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Moving Past Living in Victim Mode, Survival Mode, and the Stress Response

Kerry Jehanne-Guadalupe

 

I have an enormous amount of compassion and understanding for anyone who witnesses any trace of victim consciousness within themselves. This understanding stems not only from the fact that such a mindset often has its origins in trauma but also from the recognition that transcending it can involve much more than simply accepting personal responsibility. For some, this journey entails discovering their power and agency while challenging unconscious beliefs hindering their sense of empowerment. It may require a significant transformation of their personality, a rewiring of established neural networks in their brain, and becoming less reliant on stress hormones for energy in order to gain the capacity to enhance personal growth, empowerment, and resilience.

                                      

There is a profound distinction between being resistant to growth or change and coming up against resistance to change yet having the willingness and determination to face and overcome the resistance. While some people appear to be comfortable in a state of victimhood, many I have worked with who recognize this tendency in themselves are eager to break free from it. They genuinely aspire to achieve higher states of consciousness and are committed to identifying and overcoming even the slightest traces of victimhood within themselves.

 

Not all victim consciousness presents as a pronounced "woe is me" attitude. It can be so subtle and engrained that we barely see it in ourselves. Whether it presents overtly or covertly, victim consciousness, also known as victim mentality or victim complex, is a state of mind in which an individual perceives themselves as a victim of the negative actions of others or external circumstances. They often attribute their problems and failures to other people, external events, or forces beyond their control. This mindset is characterized by a focus on perceived wrongs and injustices and is marked by a pessimistic and defeatist attitude, even subtly. Individuals may consciously or unconsciously believe that the world is unfair and that they are destined to suffer.

 

While having a tendency to blame others for one's problems or unhappiness, people with a victim consciousness may avoid taking responsibility for their actions or contributions to their situations, as well as avoid taking proactive steps to improve their situation. This mindset can lead to dependence on others for support and solutions rather than fostering self-reliance and empowerment. They also may become dependent by seeking sympathy and validation from others by sharing stories of how they have been wronged or mistreated. Dependency on others for solutions or sympathy can, in turn, enhance the sense of powerlessness. People in victim consciousness frequently feel helpless and incapable of changing their circumstances. They may believe that their actions will not make a difference or that they are incapable of shifting long-term habits.

 

Insidious

 

From my perspective, the victim mindset can be deeply ingrained and may go unrecognized. Victim mentality can be insidious and difficult to recognize in oneself for several reasons. It can develop over a long period, becoming a habitual way of thinking. Because it can evolve gradually, individuals may not notice their mindset until it is deeply entrenched. Once a person has developed these patterns, they can become automatic.

 

Many people with a victim mentality have experienced genuine hardships or traumas. This can make it difficult for them to see their current mindset as problematic, as they believe their negative feelings and perspectives are justified by their past experiences.

These feelings and perspectives can be deeply ingrained and seem like a natural response to life’s challenges rather than manifestations of a victim mentality.

 

Even with self-awareness, some may find it challenging to recognize their thinking and behavioral patterns, especially when the social environment reinforces victim consciousness. If well-meaning friends, family, or colleagues consistently offer sympathy and support, validating the individual's feelings, seeing the victim mentality within themselves can become more challenging. Receiving attention, compassion, and support may provide a sense of comfort and promote someone's unconscious emotional investment in their identity as a victim. Instead, they may perceive themselves as someone simply needing support.

 

Social environments can also reinforce victim consciousness when a number of people think and feel in a similar way about circumstances. For example, I have met countless women who reinforce the notion that there are ‘no good men.’ Since they are in a collective agreement, their social environment offers little challenge to the established groupthink.

 

Victim consciousness can be so subtle. It can be as basic as believing something outside of us is determining our thoughts and feelings, that we are unable to think and feel as we like because of something outside of ourselves. One way to examine whether we have even a trace of victim consciousness is by reflecting on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to see if we perceive ourselves as victims of circumstances, feel powerless, or blame others for our situation. Here are some questions that can assist us in exploring our consciousness:

 

1.    Do I feel I can’t change my feelings, habits, or thoughts?


2.    As an empath, am I bothered by feeling other people’s feelings? Do I feel like a victim of sensing the feelings of others?


