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Self-Victimization - "Playing the Victim"


Self-Victimization - Self-Victimization or "playing the victim" is the act of casting oneself as a victim in order to control others by soliciting a sympathetic response from them or diverting their attention away from abusive behavior.


Most of us, if we are honest will admit that when we describe events or share stories, we will try to portray ourselves in the most favorable light possible. Playing the Victim is something even small children learn to do from an early age, crying crocodile tears, showing a petted lip or sulking when we don't get exactly what we want, when we want it.

As we mature as adults, most of us learn to take responsibility for our own situations and our own mistakes and we learn not to blame others for things which are not their fault. We begin to learn that most people can see through insincere attempts at manipulating their emotions.

Some people with personality disorders, however, do not learn how to mature beyond this stage and continue exaggerated, even blatantly dishonest campaigns to arouse the sympathies of others, even sometimes when their charade appears ridiculous or blatantly disingenuous to observers around them. Sometimes, these campaigns continue to get them what they want, as exasperated family members with weak boundaries try to appease them or just give them what they want in the hope that they will just give it a rest. This is similar to spoiled children, who learn to get what they want from parents with poor boundaries by throwing tantrums, whining, nagging or making ultimatums and threats.

Sometimes playing the victim is used to divert attention away from a person's own abusive or dysfunctional behavior.

The goal of Self-Victimization is to control the responses of other people in one of two ways:

  1. Divert attention away from acts of abuse by claiming that the abuse was justified based on another person's bad behavior (typically the victim)
  2. Solicit sympathy from others in order to gain their assistance in supporting or enabling the abuse of a victim - also known as proxy recruitment.

It is very common for perpetrators of abuse to engage in self-victimization. This serves two purposes:

  1. Justification to themselves - as a way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance that comes from inconsistencies between the way they treat others and the way they believe people should be treated
  2. Justification to others - as a way of escaping harsh judgment or condemnation they may fear from people whom they wish to please or impress.

Examples of Playing the Victim:

  • A spouse, challenged over emptying the joint account, complains that the other partner is neglecting their needs.
  • A husband hits his wife and then, when confronted with his actions, complains that he is treated worse in other ways.
  • A mother beats or neglects her children and diverts challenges about it by only discussing her own medical complaints.
  • A spouse has an affair and claims the other partner drove them to it.
  • A person spreads false accusations about physical or sexual abuse in the home.
  • A thief caught red-handed tells stories about how they were abused as a child.
  • A narcissistic boss mistreats a subordinate and claims the subordinate's behavior was hurting the company and he had to do it.
  • A teenager starts a fight with a sibling then complains about the resulting bruises.
  • A young girl overdoses and then says she did it because nobody listens to her.

What it feels like:

If you are in a relationship with someone who plays the victim, it is easy to feel like you are in the classic "damned if you do and damned if you don't" scenario. No matter how hard you try, how well you behave, or how much you sacrifice, your actions and efforts can never fill the bottomless pit of "need" that is presented to you - and to others about you. Once you solve problem "A", problem "B" suddenly appears.

This happens is because the true "need" is inside the mind of the person who is playing the victim. What they really need is to address their own illness with treatment programs that work. That requires effort and rigorous work on their own part. It has nothing to do with you. Even if you had the character of Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Saint Francis rolled into one, you could never fill the void - because it is a problem inside another person.

At some point, you are likely to feel resentment and frustration as you realize that your efforts are being consumed and not reciprocated. Worse still, you may find you are the focus of the personality-disordered individual's resentments and complaints. However, it is important to understand that getting angry or hitting back is most likely not going to help you. All this will do is feed into the self-victimizers scenario that they have been unfairly treated by you and give them further "justification" to abuse you.

What NOT to do:

  • Don't react to every false accusation you hear from a personality disordered individual. If you do you'll be doing it for a long, long time.
  • Don't try to justify yourself or your actions to a person who is casting themselves as the victim. It's their illusion and they are entitled to believe whatever they want in it.
  • Don't admit to or apologize for anything that you haven't done wrong. Stick to the truth.
  • Don't try to compensate for a self-victimizer's complaints by increasing your own effort. Spend your energy on what works.
  • Don't give a self-victimizer a "free ride" just because they claim they have a right to. Everyone, regardless of their personality, gets to own their own stuff.
  • Don't retaliate or strike back at someone who cast themselves as a victim. You are just pouring fuel on their fire.
  • Don't assume that everyone who hears a self-victimizer's complaints believes it. Most people can smell a rat when a story doesn't ring true.

What TO do:

  • Try to be as unemotional as possible. Try to judge on facts rather than feelings.
  • Acknowledge that everyone, even a self-victimizer is entitled to believe what they want without validation or judgment.
  • Surround yourself with friends who are not self-victimizers and who can help you figure out what is real and what is not.
  • Keep doing what you know is right - regardless of what a self-victimizer tells you.

For More Information & Support...

If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.

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