How to Deal with Someone Who Plays the Victim Without Draining Yourself Empty
“You’re out to get me, I just know it!” The man said. I could sense his anxiety intensifying with each syllable. Even though I couldn’t see his face on the other side of the telephone, I could tell he had angry, hot tears rolling in his eyes.
I let out a silent sigh.
Here we go, again.
The thought rammed through my mind and almost slipped through my teeth. Thankfully, I caught it just in time.
I put on my best professional voice and explained to him, for what felt like the zillionth time, that there was no stealthy agenda, no evil plot, no cunning conspiracy of any kind going on here. His manager had given him a written warning for a mistake that shouldn’t have been made by someone with his experience and training. As a member of human resources, I had personally reviewed the decision and agreed it was appropriate under the circumstances.
He needed to take accountability and learn from his mistakes. End of story.
But would he listen? No. The belief that he had been the victim of a wicked, unjust, and shameful ploy against him was already deeply entrenched in his mind, and there was no way to dig it out. Just like the last time he made a similar mistake at work, and the time before, there were always plenty of reasons why it was not his fault and we were the bad guys for not accepting his “perfectly reasonable” rationale.
A few weeks later, he resigned. But before he left, he made sure everyone in the office knew how he was “bullied” by the company and “driven out”.
I assume, by the fact that you’re here reading these words, that you know someone like this (or a close version of it) in your life.
Perhaps it’s a coworker. Maybe it’s a friend. Or worse, someone you have to live with. And you don’t know what to do with them.
For them, life is always unfair, and people unkind. Just listening to them makes you feel drained and exasperated. And even worse, they can make you feel guilty and lead you to question your own perception of reality.
There’s a name to this kind of behaviour. It’s called the “victim syndrome” or “victim mentality”.
And it’s a real bummer.
What is the “Victim Syndrome” or “Victim Mentality”?
A man who always arouses pity must have a detestable quality.
– Chinese proverb
“Victim syndrome” or “victim mentality” are terms used to describe people who feel victimized all the time, even though most of their complaints are about trivial things.
People with a victim mentality project a sense of helplessness and vulnerability. They often tell negative stories about themselves and use their experiences to arouse pity in others and seek validation for their suffering.
People with this mentality also tend to have ongoing struggles in their social realm as they like to view themselves as a victim across different kinds of interpersonal relationships.
What Are the Signs of Victim Mentality?
Not sure how to tell if a person has a“victim mentality”?
Besides the traits I mentioned above, also look for the following signs:
- They never admit their own shortcomings or recognize the role they play in a conflict.
- They like to exaggerate their negative experiences and feelings. Every little problem is “the end of the world”.
- They think that everybody (or almost everybody) is mean to them in some way.
- They believe they’re helpless and have little control over their life.
- Their conversations usually revolve around their problems. They show little to no interest in listening to others.
- They seem to attract drama and misfortune wherever they go.
- They lack self-confidence and like to think of themselves as being at a disadvantage compared to others.
I’ve seen my fair share of people with these traits of victim mentality in both my personal and professional life, and I know how difficult it can be to work/live/socialize with them. They can easily suck you in, dampen your mood, and deplete your energy with their constant negativity.
But the good news is, you don’t have to let them.
How Do You Deal With Someone Who Plays the Victim: 5 Best Strategies
1. Help Them Look at the Situation From Another Perspective
People who have a victim mentality often look at things from a narrow perspective.
Take, for example, my story of that disgruntled employee who believed a well-intended corrective action harboured a sinister motive.
They tend to focus on only one perspective of the situation—and it’s usually a negative perspective—and forget that there could be another way of perceiving and interpreting the event.
Even when there’s a more logical and more positive explanation for what’s happening, people with a victim mentality tend to default to the negative perspective—the view that others are intentionally trying to hurt them.
The more they dwell on this negative perspective, the more resentful they feel, and the more they tell others (like you) about it—reliving the perceived negative experience over and over each time they recount the narrative. And in turn, they build up even more resentment.
It’s a vicious cycle.
To help them break this cycle, you need to remind them that there are usually several sides to every story. Show them there’s another angle to look at things when they’re stuck in their tunnel vision.
Here’s an example:
When someone with a victim mentality says: “So and so from accounting was standoffish when I asked her about my expenses today. She must not like me.”
You could say: “She probably had a bad day. We all have days when we feel irritated and it’s likely got nothing to do with you.”
2. Encourage Problem-Solving, Discourage Venting
One thing people with a victim mentality love to do is vent. They can go on and on, talking in circles about one problem without exploring any solution, and wasting their time and yours in the process.