3.    Am I waiting for something outside of me to change so that I can feel better internally? By waiting, am I giving my permission to change my thoughts and feelings over to another person—waiting for them to change so I can change?


4.    Do my thoughts wander to the past or future?


5.    Do I feel wronged by a rude cashier or someone who cut me off in traffic?


6.    Do I feel underappreciated for all I do for someone? Do I feel like I don’t get enough credit?


7.    Do I take it personally if I haven't heard from a friend in a while?


8.    Do I assume something will go wrong in a new situation?


9.    Do I feel like time is zipping by, and there is not enough time?


10. Do I believe the weight of the world, or the weight of my family is on my shoulders?


11. Do I believe there are no good romantic partners because the world has damaged a particular gender? 


12. Do I believe there is not enough money or resources for me? Do I think all the good jobs have been taken, and there are none for me?


13. Do I blame anyone, even in the slightest bit, for my problems or difficulties?


14. Do I take responsibility for all my actions and their consequences?


15. Do I find myself thinking that life is unfair?


16. Do I feel like I have no control over what happens in my life?


17. Do I believe my happiness and success depend on external factors or other people?


18. Do I see myself as incapable of changing my situation? Do I feel powerless or helpless in the face of challenges?


19. Do I think of myself as unlucky or cursed?


20. Do I avoid taking proactive steps to solve my problems? Do I tend to wait for others to fix things for me?


21. Do I give up easily when faced with obstacles?


22. Do I focus more on my problems than on finding solutions?


23. Do I complain without seeking ways to improve my situation?


24. Do I believe that others have it easier than I do?


25. Do I take ownership of my decisions and their outcomes, whether good or bad? Do I recognize my role in the situations I find myself in?


26. Do I accept responsibility for my emotional reactions and behavior?


27. Do I feel that others take advantage of me or treat me unfairly?


28. Do I rely on others for validation and support?


29. Do I expect others to understand and accommodate my feelings and needs without communicating them clearly?


30. Do I view challenges as opportunities for growth and learning?

 

I appreciate questions like the ones above, as they are ways to start examining our consciousness. Answering these questions honestly can increase our self-awareness about our mindset and behaviors. We have to see a particular consciousness in us in order to change it. Our ability to change is enhanced when we become aware of who we have become.

 

Causes

 

Whether victim mentality presents overtly or covertly, it can be influenced by a variety of factors, including psychological, social, and cultural elements. Experiencing physical, emotional, or psychological trauma or abuse can lead to a victim mentality. Individuals who have been victimized may develop a sense of helplessness and a belief that they have no control over their lives. Repeated experiences of failure or situations where individuals feel they have no control can contribute to a sense of helplessness. Conditions such as depression and anxiety can contribute to feelings of powerlessness and defenselessness.

 

Victim consciousness can also be a learned behavior. Growing up in an environment where victimhood is modeled, such as by parents or caregivers who also exhibit a victim mentality, can lead individuals to adopt similar attitudes and behaviors. A lack of social support or positive role models can leave individuals feeling isolated and more prone to a victim mentality. For some, adopting a victim mentality can become part of their identity, influencing how they perceive themselves and their interactions with others. If individuals receive attention, sympathy, or other rewards for exhibiting victim behaviors, they may continue to adopt this mentality to gain these benefits. Additionally, societal and cultural norms that promote dependency or a lack of personal responsibility can contribute to the development of a victim mentality.

 

Survival Mode and the Stress Response

 

In my view, there is an intersectionality between the victim consciousness and survival mode, especially in terms of how individuals perceive and react to challenging or traumatic experiences and how the brain gets wired from living in a prolonged stress response.

