Victim Consciousness: 6 Ways to Overcome It

Are you a victim? Chances are you have been victimized at least once in your life if not many times. None of us can really escape that. Some have had to endure extreme conditions or circumstances, and have been the victim of horrendous situations.

In my work I have talked to many people who have been severely abused, neglected, or who have been traumatized by great losses both personally and financially. Some have grown up in the worst of conditions enduring poverty, chaos, terrible abuse, and chronic stress. Some have been the victims of crimes, or of war, or of great deceit and betrayal.

There is no end to stories of victimization. None of us can really know what others have experienced or felt during those situations.

Victimization, especially in the extreme or over long periods of time, does require for most a significant period of recuperation and work on overcoming its effects. That time should be taken and understood.

The problem occurs when victimization becomes the whole of one’s identity. When it takes over and becomes the theme of your life. When seeing yourself as a “victim” is the daily mantra and the approach to everything your do.

Being a Victim versus Victimization

Being victimized is different than being a victim. A person who is victimized is still first and foremost that same person. It is a person who has had an experience or a series of experiences, and who is likely changed as a result of these experiences, yet is not reduced down to only those experiences.

A victim becomes the experience and stays there. He begins to see all of his life through this narrow window. He attributes his feelings, thoughts, and experiences going forward to his reaction to the original victimization event. He talks about it, thinks about it, and holds on to it almost like a badge of identity. Strangely, it becomes his point of reference for his life.

This is what we need to fight against, because taking on a lifetime role as a victim is caving into the original assault and staying there. Forever. It closes your life down, reduces it, and shuts the door on further development and progress.

Signs That You Have Accepted the Victim Role

  • You have daily or regular thoughts about the ways in which you have been mistreated or victimized
  • You feel unable to succeed at anything because of your history of victimization
  • You are unable to sustain relationships because of your past experiences
  • You tend to blame others or circumstances for your inability to move forward, get things done, or make positive changes in your life
  • You see yourself as damaged, permanently
  • You have a negative tape of thoughts running through your mind daily, many of them focused on resentment for what you didn’t get growing up, or what happened to you that you feel has halted your life
  • You tend to have continued experiences of being victimized by other people

If any of those things apply, then consider some of the next steps to help you move out of the victim role.

Being a perpetual victim can really use up your entire life, leaving you with great unhappiness, a lack of fulfillment, and tremendous regret. Don’t let that happen to you! Try these things.

(1) Seek Help

If there are experiences that you haven’t dealt with, or that keep coming up in your mind and you replay them over and over, seek some therapy.

I don’t believe in suppression meaning that pretending feelings aren’t there won’t make them go away. When you do seek therapy, make sure that you are using it to move forward, not to stay stuck. You want to identify, acknowledge, grieve if necessary, and then let go and move forward. You don’t want to rehash, rehash, rehash and stay stuck.

(2) Change your Mindset

See yourself as a person who has had experiences, but not as the experiences themselves. Experiences don’t define us. What we do with them and how we react to them defines us.

Where you are right now is not where you were. You have every opportunity to be what you want right now. It may not seem that way, but it is. You are not helpless, and shedding helplessness is a huge and necessary step.

(3) Take Responsibility

Shedding helplessness is part one. Taking responsibility is part two. Regardless to what happens to any of us, no one can be responsible for our path other than we ourselves.

Once childhood has receded and you are in that adult world, you are responsible for your life. There is simply no getting around that. If you take hold of that idea and work with it, you harness great power to steer your own ship and make your life what you wish it to be.

If you refuse to take charge, than life will serve you up whatever comes your way. Refusing to take charge is actually making a decision to give it up, and the results are never good. It’s like stumbling through a dark room full of furniture without a flashlight. Turn on the flashlight!

(4) Write it Out

Make a list of many experiences in your life that you think have shaped you. Write about what has had a positive impact on you as well as citing those experiences that were negative.

In truth, negative experiences often contain the seeds for movement forward and progress. This is certainly true of failure. Ask any really successful person and they will likely tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes.

Use the material of your history to create something better.

(5) Be Kind and Firm

Be kind to yourself meaning don’t be harsh if you struggle with emotional issues or past events or traumas. No doubt these have been difficult for you, and you have a right to react.

At the same time, be firm with yourself. Allow yourself to have reactive feelings, but don’t allow yourself to stay there. If someone I love betrays me, I may be very upset, hurt, sad, angry and all of the above. I may have a good cry. It may take some time to get over it. But then I can use that experience in some way to deepen my understanding of life, or to recognize certain behavior patterns, or to choose different friends or partners, or to use whatever other lesson was tucked into that experience to make my life better.

