Examining the Label of “Victim Mentality”

It is a negative label, and one of accusation. Always.

I’ve been pondering this term for years, but recently a book coaching client of mine used the term in reference to himself, raising the subject anew for me.

The one who makes the accusation of victim mentality is saying, “You think of yourself as a victim, and you are stuck in that way of thinking.”

When the label of “victim mentality” is a bad idea

I spoke a good bit about what “victim” means in a response to John MacArthur when he proclaimed that no one is a victim of anything.

But in spite of John MacArthur, law enforcement and courts still talk about “crime victims.”

This definition is from the Oxford English Dictionary: “a person who suffers injury, hardship, or loss, is badly treated, or taken advantage of.”

For example, a number of the people in my life are survivors of childhood sex trafficking. No matter what John MacArthur says, they were absolutely victimized as children. They were victims.

Once those who were victimized are out of the abuse (and when childhood trafficking becomes adult trafficking, it can be very, very difficult to get out of the trafficking, but that’s a different discussion for a different day), why would they still think of themselves as victims? Is it because they love the “victim mentality”?

In my experience, one big reason is that their lament, their grief, their confusion, their loss, their trauma have not been heard and believed. They have not been validated as real persons worthy of love and respect in their own right.

In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the [weak and helpless];
let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised.
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God [who will hold me accountable].”

And of course this psalm, Psalm 10, is true also of those who pretend to be holy and devout and “of God” while they work out their wickedness in secret.

Any Christian with humility can undertake the holy task of listening and believing and validating. All of us can get better educated about trauma.

One of the most healthful things that can happen for victims of abuse, I believe, is helping them understand that they were victims of abuse. That is, helping them understand that it was not their fault.

For this to happen, the individual needs to move from denial to reality. This reality will say, “Yes, it is really true that bad people did bad things to me and it was not my fault.” Depending on how much their perpetrators told them every bad thing that happened was their fault, this alone can bring about a revolutionary shift.

Once those who were victimized are fully heard and believed and validated (which may take a long while if their brains dissociated aspects of the abuse), then they will usually want to move forward out of thinking of themselves as victims.

But they may be stuck and unable to move forward. Why? Is it because they are choosing a “victim mentality”?

[The wicked’s] mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
     he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
 He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

In my experience, there are several reasons someone who wants to move forward from victimization may be stuck, feeling hopeless. (I’m interested to hear your further ideas in the comments.) Here are a few:

  • The trauma may be even deeper and darker than they have yet realized.
  • They are afraid of what life will look like on the other side of healing, since that life is completely unfamiliar.
  • There may be demonic issues that need to be addressed.
  • When they think of approaching the Most High God, the true Lord Jesus Christ, they feel (what I would consider very understandable) fear, shame, and/or anger.
  • Their “trust” and “control” mechanisms have been broken, each moving to one extreme or another instead of being seen on a healthy continuum, so that their PTSD can even look like borderline personality disorder.
  • Current life circumstances are so daunting that the person doesn’t have any idea where to begin.

Each of these situations, and all others related, need compassionate and practical care (along with working with someone who understands these things) rather than accusations of “victim mentality.”

Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.” (Psalm 3:1-2)

As Trudy Metzger wrote in a post on this topic,

We do a lot of damage when blithely we write it off as [victim mentality]. Mostly it is fear. It is the aftermath of deep trauma. It is a failure to thrive because there has been a failure in those of us around them to sit with them patiently in their suffering, and acknowledge it. And it is a journey. A rising and falling. And rising again.

Only when we have walked through deep trauma, or dared to entered into the suffering of others can we grasp that battle.

When the label of “victim mentality” may be accurate

The only case in which I would say the label of “victim mentality” makes sense is when a person consistently believes that negative things currently happening to him/her are someone else’s fault.

This type of thinking—blaming others for whatever goes wrong—can be part of what contributes to abusive behavior in the lives of those who were themselves abused in the past.

A man [or woman] without self-control
is like a city broken into and left without walls. (Proverbs 25:28)

When everything is someone else’s fault and the individual feels that he or she is never to blame, then to that person, self-reflecting and seeking help to do better as a person will seem pointless. It is everyone else who needs to change.

