In the self-help / personal development world the idea of victim language is floated. Predatory listening techniques are used by many practitioners to identify and point out when someone’s language indicates that they are viewing themselves as having been victimized in a specific situation or life in general. On the surface of it, it does make a lot of sense to draw ones attention to the moments when their choice of language indicates a world view has them being powerless. This flows from the fact that those who have the power to control their life have the opportunity to influence their future.
These conversation are only superficially helpful because they lack the insight to actually empower the individual. But they feel like something very real to both parties. The instructor / coach feels good, given that they were successful at identifying a pattern of speech that they have been trainer to flag given that the human brain is programmed to release reward chemicals with every successful match. The participant / client feel good because they now have an answer to the question “why is my life like this?” KNOWING the answer to that type of question is rewarding because it closes an open loop that was syphoning off mental energy that results from uncertainty. In terms of a transaction, it is win:win. Both parties feel good and get sufficient value from it.
But it isn’t very helpful in terms of empowering either party.
I’m going to cast aside the instructor, they aren’t asking for help, and instead focus on the client / participant.
Their language is fine. It’s powerful and clearly communicates a world view. This world view is almost completely correct. When they say that they didn’t get the promotion because their boss doesn’t like them they are correct. When they say they can’t lose weight because chips and candy too good to refuse they are correct. No matter what they say, there is an abundance of truth in it. There’s no point in lying and telling them that they are wrong. They are in fact the victim.
This begs the question, if they are victim, who then is victimizing them?
Well, it’s their language, so they are. And this is the power of it. It is only through seeing themselves as the cause of everyting in their life that they will ever gain the ability to control this power and begin to use it to create the life that they want.
This is where I part ways with the coaches / instructors. The thrust of their approach is to tell their clients to stop using victim language and start using more powerful statements as though they are the cause of their own life. The problem I see with this is that their victim world view has a lot of momentum. This inertia will keep things going in that direction for a while making immediate / instantaneous change nearly impossible. To do the opposite, they will first have to come to a complete stop before starting to move in the other direction. Doing this requires a lot of attention and energy, which is unreasonable given the unproven nature of the technology their coach is asking them to trust.
Instead, we use the inertia to reduce the energy requirements needed to help them become the cause of their own life.
Basically we’re trying to get them to reach a point were they see the situation as ridiculous and of their own making. They need to see it as ridiculous because intelligent people are not capable of continuing to exist in that type of situation. They need to see it as their own making because this allows them to keep the momentum and see that they have had the power and been using it the entire time.
Here is how:
A) Get them to restate the victim statement.
B) Nod your head if face to face or give an ambiguous verbal agreement if remote
C) Repeat it back to them and get their confirmation that the statement is correct.
D) Ask them “so what?”
E) Listen to their answer and ask them “what then?”
F) Go back to c and repeat as many times as needed to get to some ridiculous place.
A helps you to calibrate your understanding with their world view. B allows them to be correct and it sustains the momentum of their world view. C give you the opportunity to show that you have listened and heard, and get clarification if it is needed. D forces them to look inside and spend more time thinking about their victimization. It also gets them to consider the consequences of the situation they are in. E projects them into the future. F begins the process again with a new starting point that is at some point in the future.
One of the characteristics of people who view themselves as victims is that they rarely spend much time thinking about the long term ramifications of the situation. People either tell them that they need to do something different or they simply agree with them that they are victims. These amount to “I’m solving your problem” or “shut up, I don’t want to listen to you”. The third option is to assume that they are the experts of their own life and to genuinely be curious about how they think the situation will play out. Keep digging in and uncovering whatever lies below the surface. And then go deeper and see what’s below that. At some point it will become ridiculous and they’ll see that they have create the world they presently live in. Once they get here, applaud them for the power they have in making the world the way they did and invite them to consider what it is that they really want to use that power for.
Keep in mind that anyone who has done the dialectic about their challenges has already drawn the conclusion that THEY have caused the world to be the way it is and that they alone have victimized their own life.