(6) See Negative Experiences as Opportunities

Experiences are to be used for growth, not to give up and stop growing. In our never ending pursuit of happiness, many of us have grown up with the mistaken belief that life should be easy and happy.

When something happens that creates difficulty, challenge, or even heartbreak, we are often surprised and we begin resisting it. We lament it. How could that happen to me? Why is that happening to me? Why is not a bad question if we have some part in what happened, and it is always good to figure that out. But it is not good to resist.

It is better to accept, learn, grow, and keep going. Turn the negative, or the victimization, into something you can learn and grow from. Affirm your resilience. Deepen your understanding. Make changes. Set up new boundaries if need be. Choose better partners. Take charge.

Your thoughts?

This is a touchy subject, but one that affects everyone. I’m interested in your thoughts. Please share!

Why Do the Same Things Happen Over and Over?

It’s a lament I hear often:

“Why do the same things keep happening? Why do I get in the same horrible relationships? Why do I pick the wrong jobs, wrong people, wrong everything? Why does everything always go wrong for me?!”

It’s easy to say something back like . . .

“You simply make the wrong choices.”

Does that usually help? No! It rarely helps at all. It just adds to the sense of helplessness and victimization. It feels like blame. People don’t usually willingly and consciously create and recreate the same bad situations over and over, but clearly they have some role in making it happen.

Here’s a truth that if really thought about and believed, can help you start to make some headway in a different direction.

We get the same situations, same problems, and same challenges over and over until we master them.

If you shoot a free throw and keep throwing it just slightly to the left or right, it will hit the rim and come back at you every time. It’s not until you throw it at just the right height and angle that it goes in, and when you really master it, it not only doesn’t come back, but it’s all net. Swoosh!

Until we actually grapple with something that keeps coming up, and we work it through and master it, it will keep cropping up. It’s like groundhog day.

So if that’s the case, then there is only one real way to change directions and that is to face the problem, define it, and do something different then you’ve been doing.

Here’s my best list of things that can help you master negative patterns.

Step #1: Identify the pattern.

What is the pattern that is being repeated? If you know how it started and find that helpful in making a change, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary.

What’s more important is to assess your part in perpetuating the pattern. What do you contribute to keep it coming, and how attached are you to it?

It may seem strange to think you are attached to a negative pattern that you really don’t like or that causes you pain, but it happens all the time. Don’t be put off by that. Just look at and really assess what part you play.

Step #2: Ask yourself what you gain by staying where you are.

Bad patterns are familiar. They can become comfort zones because we know them and they are home to us.

It’s much easier to fall into what we know then gather the energy to make a change that is unfamiliar and requires sustained effort. Our subconscious mind, the neural paths we’ve created in our brains, and all of our emotional associations with an established pattern work to keep us there.

If you’ve ever talked to someone who quit smoking, they will tell you that after the physical withdrawal was over (3 days), they had to break every association they had with smoking a cigarette. That was the hard part, and it takes time. You have to stick it out with a bit of faith that when you accomplish the change, you will be happier for it.

One of my favorite metaphors for this kind of process comes from Jack Canfield. He says that you can drive a car all the way from Florida to California in the fog, as long as you can see 10 yards in front of you. It’s the same with this kind of change.

Step #3: Make a decision to try a different path and map it out.

It’s fairly easy to make a decision, particularly when you feel energized and hopeful that things can be different. The hard part is implementing it, and this takes more effort.

In order to be successful, you have to set a goal, and then a series of smaller goals that will lead you to your major goal. Then you need to list what behaviors you will be changing, and in what order, and when. This may mean writing out a list of tasks that you put on your calendar, or maybe just some small successive behavior changes you implement daily or weekly. Either way, you have to be specific and give yourself a timeline.

Step #4: Ask for help.

Help comes in many forms. Depending on what pattern you want to change, you may look for books you can read, or programs you can enroll in, or courses you can take to help you reach your goals. If the problem feels more psychological in nature, then counseling or therapy might help you figure out the right way to proceed. Maybe a mentor would be the right choice.

The idea is to use everything at your disposal to help you set goals for change, and create and complete the right steps to succeed. People get very fired up when they start a new direction, and then when the novelty wears off they let it go and retreat back to old patterns. This is why lotto winners go broke. If they are used to being poor, they find their way back to that and stay there.

Step #5: Check your beliefs about yourself.

This one is probably the most important one. There are always underlying beliefs that keep us where we are.

“I’m not smart enough, lucky enough, capable enough, rich enough, educated enough, pretty enough, healthy enough. I’m simply not enough.”

Another common train of thought is . . .

“I’m too tired, too old, too beaten down, too depressed, too overwhelmed, too busy. I can’t.”