A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man [or woman] quietly holds it back. (Proverbs 29:11)

I have known many women who had to leave abusive husbands who fit this description. (They same would be true of abusive wives.) These adults may well have experienced trauma in childhood. But because they will not self-reflect now, they will not take responsibility now, they can become unsafe.

A man [or woman] of wrath stirs up strife,
and one given to anger causes much transgression. (Proverbs 29:22)

However, though we may consider these individuals as having a “victim mentality,” it is often unhelpful to tell them this to their face, since they are unwilling to self reflect. In this case you, the one trying to speak truth, would end up being “the problem.”

But for those who are stuck in the muck of the past, with fear of the future and of God, for those who cannot move forward even though some part of them wants to, a compassionate curiosity with understanding of trauma can do wonders.

And as always, I want to show them, “The real Jesus is Not. Like. That.” This will very often take time, since trust is usually understandably broken. But though the journey may be long, it is worth it to come out of the stuck place and stand on the high ground with Him.

I waited [and waited] for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
 He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3)

As a dear friend said to me, “I was a victim. I am a survivor. And I will become a victor.” Amen.


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Barb Hegreberg
1 month ago

Well said!

There is a vast difference between those who are merely seeking attention and thus claim to be a victim of this or that and those who have been victimized by abuse or other crime.

The beauty is that God (and a good Christian counselor) can bring healing to those in both camps.

Elizabeth Billingsley
1 month ago

It exists and it has mirror images. What I don’t like is being told someone has a “victim mentality” when they are simply pointing out something someone else does not want to hear. My two cents. ❤️

Wendy S. West
Wendy S. West
1 month ago

Bingo. John MacAthur is the king of twisting the Scripture. But those traumatized by his kind of deceptive theology are being healed by Holy Spirit Who his deceptive theology quenches. Praise be to God. The true Jesus still reigns and the real victims can run to Him no matter how long it may take. It is a tragedy of vast proportions when the secular world understands biblical truth better than the supposed Christian leaders do…

Terra Edwards
Terra Edwards
1 month ago

In my experience, I needed someone to believe me as much as they did in “God.” Someone to trust my existence and not try to talk me out of it. I was not able to experience my own existence because of the “muck.”

I was reminded this morning that I am the light of the world. Jesus said, “while I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And now, we are. And we can trust that others are too.

Lazarus came out of the grave alive, but in the dark stink of being covered in death rags. He couldn’t get himself out of them. Jesus told those standing near to “unbind him and let him go.” They put their hands on the stinky and unwrapped him so he could go free. That is what “compassionate curiosity” and “understanding of trauma” can do. It unwraps the alive, the existence, so it can shine in all it’s glory.

Rhoda Hostetler
Rhoda Hostetler
1 month ago

Good article! Ann Detweiler has pointed out that an actual victim mentality–a baseless belief in one’s victimhood–is actually more often a feature of abusers, not their victims. Abusers will frame themselves as victims of what amounts to be their own consequences, because they sincerely believe that consequences for them are inherently unreasonable and unfair.

For actual victims, I think compassion and kindness go a long ways. Eventually, a victim can mature into realizing that all of life does not rest on one event: I was a victim in some scenarios. In other scenarios, I have been a bystander. In others, a helper. In others, the person in the wrong.

Ultimately, we are known by God because of Christ’s wounds (which He will still have in eternity) and not ours (which will be healed). Here and now, goodness and trauma exist in shocking proximity to each other. Someday, the trauma will be healed fully and His goodness will still exist. So His goodness becomes a more certain storyline to follow than my trauma.

All of those realizations take time to find, more time to believe. None of it is a quick fix to trauma, and I think that’s what people sometimes want when they tell victims to lay aside their “victim mentality”. If your grief makes me uncomfortable and I am more concerned with my discomfort than with your grief, any platitude that silences your grief sounds ‘good’.

Rhoda Hostetler
Rhoda Hostetler
1 month ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

Ah, yes, I appreciate the nuance. I agree, we shouldn’t use the term “victim mentality” to refer to actual victims grieving actual griefs. And I think that’s when it has stung so deeply.

