Victim mentality is an acquired personality trait in which a person tends to recognize or consider themselves as a victim of the negative actions of others, and to behave as if this were the case in the face of contrary evidence of such circumstances. Victim mentality depends on clear thought processes and attribution. In some cases, those with a victim mentality have in fact been the victim of wrongdoing by others or have otherwise suffered misfortune through no fault of their own. However, such misfortune does not necessarily imply that one will respond by developing a pervasive and universal victim mentality where one frequently or constantly perceives oneself to be a victim.
Victim mentality is primarily developed, for example, from family members and situations during childhood. Similarly, criminals often engage in victim thinking, believing themselves to be moral and engaging in crime only as a reaction to an immoral world and furthermore feeling that authorities are unfairly singling them out for persecution.
In the most general sense, a victim is anyone who experiences injury, loss, or misfortune as a result of some event or series of events. This negative experience, however, is insufficient for the emergence of a sense of victimhood. Individuals may identify as a victim if they believe that:
- they were harmed;
- they were not the cause of the occurrence of the harmful act;
- they were under no obligation to prevent the harm;
- the harm constituted an injustice in that it violated their rights (if inflicted by a person), or they possessed qualities (e.g., strength or goodness of character) making them persons whom that harm did not befit;
- they deserve sympathy.
The desire for empathy is crucial in that the mere experience of a harmful event is not enough for the emergence of the sense of being a victim. In order to have this sense, there is the need to perceive the harm as undeserved, unjust and immoral, an act that could not be prevented by the victim. The need to obtain empathy and understanding can then emerge.
Individuals harbouring a victim mentality would believe that:
- their lives are a series of challenges directly aimed at them;
- most aspects of life are negative and beyond their control;
- because of the challenges in their lives, they deserve sympathy;
- as they have little power to change things, little action should be taken to improve their problems.
Victim mentality is often the product of violence. Those who have it usually had an experiences of crisis or trauma at its roots. In essence, it is a method of avoiding responsibility and criticism, receiving attention and compassion, and evading feelings of genuine anger.
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A victim mentality may manifest itself in a range of different behaviours or ways of thinking and talking:
- Identifying others as the cause for an undesired situation and denying a personal responsibility for one's own life or circumstances.
- Exhibiting heightened attention levels (hypervigilance) when in the presence of others.
- Awareness of negative intentions of other people.
- Believing that other people are generally more fortunate.
- Gaining relief from feeling pity for oneself or receiving sympathy from others.
It has been typically characterized by attitudes of pessimism, self-pity, and repressed anger. People with victim mentality may develop convincing and sophisticated explanations in support of such ideas, which they then use to explain to themselves and others of their situation.
People with victim mentality may also be generally:
- realist, with a general tendency to realistically perceive a situation; yet may lack an awareness or curiosity about the root of actual powerlessness in a situation
- likely to display entitlement and selfishness.
- defensive: In conversation, reading a negative intention into a neutral question and reacting with a corresponding accusation, hindering the collective solution of problems by recognizing the inherent conflict.
- categorizing: tending to divide people into "good" and "bad" with no gray zone between them.
- unadventurous: generally unwilling to take even small and calculated risks; exaggerating the importance or likelihood of possible negative outcomes.
- exhibiting learned helplessness: underestimating one's ability or influence in a given situation; feeling powerless.
- self-abasing: Putting oneself down even further than others are doing.
A victim mentality may be reflected by linguistic markers or habits, such as pretending
- not to be able to do something ("I can't..."),
- not to have choices ("I must...", "I have no choice..."), or
- epistemological humility ("I don't know").
Other features of a victim mentality include:
- Need for recognition – the desire for individuals to have their victimhood recognised and affirmed by others. This recognition helps reaffirm positive basic assumptions held by the individual about themselves, others and the world in general. This also implies that offenders recognise their wrongdoing. At a collective level this can encourage people to have a positive well-being with regards to traumatic events and to encourage conciliatory attitudes in group conflicts.
- Moral elitism – the perception of the moral superiority of the self and the immorality of the other side, at both individual and group levels. At an individual level this tends to involve a "black and white" view of morality and the actions of individuals. The individual denies their own aggressiveness and sees themself as weak and persecuted by morally pure, while the other person is seen as threatening, persecuting and immoral, preserving the image of a morally pure self. At a collective level, moral elitism means that groups emphasis the harm inflicted on them, while also seeing themselves as morally superior. This also means that individuals see their own violence as justified and moral, while the outgroup's violence is unjustified and morally wrong.
- Lack of empathy – because individuals are concerned with their own suffering, they tend to be unwilling to divert interest to the suffering of others. They will either ignore the suffering others or act more selfishly. At the collective level, groups preoccupied with their own victimhood are unwilling to see the outgroup's perspective and show less empathy to their adversaries, while being less likely to responsibility for harms they commit. This results in the group being collectively egoistic.
