In life, there are few mindsets as poisonous as the victim mentality. People with this mentality do not believe they have control over their lives, so why bother trying? It is not surprising that they are often unsuccessful, depressed, and resentful.
This mindset is especially devastating for abuse victims. It can stop them from even attempting to leave an abusive situation. Instead, they would hope and pray that the abuser would change, so things will magically get better without them putting in any effort.
Webster defines the victim mentality as “The belief that one is always a victim: the idea that bad things will always happen to one.” It rests on three fundamental 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.
Starting when I was a small child, she drilled into me that it was my mission to save her from her miserable marriage. To this end, she wants me to marry a wealthy man who will financially take care of me, and by extension, her. She didn’t want me to follow in her footsteps and marry someone who is “merely a poor professor.”
She would often point out how so and so is doing well in life only because they know the right people, received a big inheritance, or married well; I have never once seen her happy about her friends’ success. Instead, she is always envious of them and laments that she would have done just as well, if not better, if given the same luck.
Whenever I suggest that she could also achieve success if she puts in the effort, she immediately gets defensive. Like clockwork, she would sprout a litany of reasons why my idea is absurd.
“You know your father has already destroyed my life.”
Once I brought up Oprah, who was born into poverty and molested during childhood, as an example of someone who overcame significant obstacles to achieve success. My mom, a citizen of Taiwan, without missing a beat, retorted, “She had it easy. She’s an American!”
There is no changing her mind.
Since I started writing to help people heal from trauma, I have occasionally come across people with the victim mentality. It is exceedingly difficult to get these people to believe anything different. Some of them will even get angry and attack any suggestion that healing is possible.
Their hold onto the victim identity is so strong that they would rather forgo getting better.
How Did The Victim Mentality Originate?
The victim mentality can be learned through osmosis, but most often, it is the product of trauma. To an outsider, a person with the victim mentality might seem overly dramatic and attention-seeking. But this mindset usually develops in response to genuine victimization in their past, such as parental abuse.
Abused children are entirely at the mercy of their adult caregivers. Like prisoners of war, they cannot fend for themselves or leave the dangerous situation. Some of them grow up to be adults that continue to believe that they are helpless. They have acquired what psychologists call “learned helplessness.”
The theory of learned helplessness was developed by American psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s and ’70s. Per Wikipedia:
While conducting experimental research on classical conditioning, Seligman inadvertently discovered that dogs that had received unavoidable electric shocks failed to take action in subsequent situations—even those in which escape or avoidance was, in fact, possible. In contrast, dogs that had not received the unavoidable shocks immediately took action in subsequent situations. The experiment was replicated with human subjects (using loud noise instead of electric shocks), yielding similar results. Seligman coined the term learned helplessness to describe the expectation that outcomes are uncontrollable.
In humans, giving up trying as a result of consistent failure can contribute to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some adults also use victim playing as a strategy to manipulate others. These people enjoy telling tales of how the world is unfair to them and guilt-triping others for sympathy and attention.
The Insidious Nature Of The Victim Mentality
The victim mentality has an insidious way of creeping into our psyche when we least expect it. I am a case in point.
For years, I was furious at my parents for their abuse. I sent them email after email, detailing their crimes and accusing them of being horrible parents. I wanted them to own up to what they’ve done, apologize, and make amends. I felt that I could not properly move on without their contrition.
I was not aware then that behind my “righteous anger,” there is also the grief of not having parents who cared for me, and the unrealistic hope that my parents could radically change who they are. After all, these people are so ill that they would harm their own children – how could I expect that they would one day not only own up to their mistakes but also have the wisdom and know-how to heal themselves?
As much as I pride myself on being a conscientious, self-sufficient person, I fell for the victim mentality by focusing on what I want from others vs. what I could do for myself. It was not until I took charge of my own healing that I started to get better.
"As traumatized children, we always dreamed that someone would come and save us. We never dreamed that it would, in fact, be ourselves, as adults." — Alice Little
Some people believe that calling out the ills of the victim mentality is the same as victim-blaming. It is not. In fact, the two are almost diametrically opposite.
Victim-blaming is blaming the victim for bringing the abuse onto themselves. An example is an abuser who claims that he beat up the victim only because the victim made him so mad. The abuser is victim-blaming – he is deflecting responsibility for his bad behavior by shifting blame onto the victim.
Asking abuse victims to avoid the trap of the victim mentality, on the other hand, is a call to arms for victims to leave a bad situation and protect themselves. It lets victims know that the door to freedom is open, and they can walk out.
People with the victim mindset do not know that by blaming others for what happened and seeing themselves as unable to affect change, they are slowly killing themselves, one complaint at a time.
If you are reading this article, chances are you do not suffer from the victim mentality, but perhaps you know someone who does.
It is helpful to remember that many people living with this mindset have suffered painful life events in the past, and for this reason, we could practice approaching them with empathy.
However, this does not mean we give them a free pass to our time or guilt-trip us into doing their bidding. It is well within our rights to set healthy boundaries, so we protect our own mental space.
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My name is Yumay Chang, and I run Life Is Love School, a global support group for childhood trauma survivors. I had a challenging childhood, and I know what it’s like to feel not good enough and not lovable. I learned through over two decades of research and plenty of trial and error how to heal so I can live a life of joy, love, and purpose. Now I help women that are successful at work but are unfulfilled in their personal lives do the same so they can also shine their brightest.
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