On Self-Esteem, Self-Worth, and Self-Concept

“But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” — EB White


Edit/Disclaimer, 1/27/16: I do not profess to be an expert in any field. The writing below is a product of my observations and opinion. Any sourced material is italicized, the sources linked immediately preceding the quoted text. Everything else is a combination of my collective inferences. Generalized psychology at the end are paraphrased parenthetically, and do not constitute enough depth to warrant citation, as the gist is provided, and can be double checked with a quick Google search. I do not profess to have invented or coined any of the terms or concepts used. 

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Being an adult sucks. I think we get wrapped up in the extent to which our ongoing responsibilities as an adult can negatively color our overall experience in the present.  The negative aspects of now generally overshadow things which happened in the past. We tend to romanticize the nostalgia of the past, and to pine for the carefree aspects of childhood. These blinders can cause us to dismiss the relativity of our situation, and to overlook the relevance of the cause and effect resulting from childhood experiences (ours and others). We go on as people carrying the cumulative extent of our experiences, and childhood is a much scarier, much more acutely fraught time than we tend to remember once we start to stoop under mortgages and tuition payments. The collective burden of childhood experiences is not something to be overlooked or thrown aside by caregivers. The effects of our experiences do not drop off suddenly (or gradually) as we enter the next developmental phases of life. We should not underestimate the severity and longevity with which our experiences shape us throughout our lives.

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria is an amazing human being, who I had the privileged of hearing speak at a Developmental Brain, Developing Accountability conference in Des Moines a few years ago. That same conference is where I learned about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and the ways in which we can combat them.

The ACE Study findings suggest that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life in the United States. It is critical to understand how some of the worst health and social problems in our nation can arise as a consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Realizing these connections is likely to improve efforts towards prevention and recovery.

I knew from a very early age that I had no desire to have my own children. However, I also knew that I was really good with kids: I talk to them directly, show interest in what was important to them, and reinforce their worth by validating them as people. These are interactions that adults know they need but for some reason are not as easily able to see that children need similar support, but with more intent and structure. Am understanding social nuances hasn’t been established yet, so the amount of important details adults overlook, how (and if) they respond to both positive and negative attention-seeking behavior, and what adults make time for in the course of their days really do matter to children, and to the children’s sense of self-worth. It’s important to help children learn to validate themselves, but one of the ways to do that is by example.

One of the reasons I feel I am able to cultivate meaningful relationships with kids is that I listen to them. I give them an audience for validation without giving them a crutch of needing meI’m the oldest child in my family, so I try to be the kind of big sister/auntie/teacher figure that I needed growing up. It’s hard for anyone put in a position of dependence on other peoples validation–not just as a means to provide stability, but validation necessary for existence. I also try to tell them the truth to the extent that it does not diminish them, and within a framework meant not to scare them into Chicken Little anxiety spirals.


The presentation of reality can be strange from a child-to-parent perspective, but it’s even stranger to me from a parent-to-child perspective. What is real to one group colors the reality of the other, but children are necessarily more dependent on parents than parents are on children, and therefore more specifically shaped by the set of realities and limitations set in place for them. It is a common phenomenon to stifle children unintentionally by helicopter parenting, as well as intentionally in a variety of ways so that they remain dependent on their caregivers (See Munchausens by Proxy from my previous entry).

There are also many adults who feel that a significant portion of their own self worth is wrapped up in the obligation/necessity/genetic manifest destiny of having children. It’s common to hear young girls pine for a baby so they would have someone to love them unconditionally. And that freaks me the fuck out, because that is not NOT NOT NOT what children are for. They are not replacements for cultivating your own self-worth. They are people, not status symbols. They are not a pair of shoes, they are not a good grade on an exam. There is a little more at stake when treat them as a sign of personal validation. This piece is based on my opinion, but I will vehemently state that people are not property, and children should not be treated as such.

Self-Worth, defined at “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person,” is an interesting topic. It can be measured in terms of Self-Concept and Self-Esteem:

Self-concept refers to a [person’s] perceptions of competence or adequacy in academic and nonacademic (e.g., social, behavioral, and athletic) domains and is best represented by a profile of self-perceptions across domains. Self-esteem is a [person’s] overall evaluation of him- or herself, including feelings of general happiness and satisfaction (Harter, 1999).

From these definitions, I would argue that much of the time we misuse self-esteem. Here it seems that self-concept is our evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, and self-esteem is how we feel about that evaluation. I would argue that embracing our weaknesses is at least as important as being validated for our strengths in terms of obtaining an accurate self-representation, and that it really is fine to like who you are, warts and all.  I would also argue that perspective weighs heavily on our classifications.


