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Michael How Dam

“They made me, they decided, they excluded me”  – do you ever use this language about your colleagues at work, in your head, if not out loud?

Recently a friend asked me “So how do you stop being a victim?”.This was after a long talk about her experiences with her family over the Christmas period, where family patterns had been exacerbated through prolonged exposure.  She had noticed that her language came from the position of victim – “They made me, they decided, they excluded me” and so on. Having spotted this, my friend wanted to know how to handle it and behave differently in the future. I was sure her question was her first step forward in making changes. And the question is one I have struggled with many a time, professionally and personally. I’m not sure the yo-yo between victim and non-victim ever completely goes away, but I have found it is possible to spend less time in the victim position, to spot it earlier, to get out of it more quickly and easily as I have learnt skills, gained awareness and experimented with new approaches, and in overall terms, learnt to be happier and more comfortable with myself.  I want to honour my friend and the honesty of her question. Possibly inspire you too, to think again about a topic we sometimes prefer to avoid – language in organisations and families can be similar!

So what has happened with my journey? Difficult experiences prompted me to read and learn around this, yet I ended up with feelings of frustration. Much of the literature seemed to focus on identifying yourself or someone else in the victim role, but not really say what to do after that. Diagnosis but no way forward, or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. Even worse, if I then asked people about it, although they seemed to talk as if they knew how to make the shift, they weren’t able to tell me how to, or what the steps were. At which point, not only did I feel frustrated, but inadequate too! Was I the only one who didn’t know how to make this change?

Let’s step back a moment. What do we mean by victim? Dictionaries say the word comes from the Latin, victima, meaning sacrificial animal. Victim can mean a person who is harmed or killed, suffers from a destructive or injurious action, or is deceived or cheated by another. These definitions sound quite objective, rational and clear cut. All the descriptions seem to be saying that the person is not OK in some way, varying from death to a minor deceit, with lots of variations in between. I am not sure this is all of the story though – I think there is something else too, an emotional overlay or dimension. It may be that how we perceive these events, or feel about them, is more important than the events are themselves. Maybe this is where it becomes complicated, particularly as often not all emotions or emotional currents are in the open.

Is anything useful coming through yet? The first thing coming to mind is how easily we can be distracted or hijacked from, repress or deny, our own thoughts and feelings about our situation. How much of a default it can be to go with what others think. It is much more important (although more difficult) to take the time to sort out what we actually think and feel about something, before allowing the views of others to crowd in. Part of this is about increasing perspective on how we see our situation, to see if we can get out of our well worn groove. Owning our part in the situation is crucial too – as when it comes to relationships we are normally all involved, and if we cannot see and own our own part, particularly the ugly or embarrassing bits, we are automatically on a path of partial vision, self deceit and limited perspective. And then there is the real challenge – of writing our story in a compassionate to self rather than self critical way. How can we be kind to ourselves and what can we appreciate about ourselves in our current response? These steps can take a lot of practice! They are about becoming really strong in loving, honouring and appreciating ourselves in a situation, and doing this before we engage with others. It’s a strange sort of process of moving from “not OK” to “OK” about a situation and how we see it, even if something genuinely bad has happened.

Once we have done this, and taken enough time to honour ourselves, our situations and our responses differently, as a second step we may then be able to offer these same qualities – in our attitudes, conversation and behaviour – to how we see others, the people or things “doing” whatever it is to us. Maybe those wishing to “make” you a victim, may be suffering too. Maybe something is not OK, or difficult or uncomfortable for them too. Or maybe just considering this as a possibility, can be part of the shift or new thinking you need. There is something strange about getting to an “I’m OK:You’re OK” position, acknowledging that being OK doesn’t necessarily mean that everything in the garden is rosy or perfect, or that hurts haven’t happened – but that our attitude to life, ourselves and each other can be forgiving, gracious and real.

With new perspective about self and hopefully the other players in the victim system too, it can now be time to determine our choices, about how to respond, and how to engage with others. If we remain on auto-pilot, behaving in the way we always have, or expecting the results we always have received from engaging or conversing with others in a particular way, the likelihood is that things will stay the same, except worse in that we will have had our position of victim reinforced. It can be a good idea to create options, talk them through with others, even rehearse conversation and see how it feels with new or different language. And from this, if we can get to the place where we can engage from an “I’m OK: You’re OK” position, meaning we feel “OK” in ourselves and can see enough “OKness” in others (or at least enough to start) – different methods of engagement with others, which might produce different results, might be possible. It is a risk – success is not guaranteed, as it may be that the other party does not want to, is not ready to or is not capable of courageous conversation at this point in time, and this will limit what can be achieved. Maintaining “I’m OK; You’re OK” within conversation is not usually easy to do on a consistent basis either – sometimes the yo-yo or tennis match  is super obvious with a parcel of “Not OK” being passed between parties with a bat or swerve or ditch over the wall.  But making the other person bad, “Not OK” or, in effect, the victim instead of you, does not give the long term results we are usually after.

Mahatma Gandhi said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In this context of ceasing to be a victim, maybe we need to say – let the shift start with me, and from this consider the perspective of others and then engage. So what a great question –  “How do I stop being a victim?” – a real question, when it is in the first person, automatically creating new perspective from adopting a different starting position.

Enough, I trust, for my friend to have already moved down a different, more assertive path, more of her own making and liking, with different language, including “I chose, I decided, This happened, I felt, I learnt”, en route to the advanced class of “We”.

And all of which may help us choose our response, to create the lives we wish for, even if it is more scary to be assertive than a victim, as many of us return to work this week.

Photo credit: Perspective – Michael How

Gill How

Helping leaders grow, step up and deliver outstanding results

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