We have reviewed 700 pages of peer-reviewed studies on victim mentality. Overwhelming evidence makes the lesson clear: People often get exploited or betrayed, even by those they trust, but whether these experiences break you or strengthen you depends on the choices you make.
I will walk you through two incredible longitudinal studies that show how to let these experiences strengthen you rather than weaken you.
To understand these studies better, I want to introduce two ideas. One is called a victim mentality, while the other is called victim sensitivity.
Let’s start with a victim mentality. There is a difference between being a victim and developing a victim mentality. If you get mugged, you are a victim of a crime. Someone harmed you. If you then start believing: “Only the bad happens to me” or “I can’t stop bad things from happening to me,” you’ve succumbed to a victim mentality. You’ve created a whole self-defeating story.
Victim mentality is a psychological term that refers to someone with an external locus of control. Those having an external locus of control believe they are not in control of their successes or failures and often blame others or “fate” for things that happen to them.
How do you identify someone with a victim mentality?
Let’s say your acquaintance just returned from a two-week vacation in Mexico. You ask how it was, but instead of sharing what was amazing about the trip, your acquaintance complains about how everything went wrong. People with a victim mentality often focus their attention on three things:
- negative experiences
- blaming external factors
- lack of control over their own life
This “mental habit” colors their daily experiences, shaping their personalities and life outcomes. As the saying goes, what you give your attention to grows. When you focus on the negative aspects of your experiences, you plant unpleasant memories firmly in your mind. When you reflect on your life, you only remember the adversities. Meanwhile, you miss opportunities to notice and remember what was good about your experiences, becoming blind to opportunities for success and happiness in the present and the future. That isn’t a matter of adopting a Pollyanna mindset that ignores the bad. It is a habit of focusing on what you want rather than what you don’t want.
Now let’s talk about victim sensitivity.
Imagine that someone criticizes the work you’ve done, saying that it is not good enough and you need to put in more effort to meet company standards. But then you discover that the person who criticized you never actually saw your work.
Your reaction to situations like that will either hamper or drive your success in life.
Research has repeatedly shown that people who are habitually sensitive toward unjust victimizations tend to behave uncooperatively and hostile under certain circumstances.
Let me explain it more clearly: If your reaction to this situation is to conclude that the world is unjust and that you can trust no one, you will become highly victim sensitive. While some sensitivity to people’s intentions is healthy and means you are not naive, an exaggerated level of sensitivity is detrimental. The more you feed your sensitivity to unfairness, the more you stop trusting people and start doubting their intentions. All that isolates you from others, which is a major problem because your success in life depends on your ability to work with others.
People skilled in interpreting other people’s motivations and behaviors excel in life. Those who are ineffective in this matter have social interactions of poor quality, which damages their chances of excelling in work and personal lives.
According to the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology, social skills comprise a set of learned abilities that enable an individual to interact competently and appropriately in a given social context. The most commonly identified social skills include assertiveness, coping, communication and friendship-making, interpersonal problem solving, and the ability to regulate one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Social skills enable others to feel comfortable interacting with us.
For example, a 20-year retrospective study14 found that kindergarten students who showed high social skills (the skills we mentioned above) were more likely to attain higher education and well-paid jobs. Specifically, the results showed that for every one-point increase on the 5-point scale in a child’s social competence score in kindergarten, the child was:
- Twice as likely to attain a college degree in early adulthood
- 46% more likely to have a full-time job at the age of 25
In contrast, for every one-point decrease in a child’s social competence score in
kindergarten, the child had:
- 67% higher chance of having been arrested by early adulthood
- 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing
Similar results have been found when studying adult workers. Researchers at Harvard University investigated the factors that determine career success and income levels using national labor market data. They found that, on average, workers with high social skills earn 9% more than those with poor social skills and 4% more than workers with average social skills.15,16
To sum up, if you can’t get along with people because you tend to see yourself as a victim,
you will likely find it difficult to achieve high education and high income.
A key factor in getting along with people is learning when to let things slide and when to take action. And those choices are tied directly to the decision-maker mindset. Some people respond to betrayals of trust, failures of reciprocation, or deception with a feeling of overwhelming rage. They end up ruminating about the injustice for a long time and may end up “canceling” the friendship or seeking revenge.
In the long run, they may decide the best course of action is to stop trusting people and avoid forming close social bonds entirely. After all, this incident has “proven” to them that other people are willing and able to exploit their goodwill. At this point, victim sensitivity becomes a stable, enduring personality trait for the individual.