Twenty years ago, it was common to see studies which correlated self-esteem with direct behavioral results: Too little means we don’t try new things, don’t feel compelled to stray from what is familiar, suffer from depression, and are more likely to form dependency issues, drop out of school, have unintended pregnancies, and basically cause the end of the world as we know it. We turn those with “low self esteem” into victims who are purely a product of their circumstances.

calvin esteem.jpg

There really wasn’t much of a focus on what happens when you have too MUCH self-esteem. More recent studies have observed that too much can lead to narcissism, selfishness, and a sense of entitlement. Turns out, having too little self-esteem didn’t correlate with drug use/self-destructive behavior as well as having too much does.
It could be argued that an inflated sense of exceptional-ism can result in a lack of accountability, and a habitual pattern of “these rules apply to other people but not to me.” However, while arrogance and self esteem aren’t the same thing, they are frequently and casually used interchangeably, and should not be.

The primary error with narcissists or arrogant people is they feel they must be right all the time or there’s something wrong with them. This is a huge error, as no matter how smart we are, we can make mistakes in our thinking or actions. The healthy person knows this and doesn’t let a lapse in knowledge or a mistake threaten his self-esteem. In fact, he embraces facts, whether those facts come from himself or someone else, because he knows that knowledge will help him in his life.



Narcissists are different than people with narcissistic personality disorder. 


Having self-worth, being able to interact with others, while not depending on them too heavily nor dismissing them too readily is a balance that we find difficult to strike as adults; being careful to guide children towards a healthy understanding of these dynamics is important. Being careful not to encourage an air of arrogance in place of a healthy ability for developing self-esteem is vital, but it is not always an option. Teaching children that adults don’t know absolutely everything might be a good starting place; then they have wiggle room not to take word as gospel, and not to feel the anxiety associated with receiving conflicting messages from several “all knowing” beings.

Establishing a realistic understanding of Cause and Effect is vital for children. Adolescents can’t distinguish between their perspective and others; they can’t gauge what is objective and what is subjective, an affliction aptly dubbed Adolescent Egocentrism for the resulting “the world revolves around me, for better or for worse” outlook. They take their opinions and beliefs and generalize them as Facts That Everyone Shares, dismissing different perspectives as false or non-existent. They also experience interactions with Imaginary Audiences (Everyone is looking at me and judging me all the time!), made more difficult by the existence of their Personal Fable (I am a unique snowflake; no one could possibly understand my life/experiences/etc).

Some adults also struggle with overcoming these concepts; they don’t have the means or the ability or the experience to establish perspective within a situation, and then suffer with the consequences of concepts that are actually quite scary for adolescents and adults alike. Being able to have perspective, and then being able to shift it accordingly, are useful tools in overcoming presented obstacles.

beautiful monkey
As someone who has always sought out a system of rules for accountability, I acknowledge that I may be somewhat biased in my perceived value and pursuit of order. BUT I also think that rules should be established from logical systems: having rules for the sake of simply having rules is as absurd as declaring that Anarchy is best. You need some sort of guidelines for getting through your day, and the more layers of diversity you interact with (the general populous, school, work, basic public services, the internet, fancy dinner party etiquette, etc) the more subsets of rules that come into play.

I’ve also been vehemently against any system that relied on “Because I Said So” tactics. From my friends and peers with children, I understand that this is sometime a necessary option, but I would argue that it should only be implemented if the following options have been attempted:

  1. If you don’t know something, admit it. Embrace the freedom providing in proclaim I Don’t Know. Teaching children that there is a limited scope to individual knowledge is valuable–it allows an opportunity to go seek out answers (individually, or together), as well as teaching humility. Experiencing humility garners the same long-term rewards as experiencing failure does by illustrating that “what if” situations aren’t as bad as we build them up to be, and that the world doesn’t end over precarious, minute missteps. We’re stronger people for it.
  2. Ask why they want to know something they are asking about. Children (and adults) aren’t always as straightforward as they might be, and addressing the reasoning behind a question or action gives a more appropriate lens through which to provide an answer.
  3. Provide an example that everything we might rush to identify as a shortcoming or difference of opinion is an opportunity for growth. Knowing everything with certainty means you’ve confined yourself in a very particular space. Break out of it, and see what else is out there.
  4. Know that when you have an off day, you can try again tomorrow.

esteem is weird


unBecoming a Savior

I find power dynamics fascinating; the ones we create within ourselves, and the ones that worm their ways into all variations of our interpersonal relationships: close ties or spheres of influence, all the way up to our governments, our sense of identities (the many ways we slice ourselves into Us vs Them), and the ways that media introduces and reinforces those labels are all simultaneously vying for our attention. Somehow, we manage to tune them out, to stop actively participating in their roles in our lives. But that doesn’t mean these things aren’t constantly affecting us.

