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SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim explains how we use self-pity to get attention, validation or sympathy love, and how to stop having a victim mentality.
I wish I understood what was wrong with me, and why I cry and get so upset when I feel mistreated or cheated by people or life. For example, if I buy something and it breaks and I try to take it back to the store, but they won't make it right. This situation could make me cry, in the store, which embarrasses my kids. I feel so mistreated it hurts, and I think I'm hoping the person will feel sorry enough for me, and they will treat me better. It's humiliating to admit this, but I often complain and cry about how hard I work and that it does no good, life always goes against me anyway. I complain about my hard lot in life way more than I should. I hate this about myself but don't know how to stop feeling this way. Can you help me?
It sounds like you are suffering from a subconscious victim mentality. Many of us learned as children to use self-pity to get sympathy love. Psychologists tell us the ideas, beliefs or behavior patterns we learn in childhood often become the rules that dictate the way we respond as an adult, even if they are ineffective and immature.
Dr. Eric Berne wrote an interesting book back in 1964 called "Games People Play." In it he describes some subconscious psychological behaviors we use to get attention, validation, love or power (getting people to do what we want them to). I wrote a whole article on this last year you might want to read.
The Sympathy Card Game is one of the most popular games people play. This happens when you constantly talk about how bad you have it, how terrible you are, or how no one loves you or cares about you to get validation, love or reassurance from other people. People play this game on social media when they post things like "worst day ever" but they don't leave an explanation about what happened. They do this because they are subconsciously wanting people to prove they care and ask what happened.
This game is a subtle (and very immature) way to get love and attention and brings with it a high cost. You may get sympathy love, but because you are acting weak, you usually lose people's respect. They may give you what you want, but they won't necessarily like you either.
It would serve us all to take a minute and ask ourselves the following questions just to make sure we aren't subconsciously playing the victim:
- Is there ever a time you might subconsciously act like a victim to get attention or sympathy love?
- Do you use your sad story to get people to behave the way you want them to? Or to give you what you want?
- Do you use your struggles to get attention or validation?
- Do you use your story to get you out of things you don't want to do or to absolve you of responsibility?
- Write an accurate description (on paper) of what your mindset and behavior look like when you are playing the victim. How do you show up? How do you think others see you? What kind of energy are you putting off? How do you think your behavior comes across to other people? Write about the payoff you are trying to get. Is it so great that it's worth the loss of respect? Get a very clear picture of what you playing the victim looks like. Is this really who you want to be?
- Identify your favorite victim stories so you can consciously recognize them. Is yours, "No one really cares about me" or "No matter how hard I try things always go wrong" or "You should feel sorry for me and let me off the hook for anything because of how bad I have it" or "I will never get anywhere no matter how hard I work." Own your victim story and figure out what you use it for, and then you can be on the lookout for it and consciously recognize when you start down that path.
- Figure out who you could be if you let go of the victim role. What would your mindset be, how could you respond to life if you saw yourself as strong, blessed, capable, fortunate and whole? Could you see yourself as a champion instead of a victim? This may take a while to clearly see yourself without your victim story, but you can do it. Just keep playing with this picture in your mind until you can see it. Write down the qualities and attributes you want to own. How do you want people to see you? What qualities do you want to be known for? Work on choosing to be those every day.
- Stop blaming others or circumstances for the way you are feeling. You are responsible for how you are feeling right now. Emotions may arise from your subconscious (this you can't control), but once they arrive, you do have the power to process through them and choose your mindset and attitude. (There will be some who disagree with me on this one and believe they cannot control their emotions, but they are usually the same ones who are suffering from a victim mentality and just don't want to feel be responsible for themselves.) The truth is you do have the power to choose your perspective. If you don't know how to use that power, you may need a counselor or coach to help you learn how. It is a skill and can be taught.
- Choose gratitude. In the very moment you are dwelling on what's wrong in your life, there are many things that are right you could focus on. Your blessings always outweigh the challenges. You may need to start a gratitude journal to help you focus on the good every day.
- Change your perspective about life and how the universe works. Most of us have a subconscious belief that the universe is a dangerous place where we can lose, get crushed, hurt, cheated and unfairly treated. We see the universe as against us, messing with us, and even trying to trip us up. With this perspective we are always a powerless victim, who is blown about by chaos and bad luck.
This is just a perspective though, it is not truth. There are other options. You could decide to see the universe as a classroom created to serve your process of growth instead. You could see life as a wise teacher, whose only motivation is to bless you and make you stronger, wiser and more loving. You could see every experience as your perfect lesson. You may want to take some time and write down all the positives that have been created or could be created because of the hard thing that happened to you.
You could believe the universe is working for you and conspiring to serve you and educate you at every turn. If you see life this way, then the fear of loss, which is behind self-pity, will disappear. If everything that happens to you, is here to bless and serve you, is it really a loss? Or is it a hidden blessing to make you stronger, wiser or more loving? I explain this perspective shift in more detail in my book "Choosing Clarity," you may want to read it if you need more help with this one.
If you will work on these six things, you can break free from the victim mentality, see your life (accurately) as a classroom and you should cry less.
If you are reading this article while in the middle of suffering through some of life's horrible challenges, please understand this is a process. It is normal to feel like a victim when you have been victimized. You just don't want to live there forever. I strongly recommend working with a professional to help you find peace and joy again.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles is president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and is a popular executive coach and corporate "people skills" trainer.