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Victim Mentality or Vulnerability? 3 Ways to Tell

Three signs someone is playing the victim vs. true vulnerability.

Key points

  • There are three key signs that may indicate a person is "playing the victim" to manipulate you.
  • These include inflicting guilt, using a past hardship to excuse a wrongdoing in the present, and blame-shifting.
  • A person who is able to be vulnerable can perspective-take, be authentically accountable, and "look at themselves in the mirror."

People who play the victim may be actively trying to manipulate the person with whom they are interacting. Three tactics allow them to gain control of the person and evade taking responsibility for themselves. These maneuvers include inflicting guilt, using a past hardship to justify a hurtful act in the present, and shifting the blame. Conversely, an individual who can be vulnerable takes the polar opposite approach in the exact same situations.

1. Inflict guilt

A person typically wields guilt as a weapon when they want to control another person in a relationship. They accuse the opposite party of being hurtful, and then quickly manipulate the individual into doing what they want.

For example, Lexi says to Taylor, “Why haven’t you visited? I’m so disappointed in you. I thought our friendship meant more to you.” These three short sentences pack a mighty punch. Lexi coarsely confronts Taylor and scolds her for failing to meet her expectations. Next, she indirectly insinuates that Taylor is a “bad friend” because she has not visited. She also indicates that she is hurt by Taylor’s actions. Although Taylor may have a good reason, she is shut down by Lexi and made to feel as if she is a terrible friend. Quickly, to salvage the friendship, Taylor promises to visit Lexi the following weekend despite having important plans herself. Lexi, manipulatively, gets what she wants.

Alternatively, a person who does not play the victim has no need to inflict guilt. The interaction is more balanced and unfolds without unfair attacks of negative labels. For instance, “Taylor, I’m so glad you called. I have been thinking about you. How are you?” (Lexi listens as Taylor responds.) Next, she says, “I’ve been thinking, I’m a long way away. It’s a big trip. Any chance we can meet in the middle and grab lunch? I’d love to catch up.”

In this depiction, Lexi refrains from immediately condemning Taylor and is able to perspective-take. Instead of acting out defensively, she is open to discussing the situation. She considers Taylor’s viewpoint, not just her own. After further discussion, Taylor apologizes to Lexi for being unable to visit for the entire weekend and excitedly agrees to meet for lunch.

Lexi’s ability to be vulnerable instead of a “victim” is evidenced by her open-mindedness, ability to entertain Taylor’s vantage point, and willingness to extend herself to establish a compromise. In person, at lunch, Lexi continues to open up about her wish to remain close.

2. Utilizing a past hardship to excuse a current wrongdoing

Often, a person takes a “victim stance” when they want to escape “hot water” in a relationship. They identify adversity from the past and use it to sidestep personal responsibility in the present. This also allows them to evade consequences.

For example, Mike has been working on a complicated proposal for six months. He receives an answer regarding his work on the first of the month. His partner, Luke, is aware of the nerves leading up to the important date and is hopeful for Mike. The morning of the big day, Mike mentions his anxiety about receiving the news. Luke reassures him as he leaves for work. At noon, Mike gets word that his project is denied. Devastated, he muddles through his day, anxious to go home and get support from Luke. To Mike’s surprise, Luke is not there when he gets home. Worried, he waits for Luke and texts him multiple times, but Luke does not respond. At midnight, Luke returns home fairly intoxicated. Mike is shocked and upset. He confronts Luke.

Luke escalates at the confrontation and tells Mike that he forgot because he had a horrific day. Luke shares that a colleague told him he was not a team player. Next, Luke recalls several experiences from his childhood when his stepfather accused him of being selfish and spoiled. Luke says that all of these memories were overwhelming, and that he was relieved when his co-worker asked him to go out for a drink. Perplexed and exhausted, Mike feels ashamed for confronting Luke when he too had a rough day. His emotional anguish intensifies.

In reality, Luke lost his temper and actually called his underling selfish and spoiled. Also, he was at a karaoke bar with a group of people and happily performed a number of songs while purposefully ignoring Mike’s texts. However, when Mike addresses the issue, Luke quickly distorts the events of the day, so he seems like the victim.

Conversely, let’s say that Luke comes home and realizes he forgot about Mike’s proposal. He rushes to Mike and apologizes. He says, “I have no excuse. I completely forgot and that is not OK. You needed me and I was not there. I am very sorry.” Luke sits with Mike and encourages Mike to talk about his disappointment. Mike opens up and talks about how crushed he is. Luke empathizes and gives him a hug. Mike feels a bit better after discussing it and asks Luke to grab some ice cream from the freezer. Luke brings back two spoons and a giant tub of cherry vanilla swirl. The two eat ice cream together until they get drowsy and fall asleep.

In this situation, Luke is able to be vulnerable. He takes full responsibility for his mistake and apologizes. He then listens attentively and supports Mike as best he can. It may also be important to note that Luke refrains from saying things like “I am the worst boyfriend ever,” because those sorts of statements force Mike to take care of Luke. The person who is hurt is forced to comfort and soothe the person who did the “hurting,” which is not fair. A sincere and heartfelt apology free from excuses, justifications, and victimizations may be the most emotionally intelligent move.

3. Shift the blame

Frequently a person may attempt to shift the blame and portray themselves as the victim when they are confronted and face feedback. Instead of looking at themselves, they instantaneously become defensive and accuse the person who is bringing up the issue of being unfair, antagonistic, and abusive.

For example, Mary, Lisa’s manager, asks Lisa if they can meet for a few minutes in her office. Lisa agrees and sits down. Mary respectfully points out three of Lisa’s accounts that have been neglected for a few weeks. Lisa escalates and is indignant. She says to Mary, “I am shocked that you would address me in this manner. We are co-workers and you know I am an impeccable employee. What makes you think you can talk to me like this?”

Mary is dumbfounded, as she is Lisa’s manager and Lisa is in the wrong, but Lisa automatically attacks Mary for attempting to address an issue. Later that day, Lisa meets with the other members of the team and tells them Mary is a “bully.” Due to Lisa’s skill at playing the victim, the team is convinced that Mary is a “mean boss” and they complain about her to upper management.

On the other hand, Lisa listens to Mary’s feedback and looks at herself in place of automatically striking out defensively. She takes time that day to review her accounts and realizes that Lisa is correct. She rectifies the errors and thanks Lisa for giving her a heads-up. Lisa is relieved that she can trust Mary and Mary is confident that Lisa “has her back.”

A person who inflicts guilt to gain control, uses past hardships to excuse a present wrongdoing, and attempts to shift the blame when confronted may have a victim mentality. However, an individual who can perspective-take, be accountable, and consider feedback without reacting defensively may be a person who is strong enough to be vulnerable. Knowing the difference may help you assess the emotional safety of the person with whom you are dealing.

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