A victim mentality is a pervasive and universal view of oneself as the chronic victim of unfortunate circumstances or the evil actions of others. It’s a somewhat harsh term that can put some people off.
It’s obvious that there are real victims and real perpetrators in this world. And many people who suffer from a victim mentality were victims. Their way of thinking is perfectly grounded in their lived experience.
Maintaining a victim mindset requires holding a particular worldview, and a specific way of thinking about, and explaining one’s life experience. Our nervous systems rely on our experience to protect us and keep us safe.
A victim mentality is more often installed by experience than deliberately chosen.
That’s why I think it’s important to refrain from wholesale demonization of people who display a victim mentality.
But not all victim mentality is experience-based. Sometimes it’s just a strategy to get the upper hand in a relationship.
While a victim mentality can be a hallmark of ongoing emotional abuse or developmental trauma, it can also stem from garden variety defensiveness, neurotic coping strategies, manipulation, bad faith, power struggles, or even severe mental illness.
In other words, I think it’s more important to examine not only the specific origins of an individual’s victim mentality, but it’s also essential to see it as a goal-oriented behavior operating in a particular context.
A victim mindset is a way of explaining the world… or explaining oneself to others. Let’s be gracious for a moment and humanize the victim mindset.
In this blog post, I will focus on the most pervasive sort of victim mentality… the heartfelt feeling that the world has dealt with you harshly, and that you are powerless to do anything about it.
Most of us have occasionally felt sorry for ourselves, and can relate to the notion of “learned helplessness.” Many of us have been there at one difficult time or another. But how do we understand ourselves when our victim mentality becomes an absorbing state of helplessness?
Typically, spouses with a victim mentality formed this stance toward the world in childhood. It is often the case that this mindset was modeled or shaped by a parent or caregiver.
In other words, many spouses with a victim mentality come by it honestly. They were dealt a bad parental hand.
This toxic narrative informs adult relationships. If the trauma was severe enough, it could easily result in mental illness (such as depression or anxiety). in other cases, the spouse with a victim mentality may have a personality disorder.
I want to be careful here. Not everyone with a victim mentality experienced a traumatic childhood or suffered from anxiety or depression, but that is often the case.
If you never heal from what hurt you, then you will bleed on people who did not cut you. Karen Salmansohn
A good Narrative Therapist will help you acquire a new perspective. You will feel more empowered to make necessary changes in your thought patterns and behavior.
I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet. Sa’di (pen name of Muslih-ud-Din, Persian poet ca. 1184-1291)
An Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist might opine that a victim mentality is evidence of an attachment injury.
But a Narrative Therapist would flee from using any diagnostic language that seeks to categorize and define any human experience.
What they would say is if you suffer from a victim mentality, you are not the problem. The compelling idea of being a victim is the problem.
When you inhabit your relationship with the idea of being a perpetual victim, you are limiting your potential for intimacy and secure attachment.
The idea is the problem. And you are perfectly free to embrace and discard ideas as you see fit.
A victim mentality is also related to the idea of inconsolability. People are imperfect. They will disappoint you sometimes, just as you have disappointed them sometimes. Forgiveness, acceptance, and empathy can help you to write a different story.
“If we can forgive what’s been done to us… If we can forgive what we’ve done to others… If we can leave our stories behind. Our being victims and villains. Only then can we maybe rescue the world.” Chuck Palahniuk
Good science-based couples therapy will ask important questions. What feeds this victim mentality? What starves it? What relationship does this victim mentality have to your marriage? And how can you both live moment by moment, choice by choice, a richer and more satisfying life?
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.