The Victimhood Mindset: What it is, Why we adopt it, and How to address it

A mindset is like a default pattern we use to evaluate situations and understand them in relation to ourselves. People generally don’t just receive information and evaluate it objectively. Things we learn, experiences we have, our values, and our beliefs are just some of the things that create a lens through which we interpret information. It is through this lens that we create meaning from the world around us. Some mindsets are quite positive, actually contributing to our mental health and relationships. Unfortunately, other mindsets can consistently sabotage our well-being and attempts to heal. One such mindset that has been identified by psychologists is the victimhood mindset. 

Briefly, the victimhood mindset is defined by 3 main beliefs:

  • Bad things have happened in the past and will continue to happen to you.
  • Others are to blame for your misfortune.
  • There is no point in trying to make a change because it will not work.

Just reading those sentences, you may be able to anticipate some of the problems a person might experience if they interpreted the world using those beliefs. This mindset has been linked to feelings of shame, resentment, anger, isolation, helplessness, and hopelessness, just to name a few. Some consequences of this mindset can be depression, chronic relationship difficulties, a negative self-image, and difficulty trusting anyone. With a list of effects like that, we can assume that this mindset is one we would want to avoid. Unfortunately, lots of people get stuck in it to varying degrees.

This begs the question: Why do people get stuck in this victimhood mindset? There are several reasons why we might develop and maintain a victimhood mindset. Importantly, this mindset often develops in people with adverse childhood experiences or trauma that occurred before they had the means to cope. Further, the symbolic position of “victim” has several secondary benefits that maintain the mindset. Victims often receive attention, sympathy, validation, and even help from others, which are all powerful reinforcement mechanisms for any behaviour. Finally, victimhood has increasingly become a marker of social status, especially in circles that value social justice. When we begin to award attention, praise, and social power to victims, occupying a victim identity can be quite attractive.

So, what can we do if we find ourselves stuck in the belief that we are powerless victims, destined to be punished by a cruel world? Here are just a few helpful starting points to begin with:

  • Seek therapy. A therapist can help with insight or investigation into the sources, and current manifestations of a victimhood mindset
  • Identify specific unhelpful behaviors like shifting blame, complaining, and not taking responsibility
  • Practice taking responsibility for your behaviour and actions. You can’t control what happened to you in the past, but you often have some control over what you do going forward. Start taking responsibility for your own healing.
  • Challenge victim mindset thoughts. Thoughts like “I’m broken” or “the world is against me” that reinforce the narrative at the core of this mindset
  • Practice gratitude for what you already have in your life
  • Engage in self-love and seeing yourself as a worthwhile person
  • Make yourself a priority and take care of how much energy you expend
  • Try to identify and understand what you are getting from your victimhood status (validation, attention, sympathy, a sense of righteousness) and find some other way to get it

One theme to keep in mind is balance between responsibility and understanding. On the one hand, we need to have compassion for our past selves and try to understand why we feel and act the way we do. On the other, nothing will get better without action, and the first step forward is often taking responsibility for how we are going to act going forward, in spite of what has happened to us.

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