I wrote recently about unBecoming a Victim,  and I would like to address the other end of the spectrum in this posting: Savior Complexes. In the previous post, I addressed the Victim as someone that was not the Reader, and listed what, in my opinion, was decent enough advice for the Reader to implement should they encounter and identify someone who was struggling or causes strife for others because that Other Person had embraced their own victim status to the degree that they were experiencing a negative effect or affecting others similarly.

I did not address what to do if you, the Reader, were identifying as a Victim. It was not intentionally avoided, but after some careful thought I have decided to leave that angle on the topic unaddressed in the original blog posting. After all, this is a blog fueled solely by coffee and overthinking, the result of what my mind connects and what my fingers regurgitate into the inter-webs and onto the computer screen. If you are a Victim, but don’t know it, I hypothesize that the post addressing that would not be well received. We all have a tendency to be a little of everything now and then, but if you are so fully a Victim that there is little room for anything else, my thoughts are most likely dismissed as criticism instead of observation. But it’s ok; it’s not your fault. You legitimately have no control over what I think or say, so don’t take it personally. Of course, there are always legitimate reasons to identify with the Victim, the largest being the capacity to experience compassion. As Martha Nussbaum writes:

Compassion requires the judgment that there are serious bad things that happen to others through no fault of their own. In its classic tragic form, it imagines that a person possessed of basic human dignity has been injured by life on a grand scale. So it adopts a thoroughly anti-Stoic picture of the world, according to which human beings are both dignified and needy, and in which dignity and neediness interact in complex ways… The basic worth of a human being remains, even when the world has done its worst. But this does not mean that the human being has not been profoundly damaged, both outwardly and inwardly.

The society that incorporates the perspective of tragic compassion into its basic design thus begins with a general insight: people are dignified agents, but they are also, frequently, victims. Agency and victimhood are not incompatible: indeed, only the capacity for agency makes victimhood tragic. In American society today, by contrast, we often hear that we have a stark and binary choice, between regarding people as agents and regarding them as victims. We encounter this contrast when social welfare programs are debated: it is said that to give people various forms of social support is to treat them as victims of life’s ills, rather than to respect them as agents, capable of working to better their own lot.

Now, swinging the pendulum to another word for the other extreme she warns of in that stark binary choice: agents who exhibit The Savior Complex.

buddy christ

If being categorized as a Victim is marked by a total lack of personal responsibility for their involvement in a situation (i.e Being taken advantage of in some way), then being a Savior is defined as taking on substantially more responsibility than is appropriate. It has its own set of substantial issues.

On a personal note, for the year I taught abroad in Burma, living among people whose lives are so drastically more financially impoverished than what I had come to understand as Normal (as defined by being Midwestern, small town, American, middle class, white, privileged, etc) really cranked up my capacity to experience a Savior complex, because I lost perspective for what I was doing. What was meant to be an opportunity to see the world, experience different cultures, and to just help in some ambiguous, ethereal, substantial Margaret Mead-ish way, turned into a really negative experience by  feeling responsible for fixing everything and thus being overwhelmed at the multitude of things that needed to be addressed. Without a realistic scope and direction, it isn’t difficult to start feeling responsible for trying to fix everything, and if all your sensors get overwhelmed, you shut down.

teach for america

There’s a fine line, and a balance must be struck.

As a Victim, some things are within your control. It is your responsibility to note and address them appropriately. As a Savior, there are many things that are not within your control; it is not up to you to micromanage reality and flip all the switches. In each case, we must find a middle ground where we are not overwhelmed by how vast the world is and how insignificant it can make us feel.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and it has tricky interpersonal details, even a Catch-22: You can’t be a Victim without depending on other people, and you can’t be a Savior without people who depend on you. We’re all in this together, so there is responsibility and dependency on all sides; these two archetypes exist when our balance goes out of whack and we spiral toward one pole or another.