Instead of these beliefs, try to use these affirmations in their place and say them to yourself daily.

“I’m not a victim unless I think I am.”

This doesn’t mean that you may not have been victimized by someone or by a situation, but it means that your willingness to take on the continued role of victim will perpetuate a repetition of similar circumstances and situations. Decide that you don’t want to be a victim and take charge of what happens from here on.

“I have what it takes to work through any problem.”

You are the only one who has what it takes to master your problem. No one can do it for you. You are also unique and have your own unique talents, approaches, and creativity to accomplish what you want.

“I do have choices, and ultimately I can decide what’s best for me.”

Not making choices is a choice. It’s a choice to stay put. As adults, no one else is responsible for how our lives pan out. Regardless of your history, once you hit 18, you are in charge. You take charge of life, or it takes charge of you. You decide.

Step #6: Set up checkpoints that make you accountable.

Accountability is really important when it comes to making changes. Some people like to go public and shout out what they are going to do. This certainly can hold you accountable, but it can also dilute your intention and drive because you have to deal with everyone else’s doubts, advice, and commentaries.

I suggest not going public in a big way. You may have one person you can select to report to about your progress that has your best interest at heart, and is someone you can rely on to help you stay with your resolution. That usually works better.

You should also have a system of review on a weekly basis so you can track your success. It will give you a chance to tweak things if you see you need to change your direction or add something new to the plan.

The hard part of any change is the sustained effort and it’s good to be ready for that ahead of time so you have a plan in place when you feel pulled back toward your default pattern.

Step 7#: Write it!

I’ve mentioned this already, but it really is helpful to see exactly what you’re doing on paper (or computer!). Write out what you’re changing, what your goal is, what you’re steps are to meet the goal, and what the actual tasks are. Put them on a calendar. Review them daily. You might also like journaling about your progress as you go. That will give you a chance to delve into your emotional reactions to what you’re trying to accomplish.

Your Turn

As always, please please please share with us your thoughts and experiences on this subject. It’s always amazing how many little tricks and ideas people have come up with that are so helpful. Let’s hear em!

Do You Perceive Yourself Accurately?

If you have ever sought out counseling, or been around people in the mental health field, you’ve likely heard of Cognitive Therapy. If not, no worries. It’s not necessary to know about it to grasp the subject of this blog.

In general, cognitive therapy focuses on people’s thoughts, and how thoughts and thought processes influence their emotions and sense of what’s real.

Actually, the whole subject of thoughts is quite popular today and there is a lot of self-help literature out there that talks about how our thoughts interact with what happens to us, how we perceive things, and how we feel.

It’s a big subject, but for today, I want to talk about something called “cognitive distortion.” It’s a simple idea, and understanding it can help you correct thought patterns and tendencies that don’t serve you well.

Joni’s Story

Let’s start with an example. Joni is a young woman who has been married for over 10 years and has two young children. She works full-time and her husband is a stay at home dad. He takes care of the kids, and does the cooking and some of the housework. Joni has a high-pressured job and she is responsible for bringing in all the money to care for the family. She feels that her husband is easy going, extremely bright, motivated, socially accomplished, and great with the kids. He plays with them and they love to be around him. He is patient and happy “all of the time.” Conversely, Joni sees herself as impatient, irritable, not nearly as great with the kids as he is, overwhelmed, easily distressed, and in general, not as emotionally together as her husband. She compares herself to him often, and just as often comes up lacking. As I have gotten to know Joni, it is clear that she is quite intelligent, very accomplished on the job, and is still the primary person in her toddler’s life. She also does a great deal of housekeeping in addition to being a full-time mom while having a career. The financial responsibilities all fall on her, and she has no time to herself.

Joni’s view in this situation is a perfect example of cognitive distortion. She has overvalued her husband’s role and contributions while undervaluing hers. Her husband may be all that she perceives, but her perception of herself is clearly off. Her expectations of herself are also unrealistic, which leave her with feelings of inadequacy, a lack of self-worth, sadness and anxiety. The more she thinks about it, the worse she feels, and the more she has repetitive negative thoughts about herself.

Cognitive Distortion Defined

You already have a pretty good idea what cognitive distortion means, but to be exact it refers to thoughts and perceptions that are inaccurate, and that reinforce negative feelings, usually about ourselves.

Where do they come from?

Most often, cognitive distortions go hand in hand with patterns from our history.

In Joni’s case, she grew up with a very critical mother whom she could rarely please. Even when she was successful at something, her mother diminished or dismissed the achievement. Joni also was regularly challenged with expectations that far exceeded her developmental age and were impossible to reach, which served to reinforce her sense of failure.

