The Problem of Victimhood: Victim-Blaming is Clearly Wrong, but is there Something Equally Problematic with Victim Valorisation?

The Problem of Victimhood: Victim-Blaming is Clearly Wrong, but is there Something Equally Problematic with Victim Valorisation?
Photo by Prateek Katyal / Unsplash

It seems that the tide is finally turning on “victim blaming”. In recent years we've thankfully seen a strong and public pushing back on the idea that victims of assault, rape, hate crimes and more are somehow at fault for the terrible things that have happened to them. We are no longer asking “what could you have done to prevent this?”; the finger of blame now points firmly at the perpetrator, as it should. After all, we need to create a culture in which victims can expect to be believed so they can then be supported in achieving justice.

At the same time, and perhaps as a consequence  of this shift, I sense that a real fear has developed among many to ever question the status of victimhood at all - as if to do so equates to victim blaming. Herein lies a grey area that I’m also nervous about broaching, but I think it’s an important point - particularly in a world where claims of victimhood can be made so publicly via platforms like social media. While speaking out publicly about one’s victimisation is often brave, serving as an important point of reference for others who have experienced something similar, does the valorisation of victimhood have unintended consequences?  Might the potential for acknowledgement and public support encourage some people to lean into victimhood as part of their identity?    

I hope this is obvious, but I am not talking about people who have been deliberately wronged or involved in a tragic accident, nor those who have been discriminated against for some aspect of their identity. I’m talking about the people who take everything personally, every slight to heart. The people who repeat the same patterns of behaviours and then wonder why they continually end up in the same kind of disastrous relationships, be that with a partner or a friend. The ones who are always let go from their jobs or “unfairly treated” in one manner or another, and who come to bemoan all of these terrible things that just keep happening to them to anyone who’ll listen. I’m worried that the “ease” of being a victim in these cases - the sympathy received, the ability to pass off such occurrences as the fault or, better yet, unreasonableness of the other party - gets in the way of accountability.

It’s never nice when something bad happens. No one enjoys a breakup, redundancy or a fall-out with a loved one. Likewise, it hurts when we hear that someone has said something nasty about us, cheated or gone behind our back in some way. It can be hard to process such things and, for some time following such an event, feeling sad, hurt, angry or even victimised is normal and perhaps even healthy. These feelings are often the first step towards processing a situation and are completely normal - but ideally we want to move beyond that.

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People stuck in a mindset of victimhood struggle to move on from these feelings. With the passing days, weeks and months, these feelings of hurt and anger don’t diminish - if anything, they may grow. Other perceived instances of wrongdoing committed against them may add to the feeling of victimhood - further proof that life is just out to get them. This can be compounded by the “benefits” of such an identification like the sympathy expressed from friends and  across social media. Because of this, victim-identified individuals are unlikely to stop and consider a situation from an alternative point of view; they don’t ask themselves “what is my role in all of this?”. They don’t recognise the patterns that keep playing out; they’re unaware that their breakups are often caused by the same thing (clearly, their ex was just an a***hole… again), nor that their laziness always eventually frustrates their employer or housemates. That multiple friends have let their relationship fizzle out due to their unfair demands or selfishness… well, that’s just bad luck.

We all engage in patterns of behaviour, many of which have their foundations in childhood. These patterns were once adaptive, but are not necessarily healthy in adulthood, when we have more control over the circumstances we find ourselves in. Victimhood, too, is a pattern, and usually one developed as a child. For many people, this pattern is unconscious.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that the prevalence of victimhood mentality is increasing. This is thought to be due to the easy access of validation thanks (in a large part) to social media. In the past, those who felt victimised would have had to go through official (and often time-consuming and expensive) paths, such as litigation. Nowadays it is much easier to gain recognition and sympathy online. (REF) The emergence of “cancel culture” is thought to be linked to this too - it’s now so easy to call someone out for tiny, often unintentional slights. We’ve seen this play out again and again in recent years, with many of the “cancelled” losing their jobs and, on occasion, taking their own lives as a result.

As adults, we need to learn to recognise our behavioural and thought patterns so we can take better responsibility for our choices and avoid repeated unhelpful patterns. Continuing to be stuck in a mindset of victimhood means giving away our power and getting stuck in the past. A victim mindset makes it more difficult to build strong, balanced, healthy relationships with others and more difficult to handle the challenges life throws at us. In a much touted piece of wisdom, much of what happens to us is often outside of our control, but how we respond to it is up to us.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

The benefits of making a commitment to our own healing are huge. Accepting responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings, behaviours and reactions will help us to feel empowered and more confident. Therapy is a great tool for unearthing our unconscious patterns, understanding why we developed them in the first place and how we can break them. Shit happens. Life sucks sometimes. But we can choose how to respond to things and even how we feel. While victimisation no doubt happens - and we need to respond to that accordingly as individuals and as a society -  victimhood as an identity can rob people of their accountability and inhibit personal growth and change, rather than encouraging healing.

I expressed at the top of this piece my own reluctance to write about this topic, because of the risk of being perceived as victim-blaming. I think this fear emerges from a recognition that we live in a world where nuance is being increasingly lost, which can result in black and white thinking - everything is either one thing or another. To enquire into the potential damaging effects of a victim mentality is not the same as victim blaming.

A world lacking in nuance, where one is either pointing their finger and calling someone out, or feeling pointed at themselves, becomes a more dangerous world for everyone. No longer blaming victims for what happens to them is no doubt a welcome advance, and those who speak out about such injustices should be treated with great compassion and support. At the same time, we should be aware of the danger of over-valorising victim narratives to the extent where we might miss out on individual accountability and the ability to choose healing over perpetual victimhood.

Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.

Stillpoint is an organisation that aims to make psychology more publicly accessible, through events, online content and a virtual community for the psychologically curious.

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