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How Do I Stop Feeling Like A Victim?

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With lifelong low self-esteem, why is it so hard to believe that you’re worthy, lovable and acceptable just as you are? Here’s one reason I see often. Lifelong struggles with low self-esteem often stem from chronic, adverse childhood experiences—especially inconsistent or abusive parenting. Such upbringing can lead to a pattern of seeking validation from external sources, perpetuating feelings of victimization in all kinds of situations.

We need healthy boundaries for internal validation and for generating self-worth. That comes from receiving what’s called “good enough parenting.” Its absence risks creating lower emotional resilience and low self-esteem in children. In adult life, that might result in a person unconsciously seeking “salvation” in romantic relationships, being very concerned with loyalty in friendships, or overworking themselves in expectation of recognition in their career. And that easily leads to a heightened sense of victimization with breakups, conflicts and professional setbacks.

“Good enough parenting” involves attunement to your needs as a child. Without that, you don’t learn to trust your inner self as a credible source for your fundamental worth and acceptability. That’s why you may find yourself habitually and unconsciously seeking validation almost entirely from your surrounding environment and your experiences. 

Every positive interaction or achievement temporarily boosts self-esteem, while setbacks or disappointments provoke a spiralling into feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. This pattern can feel overwhelming, as if you’re at the mercy of forces beyond your control.

After enough years of this, you will have unconsciously learned to be constantly scanning your surroundings for signs of approval or rejection. You may experience a roller coaster of emotions from a heightened sensitivity, or vigilance, to this. This is a form of conditioning.


If you’ve been living with lifelong low self-esteem, and don’t know what to do about it, would it help if you woke up tomorrow with no memories of who you are?

No, of course. But one thing’s for certain: nothing from your past would hold you back. Without memories, you wouldn't have anything to reference in deciding what you wanted to do or be. You wouldn’t need your own “inner committee’s” approval to do whatever you wanted to do or to be. 

The last time I truly enjoyed that state of being, trying out whatever I wanted to do or be, was when I was very young. I smile when I think of all the things I did, or make-believe roles I tried on.

And then, I often remember all of the times I was shut down for trying them. There are memories of doors opening – usually my bedroom door. And then the demanding, insistent interrogation: what are you doing? My attempt to explain it would follow, in that sort of young boy’s feeble way that comes from having experienced this moment so many times before. The pause, the look of baffled disbelief, and then the inevitable judgment from a face that held a strange mix of anger and fear:

You can’t do that!

My young, runaway imagination was not well-tolerated by my mother, who herself carried a sort of existential dread over her imagined, cosmic consequences of colouring outside the lines.

It was a major reason why I developed such a strict inner committee, constantly disqualifying me from things that might have brought me satisfaction and joy. The committee went on to ensure I held back in all my endeavours, played it safe, kept my head down, and otherwise took a distrustful, defensive posture towards life.

While those around me freely coloured outside the lines and thrived, my own “narrative” evolved to mirror my mother's: I felt out of place wherever I longed to belong. I recognize this now as my conditioning. Back then, it felt like an enduring anxiety, holding me back out of a sense of shame.

So memory becomes the means by which we fashion an identity for ourselves, good and bad. Experience creates memory, and memory creates conditioning. And so long as you are not aware of this process, the conditioning remains automatic.

With low self-esteem, conditioning works in two main ways.

Firstly, as we’ve just seen, conditioning arises from childhood experiences that shape your sense of self. Children absorb messages from caregivers, internalizing beliefs about their lovability and worthiness. This early conditioning can lead to a profound sense of inadequacy and a constant quest for validation.

Secondly, there's the struggle to reconcile this learned narrative with the innate need for love and acceptance. Despite internalized messages of unworthiness, the instinctual drive for connection persists, causing emotional turmoil when validation is lacking.

Coping with this dissonance often involves adopting a defensive identity to navigate the pain of feeling fundamentally unworthy. Whether through submission or rebellion, these coping mechanisms reinforce a sense of victimization, perpetuating cycles of powerlessness and inadequacy.

By defensive identity I mean a split between the authentic self (inner and private), and a false self adopted to navigate social expectations (outer and performative). What compounds the inner turmoil is when others sense this incongruence, and respond with rejection rather than empathy. You may have experienced this as people treating you “strangely” in a way you can’t put your finger on.

So why is it so difficult to shake this? Why is it so difficult to stop feeling like a victim?

“Don’t be a such a victim!”

Unfortunately, “victim” often carries a negative connotation. Phrases like “don't be such a victim!” are used as put-downs in a society that has lost its collective sense of empathy. Comment trolls on social media minimize and dismiss self-esteem struggles as oversensitivity or weakness. Overly-pragmatic self-improvement culture denies the reality of widespread disempowerment resulting from misattuned caregiving environments.

That's why I found it gutsy of my therapist during one memorable session years ago when he told me to stop feeling so victimized by the day-to-day events I was distressed about.

But it wasn’t really gutsy. All of our previous therapy sessions to that point – and his wonderful consistency in showing up as a safe, trusted presence – set a very different tone to his using that word with me, victim. I knew that he meant this in a way that people rarely mean.