As an adult, those reactions are still in place even though the circumstances are different. She in fact is very successful at work, is a good provider, a good mother, and is able to juggle many tasks at once. The fact that it is difficult for her or that she is impatient at times makes perfect sense.

I would also believe she overvalues her husband’s contributions and characteristics. He is quite wonderful with the children, but also has difficulty with organization, tracking the finances, keeping the house together, and in general focusing on one thing at a time. He is quite creative and imaginative while also being very distracted.

The bottom line is that both Joni and her husband have strengths that contribute to their household, their children and family, and living. Once Joni was able to put in perspective the facts of the situation, she could appreciate her contributions and unique assets as well as her husband’s, and her anxiety and sadness lifted. She also was able to trace her patterns of cognitive distortion back to her history. Now when she begins to think in distorted patterns, she can catch herself and stand back and take a look at the reality of what she is thinking, which in turn changes her feelings.

So, the next time you find yourself listing your deficits, stop and take an objective look at the validity of what you are thinking. It’s great to be able to look at things that need work or need to change, but it is equally important to make sure you aren’t in the habit of bashing yourself in comparison to others, and distorting what is actually true.

If you’d like to know more about cognitive distortions, you might enjoy this list posted on the Psychology Today website. 

Be Your Own Best Parent

Do you have a voice in your head that is overly critical? I know I do sometimes, and most of the clients I’ve seen over the years have also worked with this nagging, persistent voice that seems to find fault in almost any situation.

Self-criticism is really not a healthy habit, and has an overall destructive effect on your self-image and self esteem. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t observe yourself and make corrections in your behavior when needed.

It means that you should do that without attacking your sense of self with derogatory thoughts, condemnation, denigration, self- hatred, and any other method of assault that has the effect of destroying you.

The goal is to create a method of self observation that allows you to see the areas where improvement is needed while also embracing and caring for yourself.

You need a strategy that will enhance your overall sense of worth, and at the same time provide a structure for self-development and self-improvement.

The Good Parent

Here’s where the “create your own parent” comes in. Think for a moment about what you envision a perfect parent to be. Make it personal. Pick a mother figure or father figure. I like to use the mother figure because I think that overall, a good mother has the qualities needed for this exercise.

A good mom does two things at the same time:

#1 – She loves, nurtures, accepts, encourages, and celebrates you. You are special to her. You have tremendous worth to her. She understands you, and appreciates your idiosyncratic traits. She perceives your talents. She knows what you have and she encourages you to use it to succeed. She believes in you. Most of all, her love is unconditional. It is always there.

#2 – A good mother also sets up boundaries for you. She structures you. She knows when you are veering off in the wrong direction. She recognizes your faults and points out where you need to make improvements or corrections. She doesn’t let you get away with things. She doesn’t allow you to fool yourself with faulty thinking. Yet, and this is a big “yet”, she doesn’t attack you when you make mistakes. She helps you figure out how to correct them and move forward. She teaches you that mistakes are part of growth and sometimes she stands back and lets you make them so you can learn. She won’t, however, let you make huge mistakes that can destroy you. She is your critic, but a critic that respects and loves you.

Your best Mom is your champion. She combines unconditional love with setting limits and providing a structure for growth.

The Bad Parent

Here’s what a good Mom doesn’t do.

She doesn’t insult, personally attack, or devalue you. She doesn’t name call, harshly criticize, or make you feel small.

She doesn’t compete with you, envy you, or one-up you.

She doesn’t dismiss you, make fun of you, or hit you when you’re down. She also doesn’t let you do those things to yourself or others.

You may or may not have or have had a mother that fits this description. If you did, you can thank your lucky stars and be grateful.

As no one is perfect, including mothers, you most likely had a mom that is somewhere in between.

You may also have had a mother that was highly critical and was unable for whatever reason to provide the kinds of qualities I’ve described above.

Regardless of where you have come from, you can create the perfect mother in your own head and begin to parent yourself in a way that will propel you forward and help improve your self image and self esteem.

You want to be able to love and accept yourself, while also being brutally honest about what you need to work on and improve. Those two things actually go very well together. One without the other leads to dysfunction.

Either you get in a chronic round robin of self-punishment and denigration, or you allow yourself to be self-centered and irresponsible. Both extremes lead to unhappiness.

How To Create Your Good Parent

Here’s a few tips on how to begin creating the “good parent” in your head:

Check the Critical Thoughts

As your critical thoughts arise, check them and apply a “good parent” voice. Begin with an affirmation of yourself. Then if something needs to be improved, you can proceed. This means actually getting in the habit of standing back and observing yourself with a loving and accepting eye. It may seem a little strange at first, but practice it and you will find that you actually can take on the role of a good parent to yourself. Did you ever have an imaginary friend as a child? This would be your imaginary parent! This can actually be fun!

