by Joyce Bok (Psychologist)  June 2011

 Is thinking like a victim preventing you from moving on?

What is the victim thinking? 

Victim thinking is when you believe that external events or other people have caused you harm and you continue to blame them when the events/behaviour has passed over time and use them as excuses for why you are unhappy, stuck and/or in a negative state.  The psychology of a 'victim' may include having a persistant low self-esteem,  sense of shame, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, low sense of self-worth and/or see self as being flawed (1).                                                                              

If you find yourself frequently complaining and blaming others or events for your circumstances, then you may be victim of the victim paradigm.  It is the “always someone else’s fault and poor me” mentality.   Some of the victim thoughts may sound like, “You’re wrong and I’m right.”  “How could you?”  “I can’t believe she did this!”  “It’s not fair!  After all she did and her life turned out better than mine!”  “He destroyed my life...”  “It’s all because of her that my life is like this...”  “Because of what happened, I can never move on…” “There is nothing for me anymore…”  “I can’t…” “Nobody likes me.” “I’m useless..” etc.  Can you sense that these thoughts generate ‘helpless’ and ‘hopeless’ feelings?



Why do we think this way?

It is likely that we learnt this way of thinking from our parents. There is no 'victim gene' (1).  As children, we observe how others deal with stress and stressful events.  We could also learn this from our environment such as other influential people in our lives, the media and so on. This is called 'vicarious learning or modelling,' where people learn to be helpless from observing another person's reactions to events (2).

Martin Seligman, the author of "Optimistic Thinking," conducted an experiment with Steve Maier and found that the dogs that could not control the shocks administered to them, simply laid down passively and whined, even when they were put into a different condition where they could easily escape.  Martin Seligman called this "Learned helplessness and hopelessness."   It can thus be postulated that the lack of control or perceived lack of control over an aversive or unpleasant stimulus or event, can trigger a depressive response (2).  In other words, if a person grows up believing that events are beyond their control (External Locus of Control), then they grow up with the belief that events are random or due to 'luck' and happen due to factors outside their control rather than what one does. This can produce persistant out-of-control feelings and feelings of self in-sufficiency (1).  Whereas if a person believed that they had more 'Internal Locus of Control,' that is, that events occur due to their actions and choices, then they are likely to be more pro-active in shaping their lives. 

 Of course, reality consists of both, where some events are certainly out of one's control, others are within one's control and the rest, a sum of both.  Thus this article is not about minimizing events where people do fall victim to, where they need to be treated with empathy, sympathy, compassion, understanding and sensitivity.  There is a time and space for this.  However, if one finds oneself 'stuck' in the mindset of being a 'victim' long after the event has occured, and then uses this to gain advantages, attention and sympathy, then it turns into manipulation and the person remains 'stuck' in their dependency on victimhood.  Social Exchange Theory (Worchel, 1984) and Behavioural Psychology explains this, where a 'victim's' behaviours are rewarded enough to sustain their actions (1).

 The Western culture reinforces the identity of ‘victimhood’ through viewing inequalities and differences to be related to injustice and vicimisation (1).  The political and legal system promotes the status of victim where they are compensated for this status.  The legal system tends to view the person as 100% innocent or 100% guilty rather than examine the role that some victims play in the situation (eg Battered wife murders abusive husband) (1).  Buddhist view acceptance of inequality and negative people and events.  It reinforces the concept of karma and destiny (1).  Whereas the western world focuses on the concept of freedom and choice, and the control of one’s destiny and the right of each individual to pursue happiness (1).


Benefits of Victim Thinking

  •  Sympathy / Attention from others It is always nice to receive special care and attention from others.  People may even do favours for you to help you.  However, if this is a pattern, others will soon get tired of it and may avoid your company because you become boring and you zap their energy!


  • Avoiding responsibility It is easier for us to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves.  To take responsibility means we have to make an effort to change and we have to admit to the part we play in our own suffering.  We may also need to confront parts of ourselves which we do not like or are ashamed of.  It is a form of escaping.  Maybe we just don’t want to change?


  • Living off the drama.  Perhaps you are so used to the drama that you live off the adrenalin it generates.  What would happen if the drama is taken away?  Would your life feel empty, would you feel bored or is the drama covering a deeper pain that you have been avoiding? 


  • Social Bonding.  Conversations may be focused on each others’ dramas.  It may come to a point where there is no other subject to talk about other than dramas.  Each person may feel better knowing that someone else has more ‘problems’ in her/his life or gain more sympathy and attention being the person with more problems in her/his life.



Costs of Victim Thinking

  • Stuckness.  Things do not seem to improve in your life and you may feel stuck.  There is a loss of momentum or new energy.  There is no change.


  • Cycle of problems.  You continue to live the dramas and have the same problems in your life.  This can be overwhelming and exhausting.  This further reinforces your sense of ‘Victim-ness.’    


  • Negative feelings and thoughts.  You continue to feel helpless and hopeless and other agitated feelings such as frustration, anger, resentment, anxiety, fear, pain, sorrow, powerless and so on.  You will start to form beliefs about yourself, people and the world which reinforces these feelings, which will then affect how you interact with others and how you live your life.  For example, self-isolation or not finding another job or relationship, etc.


  • People start to avoid you.  People may avoid you because you zap their energy.  It can be exhausting to be in the company of someone who is very negative and/or always complaining and/or always blaming others.  The energy is heavy and the ‘fun’ is taken out of your company. 


  • Low energy / Depression.  Continually thinking like a victim increases the chances of developing depression.  Ironically, the victim-minded person will use their diagnosis or condition as a reason for their negative life circumstances and behaviours, which further reinforces their victimhood.  Victim-thinking can also decrease your energy levels as a lot of energy is used up in worrying, blaming, anger, frustration, complaining, and so on.