 

Survival mode refers to a state of heightened alertness and a focus on overcoming immediate threats or challenges. This state is often triggered by stress, trauma, or danger and can involve: prioritizing immediate physical and emotional safety; increased anxiety and hypervigilance; reduced capacity for long-term planning or complex problem-solving; as well as a focus on basic needs such as food, shelter, and security.


As mentioned above, victim consciousness is a mindset in which an individual sees themselves as a victim of circumstances, other people's actions, or external events. It may involve: believing that one has little or no control over one's life; perceiving life events as happening to them rather than as things they can influence; often feeling helpless, powerless, and stuck; and a tendency to blame external factors for personal problems.


The relationship between survival mode and victim consciousness can be understood as follows:

Triggering Factors: Both survival mode and victim consciousness can be triggered by similar factors such as trauma, prolonged stress, or adverse life events.


Mindset and Behavior: In survival mode, individuals focus on immediate survival needs and may feel overwhelmed and anxious, potentially leading to a mindset where they perceive themselves as victims of their circumstances. Over time, if the survival mode becomes a chronic state, it can reinforce a victim consciousness, where the individual feels perpetually trapped in a cycle of reacting to external threats and challenges.


Impact on Agency: Survival mode can reduce an individual's perceived sense of agency and control, as focusing on immediate needs overshadows long-term planning and proactive decision-making. Victim consciousness further diminishes the sense of personal agency, reinforcing the belief that external factors dictate one's life circumstances.


Emotional and Cognitive Effects: The heightened stress and anxiety associated with survival mode can lead to cognitive alterations and emotional dysregulation, which are also common in victim consciousness. Both states can involve feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and chronic stress.


Stress Response: Both victim consciousness and survival mode can lead to a stress response. The stress response, often referred to as the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response, is the body's automatic reaction to a perceived threat or challenge and can be triggered by thoughts alone. During a stress response, whether from an actual event, a fearful thought, survival mode, or victim consciousness, our body’s physiological response prepares it to deal with a threat, including the adrenal glands releasing stress hormones, primarily adrenaline, and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies.

 

If we live in a state of stress on a daily basis, our bodies can get accustomed to functioning on stress hormones. Though I tend to think of “adrenaline junkies” as people who love bungee jumping, living with the hormones of stress running through our bodies is another way to become dependent upon adrenaline. Though it might not be the same rush someone experiences through participating in intense, exciting, and even dangerous activities such as extreme sports, it is still a rush of alertness and energy we become accustomed to. If we become dependent, we can then get addicted to drama in our lives or in our minds to release the adrenaline chemistry we have become reliant upon.

 

This can happen easily. When we repeatedly react to daily events, people, or situations, we may end up relying on stress hormones. Continuously dwelling on past difficulties or worrying about future events can lead to living off these stress hormones. Some individuals find that they generate energy and maintain a certain level of mental alertness by focusing on stressful events, thus operating on the corresponding stress hormones. In these cases, people are energized by stress rather than by emotions such as joy, gratitude, or love.

 

Victim consciousness and survival mode can both be hardwired into our neurobiology. We can become stuck in the very life we find challenging. Breaking out of living off adrenaline can sometimes be no easy task. If we have been living under stress over long periods of time, our brains can begin to compartmentalize and get stuck in patterns that narrow our focus and limit new ideas and possibilities from surfacing within us. When this occurs, I have heard some people express that it feels like victim consciousness or survival mode is no longer a choice – it has become their operating system. They felt like they could no longer access choice to even evolve past these states of being, imprisoned within the neurobiology of stress.

 

Breaking Out of Victim Mentality and Survival Mode

 

Recognizing and overcoming victim mentality typically involves increasing self-awareness along with a willingness to challenge deeply held beliefs and shift emotional and behavioral habits. It is not just about thinking positive thoughts and feeling elevated emotions like gratitude, appreciation, joy, freedom, and love. Positive affirmations might not get past the subconscious mind and make significant changes. Overcoming these states of being is about rewiring our brains after months, years, or even decades of thinking and hardwiring stressful thoughts into our brains. It is about creating a new emotional baseline of positive feelings after our hearts and bodies have become fixated on limiting emotions.

