In Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life, (1989), Robert Firestone, Ph.D described a female patient who complained that her husband was habitually late for dinner. He explains - dinner was ready at 6:30, but he often came in as late as 8:30 without calling to let her know that he would be late.She asked Firestone, "Is that right?" in a tone that implied that she was the victim of wrongdoing.Firestone tried to explain to her that the key question wasn't whether it was right or not. Firestone wanted her to see that she was viewing the situation as a passive victim, which was neither productive nor adaptive.
From the example that Firestone gave, one can see that she was indeed seeking validation from him to confirm her perceived victimhood, and therefor validate her inaction in confronting her husband about the issue so she could continue playing the victim to his unaddressed actions.
Many people go around thinking they are entitled to constant good treatment and fairness just because. The truth is that no one is entitled to either. The issues are what is going on around them and how they feel about it.
According to Firestone, the woman would have been better off actively facing the facts of the situation and acknowledging her emotional reactions rather than personally judging it and feeling victimized by it.
Firestone also states that victim mentality prevents people from making objective decisions and evaluations of everyday life. People who have a victim mentality have not necessarily been victimized through a crime, but they are individuals who have adopted this behavior and attitude from years—usually during childhood—where core emotional or physical needs were not met.
He states: If you are being robbed, you don't sit around thinking, "This shouldn't be happening to me. It isn't right." Instead, you react. You may defend yourself, call the police or try to run away. Constructive action is the opposite of victimized brooding.
The woman whose husband was late for dinner had every right to feel angry and to consider practical action if she wished, but to try to justify feeling victimized was maladaptive and ultimately fruitless.
Firestone explains that even in the most extreme situation, such as a concentration camp, feeling victimized is not adaptive: Feeling your anger, planning an escape, attempting to survive any and all of these courses of action are preferable to indulging powerless, victimized feelings. Your attitude is a vital factor in determining whether you will survive or perish, succeed or fail in life.
Viktor Frankl stated that many of the survivors of German concentration camps were able to endure because they refused to give in to feeling victimized. Instead, although stripped of all their rights and possessions, they used one remaining freedom to sustain their spirit; the freedom to choose what attitude or position they would take in relation to the horror they faced. "It was the freedom to bear oneself ‘this way or that,' and there was a ‘this or that.'" (Frankl, 1954/1967, p. 94)
Firestone also states that maintaining a child victim role leads to chronic passivity. Victimized feelings are very often appropriate to the child's situation. Children are without power, are helpless and are at the mercy of their parents. Later as an adult, things happen that are sometimes beyond your control and understanding. However, the adult who is still playing the child victim role responds like the deer that sees a mountain lion approaching and instead of fleeing the danger becomes paralyzed. This person just keeps noticing over and over that the situation is unreasonable, unfair or threatening but doesn't make the appropriate adaptive responses.
As a child there is a feeling of inadequacy/insecurity which teaches children to rely on others for happiness and reaffirmation – a healthy part of growing up, and one that, if the child is taught properly as they grow, disappears as their self-esteem and confidence increases in a healthy and positive way.
For those adults with a victim mentality, it is often a sign of emotional immaturity, poor self-esteem, insecurity, and a lack of confidence which serves to keep the adult in a perpetual state of adolescence – a perpetual state of victimhood.
In the case of the woman mentioned above, Firestone explains that the tip off to the fact that she really preferred the child victim role was that she never made any substantial attempt to change her circumstances. Like so many of us, she would rather feel justified in complaining endlessly about her unfortunate circumstances while passively registering her dissatisfaction than actively changing her situation.
In regards to one's feelings, it is important to note that feelings are individually subjective and do not require any real justification. They are automatic responses to an individual’s perception of positive or negative events they have experienced, and people's feelings cannot be judged as right or wrong.
Normal healthy anger is merely a proportional individual response to a frustrating or negative experience regardless of any rational considerations. It is more advantageous for us to experience feelings than to deny them, repress them or cut them off.
However, our actions, unlike feelings, have consequences and must be considered in relation to both moral issues and rational reality concerns. Therefore "acting out" emotions, particularly angry emotions, must remain under a person's control. For example, a FEELING of murderous rage can be considered innocent, but to act on those feelings and commit murder has very real consequences.
