being unable to own your feelings because of a sense of passivity, worthlessness, victim mentality, or a deep need to be rescued. This kind of attitude usually has deep roots in childhood, where we may have learned that everything we need or want is always outside of ourselves, and if we want to survive, be happy, or feel good, we need to somehow convince people who are better and more powerful than us to give us that feeling. Thus, we always feel weak, anxious, and at the mercy of others. We want to be taken care of, but simultaneously we may resent the passive role and never quite feel confident in ourselves or relationships, hence we constantly ask for reassurance. It’s a recipe for low self-esteem.
At the very core of this mindset is the belief that other people can (or should!) solve your problems for you. The flipside is that you feel that all your problems are a direct result of other people, and so only they hold the key to fixing the issue and allowing you to be happy. Either way, you are completely disempowered and lack autonomy.
You forfeit your own power in any situation and play at being more helpless than you really are. There are advantages to this, of course: you never have to face tough decisions yourself or get real about your own culpability, because you can simply point to another person and say, “Well, what can I do?” You might feel morally vindicated and unconsciously relieved that you don’t have to take any action to solve problems yourself. But there are big disadvantages, too: creeping sense of low self-esteem and powerlessness is the price you pay.
Getting out of victim mentality is a challenging path, but it can be done—in fact, you may discover that the very thing you were afraid of claiming (i.e., responsibility) was the thing you were missing and longing for in life. The more ownership and responsibility to take, the more empowered you feel, and the more confident and self-assured. The truth is that we all co-create our relationships—relationships are never done to us. We are one hundred percent responsible for our portion of any relationship we create. How you respond to others is a choice you make and not a foregone conclusion that you have no say in.
When you take responsibility for your life, you don’t wait around for someone to victimize you, nor to rescue you from that victimization. You don’t frame relationships as dramas where everyone’s assigned the role of victim, perpetrator, or savior, but see them as voluntary engagements between equals.
How do you know if you have underlying issues with passivity or a victim mentality? Well, notice if you bristled a little or felt indignant reading the above description. Did you experience any immediate reaction, any resistance, or even any outright hostility? Maybe you thought something like, “Fine, but I really am a victim . . . have you met my ex?” If so, take a closer look at your resistance!
Undoing these core beliefs takes time, but you can do a lot by consciously choosing to meet your own needs wherever possible. Get into the habit of turning within and relying on yourself to emotionally regulate, rather than defaulting to other people. As in nonviolent communication, ignore the surface level details of any conflict or argument and instead ask, “What are my deepest needs here? What needs am I trying to meet right now?” You might notice how often your behavior is an indirect attempt to have people listen to you, to care, or to validate you.
Most importantly, try to meet those needs for yourself without trying to engage another person. If you notice yourself essentially begging someone to make you feel better, ask what you’re missing, and commit to making yourself feel better. Do you need assurance? Think of things you can do for yourself that make you feel more confident. Whether you successful meet your own needs is irrelevant—the power comes from flexing your autonomy muscle and reminding yourself that you always have the ability to choose.
If you identify and own your emotional needs, you become less likely to push these onto others. Keep returning to the following framework:
1. What do you feel right now? (You, not the other person)
2. What unmet need is creating this feeling?
3. What can you do to immediately address this need?
For example, you’re having a tense and awkward conversation with a partner. They say, “Look, I don’t want to talk about this now. I’m going out. We can have this conversation tomorrow, okay?” In that moment, you pause and go through the framework:
1. You’re feeling abandoned, panicky, and rejected. There’s a feeling of being unloved and unlovable.
2. This feeling is a signal of an unmet need: the need to feel valued, cared for, safe, loved, and appreciated.
3. You decide to give yourself this feeling. You disengage from the conversation, step aside to calm down for a moment, and then do some journaling or affirmations (“I’m enough as I am. I’m safe.”) Maybe you do things you know make you feel better, like chat with friends, take a long walk, play with pets, or make art.
Something special happens somewhere between step 2 and 3: you realize that the other person is not your sole source of good feelings or the only way to meet your needs. You don’t have to cling, argue, beg, or control. You can meet your needs yourself, or in some cases, get someone or something else to meet them. There is no problem and no need for conflict. “Okay, I understand. You need some time to cool off. Let’s chat tomorrow after dinner. I’ll head out for a walk.”
Children rely on adults to address their needs. But adults are capable of meeting their own.
Do what you can to own and fulfil your own emotional needs, and drop blame, control, and manipulation. You could go on the defensive and get upset, force a breakup, or even threaten suicide to control the situation. This may work in the short term, but unless you are acting from your own autonomy, you will just play out the same dynamics again and again. Every time you blame others, you give them power to determine your experience, and rob yourself of the opportunity to determine your experience for yourself.