The thing of blaming others for everything–I’m learning to separate personal worth from personal performance, and I wonder if that conflation contributes. If I admit that my performance was less than ideal, and I believe that this means that I am worth less as a result, the blame has to go somewhere else. Accepting responsibility becomes synonymous with accepting shame.

Brianna Tilden
Brianna Tilden
1 month ago
Reply to  Rebecca Davis

I think Rhonda was saying (that Ann Detweiler says) there’s a difference between recognizing you’ve been victimized and having a victim mentality, and the real definition for a victim mentality is that you’re ALWAYS the victim (which is a baseless, even irrational, assumption), not just that you have been victimized before (even many times). I think any humble person can recognize we are all a mixture of sometimes being the victim, sometimes responsible for someone else’s victim hood (if we mean in broad terms of sinning against each other), but having a true victim mentality means that you’re always the victim in every situation, and only narcissists/abusers actually think they are always the blameless one and a victim because they can’t handle the shame of fault.

1 month ago

Here are a few other factors which make it difficult for survivors of abuse to believe that they can move forward:

1) The abuse has continued unabated. The abuser has gotten away with so many horrible things, and continues to do them, unimpeded. There is no relief in sight.

2) Crying out for help has done no good. People who should listen, don’t. People who should rescue, don’t. People who should confront the evil refuse to do so. Those who should believe the facts and truth choose to believe delusions and lies. Authority figures do not receive testimony, respond, or protect. There is no justice in sight.

3) All attempts at resistance to abuse have been ridiculed, shamed, condemned and punished. Abusers mock, attack and sabotage all efforts to become strong, successful and free. Religious systems insist upon submission and subjugation, not safety and sanity. Courts force vulnerable children into the unsupervised clutches of their abusers or even take them away from protective parents. There is no success or freedom in sight — only danger, terror, defeat, humiliation and bondage.

4) The abuser is the one who is believed, included, supported and comforted. The victim is disbelieved, excluded, abandoned and mocked.

Ask me how I know.

Brianna Tilden
Brianna Tilden
1 month ago
Reply to  Brenda

Spot on.

If this is you, Brenda, I’m praying for God to bring along people in your life that will believe you. Even if they can’t help in any other practical way, just having someone listen to you, and see what you see, and believe you, can unbind you. ❤️

Sharon Roberts-Radic
Sharon Roberts-Radic
1 month ago
Reply to  Brenda

I agree. Even if you have embraced the freedom, unfailing love and joy in your close relationship with Jesus, and identify as a survivor or victor as in the post, if slander hasn’t been made right (by the abuser or by those who knew and did nothing) you remain a victim of slander – the lies and misrepresentations about you are still out there, possibly still extending their reach, possibly still coming from your children’s mouths at times from the years of undermining of you by the other parent, and while shared care continues, and emails still contain unjust accusation not professionalism, you remain a victim of abuse, whether you want to identify that way or not.

Catherine Curtis
Catherine Curtis
1 month ago
Reply to  Brenda

Always lovely to be reminded of the eventual punishment they will get eventually.
I was lucky that my parents believed me, and paid $1000’s for a fantastic Christian, deeply aware of SRA, trauma and the power of the Holy Spirit. Took several years, much pain, divorcing an abuser/accuser. I now consider myself a survivor/thriver, beloved of God.

1 month ago

This is so true. Having your trauma truly heard and validated is the beginning of healing. For so long, too, I was told to get out of the victim mentality, but deep down, I had barely even been validated as a victim. Once that wrong was acknowledged, I could start to move forward.

I think that “blame the victim” mentality is very common in evangelical/reformed teachings, the idea that your faith should be enough to get you through your pain. You should move on from this, or that somehow it was your fault. For someone with deep trauma, or deep moral injury those teachings fall on the wrong ears.

Of course, it comes from secular sources, too.

Bill Everson
Bill Everson
1 month ago

Love the dialogue… very helpful post; and equally helpful comments. Thanks for sharing perspectives.

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