Victims are necessary in systems that are designed to be unfair, corrupt, and highly imbalanced. Yes Men, Sheep, Lemmings, Robots, whatever you want to call them, they are Victims who have embraced a false Safe Status of invisibility, with the assurance that as long as they do what they’re told, and as long as they let their Saviors take care of them, then everything will be alright. A reassuring lie is preferred over an inconvenient truth. It is a comforting lie, but a lie, regardless. It is a formula for people to engage in behavior, largely unchecked.

Saviors exist to fix problems, to save people from danger, harm, failure… but what they profess to do really depends on the judgement available to the people around them. Without significant dependency, good or bad, there is no room for Saviors to exist.


As much as we all love our Khaleesi, in becoming Daenerys bit off more than she could chew…but not more than her dragons could. There is much praise to be had for being Breaker of Chains and Mhysa, but she overlooked her people’s needs and abilities to take care of themselves. 

In addition to the pitfalls outlined in the linked blog above which lists all the ways that taking care of others before oneself can be harmful to the Savior, there can be, serious dangerous consequences to others.

In the same way that Victimization is utilized to obtain empathy, the status of being a Savior elicits praise for being selfless, despite the carefully crafted narrative existing solely to fuel that kind of praise.

Munchausens by Proxy is one severe example, where a caregiver “fabricates, exaggerates, or induces mental or physical health problems in those who are in their care, usually to gain attention or sympathy from others,” as illustrated in this clip from the 1999 film “The Sixth Sense.” The clip is of a child’s wake, where a father is given a video of the mother secretly poisoning her child to keep the child sick, feeble, and dependent, in order for the mother to maintain a constant stream of praise from those around her for being such a good, vigilant, attentive caretaker through it all.

Creating a dependency is key.

The common American belief that a college degree is necessary to succeed is one example.
You have to take out loans to pay for college.
You are then saddled with an immense amount of debt in pursuit of what was meant to be safe existence/normal social expectation.
Some jobs are more highly rewarded than others (tech jobs vs teachers, etc), and base take home pay reflects this.
If you didn’t study something that is monetarily valued at this level, you will struggle to pay for what is now retrospectively a 4 year vacation from a very specific reality.

Food is another dependency. During the Great Depression, the American government called on the people to step up and take care of themselves, more or less. Today, food is a trademarked commodity, and those who attempt to be self-sufficient are frequently fined, jailed, or robbed of their land and possessions because in many ways self-sufficiency has become illegal. Simple things, like keeping chickensutilizing rainwater, or having a garden  in place of a lawn, are verboten, because taking care of yourself doesn’t create a monetary benefit for your Corporate Saviors.


On a more extreme note, Hitler was also seen as a Savior by (some of) the German peoples, for identifying the cause of all their problems, and by creating a means to lead them out of it.

Perspective is everything.

So, who are you saving? And from what, exactly?

Finding Tribe

Tribe is one of the most beautiful words in the English language to me, a word which conjures vivid colors, lush fabric, downy quilts, arms opening and closing in embrace of one another. It conjures steamy, inviting cooking smells and stacks and stacks of books, tea, coffee, soup, warmth warmth warmth.

coffee table book

For many people, I think ‘Tribe’ is strongly connected to Festival Folk, people who participate in Burning Man or Bonnaroo. I would like to think it’s because of the inclusive nature and mutual respect that those events are founded on, but unfortunately I think the idea has lost the backbone of those components, and rests more heavily on looking the right sort of trendy.

fashionable tribe

We’ve used Tribe from an anthropological standpoint to make notes and classifications through the safety of a biased cultural lens atop our White European Soapbox for centuries. We have systematically dismantled any group of “primitive” peoples to the point where finding true Tribe is rather exclusive, an oddity. The grandeur that once belonged to Tribes is now to be found mostly in story books; we no longer even have the opportunity to experience its mysteries via National Geographic.

Now, for many,’Tribe’ may as well be synonymous with ‘Freak Show;’ from the outside, this may be intended as an insult towards people who are so unlike the Viewer that they seem like primitive outcasts. However, in my experience, observation, and research, self-identified ‘outcasts’ are some of the most welcoming, interesting people on the planet, whatever their particular stripes. People embrace who they are, or who they think they are, and that is a good first step towards Being. But no man is an island.

Belonging to a tribe is essential. After all, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

The connections founded on some Mutual Sameness are invaluable. In a world so connected by technology and global trade and travel, we are spoiled by our ability to so easily find tribe. It’s simple enough that I think many people take it for granted, and become lazy with their expectations. People find comfort in internet communities, but they are not Tribe, really. Tribe requires physicality and presence. There is something wonderful about being able to communicate in a meaningful way with Tribe scattered across the globe, to plan visits to one another and to compare loss or progress. But the people who you play World of Warcraft with online are not Tribe, nor is the compilation of that Secret Facebook Group you run so you can bitch about everyone else in peace, at least not if that’s all you do. (Sorry.) Online communities have their place, but they should not be ranked first and foremost, and they certainly should not be the only ring of Tribe in which you immerse yourself.