  • Poor physical health Learned helplessness can contribute to poor health.  A healthy diet, exercise and medical treatment are neglected, falsely believing you have no power to change.   A lot of stress can accummulate from perceiving events as unpredictable and uncontrollable.  A weakened immune system has been linked to pessimistic explanatory style or consistent negative thinking (2).


  • Waste lifeThe person who uses ‘victimhood’ as an identity may realise after some time, that s/he had wasted their energies and time trying to control things that s/he could not control, passing judgements and waiting for justice and feeling debilitated because a significant part of his/her life was used focusing on the people or situations which she/he blames for his/her negative consequences of his/her life.


Breaking the Victim-Thinking cycle:

One negative event does not render one a ‘victim.’  It is a series of events, a cycle, even predictable where a person is acting out the victim mentality (eg woman goes from one abusive relationship to another) (1). 


Recognise the role that you play in the problem situation

What part do you play in perpetuating the cycle?  Do you have problems being assertive?  Do you tend to be a ‘people pleaser’ or ‘passive-aggressive,’ and then become angry at the person because s/he did not give you what you expected?  Do you have an addictive behaviour?  For example, using retail therapy and wondering why you are always in debt?  Be an observer of yourself and recognise your pattern of behaviour.


Be aware of the pattern of triggers, thoughts, feelings and your reactions

In order to break the cycle, you need to be aware of your behaviour and its impact on others.  If you are the common denominator of a series of problem situations, then you need to look at your own behaviour carefully.  This would mean confronting some things about your behaviour that you may not like.  For example, if you are continually have conflict with your colleagues in your work environments, then you need to examine why this is.  Perhaps you are imposing your belief systems or expectations of behaviour on others and become offended if they do not meet this.  Aim to defeat the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and low self-esteem and do not concentrate on blame and moral self-righteousness (1).


Take responsibility for your actions and choices

What do you base your decisions on?  Your feelings?  Fears?  Desires?  Hopes?  Promises?  Information?  What are your friends/family telling you?  Do you find yourself saying or thinking, “She  / He made me do it?”  Ultimately, you make the choices and you need to accept the consequences.  Accepting responsibility for your actions and choices is taking your power back.


Take action or Let go

Accept what you can and can’t control.  Re-examine your expectations and beliefs of others and life.  Are they unrealistic?  Based on idealism or perfectionism?  In the world that we live in right now, there will always be people who will do you wrong or disappoint you, events that will try your patience or things won’t always work out the way you want.  Letting go can take many forms.  It may involve forgiveness, accepting the situation as it is, understanding, removal of self from the situation, changing your own beliefs and expectations, making a decision and even having a good cry.


Move your energy elsewhere

Refocus your energy on something else other than the problem.  By now, you would have mulled over it compulsively and already sick of thinking about it.  It is time to distract yourself with something equally or more exciting, pleasurable, enjoyable, or some novel thing to shock you out of the repetition of thoughts and feelings about the situation.  For example, take up a new activity!  Trying something new, meet new people, have a cold shower, etc.


Develop a new / different paradigm

Be open to new ways of thinking or seeing the situation.  Explore alternatives to seeing the situation.  Ask different people from different settings about their opinions.  You are likely to get different perspective and different ways of reacting and responding. To have different models of thinking and dealing with things will give you more resources to draw upon.

 Not all the dogs in Seligman’s experiments became helpless.  In the latter half of the 60s, the experiment was replicated and 1/3rd of 150 dogs found a way out of the unpleasant situation despite past negative experiences with it (2).  It was also found that humans who got out of the helplessness paradigm had more of an optimistic style of thinking where they attributed the cause of the unpleasant situation as something other than personal (it’s my fault), pervasive (I can’t do anything right) or permanent (it will never change) (2). 



You may need someone professionally trained to guide you, coach you, support you, give you feedback and help you with the above.  The pattern may have been formed from your experiences in childhood.  You may have experienced abuse or abandonment.  You may have absorbed the shame, guilt and low sense of self-worth, believing you do not deserve a better life (1).  You may have unconsciously associated contradictory actions and feelings such as violence with love, intimacy with violation, care with betrayal and so on (1).  You may still have a lot of anger or rage about the abuse you experienced in the past and turned it inwardly toward yourself (thus attracting abuse to you) or seek to destroy others (1).  It is not uncommon to find that there is an interplay between 'victims' and 'victimizers,' and for a person to play out both roles (1).

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Psychotherapy can help people interpret and explain their negative experiences and defeat or reduce the sense of helpless and hopeless feelings.



A person who perpetually engages in thinking like a victim is someone who blames outside events or other people or things for their recurring problems.  If you think you fall into this category, you may have learnt this from childhood as a way of interpreting the world and your circumstances.  This type of thinking leads to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anger, powerlessness, stress, stuckness and other uncomfortable emotions.  You may be getting benefits from thinking this way but there are costs too.  To break the cycle of the habitual victim mentality, you need to firstly be aware of it, then take responsibility for your actions and choices and learn new ways of behaving and thinking.  You may need professional help to assist you in this.  Thinking like the victim all the time is not fun, even if there are indirect benefits.  It is an obstacle for your happiness, inner peace and well-being.




  1.  Zur, O.  ‘Rethinking ‘Don’t Blame the Victim.’  The Psychology of Victimhood.  In
  2. Learned Helplessness fr Wikipedia.  In


Disclaimer : The articles are of the opinion of the author only unless indicated otherwise. They are not written for individual advice. Please use your own discretion and make your own informed decisions about your situation.