A few years ago, I had a close friend at work. But as much as I liked her personally, she wasn’t one to take responsibility for her career. Instead, she’d constantly complain about manager drama (“He changed the structure just so I wouldn’t get my bonus this year!”) and conspiring co-workers (“Things went badly with the client, and now they’re trying to pin it on me!”)—without the slightest mention of how she had played a part or was trying to make it better.
But as obvious as her negativity was to me, I don’t think she was trying to be a downer on purpose—she simply fell prey to what I call a “victim mentality.”
You see, when you’re in the victim zone, you tend to believe that everything in your life is controlled by others: Your boss cost you a raise, your colleague sabotaged your report—you get the picture.
The problem is, when you start thinking that everything in your career is a result of someone else’s actions, you usually don’t believe it’s your job to take charge and make a change. (Think: You constantly complain about your job, but you won’t look for a new one, or you think your boss is a jerk, but you never initiate any conversations to improve your relationship.) So, you stay right where you are—stuck, mired, and miserable.
If you think you might have a tendency to think this way (hint: everyone does, at one point or another), here’s my five-step plan for recognizing those harmful thoughts, taking some responsibility for your circumstances, and changing your career for the better.
1. Notice Your Victim Behavior
Here’s a challenge: For the next two weeks, keep track of how often you verbalize a “victim” thought—à la “This assignment is so unfair!” or “Why is this happening to me?” Take the time to jot it down in a journal or notepad. Don’t edit or analyze these notes—just keep track of what you say and how often you say it.
After two weeks, start taking note of how often this type of thinking influences your behavior. Look for patterns throughout your notes (e.g., you notice you think “Why me?” numerous times per day, or you see that you tend to blame a lot on your department's director). After all, the first step in making a change is understanding your starting point.
2. Think Positive
Once you clearly identify how often you think like a victim and the ways in which it influences your behavior, see if you can change the thoughts that drive those reactions. So, for example, when you feel inclined to say, “This assignment is so unfair—I have no idea how to do it or where to even start” stop the thought—and think about it in a more positive light: “I am not sure how to do this assignment, but maybe there’s a good reason I’ve been chosen for it.”
By seeing if you can find a silver lining, you’ll be more empowered to take action, instead of standing by and playing the victim.
3. Change Your Action
Your next step is to look for ways you can take charge at work. For example, let’s say again that your manager gives you an assignment that you have no idea how to complete. Before, you might have assumed he was punishing you. But now that you’ve redirected your thoughts, you can take appropriate action and discuss the situation with your manager: “John, can you help me understand why you gave me this assignment? I’m happy to do it, but I’ve never done this before and it doesn’t really fall within my strengths.”
With this conversation, you can get all the facts of the situation (e.g., perhaps your boss has a tight deadline to meet and knows he can count on you, or maybe he wants you to start developing a new skill set), rather than the stories you were concocting in your mind (e.g., “He has no idea what I’m good at!” or “He has it out for me!”). And then, instead of being frustrated, you can move forward in a productive way: “Thanks for explaining, John. Now that I understand, I’ll do my best to get this done as soon as possible so that you can meet your deadline.”
4. Be Proactive
As you learn to approach day-to-day challenges, you’ll also realize that this same strategy can be used for broader, more long-term issues.
For example, let's say your workload has grown too large over the last few months because several people in your department have left and no replacements have been hired. Instead of falling into victim thinking and complaining about your outrageous hours and unrecognized effort, design a conversation with your boss that may help you get a solution: “Cynthia, I’ve been taking on quite a few additional assignments since we lost a couple of people earlier this year—but my workload is now at the point where I’m concerned I might start missing deadlines. I’d like to sit down with you and review everything I’m doing, so I can have a clearer idea of what my priorities should be.”
Unless you speak up and ask for what you need, it’s unlikely that a situation, big or small, is going to change. But if you approach it proactively (and diplomatically, of course), you and your manager or co-workers should have no problem working around an issue.
5. Focus on Gratitude
As a final note, a great way to start overcoming victim mentality is taking some time each week to focus on the things you have to be grateful for at work: a salary that pays your mortgage, healthcare benefits that get you to the doctor, newfound skills to pile on your resume, great friends in your co-workers, whatever.
Better yet, share that gratitude in the workplace. Tell your co-workers that you appreciate them, offer a helping hand to others, and compliment your boss. These seem like small things, but they often go a long way. It’s tough to feel like a victim when you’re busy being grateful.
When you get out of a victim mentality, you can focus on taking the reins of your own career and working toward the goals you’ve set for yourself. I promise that you'll feel a new sense of personal empowerment, and you'll gain respect in the meantime. Try it!