Life can be unavoidably cruel, but we have a choice in how these cruel experiences will shape us.
Life coach and motivational speaker Kimberly Spencer often illustrates the power of this choice by sharing her personal history. Spencer grew up with an addict for a father. Later, she suffered a 10-year battle with bulimia, and a series of abusive relationships.
Spencer’s breakthrough came when she realized that she was playing the starring role in her own misery.
“It wasn’t until I stopped blaming that I started changing,” she said. “It was never my dad shoving my finger down my throat. It was me. It was never my dad choosing my crappy relationships. That was me, too.”
This habit of blaming your past for the state of your present and future is known as a victim mindset. Although it can feel the same as actually being victimized, a victim mindset is more like a belief system than a traumatic event. The belief is that you’re doomed to a life path you’re helpless to change.
“If you have endured a traumatic experience and survived, you were the victim of a traumatic experience,” Spencer said. “The difference with a victim mindset is that that experience permeates your being with blame. Blame is like holding onto that experience and then carrying it with you like a giant weighted backpack through your life.”
If it sounds strange to think that anyone would choose to carry such a weight, consider that the mentality offers several payoffs, such as attention, support, and pity. Perhaps the biggest draw of adopting a victim mentality is that it frees you from any personal responsibility. Whatever bad choices you might make, you can always scapegoat your victimizer.
However, what at first appears to be a benefit actually turns out to be a huge loss.
“Whether you’re blaming yourself, other people, the government, the economy, the whatever, blame prevents you from owning your power to choose and take personal responsibility for your life and your results in your life,” Spencer said.
In the disorienting aftermath of a victimizing experience, it’s easy to see how we might lose our sense of responsibility. Such an experience typically takes us by surprise and steals our power at a particularly vulnerable moment.
Ana Jovanovic, a psychologist and life coach at ParentingPod.com, says people initially adopt a victim mentality following a trauma, because it absolves them of the guilt that may be standing in the way of their recovery.
“For example, people who experienced sexual assault or stayed in an abusive relationship can often feel as if their intentional or unintentional behaviors provoked or caused violence or abuse,” Jovanovic said. “Daring to see themselves as a victim can absolve a person from feeling responsible for the traumatic experience they’ve been through, which creates space for self-compassion and healing.”
However, when we cling to this mentality long-term, it becomes a serious problem. To stay a victim means we must sacrifice our capacity to move forward. Soon, every experience is viewed through a lens of victimhood.
“Once they adopt the role of the victim, a person is likely to test every new situation to validate the theory that they are truly victimized,” Jovanovic said.
Rev. Sheri Heller, an interfaith minister and therapist based in New York City who specializes in addiction, complex trauma, and narcissistic abuse, sees a pattern of repetition and compulsion in people who hold a victim mentality where they try to relive a trauma over and over. Their goal is to recreate the original trauma in an effort to “master” it.
“They pick someone who replicates their abuser, let’s say a psychopath, but they think, ‘This time they’re going to love me. I’m going to be so good. I’m going to crack the code, and this time around, I’m going to triumph,’” Heller said. “It’s very primitive. It comes from magical thinking, and it emanates from a child’s ego.”
It may be easy from the outside to see someone trapped in a victim mentality. But for those who are deep in the mindset, the cage isn’t so clear. They mistake pity for compassion and rage for empowerment.
Heller says the only way out is to shatter our illusions and face the truth.
“There’s a point in victimization where you have to get off a sinking ship, and give up false hope to find real hope,” she said. “But that means you have to say that you were helpless. When you were a victim, you had no agency. But as long as you keep operating from that place, you will never have agency.”
Victimization often demands some sort of justice. People typically expect compensation when they’re made to suffer, even if it’s just an apology. But if the compensation and justice we desire never materializes, we still have to decide how we move on with our lives.
“Not all things can be remedied. Some we just have to come to accept,” Heller said.
One glaring problem with the path of perpetual victimhood is that there is a never-ending need for compensation, and no amount can ever satisfy the hurt.
“You want to be compensated for your victimization, like that’s going to remedy the wound, and it doesn’t. It just perpetuates it,” Heller said. “You’re talking about a level of pain that can never be compensated for.”
This insatiable appetite for compensation—a delusion of looking outside ourselves for the thing that will soothe the pain within—perpetuates a cycle of suffering, because it keeps victims focused on their powerlessness, not on what they really need for recovery.
“I see a sense of omnipotence with the victimhood mentality, like, ‘I’m special because I suffered,’” Heller said. “My clients laugh when I say that because they know what I’m talking about. It’s that part of us where we aggrandize our suffering and our victimization. To really heal you have to face what you experienced.”
Heller says it can take a lot of work to develop the awareness necessary to break out of a victim mentality. But it can be even more difficult when forces conspire to keep us locked in that mindset.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Russell Thackeray, the benefits of victimhood can make it addictive. As a result, long term victims often gravitate toward those who legitimize their mindset. This may include “nurturing therapists” who encourage them to endlessly rehash their painful past.
“Finding an individual to provide tough love is a much more useful and, ultimately healthy approach—even if less lucrative for the therapist,” Thackeray said.
According to Thackeray, the counter to victimhood is resilience. Studies show that people who can bounce back from even the most serious traumas are those who possess resilient strategies and skills, such as emotional control, mental toughness, and physiological awareness.
However, instead of promoting resiliency, a lot more energy seems to go into enabling victimhood. Cultural trends, such as the rise of identity politics and policies designed to ensure equality of outcome, can directly contribute to widespread adoption of victim mentality.
“It appears the current generation of people lacking the skill sets to have structure and discipline, without the strategies to combat personal entitlement, and without the toolkits to fail and learn, may be about to unleash a generation of victims into the world,” Thackeray said.
Even worse, it’s a mentality that’s ripe for exploitation. According to Andrew Selepak, a media professor at the University of Florida, people who hold a victim mindset are easy prey for those who claim that the government, society, or some other oppressor is the reason our personal success remains out of reach.
“Politicians are always willing to prey on those who think they are victims by offering them a solution to their perceived victimhood,” Selepak said. “Once we understand perceived victimhood and how it plays into the hands of politicians, we are better able to defeat those politicians who promise the impossible and deliver nothing.”
For those who feel powerless, frustrated, and full of fear, a victim mindset can feel like a safe reprieve. However, once you realize how much this mentality can stunt your growth and prolong your suffering, it reveals itself to be a terrible bargain.
Heller says that unless we take responsibility for our victimization, we will never be able to heal.
“When you feel worthy of your suffering, you want to take it to a more elevated place,” she said. “There’s nothing noble about staying in suffering, tenaciously holding onto it as a way of feeling righteous. It denies you your own life, and it denies the world what you are capable of giving.”