E24: From Pitiful to Powerful: Breaking Free From the Victim Mindset

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E24: From Pitiful to Powerful: Breaking Free From the Victim Mindset

Show Notes

Episode 23: Emotional Junk Food: How We Are Overfed & Undernourished

Episode 12: Empowering Language

Episode 6: The Drama Triangle: Why We Step in and How to Get Out

Episode 2: Responsibility: The Foundation of Healthy Relationships


[00:00:00] Growing up, my mother always taught us to be powerful, not pitiful. And while I didn’t always like hearing that as a little boy, I appreciate my mom’s wisdom in regularly reminding me that we are not victims in life.

[00:00:14] Yes, there are circumstances where you are a victim. You lose your job, you get sick, you grow up in an abusive family. The world gets some crazy virus that kills hundreds of thousands of people, closes schools, puts millions of people out of work. All of that is real and real tough, and you still have the power to choose how you react. You choose where you go, what you do, what you say and what you will believe, because the truth is, we will all experience pain in life. We will all face issues that are completely out of our control. And we can choose to hate the world and resent everything and everyone, or we can choose a different path. It’s this idea of choosing power and possibility over helplessness and small mindedness that I want to talk more about today. Let’s get into it.

[00:01:29] A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my brother, who was dealing with a very difficult roommate, and he’s been battling back and forth with trying to find common ground and figure out how to coexist peacefully, if you will. But he shared the one experience in particular that actually was the inspiration for today’s episode. A few weeks ago, apparently his roommate. Well, both of them were doing their laundry, but his roommate forgot to wash his bed sheets or rather, he probably washed them, but he forgot to dry them. So evening came around and my brother got ready for bed and hopped in bed and his roommate realized, oh, crap, I don’t have any sheets on my bed, I need to dry them.

[00:02:12] So he goes and starts them in the dryer and then he comes in and he just sits on the bed and starts reading and he leaves the light on in the bedroom. And then, of course, my brother trying to sleep said, hey, would you be willing to turn the light off? You know, use a lamp or maybe go read someplace else? And his roommate basically said, hey, we’re both in the same situation here. You don’t think I want to sleep? But my sheets aren’t ready so, sorry, this is the way it is.

[00:02:38] Basically suggesting that because he planned poorly, my brother should have to suffer the same consequences. He didn’t feel like it was fair that my brother was getting a good night’s sleep because he couldn’t have one.

[00:02:50] Now, to my brother’s credit, my brother has learned a lot of these principles alongside me, my whole family has. To my brother’s credit he said, look, I’m sorry you chose to wash your sheets later in the day and now they’re still wet, I shouldn’t have to suffer for your lack of planning.

[00:03:07] Now, his roommate clearly isn’t the most emotionally healthy and he didn’t take that very well. And they started arguing back and forth. And eventually my brother said, listen, we’re tired, this isn’t going well. Let’s just talk about this in the morning.

[00:03:20] But interestingly enough, his roommate kept pushing and so he really wanted to talk about it. And my brother, again, to his credit, he held his boundaries and he continued to assert the truth of the situation. He didn’t scream and yell at him, he didn’t call him names. This didn’t become a huge argument, but my brother held his boundaries, ultimately, his roommate got quiet and passive aggressive and eventually they went to bed.

[00:03:43] Now, it’s an unfortunate situation, but it underscores the reality that a lot of us in this world live in this victim mindset. We live with this sense of powerlessness or helplessness and sometimes unfortunately, a feeling of entitlement, which then tells us what’s not fair. If other people have this and I don’t, that’s not fair and they shouldn’t have it. I don’t want them to have it. In talking with my brother, he said, I’m continually shocked at how many people think they just don’t have any control in life. They just say, I can’t believe that happened to me, or that’s just the way I am, or that’s just the way he or she is, so on and so forth.

[00:04:27] It’s this pervasive feeling of powerlessness and victim. If you remember our episode on the drama triangle, it’s very much a victim mindset. It just saps energy and it’s no fun to be around and it’s no fun to be the person in that mindset.

Choosing Your Path

[00:04:45] When I was talking with my brother, his suggestion, his thought was very simple and I thought it was profound. He said, I wonder if you don’t do an episode talking about adding the word “choose” into your language a little more. Using the word choose more frequently and more deliberately.

[00:05:07] So let’s explore that for a moment. Why would adding the word “choose” into your language more help? Well, if you listen to my episode on Empowering Language, you’ll remember that plenty of research has shown that words do have an effect on us, physiologically even as much as emotionally. So let’s look at a few examples here of how adding the word choose to language can affect the overall feeling of these sentences.