Remember Your Good Qualities

Make a list of your good qualities. If you find this difficult, try it everyday for a month until it is easy. Even if you can only think of one thing, stay with it everyday until the list grows. Ask someone your trust to help you if can’t come up with a list yourself. Don’t be shy with this. This is not an exercise in narcissism, but rather of self-affirmation.

Be Honest About What Needs Improvement

Get in the habit of being honest about what corrections or improvements you need to make, but without punishing yourself. Just go forward with changes or corrections without lamenting your mistakes. Take action and ditch the heavy criticism. Remember that it is impossible not to make mistakes. What’s important is correcting and repairing.

Treat Others the Same Way

Apply this same understanding to others. That means getting in the habit of empathizing when others make mistakes. If you apply harsh criticism to others, it will ultimately come back to you. Give the same compassion to others that you are going to give to yourself. Imagine someone talking about you harshly in the same situation, and that will stop you in your tracks.

Humility and Confidence

Remember that humility and self-confidence actually go together, as do love and acceptance, and self-observation. Get comfortable with who you are, and appreciate what you have to offer.

Give It 30 Days

As with all new habits, give this one at least 30 days. Practice it everyday as your critical thoughts about yourself arise. In 30 days you will have created a new default for your self-talk and thoughts about yourself that improves your self-image, and allows you to successfully correct unwanted behaviors. Now keep it up for another 30 days to cement it in your brain. You can do it!

An Exercise to Work With Your Personal History

Make the List

Get a pad of paper (or computer if you prefer to type). You are going to make two lists. The first is a list of everything you can think of that you learned or gained from your parent (mother or father) that you feel has had a positive influence or effect on you. Stay with just one parent at a time. This list can be anything and everything, and you can create it over days if you like, but I would suggest on the first sitting to write as many things as you can think of right now. The items can be extremely simple such as “how to peel a potato” to very complex – “the value of being honest.” If you like making lists, you can even organize your items in categories, but it’s not necessary. Mostly it’s important to be as specific as you can. For the second list, write everything you learned or gained from your parent that you feel has had a negative influence or effect on you. Again, go from simple to complex.

Don’t Censor

Be as honest and thorough as you can. This is a list for you, not for anyone else’s eyes so it is important to write as much as you can and as accurately as you can. Include habits, values, ways of relating, ways of handling feelings and particularly negative feelings, how to dos, physical characteristics (if you like), religious beliefs, political beliefs, goals, limitations, behavioral tendencies, and so on. Keep in mind that the list is not being created to criticize your parents, but rather to help you.

Again, I would spend some days on this with the first attempt being a longer and more thorough session to get the process going. You will find that as you are thinking about and completing your lists, you may re-experience incidences with your parent, feelings you have about them (both positive and negative), the emotional aspects of the relationship and possibly things you had forgotten about or put away. If the relationship was conflicted, unstable, or emotionally difficult, you may find the exercise to be difficult at first. Stay with it. There is an outcome we are going for which you will see as we finish.

A Little Contemplation

After you have made complete listings for either one parent or both, put the lists away for a couple of days. We are going to come back to it, but I want you to let it settle a bit.

Now before taking the lists back out to review them, I want you to think about something which is this: Ask yourself the question, who made the lists? Sounds ridiculous right? The answer is obvious. “I did” you say. Yes, you did. You made the lists. Here’s the point: There is a “you” that is separate from and different than and more than the sum of everything you’ve acquired from your parents. You have characteristics related to your parents and that you have acquired from them, but you are more than those characteristics. There is a “you” that is outside of and beyond your parents(s). This may sound elementary to you, but it is very important. The reason is that people often feel very stuck with their backgrounds. They see themselves as extensions of their upbringing and feel powerless to change those characteristics and trends they internalized growing up. They may see themselves as a victim, a chip off the old block, or as someone unable to move forward because they are stuck with not having had parents that helped build self-esteem and confidence in themselves. Conversely, they may see themselves as not having any characteristics from their parents, which is ultimately not possible. Here’s the thing: Many people go through life thinking they can’t move beyond where they came from. Worse, some don’t even think about moving forward or making changes at all. They just mindlessly repeat the patterns they were raised with and call it a day, or should I say, call it a life. No one has to remain where they are. Here’s how your lists will help you with that.

