We would like to think that we enjoy being the main character of our own story. We are rational creatures who choose what values to uphold, what accomplishments to pursue, even what cravings, schedule, and friends we keep. Yet we have a secret indulgence we feed well: we enjoy being in a state of victimhood. When responsibilities are heavy, it is an attractive option to have some outside force to impose itself as an actor or an enforcer. While we can be disgusted by our own apathy, we are masters at playing the victim when it suits us. It is a skill we know well: when in difficult times we take the position of the victim and in times of experienced success we dwell in the false impression we are the final author of our fate. We lie to ourself well and therefore impede ourself from contemplating and respecting either our strengths or our vulnerabilities. When we claim we are a victim of the other, we have something to blame for our shortcomings or deficiencies, and therefore we can tell ourselves that we are not the cause of our failures, that they are not our fault; we get to deflect responsibility.
Of course, anyone can be a victim. The first opportunity we have to claim our victim position is the simple fact of our existence: no one was able to consent to being born, we innocent and vulnerable creatures were just thrown into this world with pain and rent, work and death. Just as anyone can find freedom in the absurdity of life: it is our interpretation that makes the difference.
Freedom comes with risk and responsibility, while victimhood is rather consoling. Victimhood allows us to escape the responsibilities we have towards the image we want to portray. If we are able to convince ourself in bad faith that we are not responsible, but instead point towards the circumstances, the other, the fates, our conflicting obligations, even the traffic or just a “bad day”, we can deceptively relieve ourself of the guilt that comes with falling short. What a relief: not the guilty, but the victim! The mindset rationalizes our position as innocent, powerless, passive instead of active, not the actor but the acted upon.
Listen to how we mask this victimhood with a little four letter word when we are in bad faith regarding our own agency: need. The student submitted poor work, but he needs a good grade. Why? Because he needs to pass all of his classes on time, because he needs to graduate and get a high paying white collar job, because he needs to live up to the standards his parents have set and society has endorsed. The vlogger needs to have the window seat because he needs to get the video to add to his social media for the story of his trip and then take a nap because he needs to avoid a grumpy mood and distractions. The hard worker needs to arrive at the meeting on time because she needs to be seen as a responsible and respectful colleague who needs to have a good reputation in order to be considered for the promotion she needs in order to accomplish her goals. We contrive this little world where the universe and everyone in it is either persecutor or rescuer: if the other is not helping, they are part of the problem.
In this way victimhood can be self-imposed, where we give up something important for ourselves in order to offer something else to others, or to ourself. A classic example is the mother sacrificing her wellbeing in order to benefit her husband and children, worrying primarily about their own wellbeing, or the one of a person sacrificing his personal existence in order to dedicate himself to his work. Those people are visibly suffering, but they present their existential choice as an obligation, something they have to do, that they cannot not do. Whatever the explanation is, moral, educational, economical, psychological or else, they present themselves as a victim of a situation. They will easily negate their own degree of freedom in such a decision. Of course, they derive from this self sacrifice a sense of worthiness, which can bear a heavy cost. Such a scheme can as well be used to avoid confronting some more important existential issues, to avoid confronting oneself.
The victimhood mindset is outside of time as an attitude of being, equally capable of contriving scenarios in the past, present, and future. The victim’s identity is a summation of factors that led to their current being, from birthplace to their morning coffee. “Oh, that’s so [star sign] of me!” they claim when someone expresses their annoyance towards them. The victim exists in the passive, speaking of their environment or their interactions as having more agency than themself. They arrive late, assert themself indifferent to the atmosphere that existed before their presence, and rattle off their day’s activities and mundane interactions in some semblance of an excuse for their tardiness that is drowned by the extensive accounts of their comings and goings. The victim dreams of future scenarios and dynamics as well that are in the state of possibility, based on an ounce of reality, of what could possibly happen. In this way, the victim is able to be offended by slights and improprieties which have not happened, fully unrealized, only existing in delusions. They grant everyone and anyone full, conscious, and deliberate agency in these potential interactions—everyone but themself.