[00:05:36] So it might look like saying either, “I ran out of time” versus, “I chose to spend time doing other things.” How does that sound? How does that change? One you say I ran out of time, that’s clearly suggesting that you are a victim to time, you didn’t have enough of it. And oh, that sucks, but it’s not your fault. So, OK, you’re off the hook. Versus, I chose to spend time doing other things. That second sentence has responsibility in it, it has ownership. And can you feel the power behind it? If you say something like that, it feels much more powerful because you are admitting that you had power, that you chose to spend time on other things, which again, subconsciously, if nothing else, reinforces this idea, and it’s the truth that you are in control of how you spend your time.

[00:06:33] A couple other examples here. You might say, “this is the only job I could get.” Versus, “I chose to work here.” You might say, “I hate this job.” Versus “I’m choosing to stay here.” You see the power in there? One other example, you might say, “I can’t seem to get my eating under control.” Or you could say, “I keep choosing to overeat.” Both address the situation, but the second, using the word “choose” in there makes it much more of a truthful statement.

[00:07:10] Now, you don’t always have to use the word choose, right, there are ways to still make statements, truth based and empowering without actually saying the word “choose.” You know, if we go back to that episode on Empowering Language, we talked about traffic. That’s a common thing that a lot of people blame if they’re late to something. And so you could say, “oh, sorry I’m late, traffic was so bad.” That’s shirking responsibility and that’s stepping into a victim mindset. Or you could say, “I’m sorry I’m late. I didn’t plan for traffic well.” Or, “I set my alarm too late” or, “I didn’t make this meeting a priority.”

[00:07:45] You know, whatever the truth is, you don’t have to use the word “choose.” But notice how all of those responses still come from a position of power and ownership rather than victim and helplessness.

[00:07:58] So the truth I want to underscore here is that we have far more choice in our lives than we may initially believe. No, again, we don’t have control over everything, but we do have control over quite a bit more than we might think.

[00:08:12] When I was in therapy, they were big on this. They really underscored this, and that’s where my passion behind this principle comes from. Because I and many others would be tempted to use words like, “I slipped” when reporting a relapse. But they were quick to point out that I or we chose to relapse, if not directly, indirectly. I chose to not call people, I chose to not follow my plan, so on and so forth. Therefore, I chose to relapse.

[00:08:43] And while that was harder to say, it was true. And it was actually more empowering than the alternative because it reminded me that I was not a victim in my life. And believe me, in that moment, I battled that feeling constantly feeling worthless, not feeling good enough, not feeling like I had control over certain actions. And yet that wasn’t true. The truth was, I had power and I could choose to make different decisions that would help me.

[00:09:14] So again, if you complain about your job, how can you change your verbiage? You can still vent, I want to be clear about that, you can still vent. You can still be upset. You can not like it even, but watch your language. Don’t buy into the idea that you are a victim. At the time of this recording, hundreds of thousands of people are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And if you are one of those people, then, yes, again, you are a victim of this pandemic. You didn’t choose to lose your job. You know, if you’ve gotten sick, if you’ve had family members that are sick, you didn’t choose to get sick. You didn’t make them get sick. You didn’t choose to have to deal with that. And you are choosing right now how you handle it. You are choosing the narrative in your head and you are the only one who can decide if you’ll look for a new job or find a way to start up your own thing. How you’re going to handle the illness in the family, whatever the situation is, that is where your decision that is where your choices come into play.

[00:10:23] And at the risk of sounding invalidating, because, again, my heart sincerely goes out to any of you who’ve lost your jobs, to any of you who are struggling with the situation here. You now get to choose to accept and cry over the situation, cry over those lemons, or you can get busy turning them into lemonade.

[00:10:43] So, again, I don’t want that to come across as invalidating. I of all people know the importance of feeling and of mourning and of not pushing away your emotions and thoughts, that’s not what I’m suggesting. So I’m not advocating for a tough it out, grown men and women don’t cry approach here. What I’m saying is, allow yourself to feel the pain, feel the emotion, feel the weight of everything that’s going on. You have to feel it and get validation around that. But you don’t get to stay there. You don’t get to sit and wallow in self-pity. It’s up to you to choose to step out of that and to make something of whatever situation you’re dealing with.

[00:11:27] So let’s talk about this point for a moment, knowing what you do and don’t have control over. I absolutely love the serenity prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step groups. It says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” I absolutely love that because that is the way we need to live life, that is the key, the secret, at risk of oversimplifying here, of living a life of happiness and joy.