Second List

Now get your lists back out and read them over. Make a new list that contains everything on it that you want to keep from the originals. Most likely, you will want to keep most of those things you listed in the first list which were the positive things you received from your parent(s). You may have outgrown some of those things, so they are no longer important to you and you will likely leave them off your new list. I’m guessing that you will not want to keep any of the negative things you received from your parent(s), but you may have gained some lessons or insights from those things and you will want to keep those. Write them down. It is important for you to really understand and grasp that you don’t have to keep what you don’t want. You can pick and choose and keep what you want and be grateful for having gotten those things, and you can begin to dislodge and discard those things you don’t want. Better yet, make use of those things to think about where you would like to be and what you have learned from them that will move you forward.

Moving Forward

Sounds easy huh? In some cases it is easy. There are things that you probably already have discarded or are very close to discarding. Other characteristics have taken up residence over time and may take some time to dislodge, but you can dislodge them. “Dislodge” sounds kind of difficult and it can feel like drilling out a cavity in a tooth, but there is an easier way and this is what I recommend:

Step 1

Recognize what characteristics, values, habits, thought processes, and emotional patterns you got from your upbringing that you want to change or discard.

Step 2

Make a list of the characteristics, values, habits, thought processes and emotional patterns you would like to have in their place.

Step 3

Add any new characteristics you would like to add to the list.

Step 4

Begin developing the characteristics on your total combined list one at a time. For habits, give every new habit at least 30 days time of focused attention before trying to change or add another one.

The Process

This strategy is focused more on replacing bad characteristics and habits with good ones rather than focusing on stopping bad habits and behaviors. Sometimes, if a behavior is destructive enough, you will need to get some assistance with stopping that behavior while replacing it with a new alternative behavior. For example, if you have a drug addiction, just working on activities that don’t involve drugs probably won’t be enough to make you stop using drugs. You will need to make use of a drug treatment program at the same time you are focusing on creating new habits that will move you away from using drugs such as not hanging around with friends that do drugs with you, making new friends that don’t use drugs, starting an exercise program, changing your diet, doing meditation, and so forth. For stubborn destructive habits and behaviors, you will need to work on inhibiting those behaviors while at the same time adding in new behaviors to reinforce your progress.

For less destructive behaviors, you can directly counteract them. If you find you are highly reactive emotionally to any little thing that goes wrong, and you placed this problem on the list because your mother is also that way, you can work on being calm when things go wrong. As you begin, you may be able to maintain calmness in the face of problems one out of every five times. That’s great! So you work towards two out of every five times, and then three out of every five times, and so forth until you feel like you’ve really cultivated that attitude and practice of remaining fairly calm most of the time when things go wrong. You might at the same time practice taking action when things go wrong rather than your old habit of lamenting that things always happen to you and you don’t know how you’re going to handle it. When you (1) remain calm, and (2) take action immediately to resolve the problem, you have come full circle and changed your approach entirely. You no longer sound like your mother going off the deep end when the car broke down, or the washer overflowed, etc. You have not only changed the way you handle things, you have gained a new confidence that you can handle things. So does this mean that you don’t love your mother because you have decided not to share one of her behavior patterns? No it doesn’t, but sometimes it does feel like treason to leave behind something you shared with a parent, even if it was dysfunctional. If you feel that way, just let it settle in a bit and get used to being your own person.

This is the process. This is how you take control of who you are. You are the creator of You, and you can mold yourself however you want to in spite of your history.

Gratitude for What You Got

Another great and important benefit of creating your lists is that it allows you to really see what you did get from your parents that are good characteristics and qualities. With few exceptions, even those who feel they got nothing good from their parents will find that in making their lists, they did get some important things that they had never recognized consciously. When I thought about my mother, I realized that something she did really well was that she could explain anything in such a way that you totally understood it. She was an excellent teacher in this sense. And as I thought more about that, I realized that all of my brothers and sisters including myself had inherited that same talent from her. When I listen to any of my siblings explain something, they all go through the same easy to understand sequential layout of steps and check with you along the way to be sure you understand what they are saying. This came from my mother, but I never would have thought about it unless I had made these lists for myself.

The take away from this is that as you make your lists and then stand back and look at them, you see your parents in a different way. You may see them as more human. You will undoubtedly be able to appreciate characteristics you had not really noticed before. You may also see more clearly patterns you have inherited that are not serving you well, and by seeing those, you can change them. In either case, be grateful for what you got and grateful that you have the power to change what you don’t want.

Removing Blame

The last unintended effect of this process I’d like to mention is that you can move from a position of blame and helplessness to one of understanding and confidence. When we feel stuck with patterns we know are dysfunctional, and those patterns were learned at the hands of our parents, it is easy and natural to get sucked into a continual thought patterns of blame. If only …, I could be (would be) … Life is not perfect and lamenting continually on it’s imperfections will keep you in the same place, and maybe even move you backwards. Taking responsibility for yourself even if you have a lot to overcome, is empowering and is the antidote to helplessness. The result is a growing confidence in yourself and improved life.