And venting does more damage than killing productivity.
Sure, everyone needs to vent at one time or another. Bottling things up is never good for anybody. But when venting becomes the default mode for someone, it not only becomes a productivity drain, it turns into a furnace that only fuels more stress and anger in the person doing the venting.
So if you notice someone chronically venting about their problems, the best thing you can do for their mental health (and yours) is this:
Don’t let them pour out their grievances like a broken dam. You have to shut the gate quickly and firmly, without being rude of course.
And you do this by encouraging them to think about solutions to their problems instead of focusing on the problems themselves.
When someone with a victim mentality says: “I’m always getting hurt by the people closest to me.”
You could say: “What do you think you can do to communicate hurt your feelings across constructively?”
3. Recognize Their Feelings. Don’t Validate Their “Victimhood”
Do you know someone who’s always recounting the “bad things” that have happened to them?
What’s your go-to response? Is it one of the following?
a) “Poor you!”
b) “Oh my gosh that’s awful!”
c) “you’re right, that person was totally in the wrong!”
And do you also nod your head along as they tell you about their plight and how unfair the world is to them?
It’s our natural tendency to want to empathize with someone in pain. We say and do things to show that we recognize their feelings and accept them. This is called emotional validation and it’s a powerful relationship skill that helps strengthen our social bond.
But if we’re dealing with a person who has the victim mentality, we want to be careful of how we approach emotional validation.
You want to recognize their feelings, but at the same time, refrain from confirming their “reality”. Because if you confirm their reality—the world is a big, bad place and people are being jerks to them—the more they feel a sense of validation of their “victimhood”. This will only compound their feelings of helplessness and make them even less willing to take accountability for their actions and be in charge of their own destiny.
And not to mention if they feel they can count on you to validate their “victimhood”, they’ll always come to you to dump their woes.
And I’m guessing you don’t want that.
So be very clear that while you accept and understand their feelings, you may not agree with their perceived reality.
When someone with a victim mentality says: “I’m so hurt by what so and so said at our last get-together. It humiliated me! How could she be so mean?”
You could say: “I see that you’re upset and I can understand why you would feel this way if you thought she wanted to humiliate you, however from the way I see it, it was an innocent joke, not a remark directed at you, and it meant no harm.”
4. Challenge Their Narratives and Assumptions (Tactfully)
People with a victim mentality enjoy the attention they receive when others comfort them over their tales of woes and misfortune. They often exaggerate negative past experiences to make them sound like they were far worse, and happened more frequently, than what actually took place.
And if you never question their story—again—they’ll keep coming to you to unload their negativity. In the meantime, nothing is resolved and their problems continue.
If you really want to help them—and save your own sanity at the same time—then don’t be afraid to challenge their narratives and assumptions, tactfully of course.
When someone with a victim mentality says: “My parents are always picking fights with me for no reason. They don’t care about me.”
You could ask the following questions:
- What do you mean by “always”? How frequently are you fighting versus simply voicing disagreement?
- What role do you think you play in the conflict?
- What have you done to improve your relationship with your parents?
5. Draw a Line in the Sand
And last but least, remember that you should never inherit someone else’s problems. if a person with a victim mentality is not interested in solving their own dilemma, there’s nothing you can do to help them.
Don’t take their problems to heart or make it your mission to solve anything for them. Don’t strain yourself helping them with things they can—and should be able to—do themselves. And by all means, don’t let them go on and on with their laundry list of “bad things” and “bad people” in their lives.
When someone isn’t interested in helping themselves, the best thing you can do for them, and for yourself, is this:
Draw a line in the sand and let them know where it is. Set clear boundaries and remind them how much you’re willing to give at all times (respectfully, of course).
When someone with a victim mentality comes to you and starts to talk about their problems, you could say: “I want to give you the attention and respect you deserve, however, I can only offer 5 minutes of my undivided attention to listen to you talk about your issue, but I’m always here if you’re ready to talk about how you’re going to solve the problem.”
Yes, it’s going to raise their eyebrows. It’s going to make them pout. And it might even make them lash out. But don’t let guilt or the fear of being judged as “not nice” stop you from setting clear boundaries. Because if you don’t, sooner or later you’re going to run empty. And then as soon as you say you can’t give them all the attention they want, you’re deemed “not nice” anyway.
You’re not trying to win the Nobel Peace Award here, so you just have to learn to live with being labeled “not nice” by some people.
Trust me, your sanity is worth the small price.