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Self-esteem comes from letting go of victimhood.

The unabridged version of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines a victim as “a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency . . . a person who is deceived or cheated . . . a victim of misplaced confidence.” Based on this definition, to some degree or another, we’ve all been victims. We’ve all suffered at the hands of a cruel or misguided person, whether the action was intentional or not. Perhaps it was a parent, a teacher, a member of the clergy, a sibling or other member of our family, or just someone who was close to us. Maybe the suffering was because we grew up poor, were confined to an institution, or was disabled. Or maybe some past experience affected us so much that we became emotionally impotent. In life, we sometimes get a bad break or many bad breaks. What we do with these bad breaks makes a difference in the lives we ultimately live.

For years I saw myself as a victim. And I believed I was justified. “If you had my life,” I’d moan, “you’d behave the same way, too.” As I saw it, being black, being born into poverty, having had a history of drug addiction and alcoholism, and having had a series of bad relationships gave me a ready-made excuse to feel sorry for myself. And I milked that attitude all I could, for as long as I could, until the day came when it just no longer worked for me.

While I’d like to say I no longer see myself as a victim, in truth, daily I fight the tendency to hold on to my old ideas. For example, the other day I was sitting in traffic on the freeway and someone cut me off. My initial urge was to give him the finger and shout expletives from my car window. But instead, I honored my second thought and did nothing. I chose the high road. It has taken years of work for the second thought to becoming my reality. There was a time when I would have shouted horrible words, then blamed the other person for my behavior: I was a victim of circumstances; had they not done what they did, I would not have done what I did; it wasn’t my fault; they made me do it; and so on.

It’s hard to shift from a mode of thinking we’ve relied on for so long. A manner of thinking that serves us in countless ways. Even though the benefits of letting go of the victim mentality outweigh the negatives, there are far too many payoffs that keep us chained to the “it’s not my fault” or “poor me” frame of mind. Here are a few benefits of being a victim. Some render seemingly big payoffs:

  • Victims always have someone to blame. When things go wrong, no matter what part you play, if you’re a victim and the outcome is negative, it’s never your fault.
  • As a victim, you have permission to be depressed, and most people will not care enough to expect you to “get on with it.”
  • You’ll never be expected to rise above your beginnings and make something of yourself.
  • You won’t be encouraged to “let go and let God” regarding your past, because you just can’t do it.
  • No one will ever say, “Get off that couch and stop taking drugs, drinking booze, and eating bon-bons.” And if they do, you’ll have one more reason to feel victimized: “Poor me. They just don’t understand.”
  • You’re in good company. There are far more people seeing themselves as victims than who are taking responsibility for their choices. You’ll always fit in with the majority.
  • As a victim, you have permission to wait for others to change, and if they don’t (and they probably won’t), you have an excuse to do nothing.

Yes, indeed, there are many benefits to holding on to the victim’s consciousness. But there are also benefits to being responsible for your life:

  • You get results.
  • You complete tasks.
  • You feel a sense of freedom.
  • You are in control of your life and your destiny.
  • You have choices.
  • Your life is full of endless possibilities.
  • You view obstacles as opportunities.
  • You are happier.
  • You feel more vital.

The cycle of victimhood is hard to break because it’s safe, it’s familiar, and it requires little effort to sustain. As a result, it takes willingness, a real willingness to walk through the fear that stands between self-empowerment and victim consciousness. How do we break the cycle? How do we get past victimhood to empowerment?

How do we move out of the darkness into the light? How can we create a different experience for ourselves? Here are a few actions— esteemable actions—to consider:

  • Make a decision to take back your life. I got sick and tired of being sick and tired and of having no control over my life. It was a hard decision to make because with choice comes responsibility. But it has been worth the effort.
  • Identify areas where you feel out of control or lack power. Is it your job that feels out of control, your money, your family situation? Whatever it is, having the courage to admit it is a step toward taking back your life.
  • Think through your choices before making a final decision. Poor choices are often a setup for feeling like a victim. I jumped into relationships with very unhealthy men over and over again. The signs were there: they were already married, they had a roving eye, they had a drinking problem, they didn’t have a job, they yelled at me and called me names. Then when they did what they were destined to do, because the signs were there, I cried, “Poor me. Look at what he did to me.”
  • Feel your feelings and walk through your fear. No one said it was going to be easy, but having the courage to walk through your fear is the first step toward freedom. It’s better to feel a little uncomfortable because you said no rather than feel the pain of having to clean up the mess you made because you were afraid to say no early in the game.
  • Get help. It’s hard to hold yourself accountable. Every time I blame someone, my accountability buddy asks, “What part did you play?”

I invite you to focus on letting go of victimhood. If I did it, you can, too. Until next time, I’m Francine D. Ward, a survivor, a breaker of cycles, empowering you to – let go.