[00:12:04] Learning to accept the things we can’t change. Having courage to change the things we can and wisdom to understand the difference. My wife has been thinking a lot about something our former therapist once taught, and it’s this concept of inevitable pain versus optional pain. [Important note: While this therapist was my initial source for this principle, I’ve long since disassociated with her as her beliefs and teachings have become more extreme and unhealthy (contrary to what she originally taught me) and are no longer in alignment with my beliefs or values. I no longer refer people to her site, services, or teachings.]

Inevitable Pain Vs. Optional Pain

[00:12:28] OK. Inevitable pain versus optional pain. What do I mean by that? Well, inevitable pain is pain that comes from something truly out of your control. We just gave a whole slew of examples there, a lot of that coming from this pandemic that’s happening right now. That could be your significant other breaking up with you, you losing your job, somebody rear ending you, you losing your entire retirement savings in the stock market, maybe a loved one dying. All of this causes suffering that you did not sign up for and have no control over, at least out the gates. That’s inevitable pain.

[00:13:06] Optional pain is pain that comes from how you choose to react to what is outside of your control. So if we follow the same examples that we just mentioned, this would be you telling yourself that you’re worthless and unlovable because your significant other broke up with you. This optional pain would be you resenting your old boss and company and replaying the conversation over and over when they let you go. That causes more pain and that’s optional. This might be you now refusing to drive anywhere because that accident, because you’re afraid of another car accident. Maybe you file a lawsuit against the person who hit you aiming to make their life as miserable as they made yours. You could blame the government and big business for your retirement savings loss and live the rest of your life working and resenting everyone around you for it. Or in the event of death of a loved one, you might curse God for letting your loved one die and close your heart to all your other relationships, just so you don’t have to experience pain like that again.

[00:14:03] All of that is painful. And that pain is optional because that has to do with how you are responding to what’s happening. That has to do with the messages you’re telling yourself and the actions you’re taking. So my key point here is that, yes, there will be pain in this life. That’s part of it. We can’t expect to go through life without feeling pain. And, we need to be careful to not let ourselves spiral out of control. When that inevitable pain does come in, when those situations do happen, when we are truly victims to a circumstance, it’s our responsibility to manage that, to deal with it in a healthy way and not let it completely throw us. Again, even that’s kind of victim, right? “Letting it throw us,” not choosing to just sit down, throw our hands up in the air and give up.

Moving Out of the Victim Role

[00:14:57] So, how do you move out of victim? How do you go from being pitiful to powerful? Well, I’m going to give you three broad tips, three broad steps that I find are very helpful for me and others that I work with in making this shift from a victim mindset to one the power and personal strength.

Step 1: Feel the Emotion

[00:15:18] The first step is to feel the emotion, right? I hope you’d expect this from me at this point. Validate yourself, seek validation from others and allow yourself time and space to grieve. Again, this is critical, and I talk about this in my book, I talk about this in my other podcast episodes and my blog articles that emotions buried alive, never die.

[00:15:45] If you go through something traumatic, if you go through something difficult, even if you’re just frustrated with a coworker or some situation at work or in your relationship, you can’t just bury that and expect it to go away. In fact, the opposite is often true, that if we try to bury those emotions, they come back with a vengeance later. They grow, they fester, and oftentimes we just lash out at somebody or we try to eat our feelings into oblivion. We go into those self-medicating behaviors like we talked about in last week’s episode of emotional junk food, all because we’re not managing and allowing ourselves to feel certain uncomfortable emotions.

[00:16:26] So step 1 in shifting out of the victim mindset is to first let yourself feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Validate yourself, get validation from others and give yourself some of that space and time to grieve.

Step 2: Find the Truth

[00:16:39] Step 2 is to find the truth. Now, I’m a big proponent here of this little verbiage hack, language hack, if you will, of replacing the word “but” with “and” whenever it makes sense and that’s critical here, because if you take step one and you validate yourself and you say, “well, OK, yeah, of course I’m upset that I lost my job, but I’ll get over it.” Well, that actually undoes all of your work validating prior to that. So using the word “and” instead of “but” is huge.

[00:17:13] My wife and I were watching a series that we’re into right now called Madam Secretary on Netflix and it’s a fantastic show. We talk often actually about how shocking it is to see a very emotionally healthy main character on a television series. You just don’t see that nowadays, right? Most everything is filled with drama and all kinds of emotional turmoil. And this particular series, Madam Secretary, the lead character is amazingly emotionally healthy, as is her husband for the most part, anyway.

