Don’t play victim

Careers  Culture
14 November, 2016

Change your internal narrative and put yourself back in the driver’s seat

Quite often, when things don’t pan out as desired, we start placing blame instead of taking responsibility. Whining creeps in. We don’t take accountability for our choices and our actions.

This “woe is me” attitude can be quite toxic.

So, my message this week is on what you can do to fight a victim mindset.

Let’s start with why you could slip into playing the victim. Honestly, because it has a few benefits that you’re probably enjoying, as Henrik Edberg points out in How to Break Out of a Victim Mentality: 7 Powerful Tips:

  • You enjoy it when people are concerned about you, pay attention and help you out
  • You don’t take risks (because you think it’s not in your control anyway) so you can’t go wrong
  • Taking responsibility for your life is hard; now you don’t need to do it
  • Proving someone else wrong and you (the victim) right, makes you feel good

But take a moment to think about what this indulgence is costing you:

  1. People will tire of having to give attention every time you feel victimised; soon, they will stop
  2. You actually start believing all of it – the fact that you have no control, that the odds are against you, that people are targeting you – so much so that you’re not able to be objective any more
  3. Consequently, you’re looking for favours; for people to cut you some slack because of all that you’re having to deal with
  4. Being risk averse pretty much cuts you off from a lot of potential opportunity for success; you’ll be branded as someone uncomfortable with change and that will take away from your credibility
  5. If you don’t take responsibility for your life, you won’t have any control over it; complaining won’t help. If you’re a leader, you can hardly afford to not be someone who takes responsibility.
  6. People are going to be less inclined to trust you if you come across as only focused on proving someone wrong. The same people you are confiding in and complaining to will be wary of you because they will assume that you could be saying the same about them to someone else.

How to break out of a victim mindset

The tricky part with playing victim is that often, you don’t realise that you are. You think that you’re reacting in a very justified way. So, try this. Think about what victim behaviour could manifest as. Now, start tracking your own responses and actions over the next week. How often do you hear yourself indulge in some of this? Do you keep saying things like – “It’s so unfair, the way I’m being treated”; “She refuses to hear me out and it isn’t my fault”; “This only happens to me; they have it so easy”, “I’m being given too much to do”? Make note of it.

Now, think about what this is resulting in. Do you, because you truly believe this, give in and give up? Are you slowing down on your deliverables because you think you’re being unfairly overburdened or misunderstood? How much are you blaming other people for? What part of this could you start impacting if you wanted to?

You will need to be brutally honest with yourself if you want answers here. Acknowledging that you could be playing victim is the first step towards making a meaningful transformation.

If you do believe that you are slipping into victim mode, then here are some suggestions to help pull yourself out of it:

1. Take charge

Stop blaming others. It doesn’t do you any good. You’re only going to feel less self sufficient and more insecure. Identify the areas where you want to take charge and start working towards making it possible.

Get proactive. For example, the next time you’re feeling unduly overburdened, instead of simply complaining about the way you’re being treated, look for a solution. Sit down and have a conversation with your manager. Explain why you think you won’t be able to take on this extra deliverable. Understand why she is asking you to do this. (It isn’t just to make you miserable, even if that is the way you feel right now). If this is important, then, together, find a solution to it. Just allowing it to frustrate you doesn’t benefit either you or the organisation. And if you’re concerned about having this conversation, know that it is a more productive solution than just wallowing. Sure, this will push you out of your comfort zone, but that’s part of your growth journey.

2. Make your story more positive

If you have been telling yourself the victim story for a while, then you will need a new one to break out of it. Make it more positive.

Instead of reinforcing the fact that you’re helpless, make your own narrative (the one you repeat to yourself in your mind) focus on how you’re going to make a change, how it isn’t really that bad and how you can be a part of the solution.

Look for the positive in things. So, instead of feeling like everyone else has it easy, reflect on what they are doing differently and maybe even ask them for guidance. Instead of feeling like you’re being overburdened with work, think of it as being entrusted with more responsibility than others. By turning this around, you will put yourself in charge and as a consequence, stop feeling victimised.

3. Reflect on the root of your behaviour

This is probably tougher to do. It will also take you much more time and introspection. But give it a shot. Your victim behaviour, as most psychologists point out, probably has its roots in much deeper associations from your past experiences and influences which resulted in “learned helplessness”, as Cylon George points out in 10 Ways to Stop Feeling Like a Victim Once and for All, which fostered dependence, rather than giving you the confidence to fend for yourself. Figuring this out can help you cope better.

