Why it’s OK to be a victim: How the self-improvement industry delegitimises people’s sense of getting shafted.
By E.F Nicholson
There are 3 dictionary definitions of the word “Victim”
1) a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.
2) a person who is tricked or duped.
3) a person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment.
The first two are easy to associate people with: victims of crime, victims of natural disaster etc. It’s the third definition that is more open to interpretation and often loaded by our cultural viewpoint.
Where the words “passive and helpless” are often challenged is by the self-improvement industry, currently a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone. Self-improvement will show you how to go from passive and helpless to active and helpful. Within this very broad genre of “personal betterment”, there appears to be a consensus on one key point, that none of us are, in fact, victims at all. Victimhood, in relation to self-improvement, is seen as a shortcoming that gets in the way of an individual taking responsibility for their life and making the changes they need to make. Being the victim is synonymous with feeling sorry for oneself; in other words self-pitying, blaming others and basically acting like Debbie Downer. Yet through the process of delineating these groups into “real victims” and “people who just feel sorry for themselves”, we may be missing out on a legitimate sense of victimhood that exists outside of either of these two definitions.
How the story is meant to go…
The law recognises 17 as the age we become fully responsible for whatever actions we take. It’s from this “coming of age” threshold that supporters of self-improvement would argue that we are masters of our own destiny. We are no longer children; we are no longer victims of whatever might happen to us, so the argument goes. No, at this point we have become choosers, shapers and makers of our fate.
The exception to the rule
Inherent in this point of view is the assumption that our environments are neutral, in the sense that, whatever it is we want to do, we now have the autonomy and the power to make that happen. We read about the kid from the ghetto, who against all odds becomes a famous concert pianist. We are told about the woman who had no hands, who ended up becoming a famous painter by using her feet. These are people who could have seen themselves as “victims”, but they took charge, made a commitment and got on with bettering their lives. There are countless “rags to riches” stories of this kind, or tales where “adversity has been overcome by guts, tenacity and courage”. Many of these stories are undeniably impressive, and it’s only natural to admire the power of the human spirit in terms of what it can achieve and what we might aspire to. Yet, as impressive as these feats are, they remain the exception rather than the rule. Even so, such extraordinary achievements become the benchmark of what we might all achieve if we could only put our minds to it.
The rest of us
Where that leaves the rest of us, the other 99.99 percent, is unclear; but the implication is that we are lacking in something. If a kid that grows up on the streets can become a millionaire, then so can anyone. This belief has become the prevailing mind-set; the cultural fairy-tale relentlessly drilled into our minds by the value system we abide by. Although self-improvement provides the “how”, there is a broader cultural message being conveyed that we are “free” to make what we want of our lives. The ideal of the ‘American dream’ is built on this very premise. Yet is this actually true? Can anyone in fact turn their life around by simply deciding for themselves that this is what they want? What are the internal mechanisms that allow a person to turn their mental cogs and levels in a way that they suddenly start working for them? How far is it possible to erase the wounds and trauma of childhood suffering? Why, if it is simply a case of choosing, is the majority still unable to do it?
This approach of “anyone can do it” sets up a certain kind of strange logic. If a teacher is teaching a class of 7-years-olds a certain maths problem, and out of the 25 children only 1 is able to answer it correctly, it’s pretty obvious that the problem isn’t the 24 students’ lack of intelligence; rather it lies in the fact that either the teaching method is poor, or the problem is too difficult for that particular age group. Yet within the paradigm of self-improvement, it’s not the teaching method or student ability level that’s at issue; rather there is the suggestion that all of those kids lack something, something that this one child has. So when people are unable to change their lives, to get off drugs and anti-depressants and feel super-positive about their lives, we don’t question what’s being taught or that it might be too big an ask, given their circumstances; rather we point to the one student who gets it and say: “Look! Work harder, try harder and you can be like him.”
I was sent a link the other day with the top 100 self-improvement websites for 2014. It was a positivity explosion. Each website in some way or another is sharing with the world “How they got there… Wherever “there” is, and how you can, to.” Having a tendency towards being a bit cynical and morose, I found it quite tiring. If you are feeling depressed and stuck in your life, rather than being inspired by all these outpourings of happiness and zeal, they have the potential to make you feel even worse. Every blog shouts out the unspoken message:
“If you want it, you can have it. If you don’t have it, it’s because you don’t want it …..enough!”