Substituting screen time (or Face Time) for actual face time is dangerous. Presence is important. Stepping away from electronics is necessary to attain and maintain a healthy level of emotional intelligence. We can’t connect to others if we refuse to connect with ourselves. We can’t go out and explore our emotional landscape if we’re too distracted by everything else that we’re always trying to accomplish simultaneously. As eloquently put forth in this 19 minute TED talk by Sherry Turkle, we’re connected, but so very alone.

We’ve cultivated an ability via social media to surround ourselves exclusively with like-minded people if we choose to do so, and have largely lost the ability to air opposing viewpoints with one another in a peaceful, respectful fashion. Any disagreement escalates almost immediately to palpable tension, and climaxes in emotionally fueled arguments. This is a problem in terms of the social ecosystem we create by specializing ourselves like insects. If we are unable to be a panoramic person in terms of expressing, hearing, and existing amid a diverse set of beliefs, viewpoints, and information, then we are self-sabotaging ourselves. It is comfortable to be Like Other People, it is detrimental if we are all Exactly The Same. Homogeneous societies can become fragile because of their sameness, as can digital societies become fragile because of their disconnectedness.

Touch is essential, for infants, children, and adults. It is more essential than food for our survival. True, food nourishes our body, but love, touch, affection, and attention nourish our soul. Without a sense of connectivity, we become isolated, depressed. Without tribe, we fail.

We lose and find our paths so many times throughout our lives. Rediscovering yourself is a wonderful, terrifying thing. Depression is one component, which can be both an effect and a catalyst for anything else that happens. For anyone, whether you’ve experienced severe depression or not, this blog provides brilliant insight via the depths of gallows humor the author has implemented. It is one of the most perfect creations in this world. (Be sure to also read part two. You won’t be disappointed.)

We need 8 hugs a day  (according to research!) to reap the full benefits of oxytocin, “the neurotransmitter also known as the “bonding” hormone. Oxytocin contributes to our sense of connectedness and, as a result, our happiness.” The elderly are frequently the most at risk population for suffering the consequences of neglect. Last fall, I started down a rocky path. As stories go, there wasn’t one identifiable catalyst that engaged the universe’s gears to start churning in any particular way, but the slow water torture of misplaced best intentions over the previous who-knows-how-long finally aligned or accumulated and I was jolted once again in a direction towards being My Authentic Self.

But I started painting again. And making beautiful things to surround myself with was insulating.

I enrolled in massage therapy classes. And finding a tangible way to provide comfort to others was empowering.

I met someone truly wonderful. And being vulnerable together was reassuring, because, as he pointed out, I didn’t need someone to take care of me; I was perfectly capable of doing that myself. Being your Whole Self, however broken and fractured you feel, creates a different beacon than someone who is reveling in and floundering because of their brokenness.

When you revel in your brokenness, and accept it as Who You Are Entirely, you’re overlooking your capacity to heal, and to become anything beyond or other than what you presently feel you are. If you look for connections in this state, you may only find ones who fit with the limited version of who you are, and this limitation ensures that you remain that way in order to maintain the connection. You’re a puzzle piece, looking for it’s corresponding link.


But when you embrace your Whole Self, flaws, cracks, fractures, psychoses, the whole range of who you are, whether the traits are flattering or not, you’re able to do something wonderful, albeit slowly. You start to be able to flex emotional muscles that you had previously babied when they were broken. If you can’t slowly start to reintroduce their use, you remain crippled. Broken People take advantage of other Broken People.

But Broken People who embrace opportunities to heal are drawn to one another, and make it possible to be more than the sum of their parts.

arms and legs

We find compliments to what we perceive to be our flaws, in ways that complete us.

Thanks to the Tribe I have recently found, I have also found an interest in permaculture, which is, as far as I can tell, the truest means to have the highest form of Tribe in the 21st century.

I have wanted a Commune since I was 12 years old. I wanted a big, rustic family, the opportunity to learn more about the world around me than what I knew the day before, the opportunity to take pride in my work.

I am at a crucial juncture in my life, on this journey with my Tribe.
And the view from where I sit is breathtaking.


unBecoming a Victim


We have a very backwards view of the word victim, in my mind. It doesn’t really jive with the dictionary definition.