 

It can take an enormous amount of personal power and agency to move past victim consciousness and survival mode. Moving past these states of being can be like digging oneself out of a living hell. Like addiction, victim consciousness, and survival mode can be miserable places to be stuck in: feeling powerless and helpless, remaining stuck in the past, being consumed by problems, feeling unsafe in the world while not knowing how to create safety, and feeling trapped while not knowing where the door is, let alone the door handle. Moving beyond these ways of being, in itself, is a building of will, fortitude, and resilience.

 

Overcoming victim consciousness and survival mode engrained into one's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors might take a profound level of metacognition. Metacognition refers to the awareness and understanding of our thought processes. It involves higher-order thinking skills that enable us to become conscious of our unconscious selves. In essence, metacognition allows us to think about our thinking, providing the tools to regulate our cognitive processes in a way that enhances our ability to change. Metacognition can entail catching even the most minor, most subtle ways we might be blaming others, feeling powerless over a situation, or waiting for something outside of us to change so we feel better internally. Being curious about any tendencies we might be unaware of and willing to see all parts of ourselves can help amplify metacognition.

 

Neuroplasticity is on our side! Overcoming victim consciousness and survival mode may entail undoing well-engrained neurological networks and installing new ones. As many have experienced, changing just one habit can be challenging. Overcoming victim consciousness can be about changing our entire state of being - how we think, feel, and behave on a regular basis. We can undo our neural architecture and emboss new thoughts neurologically in our brains. It may take time, but it is possible! After we do, we can act within the new circuitry and become familiar with a new state of being. This process helps us to reconnect with our ability to change, amplifying our capacity to adopt a more empowered and proactive approach to life.

 

When shifting perspectives and rewiring our brains, it can be handy to have in mind what we want to shift to. Some people choose to practice gratitude to help them move their focus from what's wrong to what's right in their lives. Others decide to reframe challenges - instead of seeing difficulties as insurmountable obstacles, they view them as opportunities for growth and learning. From this perspective, when faced with a problem, they are better able to focus on finding solutions rather than dwelling on the problem itself.

 

Challenging the perceived validity of victim consciousness may be needed. We might have thought a certain way for so long that it feels like a valid and even essential way to think. It might feel strange and inappropriate not to think the same thoughts repeatedly. Challenging victim-based thoughts may entail asking ourselves if what we are thinking is 100% true or just a habit. We might come up against parts of ourselves that know it is a habit but don't want to change. Those parts of us might feel safe in certain victim-based thinking, being hyper-vigilant about possible threats. Simply replacing negative thoughts with more empowering ones may not be enough.

 

Exploring the roots of victim mentality and exploring beliefs in the subconscious mind is essential in my perspective. The subconscious mind might not believe it is safe to break out of the victim mentality, not feel safe to let go of resentment, or even embrace challenges as opportunities to grow rather than threats. The subconscious mind might believe it is necessary to replay mental tapes repeatedly to prepare for a possible future attack. This mental rehearsal might be a way for the mind to feel safe. The subconscious mind might not believe it is safe to be in one's power, assert oneself, stand up for oneself in a healthy, constructive way, or even establish boundaries with people who reinforce our victim mentality.

 

To overcome victim consciousness, one may need to not only examine subconscious beliefs but also learn how to process pain and trauma. There are several reactions to the effects of trauma. Here are three possible responses:

 

Pretend we processed an event: One reaction to a traumatic event is to avoid processing the experience of victimization by attempting to ignore or avoid the impact of the experience. For example, a person can use spiritual bypassing as a way of pretending one has processed pain. Spiritual bypassing is when a person utilizes spiritual principles to evade integration and healing of unresolved trauma. People with a victim mentality might "rise above" their problems in ways that don't address the underlying issues. In such cases, victor consciousness might be a mask for undealt with trauma.

 

Not able to process an event: Another reaction to traumatic events is not processing the experiences of being victimized and living in victimhood well after the incident. This can manifest as the victim consciousness that this article has been reviewing. A person may fall into long-term victimhood because they have not been taught how to process traumatic events.

