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Do you know someone who seems to become a victim in nearly every situation? It’s possible they have a victim mentality, sometimes called victim syndrome or a victim complex.
The victim mentality rests on three key beliefs:
- Bad things happen and will keep happening.
- Other people or circumstances are to blame.
- Any efforts to create change will fail, so there’s no point in trying.
The idea of the victim mentality is thrown around a lot in pop culture and casual conversation to refer to people who seem to wallow in negativity and force it upon others.
It’s not a formal medical term. In fact, most health professionals avoid it due to the stigma surrounding it.
People who feel trapped in a state of victimization often do express a lot of negativity, but it’s important to realize significant pain and distress often fuel this mindset.
Vicki Botnick, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in Tarzana, California, explains that people identify with the victim role when they “veer into the belief that everyone else caused their misery and nothing they do will ever make a difference.”
This leaves them feeling vulnerable, which can result in difficult emotions and behaviors. Here’s a look at some of those.
One main sign, Botnick suggests, is a lack of accountability.
This might involve:
- placing blame elsewhere
- making excuses
- not taking responsibility
- reacting to most life hurdles with “It’s not my fault”
Bad things really do happen, often to people who’ve done nothing to deserve them. It’s understandable that people who face one difficulty after another may start to believe the world is out to get them.
But many situations do involve varying degrees of personal responsibility.
Consider job loss, for example. It’s true some people lose their jobs without good cause. It’s also often the case that certain underlying factors play a part.
Someone who fails to consider those reasons may not learn or grow from the experience and could end up facing the same situation again.
Not seeking possible solutions
Not all negative situations are completely uncontrollable, even if they seem that way at first. Often, there’s at least some small action that could lead to improvement.
People who come from a place of victimization may show little interest in trying to make changes. They may reject offers of help, and it may seem like they’re only interested in feeling sorry for themselves.
Spending a little time wallowing in misery isn’t necessarily unhealthy. This can help with acknowledging and processing painful emotions.
But this period should have a definite end point. After that, it’s more helpful to begin working toward healing and change.
A sense of powerlessness
Many people who feel victimized believe they lack power to change their situation. They don’t enjoy feeling downtrodden and would love for things to go well.
But life continues to throw situations at them that, from their perspective, they can do nothing to succeed or escape.
“It’s important to be mindful of the difference between ‘unwilling’ and ‘unable,’” Botnick says. She explains that some people who feel like victims do make a conscious choice to shift blame and take offense.
But in her practice, she more commonly works with people who experience deep-seated psychological pain that makes change truly seem impossible.
Negative self-talk and self-sabotage
People living with a victim mentality may internalize the negative messages suggested by the challenges they face.
Feeling victimized can contribute to beliefs such as:
- “Everything bad happens to me.”
- “I can’t do anything about it, so why try?”
- “I deserve the bad things that happen to me.”
- “No one cares about me.”
Each new difficulty can reinforce these unhelpful ideas until they’re firmly entrenched in their inner monologue. Over time, negative self-talk can damage resilience, making it harder to bounce back from challenges and heal.
Negative self-talk often goes hand in hand with self-sabotage. People who believe their self-talk often have an easier time living it out. If that self-talk is negative, they may be more likely to unconsciously sabotage any attempts they could make toward change.
Lack of self-confidence
People who see themselves as victims may struggle with self-confidence and self-esteem. This can make feelings of victimization worse.
They might think things like, “I’m not smart enough to get a better job” or “I’m not talented enough to succeed.” This perspective may keep them from trying to develop their skills or identify new strengths and abilities that could help them achieve their goals.
Those who do try to work toward what they want and fail may see themselves as the victim of circumstances once again. The negative lens they view themselves with can make it difficult to see any other possibility.
Frustration, anger, and resentment
A victim mentality can take a toll on emotional well-being.
People with this mindset might feel:
- frustrated and angry with a world that seems against them
- hopeless about their circumstances never changing
- hurt when they believe loved ones don’t care
- resentful of people who seem happy and successful
These emotions can weigh heavily on people who believe they’ll always be victims, building and festering when they aren’t addressed. Over time, these feelings might contribute to:
Very few — if any — people adopt a victim mentality just because they can. It’s often rooted in a few things.
To an outsider, someone with a victim mentality might seem overly dramatic. But this mindset often develops in response to true victimization.
It can emerge as a method of coping with abuse or trauma. Facing one negative circumstance after another can make this outcome more likely.
