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Victim mentality: How we hold ourselves back by blaming others

December 10, 2021 - 13 min read

victim mentality_two people sitting outside talking

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What is a victim mentality?

Attitudes, beliefs, and signs of victim syndrome

What causes a victim mentality?

7 consequences of a victim mentality

How to release a victim mentality

Tips to help someone with a victim mentality

Take your life back into your hands

What is a victim mentality?

A victim mentality is when someone feels that bad things keep happening to them no matter what. at the root of this mentality is that none of these circumstances or situations are their fault.

Attitudes, beliefs, and signs of victim syndrome

There are three core beliefs underlying the victim mentality:

    • Bad things just happen to me, no matter what I do.
    • Bad things are other people's fault, not mine.
    • I can't change what happens, so there's no point in trying.

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You may hear yourself or someone else utter one of these phrases, but often, the attitudes accompanying victimhood are much more subtle. After all, no one goes around broadcasting that they have a victim complex, and they’re less likely to think of themselves that way. Look for these innocuous signs in yourself or someone else:

    • Puts themselves down constantly, even if they say they’re “joking”
    • Doesn’t look forward to anything about the future
    • Angry or resentful of others’ good fortune
    • Tells the same negative stories over and over
    • Minimizes positive events or good news, whether from themselves or others
    • Self-pity and a strong sense of entitlement
    • Often defensive and sensitive to criticism
    • Lacks empathy for other people’s problems 
    • Overly concerned about “keeping score” and fairness
    • Always has a reason why a proposed solution “would never work”
    • Seems preoccupied with past traumas
    • Believes everyone else has it easier than they do
    • Extremely risk averse
    • Obsesses over negative situations, but seemingly uninterested in solving them
    • Never accepts personal responsibility or criticism from others, no matter how gently it’s phrased
    • Quick to judge others, seeing them as either friends or enemies

While it can be hard to sympathize with someone who is so defensive, many of these traits are developed as a result of traumatic experiences. These individuals often feel that people are untrustworthy or out to get them. Because of this, they keep their guard up, harping on negative events to avoid emotional vulnerability.

victim mentality_two women sitting outside talking

What causes a victim mentality?

No one is born a victim. A victim complex isn't a personality trait — it's learned behavior. In fact, victim syndrome could be considered a type of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in psychology where people who have traumatic experiences feel that they can't escape it, no matter what they do. 

In experiments on learned helplessness, researchers often put animals into an environment where they receive an electric shock. People are typically exposed to loud noises. But whether person or animal, most stop trying to escape the situation once their first few efforts fail. Even when a solution is available, they continue to believe they can’t do anything about it. Their feelings of helplessness place them in the victim role even though they're the ones in control.

Steven Maier, one of the two researchers responsible for identifying learned helplessness (BetterUp Science Advisory Board member Martin Seligman being the other) found that people weren’t actually learning helplessness. Instead, they were failing to learn control. And so learning that we have the ability to change our circumstances might actually be the way out of the victim mindset.

Why would someone give up their control in a situation? Well, when human beings do anything, they typically do it for one of two reasons: to avoid a consequence or experience a reward. On some level, then, the victim behavior must fulfill one of these two motivators. The question is, "What do we get from a sense of powerlessness that we would have to give up to take control?"

Here are some circumstances that might result in developing a victim mentality as a coping mechanism:

Trauma

If a person has experienced a traumatic situation in their youth, they may feel like life is inherently difficult and there's nothing they can do to make it better. This is a key way that learned helplessness develops. Victims may feel that no one understands them or that they can't trust anyone to help them. In social science, this aligns with Erickson's first psychosocial stage — trust versus mistrust.

Manipulation

Some people enjoy the attention and sense of control that victimhood brings. Even though they feel like they lack control over the circumstances in their life, they thrive on the validation and sympathy from others. Being able to get other people to stop and help them — or at the very least, feel sorry for them — helps them retain a sense of importance and control. 

Lack of accountability

People may respond to low standards or expectations by playing the victim. Whether because someone else has always stepped up to take responsibility, or because people don’t expect much, being “out of control” becomes comfortable. Victimhood provides anonymity and protection. When you’re never at the wheel, things are never your fault. 