 

Process the event: Another response is to actively engage in the process of healing. For example, a person can process the experience of being victimized through feeling anger, confusion, grief, fear, and so forth until the emotions have been integrated. When needed, receiving professional support can help one process any trauma and PTSD caused by painful experiences.

 

If one has been traumatized, I believe that there is great empowerment in processing the experience of victimization so they do not fall into victim mode. There is a liberation from the past that only one's heart can present, but only if one integrates the experience. Profound wonders can unfold when we commit to healing and overcoming our personality structures based on the past. We don't need to stay stuck if we know how to heal.

 

Breaking out of a victim mentality can be a gradual process that requires consistent effort and a willingness to change. Yet, by implementing strategies, such as amplifying our abilities to process trauma, increasing our metacognition, and implementing ways to change brain patterns and emotional habits, we can develop a more empowered and proactive approach to life’s challenges and accelerate our evolution.

 

Personal Evolution

 

Overcoming victim consciousness is often considered a significant step on the path of personal evolution. I view it to be one of the most beautiful and significant steps we can take in our advancement, as I perceive it as a shift from helplessness to agency, from victim to creator. Overcoming victim consciousness fosters personal empowerment, emotional healing, spiritual growth, and healthier relationships. It is a transformative process that enables us to realize our full potential and live more fulfilling, meaningful lives because the shift from helplessness to agency enables us to actively create positive changes in our lives.

 

Personal agency is our capacity to act independently and make our own choices, including our abilities to set goals and take action to achieve those goals, even in the face of obstacles. Personal agency and taking responsibility are interrelated where the former empowers us to make choices and take actions, and the latter involves acknowledging and accepting the consequences of those actions. With a strong sense of personal agency, we can recognize that our actions stem from our choices and hold ourselves accountable for the outcomes of our decisions. Embracing personal responsibility is not only about being mature but also about being better able to master the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are more aligned with our soul's purpose.

 

By taking responsibility for our thoughts, emotions, and actions, we are more likely to learn from mistakes and adapt, fostering resilience. Taking responsibility can significantly enhance resilience in several ways. When we take responsibility for our actions and decisions, we develop a proactive and empowered mindset, literally changing our brains. This, in turn, enables us to tackle challenges head-on, which enhances self-esteem and confidence and our ability to bounce back from setbacks with greater ease.

 

When we take responsibility for managing our thoughts, emotions, and reactions, we improve emotional regulation, enhancing resilience. We can't emotionally regulate ourselves unless we take responsibility for our emotions. When we do, we have a lived experience of being in control of our well-being rather than having external factors determine our well-being. Accepting responsibility for our feelings enhances resiliency because we are not relying upon anything outside of us to dictate how we think and feel within ourselves.

 

Evolving beyond a victim mentality allows us to form healthier, more balanced relationships. We can engage with others from a place of strength and mutual respect rather than dependency or blame. Moving beyond a victim mentality may also lead us to discover a more profound sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. Some become more proactive and engaged in their communities, contributing positively to society. By demonstrating resilience and empowerment, they serve as role models, inspiring others to undertake their journeys of growth and transformation.

 

The journey from victim consciousness to empowerment is a movement towards higher consciousness and wholeness. This transformation entails moving from a compartmentalized brain function to a state of holistic brain operation, reflecting an inner shift from separation to unity consciousness. Integrating our brain functions and accessing elevated emotions in our hearts allows us to transcend limiting states, embrace expansive perspectives, and cultivate a more peaceful and contented existence.

 

Overcoming a victim mentality often entails discovering the essence of love within us. Love triumphs overvictim consciousness, especially when we transition from seeking love externally to recognizing that our true nature is love itself. Victim mentality is not the opposite of love, it is the separation from love. As we cultivate new neural pathways in our brains and reduce our dependence on stress hormones for energy, while practicing uplifting emotions, the more we are able to experience intrinsic love within ourselves.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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