He meant that living as a victim often comes from years of being invalidated or mistreated, leading to a deep sense of despair. Whenever I expressed distress from this place of victimization, I was unknowingly reinforcing my old conditioning. Despite wanting a life free from feeling defective, I stayed inside the victimization. I had no idea I was doing this until he pointed it out. That’s when I noticed I was strangely attached to it. I longed for a sustainable happiness but felt bound to this familiar, painful thing.

Why would anyone want to keep on feeling victimized? It seems so incredulous. That’s why it’s easy for many people to dismiss, put down, or invalidate others for “playing the victim card.” Yeah, you enjoy being a victim!

Actually, no. Nobody enjoys it. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of this attachment I could feel. When I looked more at that sense of attachment to my victimization, I realized that a part of me didn’t want to let go of it because he believed that doing so risked never getting the love and acceptance he longed for. The victim role was the only way I knew how to get some of that, especially from other wounded people who were unconsciously drawn towards caring for my wounds.

Where Victimization-As-Self-Identity Starts

When I looked closer at that attachment, the pattern became clear. I saw my vulnerable, youngest self, still yearning for acceptance and love. I’d sought both out elsewhere as I grew older, but always braced for a rejection I believed inevitable. Any failure just confirmed my bias and fuelled resentment and anger, which in turn drove me to keep seeking. I envisioned finding unconditional love through a romantic partner, but my unrealistic expectations led to unsustainable relationships and a sense of (you guessed it) victimization. In therapy, I realized that underneath that was an acute sense of abandonment. It was such a familiar feeling. Memories of all kinds surfaced.

One set of memories were about how my parents expressed their anger at me whenever I had been “bad.” They’d leave me feeling that I was shameful by nature. If one would come into my bedroom later to tuck me into bed, and forgive me, it was such a relief. Only then I could go safely to sleep feeling redeemed, accepted, worthy, safe, and loved again.

Yet there were times when neither came. I would wait, feeling wretched and shameful. Eventually I would hear their bedroom TV shut off, their bedroom door close, and see the illuminated gap under their door go black. Then my room would go silent and dark. I’d feel a deep, existential ache of abandonment, as though I had been cast adrift in deep space like an insignificant speck of cosmic dust.

So, again, why would anyone want to keep feeling this over and over? 

Because after years of feeling this way without insight, you know yourself this way. And you don’t know yourself as that version who does not feel victimized and abandoned. To become that version of yourself is daunting. There’s a few reasons why, which happen also to be the first steps towards it.

Reason No. 1: The grief for what never was

First, you must realize and accept that you will never receive that long-hoped for attunement and love from those who defined your early environment. Even if they are still alive. Next may come mourning this: the loss of never having had it. This may unleash a flood of grief over all your unmet needs and lack of validation. You may also feel anger towards those who let you down, and that anger may become complicated with guilt for the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing about them. This is normal.

Reason No. 2: Learning to be the self you were always meant to be

Second, it requires that, for the first time in your life, you truly take responsibility for your own happiness, instead of ceding that to the mercy of others. You certify yourself as perfectly acceptable and lovable just as you are. 

You’ll notice your resistance to this. Because you know yourself best as the young self who was victimized, disqualifying yourself will have become an ingrained habit. That part of you who disqualifies you will jump in to try to dissuade you from telling yourself that you are worthy and lovable by nature. At these times, you must remember that having no experience being the best version of yourself doesn’t mean you are not qualified. It was never your fault.

Reason No. 3: Being angry with the universe

Realizing the task is now yours might stir up anger, as it did for me. Why must I endure this struggle when others don't have to? It's completely valid to feel like you've been robbed of precious time and happiness, and I understand that simplistic answers will simply sound dismissive of your pain – as if you haven’t felt dismissed enough already. I know firsthand that my painful memories will never be erased.

But this isn’t about erasing pain. It’s about learning to carry it differently. One of the almost-inevitable results of this process is coming to understand human motivation more deeply than most. Of how the happiness you’ve always wanted is in you now, rather than a distant future where you have finally “solved” the “problem” of you. There is no problem to be solved. 

This is a patient, compassionate process of letting go of your old story, through healing and learning to carry the pain of old memories differently. It’s in your own time, and in your own way. Your “new” story emerges from discovering for yourself what you were supposed to have been guided to, long ago: the sacred space at your core that knows the truth about your fundamental goodness.

Don't Go It Alone

As a psychotherapy client, I benefited from an approach that recognizes emotion as an important messenger of memory, and how that memory completely shapes the sense of self. But I’d also found a therapist who was genuinely attuned to me in a way my early care-giving environment never was. 

We know from research that the “fit” between therapist and client is likely the most important factor in successful therapy. That’s why I want to close by saying that the steps you take to transform what you believe about yourself, and how you live with painful memory, are rarely possible on your own (and sometimes even unsafe).

It’s inherently challenging to keep separate the self-perception of your conditioning, and the conditioning itself continuing to affect you. This is especially the case with emotional trauma. That’s why I encourage you to reach out to a mental health helping professional who understands this, and who can be there for you and support you through the challenging parts.

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What You Can Do About Low Self-Esteem

I've written a 60-page guide on what you can do for yourself about feeling lonely, abandoned, ashamed or disconnected.

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