By Adam J. Pearson
Earlier today, I was talking to a friend who was facing some tough emotional challenges. These challenges revolved around feeling like she was caught in the “role of the victim.” She asked me an excellent question that is worth considering in some detail, namely, “how do you overcome something painful that happened to you in the past?”
Here was my reply:
To overcome painful past experiences, do what Mariatu Kamara does in the amazing true story of Bite of the Mango; use the pain of the past as fertilizer for growth in the future. Transform your pain into power. Reflect on how you have endured what would have crushed many others and gone on living; use that realization to enhance your confidence and boost your will to survive.
A person who wishes to face a painful past experience or overcome a feeling of being a victim needs one thing to begin: the willingness to be honest. All shadow work, that is, work on facing and integrating what is unpleasant, disowned, painful, or terrifying within us, requires honesty as its first condition. If you’re willing to be honest with yourself, you can begin to move out of the confines of your present position and free yourself from the comfortable illusions that you are “just fine” and “keeping up with everybody else” and that your painful experiences “don’t really bother you.” These stories we tell ourselves all feel like denial and repression. To really work with our feelings and memories, we need to meet them honestly.
Honesty is the first step; many powerful and inspiring things can happen if we are willing to be honest with ourselves about how we really feel and what we are really thinking, even if what we are thinking and feeling is not what we think we should be feeling. In other words, if we wish to overcome our painful memories or present feelings of weakness, it can be helpful to set aside ‘shoulds’ and start to deal with ‘ares.’ We shift our perspective and put the focus, not won what we “should” be thinking, but on what we are thinking, not on what we “should” be feeling, but on what we are feeling. It does not matter how weak or broken we may feel, only that we are willing to be honest about it.
When you begin to work through painful feelings, a great deal of suffering and resistance may initially come up. This is perfectly natural. Your challenge is to let what is already there express itself; let it come up, let it arise. Our first tendency may be to run from pain or attempt to escape into a comforting addiction or distraction, but we can only progress by being willing to face what comes up head on, no matter how painful or unpleasant it may be. Take consolation in the fact that no wave of pain is permanent; they are all fleeting. If you wish to turn a piece of metal into a strong sword, you must first be willing to put it into the fire. We, too, must go into that fire; thankfully, though, it is a fire of construction, not a fire of destruction, a fire of healing, not a fire of endless suffering. Running away, repressing our truth, and not owning our experiences keep the wheel of suffering turning; walking towards the feeling rather than away from it moves us in the direction of healing.
As one who has spent quite a lot of time in this fire of suffering, though, I can tell you that if you look closely enough, you find that the fire is not actually a fire at all; it is more like a wave, a current that will carry you where you need to go emotionally. If you learn to see your pain as a friend, not an enemy, you begin to open yourself to it and to give it the opportunity to teach you rather than simply hurt you. Honesty, openness, and patience are useful tools on the path of self-exploration, the way of working through what we really find when we look inside.
It is true, however, that the challenge to turn pain into power, or hurting into handling, can be difficult when we feel like victims. When we feel that we have been victimized, it is easy to limit ourselves to the role of the victim. We can become used to seeing others and not ourselves as having all the power, used to placing ourselves into a position of weakness and vulnerability to attack. When we have the ‘victim’s attitude’ and think about our painful past experiences, we may feel unsafe, dis-empowered, and even desperate.
One essential key to transcending the role of the victim is to first realize that there was a time when we were not victims. There was a time before we fell into this role. Therefore, we must not inherently, fundamentally, or intrinsically be victims. Victimhood is not a permanent state; it is a phase that we pass through. We may have been victims at some point in the past, and in all likelihood, that moment was out of our control, but this present moment is not the same. This moment is, at least in how we respond to it and choose to act, in our hands. There was a time before we became victims when we were not victims, and there can be a time after victimhood too. That time can only begin at one time, however, and that time is now. Postponing is not conducive to healing; moving into the present state of our experience is.
