Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Did I bring these terrible times on myself?
There is nothing unusual in trying to identify reasons for bad things happening to good people, and surely many of us have posed these questions on occasion — after a string of life-altering hardships, a series of tumultuous events, or following a tragic loss.
Yet when talking about unforeseen turmoil, the short answer to “why me?” may be as simple as this: Shit happens.
An illness or accident strikes, derailing a sense of who we are and where we’re headed. A layoff unleashes a series of consequences that make “bad luck” look like a vacation. A spouse’s substance abuse shatters a family, and the ripple effects continue for years. Mental illness is eating us alive as we try to weather a partner’s latest storm, or possibly our own.
Poor Me: The Victim Mentality
Naturally, there are considerable differences among the everyday “poor me” mentality at the end of a dreadful week at the office, the resentment on the receiving end of a stream of troubling incidents beyond your control, and a persistent attitude of victimhood — regardless of the severity of the glitch or obstacle.
Here are a few examples of the victim mentality that may be familiar:
- Why don’t my relationships ever work out?
- Why can’t I ever get a good boss? (The great guy? The hot woman?)
- Laid off from three jobs in three years — I did everything right — so why me?
Psychology Today describes the victim mentality as follows:
The victim grates on you with a poor-me attitude, and is allergic to taking responsibility for their actions… They portray themselves as unfortunates who demand rescuing… As a friend, you want to help, but you become overwhelmed by their endless tales of woe… When you suggest how to put an end to the pity party, they’ll say, “Yes… but,” then launch into more unsolvable gripes…
Ouch! I see some of myself in this depiction. Having grown up with an emotionally needy, highly manipulative mother — one who certainly meets the criteria for this tendency — I imagine I absorbed some of these behaviors. However, self-awareness helps me shut them down, and equally helpful is a pragmatic inner voice that counters childish whining.
But note: I have nonetheless learned the value of allowing my emotions their due. I also know that through the worst of times, and those times went on for years, what kept me going (and as positive as possible): my children. They were innocents. They depended on me. My job was to give them my best.
Still, floating through my head and heart for years was my own sense of culpability, rightly or not, in the dramas taking place in my familial universe. And with those dramas — layoff, divorce, illness, money problems — came the recurring question: What did I do to bring this on?
If motherhood saved me from wallowing (and inertia), life experience before children had taught me the value in powering through challenges and never giving up. Now, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel sorry for myself, much less point a damning finger at my own inadequacy; it was only later that I recognized many of the events I faced as unpredictable and falling under the “shit happens” category.
Bad Luck, Murphy’s Law, the Real World
There are moments when we all feel self-pity, and understandably. For example: Your website crashes at the worst possible time, and you lose critical revenue and opportunities; the taxi driver takes a wrong turn and makes you late for a final interview for your dream job, and the job is lost due to that lateness; an illness wreaks havoc with your career, your finances, and thus your future plans; bad luck and Murphy’s Law rain down on you with the apparent fury of the gods as your sibling or best friend seems to shimmy along on Easy Street.
For some of us, the echo of earlier tough times is a complicating factor that remains close at hand; in fact, we are routinely triggered by a word or scenario, and consequently, we respond disproportionately to blips on the quotidian radar with anger, withdrawal, or a sense of “poor me.” We may voice that poor me attitude, or we may keep it to ourselves.
Others are more adept at shrugging off adversity. They use humor, family, or faith. They turn to a core of inner strength, to intellectual reasoning, or to touchstones they rely on for perspective and distraction — music, nature, exercise.
Perhaps the ability to find a measure of calm in the storm is a function of personality or temperament. Perhaps it is achievable when not suffering a set of emotional hot buttons. Perhaps a string of happy accidents — or the memory of them — offsets the powerlessness experienced during extended periods of hard times. Part of my own process for working through difficulties is reminding myself that hardship is not tragedy.
But when we are in crisis, it’s brutally hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. All we know is that we find ourselves in a very dark place.
Consider this comment from a reader named Nancy on being in one’s 50s and starting over, a seemingly gargantuan task after she experiences an onslaught of crushing events:
… Today was probably one of the worst days of my life. My husband of 28 years, disabled by mental illness, was arrested for driving a stolen vehicle. He was in a delusional, psychotic, manic phase… Ran up huge bills. Burned bridges with family and friends… One of the people my husband was arrested with claimed that they were headed back home to “to take care of the problem… Me!” Supplies to do so were found in the car…
I know I need to focus on the positive, but feel like I am living breath to breath. What did I do to deserve this? I thought if I loved harder, worked harder, cleaned harder, smiled harder, everything would work out. But, it didn’t…
And as she asks “What did I do to deserve this?” — all I can reasonably respond is “absolutely nothing.”
How many families are ripped apart by mental illness? Aren’t the spouses, the parents, and the children who live with the detritus and seek to clean up afterward victims?
Ah… Psychological Manipulation
In contrast with scenarios in which events beyond our control leave us reeling, this example from a reader named Clair illustrates the victim mentality as a sustained psychological and behavioral state, with seriously damaging impacts.
For those who live with someone who won’t take responsibility for their own actions, life can be miserable. Guilt — the result of emotional manipulation — becomes a terrible trap. In my experience, the only answer to leaving the trap behind is this: distance, coupled with acceptance that we can and must say no to that manipulation.
I know. Not easy.
So what can we do to stand up to obvious manipulation, especially when it comes from a family member or a partner? How do we prevent ourselves from slipping into self-pity as a knee-jerk response to the usual disappointments we all encounter in life?
I believe we must count our blessings, take advantage of our self-calming touchpoints, ask for help, understand it is a process, and whenever possible, offer community to each other. With a phrase that I use frequently — giving is the best cure for not having — I realize how often I have received extraordinary acts of kindness from strangers. I seek, in turn, to pay it forward.
In a complicated and isolating world, compassion gives me hope. I would wish for Nancy to know that she isn’t responsible for her husband’s mental illness, and it’s possible to move beyond these terrible times. I would wish for Clair to find the strength to continue to set boundaries, and to know that it isn’t too late to create the life she wants. I would wish for both of these women to find help in putting enough pieces in place to feel that life is manageable again.
I say as much during a period of upheaval in my own life, well aware that in the midst of dark times, it is almost inconceivable that better times are possible. And yet they are.
While none of us can create a bubble to keep out accident, illness, or societal issues that damage our relationships, our families, and our communities, neither the victim mentality nor the blame game solves anything. What we can do is take ownership where it is ours and only ours — speaking our minds, offering a helping hand, and exercising rational, compassionate choices when it comes to dealing with each other.
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