Merriam-Webster has this to say about it, for a starting point:

Full Definition of victim

noun vic·tim \ˈvik-təm\

  1. 1:  a living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite

  2. 2:  one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent <the schools are victims of the social system>: asa(1):  one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions <a victim of cancer><a victim of the auto crash><a murder victim>(2):  one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment <a frequent victim of political attacks>b:  one that is tricked or duped <a con man’s victim>

We have all but done away with the first definition, and we have become used to eschewing a near-constant disbelief in the legitimacy of the second. We constantly question the nuance of a situation to challenge the authenticity of the label victim in scenarios that have to do with personal autonomy. What I personally think usually leads down a multi-story rabbit hole away from the main point, but I will abbreviate and just say that there is a particular paradox which astounds me like no other, and that is, at the same time, these two things are true:

Victim Blaming is pervasive. The amount of shit society gives rape victims (as one example) about the survivor applying that particular label and how openly the general public looks for loopholes (she knew him, look at what she was wearing, she shouldn’t have been in that part of town, etc) to squash any shred of humanity and empathy we might muster for them, and instead place full responsibility for the scenario on the part of the person victimized. In  refusing to legitimize their claim to that word, it is removing a crucial component for those women and men to acknowledge what was done to them, and to work through their resulting trauma. The Media active perpetuates this, and encourages catty, hateful behavior.

So, we lie to ourselves about another persons story, because it might be traumatic for us to acknowledge that there is a set of real societal problems to be addressed. People openly shame them for circumstances that were genuinely beyond their control. While at the same time:

Victim Mentality is encouraged as a default status. People who perpetuate a victim mentality about their day to day lives and constantly deny any margin of personal responsibility are openly given feedback from strangers and their inner circles which encourages that harmful mindset to linger, fester, and thrive. This gives the self-identified victim any number of reasons not to face their portion of responsibility regarding the matters in which they become victims. This allows them to be forever free of responsibility for anything they do, because the resulting consequences will never be because of their own actions.


From Cambridge journals online:

The desire of sympathy is crucial in that the mere experience of a harmful event is not enough for the emergence of the sense of being a victim. In order to have this sense there is the need to perceive the harm as undeserved, unjust and immoral, an act that could not be prevented by the victim. The need to obtain empathy can then emerge. 

The nuance I want to illustrate is the intentional manipulation of responsibility within these two approaches to understanding victimization. People can adopt a victim mentality whether or not they have actually been a victim of a serious, traumatic event (like a rape). People can be held responsible (blamed) for their situation when they had nothing to do with the circumstances or events. Neither approach allows the person in question to take full stock of their actual position in the matter.

We create opportunities for people to mark themselves as victims because of the positive feedback it gives them, and because it allows them to be more easily controlled due to their perpetual inability to take proper responsibility for themselves, but we argue against situations that have created real victims, or worse, invalidate those situations entirely by not recognizing their truths.

The difference in these two positions is further chilling when you apply it to racial discrepancies in statistics for nonviolent offenders in jail/in the system/with a record, and for likelihood of being shot/violated by the police. There are many more writers, bloggers, and activists who can speak to this more eloquently; I am still stuck trying to make sense of a world that, until my mid-20s, I was naively unaware of. All Lives Matter, of course, but Black Lives Matter because we have systematically and socially decreed that they don’t. We reinforce this through active and passive channels.

Death at an Early Age by Jonothan Kozol is a chilling first hand account of the ways in which students were systematically victimized by their school system and many of the educations whom the children were meant to be able to trust, and a stark reminder that the events of the last few years (excessive police brutality, vilification of the Black Lives Matter movement, horridly biased media coverage) are just the most recent moves in a game that we allow to continue because of buck passing on a grandiose scale.

I would like to further compare/contrast these viewpoints with the Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets observed in Carol Dweck’s research, but will save that for another blog posting.

We shame one another, and ourselves, into helplessness, then retaliate against the hardest hit individuals and populations. We chastise them for slander against their perpetrators, and we complain that they are “part of the problem,” when we refuse to look at what the real problems entail.