People with high victim sensitivity don’t always avoid or cancel relationships. Instead, when untrustworthiness cues are present, some victim-sensitive individuals tend to behave uncooperatively toward others. For example, victim-sensitive individuals prefer punishing betrayals overcompensating the victims of betrayals, even if punishment is costly for them4. Victim sensitivity can also lead to “approach-oriented” behaviors that are self-defeating. Approach-oriented behaviors happen when you are trying to cooperate with others or become part of a group. And it is self-defeating when you are doing this in a socially inappropriate way.
For example, one of my employees recently approached me asking for a promotion. The problem was that I was not the right person to have this discussion with because the employee was reporting to another manager. When asked, “why don’t you discuss this with your manager first” the employee replied, “I don’t feel it is in the manager’s interests to promote me.” This is an example of behavior that sets a person up for failure. While the employee wanted to be a part of the group, he asked for a promotion in a manner that created an atmosphere of distrust and circumvented the company’s culture.
Ok, now you know what victim sensitivity and victim mentality mean.
Let’s dive into some studies to see how it gets started.
The victim mentality can emerge early in childhood. A study of 11,780 US children was conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University. They found that children who displayed externalizing problem behaviors in kindergarten (e.g., refusing to follow the rules or behaving aggressively toward peers) were nearly twice as likely to be verbally or physically victimized by other children when they reached 3rd to 5th grade6.
“Externalizing” means being directed outward, often attributing the cause of your problems to factors outside of yourself and blaming others for how you feel. Victim sensitivity often goes hand in hand with the habit of externalization. You believe that others are responsible for your negative feelings, and to avoid feeling bad, you try to control, confront, devalue and avoid those you perceive as a threat. Let me repeat that: victim-sensitive, uncooperative kids were twice as likely to be victimized.
Another longitudinal study conducted by researchers at the University of Kent followed 769 children from age 9 to 22 and found that the tendency to feel unfairly treated or being taken advantage of increased the likelihood of being a target of peer victimization7.
Justice sensitivity is a category of victim sensitivity. Justice sensitivity is the tendency to perceive and negatively respond to alleged injustice, a cognitive mindset that increases the risk of victimhood.
Participants (50% females, average age of 17 years) were assessed in three waves. Justice Sensitivity was assessed using a standard questionnaire that captures emotional and cognitive reactions to perceived injustice from three perspectives: victim (“It makes me angry when I am treated worse than others”), observer (“I am upset when someone is…”), and perpetrator’s (“I feel guilty when I treat someone…”). The teens also reported on peer victimization, answering questions about their experiences as victims of physical, verbal, and relational aggression (e.g., “Other students have insulted me”).
They were also asked about their use of illegal substances, including cannabis and other drugs (e.g., ecstasy, speed, cocaine, crystal meth). Finally, they were asked whether they exhibited self-injurious behaviors, such as burning, cutting, stabbing the skin using needles or staples, beating themselves or hitting their head against objects, etc.
The greater their justice sensitivity was, the greater the likelihood that they interpreted social interactions as unjust, expected more negative social interactions, or attributed stressful social situations to the malevolent intentions of others.
The researchers concluded that having high victim sensitivity could make people prone to several dysfunctional social behaviors, such as an inability to manage one’s emotions, frequent outbursts of anger, and revenge-seeking, all of which may predispose them to victimization by peers. Because these teens tend to overreact to injustices toward themselves and others, they are unable to respond to peer provocation “strategically”. In other words, they react rather than choose to act, which makes them more likely to be targets of victimization by others.
Another way to put it is this: Victim-sensitive individuals unwittingly create cycles of betrayal and victimization through their own expectations and behavior. Because they expect others to take advantage of them, they tend to engage in “evocative transactions” that put people off, leading them to be abandoned by others. By failing to reign in feelings of moral outrage and anger, they essentially create a self-fulfilling prophecy:“I am powerless and vulnerable because others can’t be trusted.”
Let me show you how everything discussed above plays out in a fictional dialogue between a coach and a client.
Client: My boss hates me. I’m never going to get promoted.
Coach: What makes you think your boss hates you? Can you give me examples?
Client: He takes credit for my work. A couple of days ago, I turned in a report on which I worked really hard. He told me it was good work. But then he added his name to the report as the first author and submitted it to his boss.
Coach: That does sound unfair. Did you try talking to him about it?
Client: No, what good would that do? These things always happen to me. I always get bullied and never receive credit for the good I do.
Coach: Are there steps you can take at work to ensure that people other than your boss know about your contributions?
Client (after a moment’s thought): I could circulate a memo when I turn in my work. That way, my boss won’t be the only one to know I wrote the report.