- Rumination – victims tend to focus attention on their distress and its causes and consequences rather than solutions. This causes aggression in response to insults or threats and decreases a desire for forgiveness by including a desire for revenge against the perpetrator. Similar dynamics play out at the collective level.
Victims of abuse and manipulation
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Victims of abuse and manipulation often get trapped into a self-image of victimisation. The psychological profile of victimisation includes a pervasive sense of helplessness, passivity, loss of control, pessimism, negative thinking, strong feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame and depression. This way of thinking can lead to hopelessness and despair. It may take a long period of time for therapists to build a trusting relationship with a victim. There frequently exists a distrust of authority figures, and the expectation of being hurt or exploited.
In 2005, a study led by psychologist Charles R. Snyder indicated that if a victim mentality sufferer forgives himself or the situation leading to that mental state, symptoms of PTSD or hostility can be mediated.
For adolescent victims, group support and psychodrama techniques can help people gain a realistic view of past traumas. These techniques emphasis the victims' feelings and expressing those feelings. Support groups are useful in allowing others to practice assertiveness techniques, and warmly supporting others in the process.
Successful identified techniques have included therapeutic teaching methods regarding concepts of normative decision theory, emotional intelligence, cognitive therapy, and psychological locus of control. These methods have proven helpful in allowing individuals with a victim mentality mindset to both recognize and release the mindset.
One may consider collective victimhood in political settings. If the leaders of a country, and the citizens who support them, collectively feel like victims, those leaders may be more likely to advocate violent conflict resolution or suppression of freedom of speech.
Political psychologists Bar-Tal and Chernyak-Hai write that collective victim mentality develops from a progression of self-realization, social recognition, and eventual attempts to maintain victimhood status.
- Learned helplessness
- Moral agency
- Persecutory delusion
- Social justice warrior
- Victim blaming
- Victim complex
- Victim playing
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Observers engaged in more ultimate justice reasoning for a "good" victim & greater immanent justice reasoning for a "bad" victim. Participants' construals of their bad breaks varied as a function of their self-worth, w/ greater immanent justice reasoning for participants with lower self-esteem.
- Kaminer, Wendy (July 30, 2010). "The Culture of 'Victimism' Gives Way to a Culture of Bullying". The Atlantic. Retrieved August 7, 2018.
- Bar-Tal, Daniel; Chernyak-Hai, Lily; Schori, Noa; Gundar, Ayelet (June 2009). "A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts" (PDF). Sequential stages: the process of victimization; Victim-to-victimizer cycle. International Review of the Red Cross. 91 (874): 234, 256. doi:10.1017/S1816383109990221. Retrieved August 7, 2018.
those who perceive themselves as a victim attempt to gain social validation by persuading others (family, friends, authorities, etc.) to recognize that the harm occurred & that they are victims...the sense of collective victimhood is related to negative affective consequences of fear, reduced empathy & anger, to cognitive biases such as interpretation of ambiguous information as hostile & threatening, to emergence of the belief that violent action taken is morally justified, to reduced moral accountability & finally to a tendency to seek revenge.
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Therapists...have noted the long period of time needed to build a trusting relationship. There is frequently distrust of...authority figures as well as the expectation of being hurt or exploited.
- Snyder, Charles R.; Heinze, Laura S. (April 1, 2005). "Forgiveness as a mediator of the relationship between PTSD & hostility in survivors of childhood abuse". Discussion. Cognition and Emotion. Taylor & Francis. 19 (3): 413–31. doi:10.1080/02699930441000175. PMID 22686650. S2CID 1485398.
...overall forgiveness, as well as forgiveness of self and situations, mediate the PTSD-hostility relationship.
- Knittle, Beverly J.; Tuana, Susan J. (January 1, 1980). "Group therapy as primary treatment for adolescent victims of intrafamilial sexual abuse". Helpless Victim Mentality. Clinical Social Work Journal. Human Sciences Press. 8 (4): 240. doi:10.1007/BF00758579. S2CID 71450173.
The same incident would then be reenacted, only this time the victim would stop the assault by means of verbalizations, physically overpowering the offender, obtaining assistance from the other parent, or some other method. The group members develop a sense of mastery over situations in which they were once helpless. They use the group to practice assertiveness skills, and they warmly support each other in the process.
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- Bar-Tal, Daniel; Chernyak-Hai, Lily; Schori, Noa; Gundar, Ayelet (June 2009). "A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts" (PDF). Foundations. International Review of the Red Cross. 91 (874): 233. doi:10.1017/S1816383109990221. Retrieved August 21, 2018→ Sense of Victimhood has 3 foundations: (1) rooted in a Realization of Harm Experienced either directly or indirectly (2) 'Victim': a social label → result of Social Recognition of an act as illegitimate harm (3) Individuals Perceive Themselves as Victims → often attempt to maintain this status
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