Avoidance

Sometimes we are more afraid of our own success then we are of our failure. Giving up responsibility for ourselves and our actions makes us feel like we don't have to be accountable for what we say we want. Chasing our dreams requires a degree of vulnerability, resilience, self-confidence, and willingness to grow — none of which you need if you just play the victim card.

victim mentality_woman smiling while talking to another person

7 consequences of a victim mentality

When you give up responsibility for your life, that’s not all you give up. Victim syndrome is associated with decreased well-being, poor social connections, and self-destructive behavior. Here are several behavior and thought patterns you may notice or experience that have their roots in victim syndrome:

  • Difficulty sustaining personal relationships
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, or inadequate
  • Feelings of languish or being “stuck” in life
  • Inability to feel pleasure or positive feelings 
  • Hopeless about the possibility of change or getting help
  • Fear that everyone is out to get you or will take advantage of you
  • Inability to enjoy successes when they do occur

How to release a victim mentality

Ironically, recognizing the symptoms of a victim mentality in your own life may make you feel more hopeless. Remember, though, that no one is born a victim. Victim syndrome is a learned pattern that helps us cope with trauma. The way to release it is to find other ways to make yourself feel safe and in control.

Take responsibility for your life

The opposite of victimhood is accountability. While your circumstances may not be your fault, they are your responsibility. That doesn’t mean that you caused it. It just means that you have the ability to respond to your circumstances and change the outcome. 

Start by identifying one or two small things that you can do to make a positive difference in your life. Work with a coach if you need help determining what would make the biggest impact.

Find the silver lining

You may find that victimhood is offering secret payoffs in your life. What are you getting out of constantly being down on your luck? Is it attention, validation, or are you getting away with not taking action on a bigger goal? 

If you can determine what the victim mentality is covering up, you can find other, healthier ways to provide yourself with what you really want.

Get a therapist

Victim syndrome often stems from underlying trauma. If that's the case, you may need help from a mental health professional to uncover and process the root cause so it no longer impacts your daily life. Understanding why you may feel as if you're destined for bad luck or that you can't trust others may help you to understand what's holding you back in the present. 

Practice saying no

When you feel like other people have more control over your life than you do, it's often because of unclear boundaries. Practice saying no. It can be really hard to do at first, particularly if you're afraid of damaging a relationship with a loved one. But saying no can restore your sense of power and control.

Develop self-efficacy

Remember learned helplessness? The antidote to learned helplessness is self-efficacy —  the belief that you can do something successfully. You develop self-advocacy through your past experiences, encouragement, seeing others model success, and your emotional state. 

If your past experiences have taught you that success is out of reach, surround yourself with positive affirmations and stories of people who have overcome the odds to change their lives. Developing self-efficacy will help you remember that your life is in your hands.

Be nice to yourself

Those who have a victim complex often feel like the world is out to get them. They have unconsciously adopted the belief that if they always expect bad things to happen, they won't be blindsided by the kind of trauma that happened in the past. If you're always on guard though, you'll have a hard time forgiving yourself when you do make mistakes or get hurt. The answer isn't to throw ourselves a pity party, but to uplift ourselves with self-compassion.

Remember that your past does not determine your future. Be gentle with yourself and remind yourself often that you are worthwhile, capable, and deserving of good things. If you need to, start a journal of everything that you've accomplished and reread it when you need a boost.

Tips to help someone with a victim mentality

If someone you care about has a victim complex, it can be emotionally overwhelming. You may feel frustrated or like nothing you do seems to make a difference. You may resent the constant complaining. You may also feel that on some level, they just want to stay where they are. Depending on your relationship with them, their victimhood and helplessness may affect you directly.

If this is the case, it's important to take care of yourself even while you try to support the other person. Here are some things that you can do to help someone with a victim mentality without compromising your own well-being:

  1. Help them brainstorm solutions. Don’t take it personally if they say it won’t work. Just keep them focused and solution-oriented. 
  2. Encourage them and remind them of their past achievements. 
  3. Affirm and validate how they feel, especially if they talk about the trauma that created this mentality. 
  4. Encourage them to get professional help. If you’re in a close relationship or family members, consider going to counseling together as well as individually. 
  5. Set clear boundaries with them. You may be willing to lend an ear on occasion, but don’t let them keep you up all night or be unsupportive about your success.
  6. Point out specific unhelpful behaviors. Calling them a victim would likely make things worse. However, it may be helpful for them if you point out actionable steps or encourage them to seek the positive.
  7. Keep up with your own self-care. Supporting another person’s emotional well-being can be draining. Make sure you prioritize spending time with people (and activities) that fill your cup.

Take your life back into your hands

It can be hard to feel like your life is under your control when bad things keep happening. This is especially true when success feels slow — and failure feels overwhelming. 

However, it's important to remember that very few of the things that we experience in life are personal. The people around you care for you, and they want you to do well in life. But more importantly, it’s critical that you value your own happiness and well-being. 

Even if there's not one single thing that you can do to change your situation (although there probably is!) you can always control your attitude. Find meaning in the midst of the victim mentality, and the path forward will open.

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Published December 10, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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