Coach: That sounds reasonable. Have you also considered that your boss may see your role as making him look good?
Client (snorting): Yeah, but how does that help me?
Coach: If he got promoted, what would happen to you?
Client (thinking aloud): Well, he’s so dependent on me, that he would probably want to bring me along with him in some capacity.
Coach: Is that something you would want?
Client: Yeah, I’m pretty used to him.
Coach: Would you want to be promoted instead?
Client: Yeah, I could do his job. I’m doing most of it right now anyway.
Coach: Is there any way you could document your accomplishments so that you would be seen as a good fit for the job if it opened up—without making your boss feel threatened?
Client: Yeah, the annual HR review. We’re supposed to write a report on our contributions to the company’s productivity annually. I’d just have to make sure that I don’t contradict my boss, but I think I could swing that
Notice that the goal of this interaction is to nudge the employee toward thinking about where her power lies, the choices available to her, the actions she could take, and the likely consequences of those actions. This is how she becomes empowered rather than wallowing in a sad tale of victimhood.
How to Stop Being a Victim
Now let’s talk about the way out based on the research.
As should be apparent, there really is no upside to succumbing to a victim mentality. As we already know, a victim mentality is an expectation that others and the world, in general, will be cruel to you, often intentionally. Your expectations are based on your past experiences and biopsychological factors (e.g., your genetic predisposition towards certain perceptions and reactions).
The way out of the victim mentality is unexpected. The mainstream suggestions like “think more positively,” “try to trust people,” and “change your story about events towards a more empowering one” work to some extent. However, what we are going to recommend is a little harder to accomplish but has a better chance of success.
You see, you feel like a victim because you are anxious, insecure, and constantly afraid. Fear is a precursor to the loss of emotional and physical integrity. If you want to trust the world more, you need to become calm and start feeling safe. The million-dollar question is how to do that. The answer is Power and Choice.
Look for Choices Because That is Where Your Power Lies
When you feel powerless, look for choices! Research shows that people compensate for low power by seeking choices. On the other hand, those who lack the chance to choose to seek jobs and products associated with power13. In one experimental study, participants were placed into a state of high or low power (for instance, by being asked to recall a personal experience in which they felt powerful or powerless).
They were then given either many or few choices. Specifically, they were presented with a small assortment (3 options) or a large assortment (15 options) of different products and were asked how much they were willing to pay for each.
Low-power participants indicated a stronger preference for the large assortments than high-power participants, and individuals lacking choice were willing to pay more for high-status products.
The researchers concluded that:
Control is a central animating force in human behavior, operating like thirst. The need to drink emerges only when water levels are depleted. Similarly, power satisfies the thirst for choice, and choice quenches the desire for power because each replenishes a sense of control.
Here is a real-life example. I changed names and circumstances but left the bottom line intact.
Sarah and John married each other in their twenties. They also started a business together. John was the CEO, and Sarah was taking care of operations. The company became very successful. One day, John offered Sarah to buy her out. He wanted full control over the business, explaining that Sarah was not good enough in her role. Sarah disagreed, and the fight for power started. Sarah sabotaged John’s decisions, and John convinced some company leaders not to take Sarah seriously. This battle for power destroyed their relationship at home. They were on the brink of divorce.
When Sarah joined my coaching, she was lost, confused, and anxious. She was trying to gain control by obtaining power as she thought it was the only way out. She thought having enough power and having her status back would solve her problem. Yet, things only got worse. She told me that she was victimized and unfairly treated by her husband. And yet, when she felt better, she also said that, in his shoes, she would have done the same. Why? She said that she did not want to be an operations person anymore. She also wanted more time for herself. I offered her to take a pen and a blank sheet of paper. On that sheet, I asked her to write down what that conversation with her husband could look like if she led it and if she offered him her versions of the future. I also asked her to specify the versions she would have proposed.
Once she was done, we had three scenarios. The first included her starting a new company herself. The second scenario was her becoming a Director of the Board of Directors. The third was staying in the role but hiring a consultant to help her improve in her role. She did not like the third one. But the first two made her aware that she had options. She understood she was not powerless and refused to adopt the victim’s mentality. I saw how her face relaxed, and a half smile appeared. She was in control again.
The Bottom Line
Bad things happen to good people. It is a part of life and should be accepted as such. And yet, we are never truly powerless. Even when confronted with great adversities, we have the ability to choose! You can choose to let the challenges break you or strengthen you. The outcome only depends on the choices you make. When you feel powerless, don’t get seduced into the victim mentality. Look for options!
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