Change From Victim to Victor in Life (Part 2) Develop an Optimistic Attitude Toward Adversity

Being trapped in the victim role marginalizes your ability to live a fruitful, powerful and rewarding existence. I have very good news for people caught up in the victim mentality: you can free yourself from this self-imposed, self-defeating, depressing approach to life. Changing your attitude from pessimistic to optimistic will go a long way toward enabling you take control of what is really your right and responsibility — your life. 

Optimism is about trusting in your own power to make your life and future better. It’s about developing positive beliefs, expectations, choices and strategies. You accept that you are the one who is responsible for your life.

Martin Seligman, the “Father of Positive Psychology” in his book Learned Optimism (1990, 1998), found that three beliefs about adversity differentiate the optimist from the pessimist: do you believe as the pessimist does that the effects of negative events are permanent, personal, pervasive, or do you believe as the optimist does that the effects are not permanent, personal or pervasive. Let me explain what he means. 

PERMANENT: If you make a mistake, fail at something, run into an obstacle, or encounter some misfortune, do you, as a pessimist, tell yourself that this is not going to go away or change, that this problem is permanent? Or do you, as an optimist, view the problem, setback, mistake or failure as something that is temporary — that is indeed changeable by you? 

PERSONAL: Do you, as a pessimist, tell yourself that the problem, mistake, failure, or cataclysmic event has been orchestrated by some person or force to victimize or punish you, or that it was your fault; that is, do you take it personally? Or do you, as the optimist, understand that bad things happen to everyone and that trying to place the blame on yourself or others is a huge waste of time and energy?

PERVASIVE: Do you, as a pessimist, tell yourself that this negative event is like cancer, spreading the vicious disease to all your living parts — that it is insidiously pervasive? Or do you, as the optimist, believe that you can and should restrict the problem to only one part of your life? For example, if your problem is at work, you don’t let it interfere with your home life or your relationships with friends.

Your interpretation of the meaning and reach of the event in terms of being permanent, personal and pervasive can make you feel like a victim or, conversely, like someone who has the power to come back as a victor. Let’s look at an example of the reaction of a pessimist and an optimist.

A pessimist is engaged in important job interview. She makes it through to the last tier and is feeling pretty pumped up. The choice is between her and one other candidate — but in the end, she is not offered the position. What does she tell herself? “I’m a failure — I will never get a job; employers simply don’t like geeky women like me. At this rate, my whole life is going down the tubes.” Permanent, personal, pervasive and very depressing. If you think like that, your chances of becoming depressed are pretty substantial, if you’re not depressed already. 

When the optimist interviews and is not hired, she tells herself, “This was a tough interview, but I will do better next time. I’ve learned more about the kinds of questions that interviewers ask, and I’ll be better prepared for my next big chance. I’ll think about this job situation later; for now, I’m going home to cook a great meal for my husband and son, and enjoy the evening.” In other words, she won’t let this affect the parts of her life that she recognizes as solid. Thus, her interpretation is not permanent, personal or pervasive. For her, this is just a bump in the road.

Copyright 2009. Sharon S. Esonis, Ph.D