Successful Victims

Many of my clients start out as ‘successful victims’: They’re talented, hard-working, and have a lot going for them: some are masters at their craft, some have great relationships, some have had great success in their careers, some have created a lot of free time for personal development, etc.

In many ways they’re ‘winning’, but they’re also unhappy. They each have their own explanations why they’re unhappy: they need a purpose, a life partner, or more money or success or skill or time. They think they need to be healthier, or have a meditation practice, or have more and deeper friends, and maybe then they’ll be happy…

But that’s not it. They’re unhappy because they're clinging to the Successful Victim belief:

“Success makes me happy.”

It's a popular belief, but it's not true–because it doesn't work.

Successful victims often look to others like they should be happy. They think they should be happy. But it’s that belief, that happiness is conditional on success, which keeps them trapped. Even when they’re successful, and let themselves feel temporarily content, they’re simultaneously afraid of losing that success. They need to maintain success. They need to avoid and minimize failure. Their happiness is at stake, and often they compromise their integrity to 'succeed' or to create a veil of success. They swing dramatically from happy to unhappy. It's a game of suffering: even when they win, they lose.

This is why so many people collapse into depression and suicidal ideation after great achievements: winning an Oscar, an Olympic medal, the successful launch, the magnum opus. Outsourcing their happiness to external achievements doesn’t make the victory sweeter: it makes their psyche more fragile.

And by 'victim' here I mean that pernicious story that the world happens ‘to’ them. That their thoughts, feelings, behavior, and circumstances are caused by the world – and that their only hope to feel better is to try to control the world. It feels like a fight for their life, and when they're in the story, it’s real: it’s just the way the world is. Yet once they're out of it, it’s obvious that it's not true and not helpful.

One advantage that successful victims have is suspicion. It’s suspicious that they have what they think should make them happy, but they’re not. Instead of reactively reaching for ‘more’ or ‘different’ they have the opportunity to pause and consider if there’s a better way to see. Sometimes getting what you want and being unsatisfied with it is a kind of rock bottom, a chance to open your eyes and look in a direction you haven't looked in before. Instead of adding another layer of coping, maybe they’ll allow their foundations to get rocked and see past their story:

Who would you be without the story that happiness requires success?

What if happiness had nothing to do with success? Or circumstance? Or experience?

What if happiness was your nature? Always there. A place you can come from, rather than somewhere you can get to. What if instead of pointing the way to happiness, your stories are actually getting in the way of happiness?

What if success was merely feedback to help you learn, rather than meaning anything about you or something to tie your happiness to? (Which is like deciding that right turns make you happy and left turns make you unhappy.)

Successful victims are often secretly afraid of being happy, because they identify with the struggle. They’re afraid that if they’re actually happy, they’ll do nothing: they’ll become passive, unproductive, depressed. One glance at a young child will prove this wrong: when you come from happiness, unattached to achievement, you come alive! You engage life with curiosity, inspiration, and play. Your happiness is no longer at stake, so you get to create. Some things will work, some won’t, and you get to freely experiment and grow. Life becomes more miraculous, and your part in it feels more energized and authentic.

And, as a side effect of letting go of the victim story, you’re a lot more likely to succeed. Coming from happiness you can achieve great things, you can create the impossible–not in order to feel whole but as an expression of feeling whole. Because, just like happiness, it's also your nature to engage with life and create in the world.

Michael McDonald
Transformational Coach
Leadership, Life Optimization, Intimacy and Enlightenment

P.S. If you’d like to explore more about stepping out of victim thinking, here’s the recording of my Insight Salon on Beyond Drama

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