There are exactly two reasons why people view themselves as “the victim” in their own stories:
Reason One: They’re Ego-driven, immature, sniveling cowards who cannot take responsibility for themselves or how their thoughts and actions are shaping their circumstances. If only they’d do a Law of Attraction meditation, read The Secret, get off of the couch and go to 6 AM Vinyasa Flow, they’d quickly learn they have complete control over their reality and all of this victimhood nonsense is a coping mechanism for their Ego. But not you, Brenda — you are fully in control of your life, Brenda. You are not a victim.
Reason Two: They’re actual victims who aren’t in control of their circumstances. They’ve genuinely been dealt a tougher hand by the crapshoot incarnation lottery. Decisions over which they had no control caused some parts of life to be much harder for them than they might be for you. Big or small, most of their pain directly stems from capitalism, racism, sexism, childhood trauma, etc., and there’s absolutely no hope for their lives because they have no agency whatsoever to shape society at large or change what happened to them, so we might as well lie down and wait for climate change to kill us all, Brenda.
Look, Brenda: Both of these attitudes towards victimhood are bullshit, because both of them are true.
We are all subject to forces beyond our control, many of which have the power to profoundly shape our own lived experiences. We are also the primary curators (if not outright creators) of our lived experiences, and we too have the power to profoundly shape our own lived experiences. At any given moment, both statements are true.
This does not mean that, in any given circumstance, both statements will be equally helpful to someone’s feelings.
Let’s play a game:
Your friend Brenda just got fired. Her landlord wants to raise her rent. Her grandma is terminally ill. Her dog just ran away. And worst of all, her boyfriend wants to move to Portland.
Which of the following responses will help Brenda cope with the situation?
Option A: I’m so sorry for you, Brenda. I don’t understand how this can all be happening to you. You don’t deserve this. It’s so unfair. I mean getting fired was bad enough, and now Portland? I don’t know how you deal with it. I wish the universe would cut you a break; you’ve dealt with enough!
Option B: I can’t wait to see how you turn this around, Brenda. You’re so strong, I know you’ll pull through. You have so much power to make your life the life you want it to be. You take action against that landlord and organize your neighbors into a tenant’s union! You’ve got the power to make something awesome out of all of this!
The answer is, obviously, that both responses are obnoxious and Brenda has every right to punch you for trying either one verbatim. But the point is, which direction Brenda should be encouraged to go right now depends entirely on where Brenda is right now.
The downside of feeling empowered is that it’s easy to also feel at fault for one’s situation. After all, if we have the power to change our situation, that means that if our situation continues to be painful, we are (at least in part) responsible for making it so. We may have the power, but we also have the responsibility.
The upside of feeling disempowered is that it’s easy to also feel innocent of one’s own pain and absolved from causing it. After all, if we have no power to change our situation, that means that if our situation continues to be painful, at least it isn’t our fault, so we don’t have to add guilt on top of this. We may not have the power, but at least we don’t have the responsibility.
A harmonious human psyche, like a harmonious human body, is one in equilibrium. Whenever we have feelings and needs, we are out of equilibrium, and we pursue the meeting of our needs to put us back in equilibrium. Feeling hunger? Eating food moves us towards equilibrium. Feeling shame? Experiencing unconditional acceptance moves us towards equilibrium. We are constantly moving in the direction of equilibrium, then getting knocked out of it again, then moving once more in the direction of balance. This is, as they say, “life.”
Naturally, the direction we must move in to reach equilibrium depends entirely on where we start in relation to equilibrium.
When it comes to questions of agency, victimhood, and responsibility, the truth is always both. We are, in some ways, powerful, and in other ways, powerless. We are the creators of our own experience, just like everyone else, and their experiences tend to bump into ours from time to time and thus change our experience, and vice versa.
Within, Without, Within, Without
This is where I tend to differ from some strictly “spiritual” thinkers, especially those who have a resolute view that we create our own reality. Yes, we do create our own reality, but our reality also creates us. Our reality includes all kinds of structures and systems that shape our experiences, structures and systems that we did not consciously create or consent to be conditioned by, and over which we alone cannot exercise total control.
Maybe we do fully create our realities, but if that process of creation is not wholly conscious, who, really is doing the creating? Not our conscious selves. We can exercise as little control over our unconscious selves as we can over forces outside of us. Until such a time as we apply our direct attention to understanding how those forces shape us and work to change them, we are powerless relative to them.
You can chalk up the root of your poverty to an unconscious resistance to abundance all you want, but if the source of that resistance remains forever unconscious, you might as well call it Capitalism.
Yes, it’s all in your head.
External reality is all in your head too.
Your head is also all in external reality.
Like an infinite loop of Russian dolls.
Where you position yourself within the loop changes what it looks like to you, but ultimately, it’s always still the same loop containing everything and nothing.
Everything is you.
Nothing is under control.
The point is — which story you tell yourself depends on what you’re lacking. If you’re lacking power, and you need a feeling of empowerment, acting as though you’re the creator of your own reality will move you in the direction of equilibrium. If you’re stuck in guilt and shame, and you need a feeling of absolution, acting as though you’re the victim of external circumstances will move you in the direction of equilibrium.
Victimhood: It’s About Time
What if I told you that you are both able to change your situation, but you can never stop it from having been what it was?
The “negative” aspects of the victim / change agent dichotomy come from a misunderstanding of time and responsibility. You can always change your situation. You can never go back in time and stop your situation from becoming what it now is. Your situation happened because it happened. An infinity of variables went into creating a universe of circumstances so that your situation happened the way it did. It’s also entirely possible that linear time doesn’t exist, the past is a constructed memory, the future is a constructed fantasy, and all that exists is Now.
We mix up responsibility with fault. Responsibility means nothing more or less than “ability to respond.”
Whether or not time exists, you cannot be responsible in the past. You have no ability to respond in the past. You can only respond Now. Right now, you have the ability to respond to your circumstances. Nothing you do now can change what happened then that led you to Now.
You-in-the-past is always a victim.
There’s nothing you-in-the-present can do to change the past.
Right here, now, you do have the ability to respond to your situation. You may not be able to fully stop some massive mental or emotional pain, but you can always choose how to respond and shift something in your experience, or your thoughts, or your actions.
Sitting around heartbroken? Not anymore! Now you can be heartbroken while standing on one foot. You can be heartbroken while eating a carrot. You have that ability.
It may seem trite, but taking small responsibilities can go on to teach us greater responsibility and increase our ability to respond, like the ability to shift our thought patterns, to change our habitual behaviors, and ultimately create for ourselves completely different life outcomes. All possible circumstances we face in the future come from what we do right now in the present.
The only time you can be responsible is Now.
What do you do with Now?
Well, the question is, where do you need to go? What side of equilibrium are you stuck on? Too much guilt or too much powerlessness? Too much self-blame for the past or too much disempowerment about the future?
You are a victim, in the sense of a powerless object of external forces, in every single moment but one: this one. In this moment, the only thing you can do is respond to your circumstances. You have the ability to respond. You are responsible. You are creating change.
Your response is just that: a response. What feeling are you responding to? What need are you trying to meet?
It’s a compass, not a map.