by Lori Deschene
“Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.” -Gandhi
The other day I got upset over something silly that triggered difficult feelings with deep roots from my past.
In short, someone I love made a reasonable request that, for various reasons, I didn’t want to honor, partly because I felt this person wasn’t taking my feelings into account. But I had no good reason to suspect this.
I thought this because it’s a pattern for me.
For most of my young life, I believed my needs wouldn’t be met if I didn’t push and fight for them.
I saw everything as a battle—it was everyone else against me. Though I’ve learned to see others as on my side, and know that I’m on theirs, I still worry that people aren’t looking out for me at times.
In the aftermath of this recent altercation, I talked through my feelings with my boyfriend.
I told him I understood my emotional response, and I knew where it came from—when I first felt this way and why, and how it’s been a pattern in my life.
Then I posed a question: In recognizing where and how I learned this behavior, am I blaming people and circumstances from my past, or merely being self-aware? What, exactly, is the difference?
I think it’s an important question to ask, because we’ve all been wronged before.
We do ourselves a disservice if we sit around blaming other people for our maladaptive reactions and behaviors; but sometimes we’re better able to change when we understand how we developed in response to former relationships and prior events.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning to let go of victim stories, which is a big part of why I don’t write about some of the most painful events of my life. Still, for better or for worse, they shaped who I am.
When I allow myself to look back and acknowledge wrong-doing, I reinforce to myself that I did not deserve to be mistreated, and that it’s not my fault that I struggle in certain ways as a result.
I know, however, that it is my responsibility to change my responses and behaviors. And that, right there, is the difference between self-awareness and self-victimization.
Self-awareness allows us to understand what’s going on in our heads—and why; self-victimization prevents us from accepting that we’re responsible for it—and for what we do as a result.
Expanding on this train of thought, self-victimization includes:
- Dwelling and obsessing about the ways we feel we’ve been wronged
- Complaining about painful, seemingly unfair events without ever considering if and how we played a role in them
- Using these events to justify negativity; bitterness; or selfish, hurtful, or irresponsible actions
- Feeding off other people’s sympathy and maybe even depending on it
- Telling sad stories from the past as a means of avoiding judgment or trying to win approval
- Believing that everything would be better if the world or other people would change
As someone who’s done all of these things in the past, I can attest that this is often the result of immense pain.
Sometimes we play the victim because we were victims. We learned that we didn’t have control, and then adapted to that. Because we once felt powerless, we learned to give our power away.
On the other side of the spectrum, self-empowerment includes:
- Consciously choosing to let go of victimizing thoughts
- Considering that we may have played a part in some of the most painful events from our pasts
- Learning from these events how we can respond proactively to similar events in the future
- Feeding our own emotional needs instead of coming to other people with a void that won’t ever be filled
- Accepting responsibility for our actions, and the consequences of them
- Realizing things will only improve if we make a change, internally or externally
This requires self-awareness, which brings me back to my initial question:
What does self-awareness look like, when it involves acknowledging pain from the past—and how does it differ from self-victimization?
- Understanding our emotions—what we’re feeling and what triggered it—so we can effectively work through and transform our emotional responses (instead of using them to justify unhealthy choices)
- Recognizing our destructive thought patterns so we can redirect them
- Tuning into what’s going on in our bodies so we can learn from it and access our intuition
- Noticing our behavioral patterns and habits so that we can make adjustments to change negative ones
- Understanding our beliefs, assumptions, and expectations, and how they influence what we choose to do
- Accepting that we are responsible for our actions—even if we developed certain patterns in response to events from our past
The fundamental difference between self-awareness and self-victimization, when it pertains to acknowledging we’ve been hurt: Self-awareness is about observing our response to what happened; self-victimization is about feeding into the story of what happened.
This isn’t always easy to do. Sometimes the mere act of remembering something painful can bring up all kinds of old feelings. It helps if we learn to immediately redirect our thoughts to a positive, empowering affirmation.
This means that next time I find myself questioning whether the other person really has best interests at heart, when I have no reason to believe they don’t, I can tell myself something like this:
I give people I love the benefit of the doubt. I release my instinctive emotional response from the deepest root cause and do my part to create happy relationships.
In changing my thoughts, I can change my feelings, and then effectively redirect my actions.
This process can apply to all kinds of unhealthy relationship patterns that stem from former relationships, but it requires us to work at developing self-awareness.
One way we can do this is by journaling about our feelings and triggers—if, for example, you tend to feel mistrusting, or defensive, or angry when specific events occur—and then come up with affirmations to use when we get caught up in those patterns.
Some examples of situations and affirmations:
- If you frequently mistrust someone, in large part because someone else formerly abused your trust, you could use this affirmation when those old feelings arise:
- This is a new relationship. I release my instinctive emotional response from the deepest root cause, and accept that I can change it and improve my relationship by trusting.
- If you frequently feel guilty in your relationship, in large part because you were emotionally abused in a former one, you could use this affirmation when those old feelings arise (assuming you’re in a healthy relationship now):
- I choose not to blame myself. I release my instinctive emotional response from the deepest root cause, and free myself from shame and self-judgment.
- Whatever the pattern, we can challenge it and eventually change it by changing our thoughts and beliefs.
- If we’re willing to be self-aware, we can empower ourselves, and transform our relationships and in our lives in the process.