[00:17:43] But what I really like is that, just the other night, we were watching an episode where it was actually the president in this case and he was dealing with a very difficult negotiation. And somebody came up to him after and said, how did it go? And he said, honestly, something along the lines of, “it was the suckiest situation, it was the worst, it was worse than I could have even possibly imagined it. And yet this is the job I signed up for.” And that actually caught me off guard because, again, most of us are so used to the victim of just leaving it at that. “That sucked. That was the worst negotiation I could have imagined. Period.” And that’s fine if you want to say that, but he followed it up with the word “and” and then the truth, which was “this is the job I signed up for.” So, yes, that sucks. Yes, this is difficult, and, I signed up for it.

[00:18:33] So if we apply this to our lives here, you could say, “I can’t believe I was fired, yet I was. What I do from here on out is up to me, let’s see how I can turn this into a positive.”

[00:18:47] Now, I do want to offer one other pro tip, if you will, on point two, finding the truth. That’s to look for possibility. If you’re struggling with something, if you’re in a difficult situation, you’re having a hard time finding positive truth, look for possibility. What I mean by that is looking for possible paths forward that are a benefit to you, that are a blessing to you.

[00:19:14] I like to go through a little exercise in my mind where no matter what has happened, I say, OK, Michael, let’s say for a moment that this was actually meant to help me. How might that be the case? As dark and as difficult as the situation is, let’s just pretend for a moment that it’s actually good for me. How might that be the case? In what ways could this situation actually turn out to be a blessing? It’s looking for the silver lining is all it really is.

[00:19:45] But looking for possibility, you have to allow yourself to entertain that thought for a moment. It doesn’t mean you have to invalidate your feelings, especially with more difficult situations, those are going to persist even while you’re trying to move on from them. Yet looking for this possibility can help in many ways turn the corner and set you up for step 3, which is taking action.

[00:20:10] Now, I’ve talked before about one of my favorite quotes being this, “action cures fear.” Meaning we could be scared, we could be upset, we could be wallowing in the depths of despair. The quickest way to get out of that after validation, after finding truth, is to take action. Well, actually, as I’m saying that, really the quickest way out of it is simply to take action, because validating and finding truth are actions. That requires work, that requires movement.

Step 3: Take Action

[00:20:40] And that’s why that’s step 3 here, so first, validate the emotion, feel the emotion. Find the truth, step 2. Step 3, take action. If you were let go from your job, figure out a way to make money. Figure out a way to get another job. Talk with your landlord, talk with people to get ways of getting some allowance or some leeway there while you get your feedback about you. If you lost a loved one, feel it, mourn it. Get validation around it and then find a way to live your life, to live the very best life you can. Find a way to honor that person in your life.


[00:21:21] So that’s my invitation to you today, take inventory right now. How are you looking at the world? How are you looking at your life? Are you scared? Are you discouraged? Are you feeding a victim mindset? If so, I invite you to step out of it.

[00:21:42] Only you can make that decision, and it will be easier sometimes than others, and that’s OK. What matters is that you make the effort, that you walk toward the light. I’m telling you from personal experience, it is the way to live. It is so refreshing, it is so freeing. And it’s a decision you’re gonna have to make over and over sometimes multiple times a day because of all of the crap that we deal with in this world, and because of all of that inevitable pain that does come into our lives.

[00:22:12] So my invitation to you is the same invitation that my mother gave us all while we were growing up: Be powerful, not pitiful. Choose power and possibility over helplessness and small mindedness. Your happiness is worth it. Until next week.

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2 thoughts on “E24: From Pitiful to Powerful: Breaking Free From the Victim Mindset”

  1. I came across this after googling, “what if I don’t want to validate someone?”

    I was thinking about old wounds and coming up with fresh pain for them, and your article about “validating when you don’t agree” really spoke to me. I followed some links to your podcast and I’m glad that I did; this episode is something I’ve been needing to hear (even though technically I read it, haha).

    I can feel myself cringing at words like “pitiful” and “victim,” I can feel myself getting defensive about those words, and that’s telling me I’m still choosing certain beliefs in my head.

    Thank you for doing what you do! Today I feel inspired to talk to myself haha, and find out where I’m choosing to suffer and how I can choose to either change those things or change how I look at those things.

    I’ve been in therapy for so long now, and I know I’ve been struggling to make progress because there’s still parts of me not feeling heard. I look forward to reading and listening to more of your thoughts on emotional healing and growth!

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