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Help patients break the 'victim' habit

September 9, 2015
by Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I
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As infants, we learn that a few tears will cause nourishment to appear or a new diaper to be put in place by loving hands. In childhood, we learn that a bruised shin or a scratched knuckle will yield a soothing hug and a bandage.

And so it goes. The lesson is reinforced as we’re comforted during times of physical or emotional pain, first by caretakers and then by peers. It’s no wonder some of us become addicted to the role of victim. It’s seductive and can become a habit—one that eventually creates more pain than it soothes.

Important caveat: This article does not address the challenges of those who have been truly victimized. Trauma survivors and other victimized populations need help to regain responsibility, accountability and empowerment. This article focuses on the legions of people who have simply adopted a victim mentality.

Here are five advantages of victimhood:

  • We get the attention we seek. Make no mistake, people respond to our pleas for help, particularly in the early stages of our relationship. We get attention and they get the gift of giving. It’s a win-win.

  • We blame others. We’re “innocent” of wrongdoing when we shift the blame to others. (“I’m not the problem here, they are.”) If we’re clever and strong communicators, we can effectively avoid accountability.

  • We avoid growth. Doesn’t sound like a benefit, but growing pains are, well, painful. It’s in our human nature to resist change, particularly when things are working well for us. When we stay in the victim role, we negate the need to embrace change. We avoid responsibility for “our side of the street.”

  • We control others. This is an advantage (like the others) that eventually will turn against us. In the short term, however, we continue to get our needs met by bullying others into doing things our way because, after all, we’re victims. Right? And if we’re compelling debaters, others will acquiesce to our demands—even if it’s just to shut us up.

  • We justify our own bad behavior. In our own minds, our anger (for example) is justified and our aggressive outbursts are simply not our responsibility. Of course, this is nonsense, but the habitual victim won’t see it that way.

Here are five disadvantages:

  • It won’t work forever. A “professional victim” is a bummer to be around. Even if the person is rich, attractive or well-connected, people eventually will abandon that person. It’s just tiresome to be around such negativity, and the emotional blackmail being perpetrated by the victim soon becomes less compelling.

  • It won’t work with everyone. Many people are smart enough to avoid someone addicted to victimhood. It won’t take them long to identify the trend toward negativity and emotional immaturity. We know about the importance of first impressions. Some folks will never renew a relationship with a chronic victim.

  • We don’t become mature adults. Let’s face it: Clinging to our victim role loosens our grip on personal growth. People wrapped up in victimhood feel completely entitled in their role and will be slow to recognize its negative influence on their lives. It’s a habit—and a difficult one to break.

  • We become poor listeners. Chronic victims are usually too self-absorbed to become real friends or effective caregivers. Although most of us are lousy listeners, those deafened by the noise of victimhood are particularly unavailable.

  • We’ll eventually be alone. Remember the boy who cried wolf? When the chronic victim is truly victimized, people simply will chalk it up to another bout of immaturity. For all the reasons stated above, victimhood is a one-way ticket to loneliness. Ironically, that loneliness will provide yet another reason for the person to embrace his/her role as the unfortunate victim, seeking out new people willing to make an emotional investment in the bottomless pit of the helpless victim.

Breaking the cycle of victimhood

It’s no small task, undoing a habit that started in childhood and was reinforced throughout the years. Many victimhood addicts learned their behaviors from an immature parent, so we’re facing a deeply ingrained mindset and behavior.

And a word of caution to the addiction professional treating someone with a victim mentality: You are probably facing a well-rehearsed, manipulative and cunning patient. Victimhood, like any addiction, is a disease of denial. Victimhood addicts view themselves as helpless, though standing on high moral ground, so addiction professionals must courageously hold up a mirror so patients can see the mask behind which they live.

This thankless task will require a delicate balance of tenacity and empathy on the part of the addiction professional. Here are two important treatment considerations.

The first is cognitive restructuring. We must encourage patients to challenge their beliefs, to question their assumptions and to embrace a more accepting view of others. Admittedly, this is a formidable task. Fortunately, 12-Step recovery programs stress the importance of acceptance, a learned skill that must be practiced regularly. We can also help our patients focus on the long-term consequences of bullying people to satisfy their short-term needs. What we’re really talking about is maturity—the ability to delay gratification for a greater good in the future.