“Playing the victim”: Why people do it, and how to curb the habit

Our team at Thriveworks recently interviewed one of our clinical experts to find out more about what it means to “play the victim,” why people do it, and how to deal with someone when they play the victim. These insights are provided by Dr. Brandy Smith, a Licensed Psychologist with Thriveworks in Birmingham who specializes in anxiety.

What Does It Mean to “Play the Victim?”

“Playing the victim” entails someone who is exaggerating or fabricating an event, experience, or emotion to portray themselves as a victim in the situation, when in reality they are not a victim. 

It includes an effort to control the story and manipulate one’s role within a situation to make it appear something has happened to the person, when in reality the person played a bigger role in creating what happened than the person lets on. Playing the victim is often used to avoid taking responsibility for something, and can come across as having a “pity party.”

How Can You Tell Someone Is Playing the Victim? 5 Signs Someone Is Playing the Victim

There are many signs that someone might be playing the victim, for one reason or another. Common signs include:

  • Continuing to complain without taking steps to improve their situation
  • Talking as if their situation is always worse than everyone else’s, which can include a sense of almost trying to “outdo” or “one up” someone else’s pain or difficulty
  • A frequent, or sometimes seemingly constant, state of “woe is me”
  • Seeming to think everyone is against them or maybe even “out to get” them
  • Not taking responsibility for much, if anything, and consistently views that others are to blame for what is happening in their life

People who regularly play the victim often do it to garner pity or attention, as well as shirk responsibilities. However, there is often an underlying reason as to why people perform this behavior.

What Is the Psychology Behind Playing the Victim? Can Certain People Be More Prone to It?

Playing the victim can be a type of learned helplessness, something that can point to a case in which abuse has been present, or a kind of manipulation where the person is minimizing their contribution to a situation for gains.

Sometimes, the reason they do this is to play on other people’s tendency to be caring, because when someone hears a sob story, they often express support, feel empathy for the individual, and want to help them. People also play the victim to avoid taking responsibility for something happening in their life. They prefer to blame others instead of taking action to improve something. 

Another motivator can be gaslighting, such as when the person is abusive, to make it seem like the person they are abusing is actually the person “in the wrong” and the abuser is the person who is being wronged. In those cases, playing the victim can garner sympathy while also having the added bonus of making the person who was actually abused look like the problematic person.

People with low empathy and a limited tendency to self-reflect are more prone to engage in playing the victim. Self-centered individuals and those who like attention are also more likely to engage in this behavior.

Are Narcissists Prone to Playing the Victim?

The characteristics of someone with narcissism and someone who plays the victim are similar, including not taking responsibility for their actions, blaming others, and being manipulative. Because of this, it is not hard to see why people with narcissism may sometimes play the victim. 

Additionally, playing the victim is a technique used by individuals who are abusive, and individuals who are narcissistic can engage in abusive behaviors when they have not received any sufficient treatment and are not getting their way. They are also highly invested in others seeing them as someone who has been wronged by others, rather than the person who has engaged in any wrongdoing themselves.

What Are a Few Tips You Have for Dealing With People Who Play the Victim?

One thing you can do is to respond minimally and avoid further entanglement. If, after offering ideas for things the person can do, you notice they are not taking any action steps to create a change, stop offering suggestions because the person has now communicated to you that they do not actually want to make a change. They just want to vent, which means you can simply reflect rather than assist with problem-solving suggestions. 

Work to accept that there are limits on how helpful you can be for this individual. Set boundaries on how much time you spend with this person when they are in their “woe is me” state because the reality is that it can be draining. It is okay for you to set limits for your own well-being and mental health.

What Are Some Tips on How to Stop Playing the Victim?

If you’re a person who sometimes plays the victim, then there are things you can do to break this habit. When you are curious about whether you’re playing the victim or have been accused of doing so, you can pay attention to whether you are considering your own part in whatever happened and work to hold yourself accountable for how you may have contributed. 

If you feel that nothing is ever your responsibility and that you’re always identifying other people who are responsible for your situation, that should be a red flag to you. You can also notice if you are always blaming others for everything, carrying yourself with a “woe is me” attitude, and feeling like you need to “one up” others’ disclosures of difficulties. 

If you notice those behaviors, then take real action to stop doing them. Educate yourself on empathy and give yourself behavioral practice by engaging with others in empathic ways so that you are providing sufficient space for other people and their experiences. Make sure you are actively listening and reflecting on what someone says rather than redirecting attention back to yourself. 

If you struggle to make changes on your own, you can always consider meeting with a mental health provider. It may not even take more than a few sessions for you to see noticeable changes in how you are thinking and behaving. 

Table of contents

What Does It Mean to “Play the Victim?”

How Can You Tell Someone Is Playing the Victim? 5 Signs Someone Is Playing the Victim

What Is the Psychology Behind Playing the Victim? Can Certain People Be More Prone to It?

Are Narcissists Prone to Playing the Victim?

What Are a Few Tips You Have for Dealing With People Who Play the Victim?

What Are Some Tips on How to Stop Playing the Victim?

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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