“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” – George Bernard Shaw
I was watching a stream hosted by Ian from Adventure Rules and we were having a delightful time working our way through Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. We came to a spot in the game that involved adorable creatures named punies, who, long story short, had been trapped by the bad guys and needed to be rescued by Mario. What stuck out to me was that Mario, along with one of his new Puni friends, was able to slip in and out of the cage in which the other punies were being held.
A few light-hearted comments were made about the punies choosing to stay trapped, and the game and discussion moved on.
But what stuck with me was that this is true out in the physical world: people can be so blinded by the situation that they are in, so absorbed in their own experience of the world, that they wind up trapping themselves in a bad situation that doesn’t need to be that way.
One distinction must be made. There is a difference between being a victim, and thinking you’re a victim.
Victim of Victimhood
Most of us have probably heard someone refer to another person as “playing the victim.” This is usually meant when the other person hasn’t really had anything bad happen to them, but pretends to in order to glean some sort of benefit (social or otherwise). This is not what we’re talking about today.
This post is the difference between someone who is a victim of someone else’s actions, and someone who maybe only thinks they are a victim of someone else’s actions (or, is not as much of a victim as they think they are).
Please note, if someone tells you that something happened to them, your first response should be to believe them and their experience. This is purely a theoretical discussion about agency in regards to self-improvement.
The difference between being a victim and thinking you’re a victim comes down to where the action occurs. When we say that someone is a victim of a crime, we use the term “victim” to show that some has happened to the person. It is something they had no control over and, presumably, if they could have done something about it, they would have. The victim will, presumably, act in a way to bring the event to a close. They will take action.
This ability to act independently and make their own choices is referred to as agency. The belief that the person has the option and ability to make these decisions and to act upon their own life is self-efficacy (they believe they have an effect on their self).
Please note, in the case of some crimes, a victim may not feel safe taking action. This does not make them less of a victim, but rather a victim twice over, because they would take action if they believed they could/it would have consequences.
However, it’s possible that a person really has some sort of problem, internal or external, and instead of taking action, they put the “action” onto other people. In this mode, the person promotes themselves as being helpless (and perhaps they believe it, to a certain extent), and that all these bad things happen to them for which they have no control, ever.
Sidebar: Knowing Where You Come From
Sometimes, things happen to us that affect how we behave in the future. It could be by a friend or family member, or a person we have met once and never see again. Sometimes these effects can be very negative, and can negatively affect our lives. Knowing these root causes can be important for knowing how to move forward from them.
But that happens in two parts: knowing the cause, and then acting upon it. It’s not enough to say “I do this because of X” and then shrug about it and continue being helplessly pulled along by your past. The people who, for the purposes of this article, have seen their problems, know where they came from (maybe), and then keep blaming those reasons for their actions. They are inactive when it comes to their lives.
Save the Punies
When Mario and his friends find the imprisoned Punies in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, they are locked in barred cages. At first glance, it seems like they are indeed trapped behind the iron bars until Mario and his new Puni friend, Punio, slide through the bars easily… because they are as thin as paper.
And then they, Punio included, slide back out through the bars, promising to return to save the Punies still trapped by….?
There’s nothing about the cage that suggests they punies couldn’t do exactly what Mario and Punio had done to enter and exit the cage. The bars are spaced apart enough, there are no other mechanisms keeping them there, but here are the punies, trapped in their cage, seeing a solution, and yet still waiting around for someone else to save them.
Dutifully, Mario and Punio do, unlocking the cage so the punies can easily walk out of the cage that they could have left anytime they wanted.
In counseling, it’s a commonly-held believe among therapists that change can only come from within. Sometimes, people enter therapy and they expect the therapist to fix all their problems, but that isn’t how therapy works. A therapist is there to shine light when it’s dark, point to the dark corners you’ve forgotten to search, and teach you about new tools to use when your hammer and screwdriver aren’t fixing the problems anymore. But it’s up to you to open your eyes, look in the corner, and pick up the tool and try it.
But to do that, you need to first embrace that your life is your responsibility. You must believe that you have self-efficacy over yourself. You can’t control what is done to you, but you can control how you act.
We all have mental or emotional cages that we find ourselves in from time to time. Some of the cages might be old, worn, and sturdy from years of use. Or they might be new, shiny, and built in response to a recent event. That’s normal, and it’s okay to sometimes find yourself there.
And it’s okay to know why you’re there. Like the punies, you can know what got you into the cage. You can even know that there is something outside the cage that you’ll have to face once you’re out. The punies knew all of this, too. They were even shown how they could slip in and out of the bars without any help.
This is no different than your therapist handing you a new tool and suggesting you use it, only for your to take the same tired old hammer to your problems and bemoan that the wall paint is against you. At some point, taking responsibility is the only obstacle between us and our goal.
As was mentioned above, sometimes we find ourselves in cages. Sometimes a solution that is obvious to another isn’t obvious to us. And that’s a normal experience. Sometimes we hear someone solve our problem and it sounds so simple and obvious that there’s no way we believe it could work for us, the same way the punies stayed in their cages after Mario and Punio entered and exited the cage easily.
Sometimes there is something worse outside the case, so we stay safe behind the familiar bars and bemoan our fates. We wait for a hero who may or may not come. The comfort of the familiar bars we’ve stared out from for song long is a siren’s call compared to taking responsibility and action on the situation.
When it comes to our own cages, we have the power to enter and leave them for ourselves, regardless of who put us in them to start. Yes, sometimes we need help seeing that, but at the end of the day, only we can decide when it’s time to squeeze out from behind the bars.
What do you think? Are we sometimes put in cages that we have no control over our response to it? Where is the line between what happens to us, and our subsequent behaviors, in regards to responsibility? Have you ever been in a situation where you were surprised at how much control you had over it? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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Yeah, everyone holds the belief that they are a good person, and that they’re in control. And the interplay of those two often leads to people thinking that means all the bad stuff that happens to them is because of some force more powerful than them, so they end up giving up that control they believe they have. Most often, the answers they need are just the things they haven’t chosen to do or haven’t thought of yet. If only all such solutions were as easy as just turning sideways to slip through the bars.
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I love the idea that compelling villains are the ones who think they are the heroes, because it really throws into sharp relief this idea of “the world” being bad or against us, when really their interaction with the world is causing a lot of their problems (obviously bad things do happen to people, but then the response is what matters, like you said).
…And yes, wouldn’t it be great if the solutions were that easy?
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