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)
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.