Understanding the Victim Complex

Man trapped in becalmed boat without a sail
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In clinical psychology, a “victim complex” or “victim mentality” describes a personality trait of persons who believe they are constantly the victims of the harmful actions of others, even when made aware of evidence to the contrary.

Most people go through normal periods of simple self-pity, as part of the grieving process, for example. However, these episodes are temporary and minor compared to the perpetual feelings of helplessness, pessimism, guilt, shame, despair, and depression that consume the lives of persons afflicted with a victim complex.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people who have actually been victims of physically abusive or manipulative relationships to fall prey to a universal victim mentality.

Victim Complex vs. Martyr Complex 

Sometimes associated with the term victim complex, persons diagnosed with a “martyr complex” actually desire the feelings of repeatedly being the victim. They sometimes seek out, even encourage, their own victimization in order to either satisfy a psychological need or as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. Persons diagnosed with a martyr complex often knowingly place themselves in situations or relationships most likely to result in their suffering.

Outside of the theological context, which holds that martyrs are persecuted as punishment for their refusal to reject a religious doctrine or deity, persons with a martyr complex seek to suffer in the name of love or duty.

The martyr complex is sometimes associated with the personality disorder called “masochism,” regarded as a preference for and the pursuit of suffering.

 

In this sense, psychologists often observe the martyr complex in persons involved in abusive or codependent relationships.

Fed by their perceived misery, persons with a martyr complex will often reject advice or offers to help them.

Common Traits of Victim Complex Sufferers

Persons diagnosed with a victim complex tend to dwell on every trauma, crisis, disease, or another difficulty that they have ever suffered, particularly those that happened during their childhoods.

Often seeking a survival technique, they have come to believe that society simply “has it out for them.” In this sense, they passively submit to their unavoidable “fate” as perpetual victims as a way of coping with problems from tragic to trivial.

Some common traits of persons with a victim complex include:

  • They refuse to accept responsibility for dealing with their problems.
  • They never accept any degree of blame for their problems.
  • They always find reasons why suggested solutions will not work.
  • They carry grudges, never forgive, and simply cannot “move on.”
  • They are rarely assertive and find it hard to express their needs.
  • They believe everyone is “out to get them” and thus trust no one.
  • They are negative and pessimistic, always looking for the bad even in the good.
  • They are often highly critical of others and rarely enjoy lasting friendships.

According to psychologists, victim complex sufferers employ these “safer to flee than fight” beliefs as a method of coping with or completely avoiding life and its inherent difficulties.

As noted behavioral scientist, author and speaker Steve Maraboli puts it, “The victim mindset dilutes the human potential. By not accepting personal responsibility for our circumstances, we greatly reduce our power to change them.”

The Victim Complex in Relationships

In relationships, a partner with a victim complex can cause extreme emotional chaos. The “victim” may constantly ask their partner to help them only to reject their suggestions or even find ways to sabotage them. In some cases, the “victim” will actually wrongly criticize their partner for failing to help, or even accuse them of trying to make their situation worse.

As a result of this frustrating cycle, victims become experts at manipulating or bullying their partners into making draining attempts at care-giving ranging from financial support to assuming full responsibility for their lives. In this sense, bullies — looking for someone to take advantage of — often seek persons with a victim complex as their partners.  

Perhaps the most likely to suffer lasting damage from these relationships are partners whose pity for the victim transcends sympathy to become empathy.

In some cases, the dangers of misguided empathy can be the end of already tenuous relationships.

When Victims Meet Saviors

Along with bullies looking to dominate them, persons with a victim complex often attract partners with a “savior complex” looking to “fix” them.

According to psychologists, persons with a savior or “Messiah” complex feel a consuming need to save other people. Often sacrificing their own needs and well-being, they seek out and attach themselves to people who they believe desperately need their help.

Believing they are doing “the noble thing” in trying to “save” people while asking nothing in return, saviors often consider themselves better than everyone else.

While the savior partner is certain they can help them, their victim partners are equally certain they cannot. Worse yet, victim partners with a martyr complex — happy in their misery — will stop at nothing to make sure they fail.

Whether the savior’s motives in helping are pure or not, their actions can be harmful. Incorrectly believing their savior partner will “make them whole” the victim partner feels no need to take responsibility for his or her own actions and never develop the internal motivation to do so. For the victim, any positive changes will be temporary, while negative changes will be permanent and potentially devastating.

Where to Look for Advice

All of the conditions discussed in this article are true mental health disorders. As with medical problems, advice on mental disorders and potentially dangerous relationships should be sought only from certified mental health care professionals.

 

In the United States, registered professional psychologists are certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPA).

Lists of certified psychologists or psychiatrists in your area can typically be obtained from your state or local health agency. In addition, your primary care doctor is a good person to ask if you think you may need to see somebody about your mental health.

Sources

  • Andrews, Andrea LPC NCC, “The Victim Identity, Traversing the Inner Terrain,” Physiology Today (February 24, 2011) 
  • Davis, Sheldon E. (September 1945). "What Are Modern Martyrs Worth?". Peabody Journal of Education.
  • Seligman, David B. (May 1970). "Masochism". Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
  • Johnson, Paul E. (January 1970). "The emotional health of the clergy". Journal of Religion and Health.
  • Braiker, Harriet B., Who's Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation (2006)
  • Aquino and K. Byron, ‘Dominating interpersonal behavior and perceived victimization in groups: Evidence for a curvilinear relationship’, Journal of Management.
  • "Messiah Complex Psychology". Flowpsychology.
  • "Dangerous delusions: The Messiah Complex and Jerusalem Syndrome". Freethought Nation.