How to escape the victim mentality

July 29, 1999|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

Many people have felt like victims at some point in their lives.

Perhaps being raised by only one parent created a sense of emptiness, or an abusive relationship has left physical and emotional scars. Maybe co-workers' negative attitudes have made you feel as though you're an undervalued, underpaid employee even if you're not.

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Living as a victim is not enviable.

"It's a pretty sad and lonely place to be," says Barbara Bronson Gray, editor-in-chief of NurseWeek, which is distributed to nurses in California, and HealthWeek, which is distributed to nurses and other health professionals in Texas.

Human beings are a complex combination of personality and events, says Gray, also a registered nurse.

Some personality types would not allow victimization.

Many people who think of themselves as exploited have been burned several times.

"It has something to do with more than one event," says Gray in a telephone interview from Sunnyvale, Calif.


If negative things happen only occasionally, the victim mentality is easier to resist, she says.

At work

Sometimes the environment in which you make a living can create a negative mind-set that is hard to shake.

"The workplace can really be an insidious teaching environment," Gray says.

When she was a nurse, Gray recalls being screamed at by a physician. Other nurses told her that type of behavior was common among doctors and that she should ignore it. Instead, she wrote a letter to the chief of staff requesting a formal apology, which she received. The doctor also was reprimanded.

"The human spirit is one that adjusts to the culture. We're like chameleons," Gray says.

If that culture happens to be full of people who consider themselves victims, it's easy to become one, too.

To avoid letting yourself fall into a defeatist trap, set boundaries for what behaviors from others are tolerable and intolerable, Gray advises.

Don't get involved in negative conversations, adds Molli Collacott, a licensed clinical social worker with Summit Behavioral Health in Chambersburg, Pa.

Where to turn

When facing life's problems, ask yourself, "What can I do about it?" Gray says.

If you can't answer that, go to someone who is removed from the situation and get her advice.

Therapy and positive role models are helpful if feelings of being preyed upon are curtailing your ability to work or sleep, Collacott says.

"They need to build a very strong network for themselves," Collacott says.

Support groups are another option, says Ann Smith, executive director of Shenandoah Women's Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Gray says it's important to prevent children from thinking of themselves as victims so they can become mentally tough.

When her children, ages 13 and 16, come to her with a difficult situation, she helps them analyze how bad it is and what they can do to remedy it.

Defining the problem forces you to stare it down, Gray says.

Low self-esteem often is a result of physical or emotional abuse, Smith says, and counseling or support circles can build confidence and help individuals focus on their good points.

"They deserve to live in an environment where they are treated fairly," Smith says.

Gray acknowledges that there are real victims in the world and that some situations are too bad to repair, particularly those involving violence.

"Sometimes it's not fixable," Gray says.

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