Clean Out Your Own Closet

If you watch your thoughts over a full day, which by the way I recommend highly, see if you can count the number of times your mind drifts automatically toward observing, evaluating, and/or criticizing someone else’s behavior.

If we’re really honest with ourselves, it happens many times everyday. Why? Because it’s the default habit of the ego to deflect away from itself and focus on someone else.

In other words, we’d rather think about someone else’s stuff than our own. It’s sort of a built in protective mechanism. It’s a way to see and confirm who we are in a positive light.

If I am thinking more about other people’s behaviors and problems, then I can spend less time thinking about my own. It’s just easier. It doesn’t require work or effort on my part. It doesn’t require seeing what I don’t want to see, and it allows me to maintain a “better” sense of myself by comparison to someone else.

In reality, however, spending time thinking about other people’s negative behaviors or personality characteristics is simply a defense mechanism to avoid working on myself.

Here are some of the primary ways this works:

Get Rid of What I Don’t Want

I split off (literally get rid of) the behaviors and personality characteristics I have, but don’t like and don’t want, and assign them to someone else.

Example: That guy always arrives late to our office meetings.

The truth: I often arrive late to appointments.

I’m Better Than You

I feel better about myself because after all, I don’t have those kinds of problems. This is the “one up” syndrome. If I want to feel good, I do it at the expense of someone else.

Example: Look at how overweight that guy is.

The truth: I can feel better about the fact that I’m not overweight which lets me feel better about myself.

Who Am I?

I can affirm my identity. If I’m not really sure who I am or don’t have a strong sense of self, I can always say who I’m not by defining what I don’t like about someone else. This one is a little less obvious. It more often than not takes the form of being angry with someone and devaluing them.

Example: He never shuts up. He talks and talks and talks and says nothing at all.

Truth: What I’m really trying to say is that I’m not a chatty Kathy. I’m not dumb. So by comparison, I’m smart, aware and articulate. The problem here is that I may not really believe that I am that way. The underlying feeling is that I am not all that great at communicating and I’m at a loss as to how to fix that.

Stuck in the Past

What I am noticing and criticizing is related to or reminiscent of a previous or current relationship and has a very personal meaning.

Example: She interrupts me every time I’m trying to have a conversation with her. She’s downright rude!

Truth: Yes, she does interrupt, but the personal reaction is related to my father who never let me say what was on my mind, but always interrupted and corrected me as I was trying to express my feelings.

The bottom line is that it just takes less energy and is much easier to clean out someone else’s closet than work on our own. We don’t have any personal investment in someone else’s problems. If we focus on them, there is no emotional fallout for us. We can feel “good” about being better, being different, and not having qualities that we perceive as negative.

Should We Ignore What We Observe?

The question arises that if we are not supposed to be critical in our thoughts of others, are we then just supposed to pretend that we don’t see what we see?

No, absolutely not!

But there is a big difference between observation and criticism. It is very important to observe, notice, and see what is. The problem is in the emotional reaction, and in particular, using our observations to ignore and avoid dealing with our own problems.

We should make use of our observations to work on ourselves. In other words, clean out our own closet. If someone close to us wants some help cleaning out theirs, they will usually ask for it and then we can help in an empathetic way.

Here’s the Exemption

The only caveat pertains to problems that come from someone else that greatly affect us and must be dealt with. These are not just problems we notice, but problems that can have a negative impact on us as well as the other person.

Examples might be having an alcoholic spouse, or a teen who is aggressive, or a parent that is abusive.

These problems require intervention and are not what I’m speaking to in this blog. For our purposes here, we are talking about the everyday tendency to focus on other people and their negative traits rather than deal with our own.

Suggested Actions:

When you find yourself having critical thoughts about someone, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this a problem that perhaps I have? If so, how can I work on it?
  • Is this a problem that reminds me of someone close to me and is this personal for me? If so, how is this still affecting me? Can I work on releasing it? Or can at least put in perspective?
  • Am I uncomfortable with myself today? If so, what’s bothering me and how can I work on that?
  • Am I feeling inadequate, unworthy, unloved, or unappreciated? What can I do to change that?

Secondly, work on feeling some empathy for the person you are criticizing. A simple method for this is just to wonder what her life is like. What kinds of things might she struggle with? What might she be dealing with right now in her life? What might she be insecure about?

The fact is, everyone has an internal life that is active all the time, and what appears on the surface usually doesn’t reflect all that occurs internally. If we really have compassion for ourselves, we have to have compassion for others, even those that bother us.