It will take a little practice and role playing to get the conversational flow down, but you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you’ll get good at helping them see their role as victim and villain. You’ll also be shocked to notice the lack of introspection or how little actual though they have put into understanding the situation. Generally speaking, once someone has seen that they are the victim they stop thinking about it and start repeating and refining the victim script. It usually doesn’t have a second act, and if it does, rarely a third. By the forth cycle through their house of cards has collapsed.
This approach has the possibility of being effective, more than the traditional approaches of agreeing that someone has been victimized by others, which gives them a pass because it externalizes the source of the problems meaning that they do not have the capability to fix the situation, or pointing out their use of victim language and coaching them to substitute these patterns for more empowering one, which continues the externalization of the source of them being wrong, simply because it makes them responsible for drawing any judgments about who is the cause of the events that are happening in their own life, and the deep dive in terms of the possible future outcomes forces them to make huge generalizations in order to support or validate their assumptions which they will easily perceive as being incorrect.
The key to this approach is that they get to maintain ownership of everything, which is valuable in two ways. The first is that by seeing oneself as the cause of an outcome, they automatically accept responsibility for being the cause of an alternative outcome. The second reason has to do with the cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error, which holds that a person is going to view their own actions in situational terms and the actions of other people in characterological terms. This tendency results in a reduction of solution option sets when a person views other people as being the cause of an outcome because they view the other persons actions as being a consequence of their lack of abilities or an abundance of malice. But when they view themselves as being the cause, they immediately see the situation as having played a causal role and can easily be moved towards generating solutions that are solely based on changing it. They have the capacity to do this so there is a much better chance of them surfacing a solution that they are willing to implement.
This is a version of a double bind – something that leads a person to two mutually exclusive outcomes – although the ridiculous nature of the final outcome does serve to dissipate the emotional distress. Narratively, when done effectively, the person has to choose between being correct, but unintelligent and locked into a life time of suffering, or having been the cause of their situation and holding the power to do something about it. While the second option is less palatable in so far as it requires that they put the effort into making their own life better, it is usually much more appealing to anyone who is actually open to change than admitting to another human being that they are willing to continue to do the very thing that is causing their life to be crappy enough to ask you for help in fixing.
My favoring of this approach stems from the fact that I have never seen someone respond well to being told that they are being victimized by an external entity. The usual outcome of this is a state of learned helplessness that serves only to inhibit action. The other option is only marginally more effective at engendering a sense of personal power. But even when doing this, it tends to take a very long time because they need to mindfully create a new process of guarding their “I am” statements, which is a valuable skill on its own, but for our purposes, serves as an intermediary step. When quick change is desired or needed, a more direct attack of the problem makes more sense than learning how to do something that will stop them from doing the thing that is causing the undesired outcome.
Most people have a conditioned threshold level of effort that they are willing to spend in order to move past a negative experience. Since those with a high threshold tend to be the very people who fix or create the life they want to live, coaches and trainers will never find themselves having to help simplify the approach for these clients because the client will simply do whatever work is needed to implement and execute the perfect solution. For everyone else, their desired outcome is more often achieved through methods that rely on the expenditure of the least amount of effort.
To this end, forcing their brain into a double bind-like choice between having to reconcile the continuation of making stupid choices or choosing to see themselves as having been the one who made those choices and therefore is free to put in the work to make different ones, has only one possible outcome when dealing with someone who is actually willing to change. They see themselves as the cause, they accept that they have made the decision on some level to view themselves as the victim, and they put in the marginal amount of effort that is required to do something else.