The universe is rather apathetic to the victim contrary to the perceived intentional offenses. This is of little concern for the victim, since the mindset is able to create and maintain this drama easily. Victimhood is seductively relieving—the attitude is rarely escaped without conscious work to acknowledge and fight the appealing results. Most people avoid challenging the victim’s personal logic, since this confrontation of a victim is to kick a man while he is down, a terrible offense.
When someone confronts the victim with their victim mentality, the accusation can be accepted, but is usually violently rejected, especially because victimhood is already an attitude of bad faith, used in self defense to reject responsibility. Guilt is the emotion based on personal reflection and not social role, so guilt must come from the self. The accuser’s role is often convoluted or even created in the victim’s mind, built on some circumstances or someone’s mention, question, or even merely a look as Sartre describes. We hand over the power to the other in order to claim “not it” as children do while touching their nose. Our defensive excuses are instinctual: we fire them off when confronted as if we are warriors of burying our accuser, well practiced and rehearsed, with evidence readily loaded. The child is quick to respond to “did you hit your sibling?” with a frenzy of whiny defenses, the most severely beautiful one being “they hit me first!”. In some situations, we even succeed at turning the shaming of the accuser back towards them—they dared to point out a lack in our character when we are balancing the responsibilities of an impressive job, honorable parenthood, a diagnosis or two, and expectations from all directions. Here again we see that victimhood is a state, where the victim doubles down on the victimhood, unwilling to acknowledge his own agency.
The victim lives in a world where the environment is divided into persecutors, rescuers, and victims. While the persecutors and rescuers are both active and responsible, the victim is passive. In the drama triangle, the three positions play their roles of harmer and harmed. The victim’s abilities are ignored, as he considers himself unable to revolt. The persecutor’s vulnerabilities are ignored, as he takes on godlike potency over the others. The rescuer’s limits are ignored, where he becomes the hero, the one who can enable change. In the main character triangle, the drama attitudes are flipped. The victim is now the vulnerable, capable of sensitivity, good with perceiving skills, employing an eye for subtleties. The persecutor is now the assertive, capable of parrhesia, of leading and of setting things in order. The rescuer is now the facilitator, capable of stimulating and empowering the others. With this reversal of drama to main character dynamic, the victimhood mentality is still maintained and reinforced.
The roles are interchangeable because they are all in the victimhood mentality. There is a persecutor in the victim, a hero waiting in the persecutor, and so on. The hero easily switches to a mentality of blaming the rules of the universe. The persecutor pleads “I was only trying to help!” when confronted, while grey areas of morality can support this claim. The difference between the roles in victimhood mentality is attitude: the individual chooses to interpret the situation to either be in the drama or in the main character positioning.
When we act like a victim, the response from others is often a form of attention: people listen to our confidences, explanations and stories, and try to comfort us, the poor victim. The victim automatically attracts pity, understanding, and compassion. A victim generally receives more attention than the average person. Others tend to care more about people in need. For this reason, being vulnerable has recently become some quality to brag about. This attention provided by others to our pains or weaknesses feeds our self-value, since it shows that we are worthy of someone else spending time and energy on us, just because they show interest in hearing our story, consoling us, or trying to mend our wounds. For some people, victimhood is in fact the only way to obtain recognition. They do not see any particular aspect of their existence that is worthy of interest, they do not have a good self-conception, thus they fear to be unnoticed, they suffer a feeling of estrangement, an alienation from others which intensifies their sense of worthlessness. But if they complain enough and portray themselves as the miserable victim of some mean people or of some unfortunate circumstances, they suddenly become more interesting, even if they see mainly commiseration in the eyes of others. In this misery lies the interest, an imposed misery that no one deserves, that establishes the victim as a hero of suffering.
Read more on the subject of Victimhood by the philosophers at the Institut de Pratiques Philosophiques here.