4. Forgive

Let go of whatever it is that you’re holding onto. Whether it’s a grudge against your organisation or your manager or your peers, the missed promotion or the project you didn’t get credit for – let go. Holding grudges only gives you more reasons to validate your victim behaviour. Sure, there were things that didn’t work out as planned. Remember that there were many more other things did work out. So, move on.  Forgiving is much more powerful than you realise.

5. Be more grateful

Many people suggest this as a powerful counter to feeling victimised – start being more grateful, for the little things and big. Take some time to do this every week. Think about all the wonderful things in your life that you are grateful for. Draw from the strength that this gives you. You will find that it shifts your perspective to one of much more control and positivity. Anand had written a wonderful piece on gratitude a while ago, which you should read (again):

6. Do something nice for someone else

When you’re being the victim, it’s easy to be wholly focused on yourself and how you feel. You don’t really see beyond that. All conversations are about what is happening to you. Break out of that. Start pushing yourself to focus on other people. Do little things to surprise someone. Make them happy. As research has shown, being able to pass on positivity to someone else will make you feel like you can do the same for yourself.

How to handle someone playing victim

You may recognise some of these victim characteristics in your team members or peers. If so, here is how you could try to make things better:

  • Don’t ignore the warning signs. Chances are that before someone starts displaying distinctive victim behaviour, they would have started showing early signs of it. Be watchful of this. The earlier on you deal with it, the easier it will be for both of you.
  • Don’t indulge them. People playing victim thrive on your attention and sympathy and probably even slip into emotional blackmail at times. Don’t negotiate with them on this.
  • Move the conversation to facts. Ask questions on the how, why, what. Don’t leave it at just emotions. Dig deeper. The more you bring facts into the conversation, the more you will force the person to sit back and take stock of the real situation.
  • Set expectations about delivery. Be upfront about what it is that you are looking for. The more you detail this, the less are the chances of you being misunderstood.
  • Push for more accountability and ownership. People who feel victimised reiterate to themselves that they have no control. Break this.
  • Encourage positive behaviour. If what the person is really seeking is attention, then show them that while you won’t respond to victim behaviour, you will respond to positive, proactive actions. That boost can be very helpful.

Ridding ourselves of a victim mindset requires effort. As leaders, we simply can’t afford to indulge in it, given the ramifications it could have on our teams and business and the culture that we are building.

I look forward to your thoughts on what we can do to fight this mindset.


  • Sanath Pulikkal says:

    It is interesting to note that in Psychology, they have a term for such ‘playing the victim’ tendencies. It’s called ‘factitious disorders’ and these are conditions in which a person acts as if they have an illness by feigning, deliberately producing or exaggerating symptoms. A very severe kind of such disorders is Munchausen syndrome. I first came across this term in ‘House’ – a TV series :-).

    Childhood neglect, jealousy, lack of self-worth, narcissism are primary reasons why the ‘victim’ seeks the attention they so much desire.

    Mostly only Placebo Psychiatric medications are prescribed for such patients but the true benefit comes with Family (and in this case maybe co-workers) therapy with members urged not to condone or reward individual’s behaviour – hence encouraging positive behaviour might aggravate the situation in certain cases.

  • Vaibhav says:

    Dear Sir,

    Appropriate article for today’s time. I am in this situation at the moment and trying the same.

    But Sir, what can be done, when the person we encounter is more experienced and in a reputable position and doesn’t own up to his decisions? I believe the person has be more honest, pragmatic about adapting to the conditions he is surrounded by.

    At times, it seems that we are living in a society which looks at things from self perspective, rather than social perspective.


  • Abhay Kulkarni says:

    Dear Sir,
    Very though provoking and helpful article. Consistently following it remains the challenge. But liked it. Thanks for writing it.

  • Saurabh Jhawar says:

    Very appropriate article. Indeed on many occasions, we think that the environment is creating issues for us and we ignore the controllable actions that we can take. Even if on some occasions, if 80% of the factors are not in our control, 20% of the factors are still in our control.

  • Satyajeet Kelkar says:

    Apt and descriptive article. Playing the victim is an increasingly common attitude. Rational thought suggests that when placed in such a situation, one would naturally strive to get out of it; but the human brain seems to create its own version of rationality – one of self indulgence or fear. We end up creating a self fulfilling cycle of negativity when we use the “Victim Card”. An impartial self reflection – probably the single most difficult task is the one way out of wallowing in self pity.


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