Yet there are barriers to progression and change that extend beyond a person’s belief system. Poverty is an obvious one. Getting out of a poverty cycle in the West, let alone in a third world country, even if you working very hard, can be extremely difficult. When you are on less than a living wage, you are forced to take on debt while working against all the social and cultural disadvantages that poverty brings, and so life, which is already hard, becomes even harder.
Not having what it takes
To free oneself from this situation must take a certain kind of zeal, luck and determination. Yet what if you just don’t have that? What if the qualities and strengths you have are more about being caring and compassionate? What if you simply don’t possess the unique characteristics you need I order to be able to escape poverty? Often in the ‘rags to riches’ tale, you will find there is a mother or brother or someone that believed in that person, supported them and help them to achieve their dreams. What if you have no-one, literally no-one; and the people that you do know are having an even harder time then you? Is that person still to blame for remaining stuck, if they have never been shown, taught, or encouraged into developing those qualities? If they live in an environment where there simply isn’t access to opportunities to learn and better themselves? If the environment they are in is more about survival than self-improvement? According to all 100 of those blogs, even with all those barriers and impediments, it is still that person’s choice.
In addition the self-improvement paradigm works on the assumption that the world we live in, with all of its mass inequality, suffering and poverty, is actually a place where it is possible to be happy. The idea that many people are unhappy because we live in environments that are unjust, violent, coercive and controlling gets overlooked. Maybe the reason it feels so out of reach for many is that it would be abnormal to be living in world where so many suffer for the privileges of the few, and yet feel deeply content and fulfilled just because you happened to have got your shit together. Like the famous J Krishnamurti stated: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
The unchosen sacrifice
Yet the problem I have with this mindset is that by not naming these people stuck in poverty (or a person suffering stress and anxiety over the debt they have incurred) as “victims”, we then feel no need to really support and help them. The Latin origin of the word victim comes from “victima”, denoting a creature killed as a religious sacrifice. Poverty is the unchosen sacrifice billions of people make to ensure the wealth and power of a very small minority. Victim is the appropriate word. Billions of people are forced to work in jobs they loath, to pay debts they should never have had to take on, and who are living a life of sacrifice to ensure the continued wealth of that tiny portion upon the top. Victims are exactly what they are.
What makes it so
To say the reason you are not happy is the environment you are in and the way you are being treated, and that you are in fact a victim, goes against every grain of the self-improvement philosophy and the culturally approved way of seeing things. Yet by authenticating people’s unhappiness and permitting them to be “victims”, we can then look at what they are a victim of? Is it inequality? A two-tier justice system? Systemic racism? Debt peonage? Putting it all back on the individual as self-improvement does, minimises the impact of all the destructive and ultimately unfair circumstances many people are enmeshed in.
The amplification of illusion
The self-improvement industry has also inadvertently become the PR mouthpiece of the capitalist paradigm, vigilantly keeping people’s focus on the individual, first and foremost. The whole system we live in ceaselessly creates a state of cognitive dissonance. As one part of the system bombards them with advertising designed to make them think they are fat and feel insecure about their appearance, another part sells them a book on how to love your body, followed by another message enticing them to eat a tub of cream because they deserve it, followed by the message to enrol in a gym to get slim.
To be here
So why don’t we encourage people not to feel sorry for themselves, but to feel compassion for themselves, their situation and for others? It’s tough going at the best of times in this life, and it’s getting tougher for many. Why don’t we meet that hardship with understanding rather than a 7-step action plan? Wouldn’t it be possible to stop telling people how they can be happier, and, just for moment, let it sink in exactly where they are at, what surrounds them and how in fact they are being treated. Let us, for a change, just be honest about exactly what people can and can’t do, through the evidence of exactly what they do and don’t do. Let’s make saying “yes, I am victim of this cruel, dehumanising and alienating system” not a statement of self-pity, but a simple statement of fact and of how they really feel. Unintentionally, the whole “you can do it” mind-set delegitimises their own feeling that they are actually being held back and shafted. It would be like getting poisoned, but then being told over and over again that your sickness is due to your own bad attitude. As a result, people don’t have society’s permission to feel the pain of living the way we do. It’s time to stop this: we should put our focus not only on what we can become, but more importantly on where we actually are, who we are and exactly what is going on.