Try to approach the person you are thinking about with the kind of compassion you would like to receive if someone was observing you.

If you are really ambitious, you can make a regular game out of it and practice turning your attention toward yourself every time you catch yourself in critical thought patterns. It can become a habit, and one that is very beneficial in the long run because you can solve a lot of your own problems rather than deflect away from them and let them grow.

Final Thoughts

If your thoughts and observations pertain to someone with whom you are more intimately involved such as a spouse, child, parent, or close friend, you need to make a distinction between generally critical thoughts and relationship issues that need to be addressed. If the observations are something that you need to address, then address them directly with the person involved.

Why Personal History is Important

This may seem like an odd question to ask, as many people believe personal history is very important.

On the other hand, others say we should strictly focus on the present and not be dragged down by our histories.

I think both viewpoints have some validity for different reasons. There is a middle ground which both makes use of personal history while keeping a strong foothold in the present and interest in moving forward.

I believe this middle ground is by far the most productive approach and this is why:

Every present moment contains all that’s come before it in the past, and also holds the seeds to the future. Time is a continuum. And where we are at every moment is tied to where we were and where we are going.

The only way this does not apply is if you are speaking on a very metaphysical plane that is beyond time, but for our purposes here, we are working within time.

If you think about the current culture you live in today regardless of what country or continent you reside in, you immediately will get a picture in your mind of how that culture used to be also. If I think of American culture as it is right now, I automatically compare it to how it was when I was a little girl, or when I was in high school or college, or what it was like when my son was born, and so forth. I see today as part of a continuum of history that encompasses the time I have existed and lived in this culture. My sense of being an American is felt as a big panoramic picture show over time, and I know it through my own experiences. Moreover, my sense of myself incorporates my identity as a member of that culture.

Personal family histories are the same. If I consider my personality right now, my values, beliefs, behaviors, habits, thought patterns, and emotional patterns, I see them as not only existing in the present moment, but as part of a developmental process that has occurred over time. I easily access the places I have lived, the family members I have lived with at different ages, the schools I’ve gone to, the climates I’ve lived in, the friends I’ve had, and the great multitude of experiences that create the colors of my life. If I took all of that out, my sense of self right now would be very one-dimensional, overly simplified, colorless, and probably somewhat empty.

As human beings, we are works in progress from the time we enter the womb until we die, and for many who believe in afterlife or reincarnation, we have been before and will be after. Either way, we are always developing.

So to look at ourselves in the present, we must give due to our developmental process.

By paying attention to our personal histories, we can gain greater control over the direction of our future development. Instead of floating through the stream of life with no control over the direction, our histories help us grab the steering wheel when we want to go in a particular direction.

Secondly, having a good understanding and grasp on where we have come from and what we have incorporated or internalized as our sense of self from that history, gives us a starting point to transcend it.

More simply put, we can become more than who we were or who we are now. We can sift through the elements of our histories and consciously decide what serves us well in the present that we want to keep, and what is an obstacle that we want to resolve or discard.

Our histories are very much a part of who we are, but they don’t have to be the defining rule by which we measure ourselves. We are not really stuck even if it seems at times that we are.

What I personally love about having a historical view is that there are always endless possibilities for change.

  • We can be creative and expansive.
  • We can be who we want to be.
  • We can take those qualities about ourselves we like and build upon them.
  • We can delve into the “core” us, make foundational changes if we want, and move forward.

Personal history used this way is actually freeing.

The other extremely important aspect of attending to history is learning from it.

There is no better teacher than experience.

Education gives us an intellectual picture of how things are, but experience is how we know how things are.

You know the example of telling a child not to touch the stove because it’s hot, and they touch it anyway. That’s because they really couldn’t know what was meant by the stove being hot without the real experience of it. I am of course not suggesting we all go around touching stoves!! Wise children who trust that their parents know what they are talking about may take their word for it and avoid that experiential pain. Nevertheless, it was the parent’s knowledge and experience that was passed down to the child as something learned. Moreover, the something learned was a way to avoid pain and stay safe based on previous experience.

History gives us lessons daily about what has worked and what hasn’t. Cultures that don’t pay attention closely to the lessons of history are bound to repeat them over and over until they get them. The same is true for the individual.

If we don’t learn the lessons of the moment, we are bound to repeat them until we do get it. Ignorance is not bliss in this case. What you know, you can take charge of. What you don’t see can affect you in ways you have no control over, and not always for the positive.

There is an exercise offered in the blog entitled An Exercise to Work with Your Personal History: What I Got From My Parents. It’s a good starting place for working with your personal history.

Consistency is the Key!

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