NOTE: those who are unwilling to change will be easy to identify because they will ask other people to explain what is going on, they will not take the time and put in the effort to answer the “so what” questions, they will have reasons that they believe for why they are actually the victim of the actions of an external player, and they will be more than willing to endure the negative side of the double bind – there will be no cognitive dissonance associated with existing in a world that has them act in a way that will prevent them from getting what they claim they want. My advice is to exit yourself from the life of these people. Do NOT take them on as clients and do not believe a word they say when it comes to their belief that they know you will be able to help them. You cannot help them because they do not want help, they want someone to do the work for them. This makes it unworkable because people fix their own lives by taking the actions that move their life towards the things that will make it better and away from the things that are making it worse. Anyone who shifts the responsibility of any aspect of this onto another person is not ready for change and is very likely looking for someone else to blame when things do not go well.
The final part of all of this has to do with the fact that being a victim of the actions of other people is not the same thing as being the victim of your own actions. Not all victims are the same, although everyone is, to some degree, a victim of their own decision making or their unwillingness to make a decision.
This is where the power comes from. At some level, each one of us could have done something different and if we had, we would have experienced a different outcome. Even when we truly are the victims and suffer at the hands of another person, we could have done something different at some point along the way and there is a very good chance that we could have changed course when we realized that things were starting to go badly. This is why the cycling through the questions is so important. The client will need to realize a few things before they will gain access to a different and more deliberate future.
At some point along the way, when they realized that things were starting to go or were actually bad, they did not act. This was their decision and even if another person victimized them afterward, it was only because the client made the decision to remain in that position. Yes, the other person is responsible for their action, but this does not relinquish the client from their own responsibility in the situation. They contributed to the situation that the other person took advantage of.
By cycling through the questions until a ridiculous end point is reached, the double bind is created that will cause the client to consider the fact that there is something very silly about how the whole thing is going to pan out assuming the present situation remains as it is. This will force them to reconcile the fact that they KNOW the future before it happens and are therefore choosing to let this happen by choosing to do nothing about it. If they do not like how things are right now and they really do not like how things will become if they continue along on the same course, they will obviously need to do something different or else they are completely responsible for the outcome. No one else in the situation will bare any responsibility for what happens.
Notice how, at no point in this, are they being told that they are wrong. They are not being judged by you (the trainer / coach) in anyway, which will put some distance between them and the notion of external victimization. They are being moved to the point of making their own decisions and value judgments about what is going on and are completely free to accept everything as fine and allow it to continue. If the concept of victimization exists at all, it will only be in terms of their own actions and decisions leading them to a predetermined or predicted outcome. No one else will hold any responsibility in it and if they view the possible outcome as bad or undesirable, they are free to do something different to change it.
The benefit to this approach stems from the fact that self-discovery and independent learning play a disproportionately large role in terms of shaping future actions than anything that was taught or learned via a proxy. Understanding is the much younger sibling to realization, so someone who realizes that they have made the decisions that led them to this moment in time is at a distinct advantage over someone who understands this concept. The truth of the matter is that most people will resist and do the opposite of what they are told, so the actions of a well-intentioned coach who bypasses self-discovery in favor of telling the client what is going on will statistically do more harm than good.
Not everyone wants the things that they say they want, so it’s also very important to take the time to allow the person to make this call on their own. The only way this can happen is when there is full disclosure. By helping the client surface the most likely outcome if they continue their course of action, you are helping to free them from the future, if that is what they want, or to become content with their future, if it is what they choose. Again, we are not in a position to say anything about right and wrong, nor are we qualified to make the call on what is appropriate or inappropriate for their future. It is their life and they are the experts of it. Our job is to help them gain clarity on what is going on, why it is happening, who is causing it to happen, and what the future outcomes will be if they continue to operate in the same way. If they still want help after everything has been uncovered, our job is to help them figure out what they want and to help them determine a path that they will take towards it.
Victim language is important only in so far as it helps them to see who the actual villain is, themselves, and to realize that it has been their own decisions that have caused the outcomes that they do not like. It is only when someone accepts that they are both victim and villain in their own life that they will be able to see themselves as being the cause of whatever eventual future they live into. Leverage this view of victim-hood to help them gain the power of becoming a benevolent villain in their own life.