So much research has been done on why the Nazis were so successful at the horrendous goals they set for themselves, and it comes down to power dynamics and personal responsibility. The author of the article link above, Marvin Zuckerman, goes into detail that is very much worth reading in its entirety, but the quick and dirty summation is that people were scared, and lazy, and believed what they were told to believe because the lie of the majority felt like too much to fight against, so people submitted. Victims believed they were victims. People just doing their jobs, taking orders. The Milgram Experiments showed that, under the right circumstances, a majority of people will follow orders despite an awareness of those orders being harmful or fatal to others.

following orders

And if we maintain a society of victims, none of us are truly responsible for our actions. That is terrifying to me. Encouraging someone to be a victim, to be helpless, to create stories that demonize other people, is evil. Perhaps it seems unjustified to equate enabling harmful behavior in one person to the success of the Nazi regime, like vilifying one drop in the ocean. But what is the ocean, but a series of drops? All Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Personal responsibility matters. We are here to take care of one another, and part of that is facing harsh truths, one of which is that we really suck at it sometimes, but each of us has the ability to make changes for the better, no matter how small they seem.

Stand up for people, people like you, people unlike you.

Don’t let racist, sexist, xenophobic comments go–don’t accept their normalization and casual use.

Show people by example that they can stand up for themselves, and help give them the tools to reclaim their autonomy and responsibility.

Don’t encourage gossip, fear-mongering, or shaming.

Don’t teach anyone–friends, children, loved one, strangers–that they are helpless. Encourage everyone to take stock of what they have control over and what they don’t. Encourage critical thinking.

Don’t believe everything you are told. There are many sides to every story. It is up to you to find the truth, and the loudest, most pervasive voices are often just as persistent as they are incorrect.


From the same Wikipedia page listed above, here is a list of common points that emerge with a victim mentality. It’s not our place to shame someone who has adopted these: quick, reactionary behavior will only enforce their perception. But to acknowledge that someone has created this world view might help you help them ease away from it.

The attention they seek through this behavior is a drug. To recover from their addition, they need to be weaned off it, not provided with an endless supply of encouragement to continue with destructive behavior.

  • Blaming others for a situation that one has created oneself or significantly contributed to. Failing or being unwilling to take responsibility for one’s own actions or actions to which one has contributed or for taking action to ameliorate the situation.
  • Ascribing non-existent negative intentions to other people (paranoia)
  • Believing that other people are generally or fundamentally luckier and happier (“Why me?”).
  • Gaining short-term pleasure from feeling sorry for oneself or eliciting pity from others. Eliciting sympathy by telling exaggerated stories about bad deeds of other people (e.g. during gossip)

People with victim mentality may develop convincing and sophisticated arguments in support of such ideas, which they then use to convince themselves and others of their victim status.

People with victim mentality may also be generally:

  • negative, with a general tendency to focus on bad rather than good aspects of a situation. A glass that is half full is considered half empty. A person with a high standard of living complains about not having enough money. A healthy person complains of minor health problems that others would ignore
  • self-absorbed: unable or reluctant to consider a situation from the point of view of other people or to “walk a mile in their shoes”.
  • defensive: In conversation, reading a non-existent negative intention into a neutral question and reacting with a corresponding accusation, hindering the collective solution of problems and instead creating unnecessary conflict.
  • categorizing: tending to divide people into “goodies” and “baddies” with no gray zone between them.
  • unadventurous: generally unwilling to take risks; exaggerating the importance or likelihood of possible negative outcomes.
  • exhibiting learned helplessness: underestimating one’s ability or influence in a given situation; feeling powerless.
  • stubborn: tending to reject suggestions or constructive criticism from others who listen and care; unable or reluctant to implement the suggestions of others for one’s own benefit.
  • self-abasing: Putting oneself down even further than others are supposedly doing.

A victim mentality may be reflected by linguistic markers or habits, such as pretending:

  • not to be able to do something (“I can’t…”),
  • not to have choices (“I must…”), or
  • not to know the answer to a question (“I don’t know”).


New Beginnings: 2016

Alt Title: Mandatory New Years Day Blog posting. 

Alt Alt Title: Despite Yearly Best Intentions, How I Still Can’t Seem to Get to the Gym Past February. 

Alt Alt Alt Title: Do No Harm, but Take No Shit.

It is a new year, by the Gregorian calendar, a time of rebirth, renewal, and a socially normalized opportunity to make promises to ourselves that we don’t particularly seem deeply invested in keeping. Possibly this is because we turn out to be fragile little flowers with too many high-falootin’ aspirations. Or it could be that we haven’t cultivated a persona that knows what goals are reasonable for who we are. Individual awareness is more important than social or situational awareness, in my opinion, and it is one facet of ourselves that we overlook most readily.

(See previous blog post outlining my thoughts on that very topic.)