In addition, it can be helpful to see that victimhood is not a deep aspect of our fundamental self, it is not who we truly, truly are. We feel like victims only because of how we relate to and think about something that happened to us in the past. Feeling like a victim involves two things: (1) a tendency to see our current life through the lens of feelings we felt when we were attacked in the past and (2) a feeling of being weak and constantly at the mercy of others. The first aspect is unrealistic; no single moment in the past can justifiably colour or frame the way we relate to everything that comes after it. The feelings of the past belong in the past, not in the now. The second aspect is avoidable; it is a habit and like all habits, can be changed. We change it by inquiring into our painful thoughts to find out whether or not they are true.
Feeling weak is a habit because it is a pattern of reaction, a way of responding to life, that we have learned some time in the past. It may relate to how we feel emotionally: unstable, insecure, and lacking a strong sense of confidence or, it may relate to how we feel physically: we might feel physically weak or lacking in muscular power.
The first kind of weakness, or rather ‘weak feeling’ can be overcome by giving ourselves opportunities to gain confidence, that is, chances to do things that prove we are able to do more than we first realized. Doing meaningful and challenging things gives rise to a feeling of competence, and competence gives rise to confidence. When I first started teaching, for example, I felt totally insecure because I didn’t feel like I could assertively lead a class or skillfully evaluate students. As I began to teach multiple classes in several different schools, however, my feeling of competence as a teacher began to grow and with that feeling, so did my feeling of confidence.
The lack of confidence feels like “I can never do this.” The first seeds of confidence feel like “maybe I can do this…” Confidence feels like “I can do this.” Resolution or determination feels like “I will do this.”
The biggest confidence boosters are those things that we are convinced we cannot do; when you prove to yourself that you can do something that you thought was impossible for you, you have definite proof that the limits you set for yourself are not absolute. They are only the limits of your thinking. You have done what you believed you could not do; climbing a mountain while deeply afraid of heights or any other form of conquering a fear is a good example of this kind of action. Doing what you believe lies beyond your power is achievement and achievement carries confidence in its wings.
The second kind of weakness is feeling physically weak. These kinds of feelings can be overcome by means of two things: (1) diet and (2) exercise. When we start to eat a more balanced diet that is rich in vitamins, minerals and protein, we begin to feel stronger and a richer sense of physical vitality. When we add a regular exercise regime to this, whether it be a sport, weight training, a martial art, or a daily run around the block, we give our muscles opportunity to develop. As our muscles grow, our feelings of personal strength grow too.
As our strength in these two areas grows, we begin to feel stronger, and as we begin to feel stronger, we start to feel less like victims, and more like empowered individuals. The state of victimhood is not a permanent state; like all other states and phases, it is fleeting and changeable. The power to change it already lies within us; we need only rouse it, activate it, and use it. All unpleasant past experiences can be overcome even if they cannot be forgotten; the lives of countless survivors of genocide and war atrocities are proof enough of that fact. The same is true for all feelings of victimhood; these, too, can be overcome.
The deeper the feeling, the more ingrained the habit of responding like a victim, the harder it is to overcome it. This may sound like a negative fact, but it has a positive side as well; the stronger the feeling, the deeper the habit, the greater the achievement in overcoming it. The knight who stands up to the biggest, most fearsome dragon is the most courageous; the knight who slays it, the most competent. Within even the most weak-feeling victim, there is a knight waiting to awaken; that is the seed of courage that is ready to sprout and grow here and now. Sometimes all it takes to germinate that seed is begin to believe that it is possible to do so.
This possibility is always there. I invite you to give it a chance, by which I mean, give yourself a chance; in the best case scenario, you will conquer your greatest inner demons. In the worst case scenario, you will be no worse off than you already were; in fact, your very attempt to overcome rather than submit to your feelings of weakness and victimhood is itself a first small act of courage. Even if you fall, you will have already put yourself on the path to success. If you fall, simply get up and ride on with the knowledge that you have gained in the fall. Tenacity gives rise to lasting results and repeated attempts give rise to tenacity.