The late writer Nora Ephron had plenty of wisdom to impart when she addressed the graduates of private women's college Wellesley, in Boston, in 1996, but one line in particular stood out. "Above all," she said to the women seated in front of her, "be the heroine of your life, not the victim."
As a storyteller, Ephron knew all about personal narrative. She understood that some people want to be the dragon-slaying conqueror of their story, while others surrender at the first plot twist.
She knew that victims allowed themselves to be defined by their misfortunes whereas victors derived their strength from overcoming the challenges that life threw at them.
We all know a woe-is-me perpetual victim. It's the friend who is still talking about the girlfriend who cheated on him 10 years ago. It's the colleague who thinks the entire company has it in for her, which, strangely enough, happened in her last place of employment too. It's the person whose personal mantra is, 'Just my luck'.
But it's not always so obvious. Victim mentality is an acquired personality trait that gradually becomes more pronounced.
Here are just a few of the behaviours from which the mindset is borne:
They have an external locus of control
While victors feel like they are in charge of fulfilling their destiny, victims feel powerless to change their circumstances. They have what is known as an 'external locus of control', writes neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin in The Organized Mind.
"People with an internal locus of control believe that they are responsible for (or at least can influence) their own fates and life outcomes," he explains. "They may or may not feel they are leaders, but they feel that they are essentially in charge of their lives.
"Those with an external locus of control see themselves as relatively powerless pawns in some game played by others; they believe that other people, environmental forces, the weather, malevolent gods, the alignment of celestial bodies - basically any and all external events - exert the most influence on their lives."
They ask 'why' rather than 'what'
Perpetual victims, in the midst of a crisis, will often ask themselves, 'Why me?'. Victors, on the other hand, will usually ask, 'What can I do to make this better?' or 'What can I learn from this experience?'
In her latest book, Insight, organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich pored over research that compared the mental health of people who asked 'what' and 'why' questions.
One of the studies that she cited found that asking 'why' "appeared to cause the participants to fixate on their problems and place blame instead of moving forward in a healthy and productive way".
Her conclusion? "Asking 'what' could keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if that information is negative or in conflict with our existing beliefs. Asking why might have the opposite effect."
They are waiting for a white knight to come
Victims tend to absolve themselves of personal responsibility and instead place all of their faith in the 'just-world phenomenon' - a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that life is fundamentally fair and people get what they deserve.
They assume that their luck will turn around without any effort on their part, hence they put their happiness into the hands of other people.
"One of the characteristics of immaturity is the belief that it is someone else's job to make me happy - much as it was once my parents' job to keep me alive," wrote Nathaniel Branden in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
"If only someone would love me, then I would love myself. If only someone would take care of me, then I would be contented. If only someone would spare me the necessity of making decisions, then I would be carefree.
"Here's a simple but powerful stem to wake one up to reality," he added. "If I take full responsibility for my personal happiness, it places my life back in my own hands."
They play the blame game
Because victims have absolved themselves of responsibility, they rarely, if ever, acknowledge their role in a conflict. They point the finger outwards rather than inwards, and they make accusatory statements rather than accountable ones.
During a conflict, a victim will generally start their attack with 'you' - "You make me feel bad about myself".
Victors, on the other hand, tend to take ownership of their feelings, and make statements starting with 'I' - "I feel bad about myself when we argue like this".
It's only when we accept our role in a situation that we can begin to find resolution.
Or in the words of the Dalai Lama, "When you think everything is someone else's fault, you suffer a lot. When you realise that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy."
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