Is Your Mindset Preventing You From Achieving Your Goals?

During my psychotherapy training, many of the instructors taught that we needed to unconditionally tolerate whatever toxic personality walked in the door, build trust and rapport over an indeterminate period, and sooner or later they would suddenly become receptive to making changes in their lives. If you were caring and patient, you would eventually be able to help them.

Here’s the thing – they were wrong. There comes a point where doing this crosses the line from compassion into enabling. I am one of the rare psychiatrists that is willing to fire patients for therapeutic reasons. I don’t tolerate repeated failure in myself, I don’t associate with people content to fail, and I don’t validate patients looking for permission to repeatedly fail. On its own, failure is healthy. It signifies that you are growing, changing, and trying new things. When it becomes unhealthy, people become content to fail in the same tasks over and over without changing, coming to view failure as a foregone conclusion.  

You certainly wouldn’t be able to pick the individuals I have fired from psychotherapy out a line up. I have fired patients of every age, race, color, creed, socioeconomic status, criminal history, and background. Together, they would constitute a virtual United Nations of fail. While I have treated murders, rapists, con men, pedophiles, thieves, and drug dealers, I’ve fired very few of them. Many of the individuals I have fired eventually came back and went on to make dramatic changes in their lives. Some of the individuals I fired even thanked me for firing them when they returned. What did they all have in common? They had the mindset of a victim.

It may be surprising to some readers outside the health care or mental health fields, but there are a sizable number of individuals who grow up having never seen or experienced a healthy interpersonal relationship. There are people I have treated that have survived childhood abuse so grotesque that horror movie writers would blanch at its description. There are people I have treated that have grown up in poverty and neglect such that they had to scavenge for food after school because their parents would vanish for days at a time, leaving them nothing to eat and the electricity turned off. What kept these people going in horrible circumstances where most would have given up or died? They had the mindset of a victor.

The distinction between these mindsets is so important that social scientists use it as a major predictor of life success. Across the board, individuals with the victim mindset fail to innovate, achieve, accumulate wealth, rise in social status, or be successful. Conversely, individuals with the victor mindset take responsibility for their lives, overcome the challenges placed before them, and achieve their goals, regardless of how many obstacles are present in their way.

Life happens to victims. They are passive participants in your own lives. Victims tell themselves things like they just can’t get ahead, they just can’t catch a break, life dealt them a raw hand, they’re screwed, they’re destined to fail, they’re oppressed, etc. Inherent in this mindset is the attribution of blame to others, taking no responsibility for improving your own life, waiting for someone else to fix your problems, and the envy of successful individuals for being “luckier” than you are.  Success itself is reduced to the product of random chance and “privilege” that cannot be changed. Victims are content to wallow in misery and dismiss all evidence that they could change their lives for the better.

Having the mindset of a victor doesn’t automatically make your problems go away or even the playing field when life is grossly unfair. What it does do is allow you to remain strong in the face of challenges and grant you the fortitude to endure the pain necessary to overcome the unfair aspects of life. There’s a reason why so many successful people came from terrible circumstances; the drive to overcome that got them through the worst times enabled them to out-compete everyone else after they managed to pull even. We admire successful people for what they create, achieve, and overcome. Our culture describes such people are “hungry” to succeed. The most successful people manage to hold onto the “hunger” to succeed even after becoming wildly successful.  

For the patients I have fired, each one came into psychotherapy looking for someone to affirm their victim status and give them permission to remain stuck in their miserable circumstances. They were asking me to collude with them to maximize current comfort at the expense of a better future. When every other method of challenging the victim mindset failed over several sessions, firing them became the most direct and compassionate way of communicating that I cannot help people that do not take responsibility for their own lives.

I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. You will stumble. You will fall. You will fail. It will be painful. It does eventually get easier if you get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving. All I ask is that you keep your focus on achieving your goals and continue moving forward.        

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of Dr. Lee only. Nothing in this blog should be construed as representing official FDA policies or views.

Daniel Lee