help themselves feel more in control of their life circumstances.

This is where the inner voice of the victim becomes your ally and helps you spot the places in your life where you've been the victim, and can point the way out. This is integral to self-esteem because it helps you spot where you might have been too passive or behaved inappropriately. Rather than "re-acting" prior behaviors &emdash; based on prior experiences &emdash; you begin to make new choices on how to consciously respond to what life hands you.

The third level of the "empowered victim" is accessing a level of empathy and compassion. Having been a victim yourself, you're able to look outside of yourself and recognize others in pain. Perhaps you've come through an addiction, or recovered from a physical disease, and want to help others going through the same situation. It's also when people take to the streets to fight against the victimization of others, whether they've been in similar circumstances themselves or not. Or they might simply have a soft spot for the underdog. These people might take in other people, or animals, into their home with no expectation for reward or compensation.

There is a note of caution at this level: energy attracts like energy. Just as some victims recognize each other and gravitate together (misery loves company), there is also a complementary attraction of "rescuers" to "victims." From the earlier mention of victimhood as currency, this can be how victims can &emdash; consciously or unconsciously &emdash; attract rescuers into their space.

It is important for potential rescuers, and especially empaths, to observe their own appropriate personal boundaries. This might mean ensuring you are not taken advantage of to a degree where you can no longer take care of yourself adequately. It might also be the feeling that there's just too much going on the world (ever get that feeling lately?) and you need to distance yourself, but also not check out and put your head in the sand.

Addressing this is much like the instructions you get on an aircraft: in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, be sure to secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. Make sure that you are not being harmed, and your energetic needs are met so that you have the strength and stamina to deliver the level of compassion and empathy that you wish.

If we peel further, there are yet still higher levels of evolving the victim archetype to a victorious state. It is when you can share your victim experience as an opportunity to help and inspire others. To be clear, this is not as simple as telling your victim story over and over just to garner sympathy or acknowledgment for what you've been through. While acknowledgment and validation does help in the healing process, the role of inspiring others aligns with a higher purpose.

Everyone has their own version of a victim story - and everyone starts out more interested in their own story than anyone else's. It just makes sense: everyone takes their own past personally. That's why we often feel alone in our suffering, convinced that "no one else has ever been through what I have." That's also why it can seem so easy to help other people with their problems while still feeling stuck in your own.

The key to sharing your victim story in service of others is that your story becomes everyone's story. As Christopher Reeve said after his paralyzing accident, "I now think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles." Your victory story must evolve to a story greater than yourself. This is where the Fox news commentators disparaging Fred Rogers might have been able to make a valid point within the proper context (which they lacked): your story is not special. That you overcame your past is not special. Everyone has an inner victim story, and their stories are as valid as yours.

At his final commencement speech, Fred Rogers told the graduates what he had meant by telling his TV audience of children they were special. "What that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you." He was not talking about entitlement. He was saying that everyone has inherent value, and that value is worthy of being honored by others. One of the keys to self-esteem is finding and knowing that value from the inside, so that outside circumstances cannot tarnish or topple it. The more power you give to victimizers &emdash; or to position, prestige, precedents, property, prospects, rank, or resources to be your proof of worth &emdash; the more fragile your self-esteem will be. You will be a victim in the literal sense.

In sharing your victim story with others, it serves best told in a way that puts the listener in touch with their own inner worth and strength, so they can find their voice.

Listen...I saw fog completely fill the Grand Canyon. A few people in a billion ever get to see that! I took photos and video, which got picked up the next day by international news outlets; and I was interviewed by The Weather Channel [Strangest Weather On Earth: Season 2, Episode 8]. The whole experience gave me tons of metaphors to use in teaching and coaching. But you couldn't have convinced me of that the day it happened. I needed time and perspective to pull it all together, and understand that sometimes - when you trust the process - the universe puts you right where you're supposed to be.

The task of your inner victim archetype is not to victimize you or make you vulnerable to outside attack. It is the seed of the inner warrior that lets you know when you are losing perspective and compromising your power. Listen to that voice, and ask yourself: Am I holding on to a story that is past time to let go? Am I telling myself something that's not true? Where or when do I feel powerless? What thoughts trigger my victim perspective? Who or what pushes my buttons? What am I often ruminating about? Who have I blamed for the circumstances of my life? How much time do I spend in self-pity or envy? Who do I think I need to take down in order for me to be successful? What thought patterns from the past no longer serve me? How can I reclaim my power in these parts of my life?

Ultimately, the job of your inner victim is to set you free.