The mother of all lifestyle diseases

There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.

J.K. Rowling

I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.

C.G. Jung

As we all know, humanity is experiencing a planet-wide wave of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and neurological disorders. There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on, but the epidemics only seem to be getting worse. We’re quick to pin the blame on the usual culprits of sedentary living, sugar, fat and stress, but as we go deeper, we begin to see that our problem is actually one of orientation, attitude and responsibility. That is, far too many of us hold a passive, victimized stance in relationship to our bodies and our lives. By giving away our power to perceived perpetrators and rescuers, we give up our vitality and our ability to control our health destiny. This is the root of today’s public health nightmare.

the mind of the victim

It’s easy to spot the victim mentality at work in everyday conversation. Victims spend a lot of time blaming others; they complain about the state of their bodies and are quick to find scapegoats for everything that ails them. In the process, they externalize responsibility for their actions and pin the blame on whoever’s handy: “It wasn’t me that lazed around for months and years on end. It wasn’t me that ate that mountain of sugar. I was seduced by circumstance.” As Eve reportedly put it in the Garden of Eden, “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.” (Gen. 3:12-13) So too for today’s health victim: “The serpent beguiled me onto the couch with a bag of junk.” “The serpent beguiled me into giving up my vitality to electronic amusement.” “The serpent beguiled me into alcohol and drug abuse.”

When we act as victims, it’s always easy to find a perpetrator. “The fill in the blank is killing my life, my health and my body.” It’s my genes, my childhood, my metabolism. It’s modern culture. It’s government policy. It’s my telomeres. It’s my hormones. It’s gluten. It’s gravity. It’s stress and overwork. It’s everything. Everything except for me.

Of course, there are plenty of genuine disease perpetrators in this world–corporations, organizations and cultural forces that are overtly or covertly hostile to human health. Even worse, the marketing industry actively promotes the victim mindset itself by offering quick and illusory fixes for all of life’s challenges. Obviously, these perpetrators ought to be regulated with laws and cultural pressure. And just as obviously, there are authentic health and medical victims in this world, people who deserve our attention and compassion.

But this is not the point. The point is that we need to regain our personal power by taking full responsibility for who we are and what we are becoming. There will always be health-hostile forces in our world. There will always be health challenges. Life, after all, is ultimately fatal. The question is, how are we going to live in the world as it is?

In another popular variation on victimhood, many of us seek to be rescued from our health predicaments. “The fill in the blank will save my health and my life.” My doctor, my massage therapist, my chiropractor, my nutritionist, my personal trainer; these people will rescue me from my plight. Andrew Weil and Dr. Oz are going to save my health. Jillian Michaels is going to save my body. Suzanne Sommers is going to save me from the ravages of aging. A white-coated researcher at Big Pharma is going to cook up a cocktail of stem cells that will grow me a new organ if I ever need one.

Now obviously, most of our health and medical providers serve legitimate purposes and we can be grateful to have them in our world. But these relationships can also become codependent and disempowering. When we pin our hopes on rescuers, we also give away our ability to take charge of our own destiny. Of course there are times in life when we have authentic, legitimate need of health and medical support; when we’re struck by something unexpected or tragic, we are right to reach out to specialists and professionals. But as a primary attitude towards life and health, rescue does not serve us.

The time has come to recognize the victim orientation as a disease in its own right. It’s a disease of the entire mind-body-spirit system; a disease of attitude and relationship with the world. It’s a state of disempowerment that leads in turn to other disease states. And sadly, victimhood is pandemic. It’s impossible to calculate the numbers, but we can safely assume that a substantial proportion of the world’s population holds the victim orientation. We are talking about hundreds of millions of people, people who habitually give away their power to health-persecutors and health-rescuers. Even worse, the victim orientation is profoundly contagious. As soon as we start giving away our power, others are quick to follow our lead. Before long, everyone is pointing fingers and ducking responsibility.

become a creator

Of course, there is no quick fix for the victim orientation. There is no intervention, no pill, no procedure, no person or organization that can do it for us. Rather, the solution lies in taking full responsibility for our bodies, our health and our path. Right here, right now, regardless of conditions or circumstance.

If you find yourself blaming and complaining, beware; you’re probably giving away some of your power. If you find yourself hoping for health and fitness salvation from some external source, you’re probably on the wrong path. Instead, start acting like an artist, a warrior and a creator. You are the one sculpting your life; you are responsible for what you may become.

Take a chance. Expose yourself to life and the world. Risk. Lean into the ambiguity of your life experience. Try new things. And above all, exercise. Nothing gets us out of the victim orientation faster and more effectively than vigorous physical movement. Moving your body is a primal expression of power, control and responsibility. In fact, the greatest value of exercise may not lie in conventional “fitness” rewards, but in the way it stimulates our shift from victim to creator. Every time we move our bodies–especially in our own way and on our own terms–we move towards responsibility and authenticity.

Ultimately, our health and our lives are up to us. As the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht put it so succinctly,

None will improve your lot If you yourselves do not.

Note: For more about victims, perpetrators, rescuers and creators, see the Drama Triangle and The Empowerment Dynamic