Not everyone who experiences traumatic situations goes on to develop a victim mentality, but people react to adversity in different ways. Emotional pain can disrupt a person’s sense of control, contributing to feelings of helplessness until they feel trapped and give up.
Betrayal of trust, especially repeated betrayals, can also make people feel like victims and make it hard for them to trust anyone.
If your primary caregiver, for example, rarely followed through on commitment to you as a child, you may have a hard time trusting others down the line.
This mindset can also develop alongside codependency. A codependent person may sacrifice their goals to support their partner.
As a result, they may feel frustrated and resentful about never getting what they need, without acknowledging their own role in the situation.
Some people who take on the role of victim might seem to enjoy blaming others for problems they cause, lashing out and making others feel guilty, or manipulating others for sympathy and attention.
But, Botnick suggests, toxic behavior like this may be more often associated with narcissistic personality disorder.
It can be challenging to interact with someone who always sees themselves as a victim. They might refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes and blame everyone else when things go wrong. They may always seem down on themselves.
But remember that many people living with this mindset have faced difficult or painful life events.
This doesn’t mean you have to take responsibility for them or accept accusations and blame. But try to let empathy guide your response.
Labels generally aren’t helpful. “Victim” is a particularly charged label. It’s best to avoid referring to someone as a victim or say they’re acting like a victim.
Instead, try to (compassionately) bring up specific behaviors or feelings you notice, such as:
- shifting blame
- not accepting responsibility
- feeling trapped or powerless
- feeling like nothing makes a difference
It’s possible that starting a conversation can give them a chance to express their feelings in a productive way.
Some of the stigma around a victim mentality relates to the way people sometimes blame others for problems or guilt-trip them about things that haven’t worked out.
“You might feel constantly accused, as if you’re walking on eggshells, or have to apologize for situations where you feel you’re both responsible,” Botnick says.
It’s often tough to help or support someone whose perspective seems to differ greatly from reality.
If they seem judgmental or accusatory toward you and others, drawing boundaries can help, Botnick suggests: “Detach as much as you can from their negativity, and hand responsibility back to them.”
You can still have compassion and care for someone even though you need to take space from them sometimes.
Offer help with finding solutions
You may want to protect your loved one from situations where they might feel further victimized. But this can drain your emotional resources and may make the situation worse.
A better option can be to offer help (without fixing anything for them). You can do this in three steps:
- Acknowledge their belief that they can’t do anything about the situation.
- Ask what they would do if they had to power to do something.
- Help them brainstorm possible ways of achieving that goal.
For example: “I know it seems no one wants to hire you. That must be really frustrating. What does your ideal job look like?”
Depending on their response, you might encourage them to broaden or narrow their search, consider different companies, or try other areas.
Rather than giving direct advice, making specific suggestions, or solving the problem for them, you’re helping them realize they may actually have the tools to solve it on their own.
Offer encouragement and validation
Your empathy and encouragement may not lead to immediate change, but they can still make a difference.
- pointing out things they’re good at
- highlighting their achievements
- reminding them of your affection
- validating their feelings
People who lack strong support networks and resources to help them deal with trauma may have a harder time overcoming feelings of victimization, so encouraging your loved one to talk to a therapist can also help.
Consider where they’re coming from
People with a victim mentality may:
- feel hopeless
- believe they lack support
- blame themselves
- lack self-confidence
- have low self-esteem
- struggle with depression and PTSD
These difficult feelings and experiences can increase emotional distress, making a victim mentality even tougher to overcome.
Having a victim mentality doesn’t excuse bad behavior. It’s important to set boundaries for yourself. But also understand there may be a lot more going on than them simply wanting attention.
“Feeling wounded and hurt from time to time is a healthy indication of our self-worth,” Botnick says.
But if you do believe you’re always a victim of circumstances, the world has treated you unfairly, or nothing that goes wrong is your fault, talking to a therapist may help you acknowledge other possibilities.
It’s a good idea to talk to a trained professional if you’ve faced abuse or other trauma. While untreated trauma might contribute to persistent feelings of victimization, it can also contribute to:
- relationship issues
- a range of physical and emotional symptoms
A therapist can help you:
- explore underlying causes of victim mentality
- work on self-compassion
- identify personal needs and goals
- create a plan to achieve goals
- explore reasons behind feelings of powerlessness
Self-help books can also offer some guidance, according to Botnick, who recommends “Pulling Your Own Strings.”
A victim mentality can be distressing and create challenges, both for those living with it and the people in their lives. But it can be overcome with the help of a therapist, as well as plenty of compassion and self-kindness.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.