"Victims" deal in judgments and "shoulds" when interacting with others. They operate on the basic assumption that the world should always be fair to them: "I should have been loved by my parents." "My children should call me or write to me." "After all that I've done for her, the least she could do ..."
This unhealthy preoccupation with "rights" and "shoulds" and seeking constant fairness is irrelevant to real problems that we are all faced with; it leads to brooding, righteous indignation and vengeful feelings.
Characteristics of individuals with a victim mentality include:
- Negative self-image
- Underlying feelings of being powerless
- Frequent use of the phrase, “Yes, but…”
In many situations, people are unaware they are displaying a victim mentality; it is simply a way to shift the blame from themselves to another person.
People who chronically suffer from victim mentality, however, are stuck in a pattern of blaming and negativity, even over inconsequential events.
According to Dr. Nicola Davies:
people who are stuck in the victim mentality role, tend to verbally and physically abuse others and then blame it on being provoked, constantly try to control other people’s sympathy by “needing” support or compassion, try to prove they are indeed the victim of others by staying in conflicted relationships (personal or business), and also complain of other people taking advantage of their kindness.
Recognizing when someone is suffering from victim mentality versus just being manipulative can be difficult. The main difference is chronic presence of negativity rather than just a fleeting moment of manipulation.
But not all “victims” are the same.
According to Dr. Kim Shirin, a psychotherapist, there are different victim mentality profiles. They include:
- Passive victim: Always beating themselves up in a self-defeat attitude.
- Sickness tyrant: Use their health to manipulate other people’s attentions. They willingly dwell on their pains and aches and expect to be taken care of.
- Martyr: People pleasers but they always expect something in return. They are givers but they play the “you owe me” card all the time.
- Angry victim: Always mad about something, they feel that whatever they do it is never enough for others. They fear being abandoned but express it in anger.
- Bullies: They are emotionally immature and express frustration and hurt by attacking those who they feel did not supply [sic] their needs.
Having a victim mentality can lead to a whole host of mental illnesses due to angry, victimized feelings which get bottled up inside. Such mental illnesses can present as; depression, anxiety, co-dependence disorders, personality disorders, psychosomatic disorders, and so-on.
People with victim mentality can be extremely frustrating to deal with.
Dr. Orloff, M.D. explains there are ways to deal with these individuals without feeling irritated or emotionally drained.
For friends and relatives:
Kindly tell your friend or relative that it isn’t healthy for them to feel sorry for themselves all the time, and that you’re only willing to listen for 5 minutes unless the individual is willing to discuss possible solutions for their problems. Friends and family, because they often have close relationships, may become combative, but by telling them you love them and care for them you can usually defuse the situation. Focus mainly on solutions when dealing with them, and if they resist, remove yourself from the conversation.
You must be careful not to offend coworkers as they do not have the close relationship family and friends do where blunt tactics can be appreciated.
For these individuals, the key is to limit the conversation by not encouraging the topic at hand; tell them you hope things will turn around for them but you have to get back to work.
Victim mentality in yourself:
Perhaps the most difficult places to spot and handle victim mentality is within your own personality.
During those moments where you feel down and looking for a scape goat, Dr. Orloff recommends taking a second to remind yourself of all the positives you have in your life. Try to remind yourself that others are suffering horribly from hunger, disease, war, and other serious hardships. That is not to say that your problems are not real or serious to YOU, but in contrast to the millions of people around the world who suffer in extreme situations every day can usually put your problems in perspective. A reality check is the best way to snap yourself out of a victim mentality, especially if your problems are like those that we call ‘first world problems’.
Having a victim mentality is extremely maladaptive. Even though some passive manipulations may sometimes work for you, taking this position is never in one's best interests. In the long run, it will do more harm than good.
Once someone is made aware that they have a victim mentality they can control their destructive behavior by acknowledging that their personal world and the external world contain many inequities and social injustices that are discriminatory and unfair to individuals or groups of people, yet they CAN take power over their lives.
There are steps one can take to make a positive change if one wants to stop being the victim and start being more responsible and pro-active in their own lives.