Victim mentality
There are people who always complain about the “bad things that happen” in their lives and that trouble follows them everywhere they go. Image Credit: Pexels

(This aticle is for general information purposes only, and not prescriptive. If you think you need help, it is best to seek professional help.)

Everyone has had ups and downs in their lives. Most people can move past issues on their own, or with a little help from family, friends and others.

However, there are those who have difficulty moving on and seem comfortable–though it may not appear so–being in near constant distress or turmoil.

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Way of thinking

It’s one behaviour psychologists call the “victim mindset”, also known as the “victim complex”. This way of thinking, or psychological pattern, affects individuals’ beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them.

Here, we delve into the intricacies of the victim mentality, drawing insights from an exclusive interview with Dr. Chivonna Childs, a counseling psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, and exploring recent findings in psychology, and the latest research on the subject.

From symptoms to downsides, treatment options to breaking free, we unravel the layers of this complex mindset.

What is the 'victim mentality'?

Dr. Childs defines the victim mentality as “a belief that nothing goes right for an individual, attributing their challenges to external factors beyond their control. Those with a victim mindset often harbour negative beliefs about themselves, others, and the world.”

What causes it?

This mindset, she notes, is a “learnt behaviour”--often emerging as a response to trauma or experiences where one feels a lack of control.

What are its manifestations and signs?

Identifying a victim mentality involves recognising behavioural patterns.

Signs include:

  • Blaming others for problems,
  • Constant complaining without taking action,
  • A depressed or pessimistic mood, and
  • Difficulty coping with life's challenges.

Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.

- John Gardner Jr., author, essayist, literary critic and university professor

Are people who have it aware of it?

Dr. Childs emphasises that individuals with a victim mindset may not be aware of it–until brought to their attention.

For some who harbours this victim mindset, the world people we live in appears to be only populated by victims, victimisers, and occasional rescuers.

And if you have ever tried helping them, you discover that “rescuing” them from the trouble they’re in can be an excruciating process.

Every bit of advice you offer is brushed aside or rejected, often contemptuously.

If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If you can’t take responsibility for it, you will always be its victim.

- Richard Bach, author

3 identfiers

In a 2023 article published in Psychology Today, Dr Erin Leonard, identified 3 ways to tell if someone is playing the victim vs. true vulnerability. These signs are:

  • Inflicting guilt,
  • Using a past hardship to excuse a wrongdoing in the present, and
  • Blame-shifting.

In all three cases, the individual might be engaging in "victim-playing" as a means of manipulation. And those who adopt the victim role may actively seek to manipulate their interactions, employing these tactics to assert control over others and avoid personal accountability.

Inflicting Guilt:

Guilt is commonly employed as a tool by individuals seeking to exert control in a relationship. They accuse the other party of causing harm and swiftly manipulate them into complying with their desires.

Using past hardship:

Frequently, an individual adopts a "victim stance" in a relationship as a means of avoiding difficulties. They highlight past challenges to deflect personal responsibility in the present, effectively sidestepping accountability and consequences.

Shifting blame:

Often, individuals try to deflect blame and present themselves as victims when confronted with feedback. Rather than introspecting, they immediately adopt a defensive stance and accuse the person addressing the issue of being unjust, hostile, and abusive.

It can be mentally and emotionally draining to deal with someone with a victim mentality. Know your limits and set healthy boundaries which will allow you to maintain your mental health. It is OK to limit the amount of time you spend with this person if you do not have the energy, time or simply don’t want to.

- Dr. Chivonna Childs, a counseling psychologist at Cleveland Clinic

Why is having a victim mindset a self-made prison?

Living with a victim mindset creates a self-made prison. It inhibit individuals from making necessary decisions to change their circumstances.

They may struggle to examine themselves, attracting like-minded individuals and perpetuating a negative cycle, in a sort of echo-chamber setup.

Relationships become strained or non-existen. Negative emotions such as depression and anxiety may prevail. Personal growth comes to a halt. The ultimate concern is the potential for suicidal ideation, Dr Childs warns, as the individual may view life as too difficult to manage.

Victim mindset
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal | Gulf News

Does a victim mindset offer any upsides?

Yes. They are known to psychologists as "secondary gain". While the downsides are extensive, there are certain gains for individuals with a victim mentality, such as:

  • Getting attention,
  • Sympathy, or
  • Financial support from others.

This attention becomes a form of "validation" that reinforces the belief that their situation is dire.

Victim mentality vs Martyr complex: What’s the difference?

Victim mentality can be mistaken for a martyr complex, as these behaviours share some similarities, yet they differ in certain aspects.

Victims tend to internalise situations, taking things personally, even if comments or statements were not aimed at them directly. They may frequently ask, "What did I do to deserve this?"

On the contrary, someone with a martyr complex often willingly assumes additional tasks for others, even against their own desires. They self-sacrifice for the benefit of others but may harbour feelings of resentment afterward.

Breaking free and treatment

Breaking free from the victim mentality requires awareness and intentional efforts. For those dealing with individuals exhibiting this mindset, Dr. Childs advises recognising personal responsibility for one’s own happiness and setting limits.

"It can be mentally and emotionally draining to deal with someone with a victim mentality. Know your limits and set healthy boundaries which will allow you to maintain your mental health. It is OK to limit the amount of time you spend with this person if you do not have the energy, time or simply don’t want to," Dr Childs told Gulf News.

"This does not mean you don’t care; it means you choose not to take on their problems. Be cautious and learn about co-dependency to avoid it," she added.

She also suggests professional help.

Victim Mentality
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal | Gulf News

What's the antidote to victim mentality?

There’s a healing process involved in doing away with the this mindset.

Someone capable of vulnerability adopts a radically different stance in similar circumstances, demonstrating the ability to empathise, authentically accept responsibility, and engage in self-reflection.

But not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise, although many do, and many manage it. Nonetheless, people will often accept or even amplify their own suffering, as well as that of others, if they can brandish it as evidence of the world’s injustice. There is no shortage of oppressors among the downtrodden, even if, given their lowly positions, many of them are only tyrannical wannabes. It’s the easiest path to choose, moment to moment, although it’s nothing but hell in the long run.

- Jordan B. Peterson, psychologist and author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Dr Childs highly suggests that individuals struggling with a victim mentality to consider the following:

  • Practicing gratitude daily,
  • Being kind to oneself,
  • Focusing on solutions,
  • Taking accountability are essential steps,
  • Learning to say "no" without explanation,
  • Refraining from blame,
  • Helping others through altruism,
  • Creating calm spaces through meditation,
  • Building a positive support group, and
  • Seeking the help of a mental health professional.

Complex psychological pattern

The victim mentality is a complex psychological pattern that can significantly impact an individual's well-being and relationships, said Dr Childs.

Recognising its signs, understanding its origins, and taking proactive steps toward breaking free are essential for personal growth and mental health.

It is also best to seek the help of a mental health professional who can shedding light on the issue and provide expert guidance. This could greately help individuals and empower them to overcome the victim mindset and embrace a more positive, fulfilling life.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal | Gul News