As mentioned, the New Year is a period of Rebirth, but we don’t usually respect it as much as the romanticized rebirth associated with Easter in the Christian tradition, and in Spring for those of us who trend towards the safer matriarchy found in various forms of Paganism.

Having our year’s cycle start in the middle of frigid nothingness in January seems apt, even if time-keeping modes are man made, based on normalized needs, and entirely arbitrary, albeit fascinating to think about. I have never been present for an actual mammalian birth of any sort; I’m squeamish around bodily fluids and other things that I won’t detail here, as this is not a blog about motherhood and I could never do it proper justice. But I do know that We as a species tend to romanticize everything, view everything through a highly individualized filter, and in some cases, go through life with the equivalent of blinders Krazy-glue’d to our temples to maintain whatever perspective vortex is most appealing to us, despite the pesky details of reality lingering there around the edges, and happily, just out of our sight.

We edit our nostalgia so Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Hurts, but the truth is that birth is messy. Birth/rebirth comes from chaos. Elements combine, explode, and a star is born. Baby birds and reptiles struggle to free themselves from shells. Butterflies are my favorite illustration of this, as gruesomely detailed here, and is really worth reading to geek out for those of you who are into bugs and stuff. We all know caterpillars turn into butterflies, but it goes overlooked, somehow, that they literally have a complete meltdown first:

Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth.

Gross right? But so awesome! I completely identify with that, because every superior-to-previous-versions of myself has come out of a crisis situation. The potential benefit or catastrophe of every fork in the road laid heavily on me identifying what was within my control, what wasn’t, and how I handled those components…but more on that in a moment.

After their literal meltdown, butterflies aren’t in the clear yet. They transform into their adult selves within the protective casing of the chrysalis, but the snug nest you build isn’t supposed to be the whole of the world.

ship harborMixing metaphors is one of my favorite things to do. As is beating a dead horse. Not literally, of course, as a dead horse is a dead horse, of course? Of course. And it does no one any good to actually beat a dead horse, thus further illustrating the ridiculous of the saying at all.

But ships and butterflies are majestic, and you can never have too much majesty.

Anyway, BUTTERFLIES. They then have to struggle out of their chrysalis in order to strengthen their wings. If they are deprived of the opportunity and helped to do something they, by nature, must accomplish themselves in order to live and thrive, then they are permanently crippled.

A more beautifully written allegory to that effect can be found here.

Google has eight gagillion versions of that story; sometimes its a biology teacher, sometimes a student, but in every version some kindly person dooms the butterfly because they didn’t understand the purpose of the creatures struggle (nor did they stop to consider the philosophical aspects of struggle at all) and intervened to “help,” without having enough information to know that their intent wasn’t a true representation of what was helpful. Viewing someone/something as a victim doesn’t help them: expectation of victimization leads to a smaller/significantly limited/more cramped world than what we are able to create for ourselves when we acknowledge our limitations, and utilize a crisis as a means to strengthen our selves and sharpen our resolve.

If the butterfly fails at first to extract themselves, they adapt until they’re successful. Intervening outside of what is appropriate doesn’t give them a chance to grow through this very necessary struggle.

If you haven’t identified and taken stock of the tools at your disposal, of course you aren’t capable of utilizing them, properly or at all.

If you default to help from others before assessing what is within your own power, you may cripple yourself.

The best way of helping anyone–people, animals, ourselves–is to help them to live under their own momentum, allow them to help themselves. Don’t patronize something just because you think it is weak, as your misjudged “help” is assuring that it will remain so. Help them by assessing a situation, and being truthful about the nature of their reality.
Closer relationships necessitate a higher degree of truth-telling within those relationships. Why else cultivate a community, if not to have each other’s best interest in mind and to help one another succeed to the best of their ability?

To build reason and action upon undisputed, unexamined versions of truth is unsound, unsafe, unnecessary, and unethical.

Truth Lie

Birth and rebirth are messy. Let yourself struggle Practically a little, and with purpose, as opposed to Arbitrarily: remember, the butterfly has a goal in mind (to be reborn). They aren’t just crawling into cramped places for the sake and sport of it. They’ve undergone a huge transformation, and intervening before they’re ready, before they’ve done their own leg work, is more hurtful than you may know. You may as well just step on the poor thing yourself and get it over with, rather than inundate them with Misguided Best Intentions.

I’ll be examining threads along this theme in the coming weeks. If you have a question, a topic of preference, or any of your own thoughts which you’d like me to respond to, please leave a comment!

And Happy New Year. May the new year provide new insights, and may you be surrounded by people who truly help you to both become better versions of yourselves.