Pathologies of Victimhood

In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather appeared in full Native American garb at the 45th Academy Awards ceremony to decline the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando. Brando, she said, had boycotted the event to protest Hollywood’s portrayals of Native Americans. In the decades after the ceremony, Littlefeather continued to work as an actress, model, and activist, producing films about Native American life that eventually prompted the Academy to issue a statement of apology at a 2022 event entitled, “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather.” There was just one problem: according to her sisters, Littlefeather, whose birth name was Marie Louise Cruz, was not Native American and had fabricated her story of Native American ancestry, perhaps to find work. Littlefeather was a victim not by fate but choice.

Everyone has experienced genuine victimization at some point in their lives. Some have been the victims of political persecution and violent assault, while others have suffered lesser slights, such as bullying, verbal insults, and interruptions when speaking. Most of us have also experienced situations where presumed victimhood stemmed from a mistaken assumption—for example, a driver who “cut off” a fellow motorist by abruptly changing lanes might appear to harbor malicious intent, but it might turn out that he was merely attempting to get to the hospital as quickly as possible to be with an ailing loved one. Some among us, however, have a habit of adopting a posture of victimhood too easily and too often, a tendency that can damage communities, interpersonal relationships, and supposed victims themselves.

Victimhood transcends political boundaries. In American politics, a history of victimization, perceived or actual, is often treated as a credential that lends credence and moral authority to a particular person, group, or point of view. Members of minority groups, the poor, and the voiceless often lay a claim to it, but so too do members of various majorities, high-wealth groups, and prominent figures in our society. Many grievances concern perceived disadvantages: structural racism, colonialism, gender binarism, ableism, and other forms of oppression by economic, social, and religious elites. Yet even the billionaire former president of the US exhibits what might be charitably called a persecution complex, often rallying his supporters with the claim that “We’re all victims.”

A team of psychologists has recently described a psychological condition they call the “tendency for interpersonal victimhood,” which they define as “an enduring feeling that the self is a victim across different kinds of interpersonal relationships.” We all know that some people take offense more easily than others, but those with this tendency consider themselves “the victims of others’ malevolent actions” and remain “preoccupied with having been hurt long after the event has ended.” Specifically, individuals with a tendency for interpersonal victimhood feel victimized “more often, more intensely, and for longer durations” than those who do not share this psychological affliction.

The researchers outline four components of this tendency. The first is the need for recognition of victimhood. Such individuals need to have their victimhood acknowledged by others and expect them to express sympathy for what they are enduring. Failure by others to recognize their suffering only deepens their sense of having been wronged, which in turn psychologically embeds the tendency to victimhood even more deeply. Above all, individuals with a tendency for interpersonal victimhood expect perceived perpetrators to take responsibility for what they have done and express remorse and a sense of guilt over their actions. The perceived perpetrator’s failure to acknowledge culpability often proves the most irksome slight of all, compounding mounting resentment.

A second feature of the tendency for interpersonal victimhood is moral elitism. Such individuals take their own “immaculate morality” for granted, just as surely as they are convinced of others’ malevolence. In comparison to those who have wronged them, they see themselves as fundamentally different and morally superior. It is not just that someone else has caused an injury, whether bodily, psychological, or reputational, but also that the action sprang from immoral, unjust, or selfish motives. Such individuals say to themselves, “If only everyone else were as morally good, committed to the happiness of others, and attentive to duty as I am, we would have no perpetrators and victims, but sadly others simply do not measure up to my level.”  

A third feature is lack of empathy. Individuals with a tendency for interpersonal victimhood feel their own suffering very keenly, but they tend to be oblivious to the suffering of others. In a sense, such individuals are so attuned to their own sense of moral injury, like someone wearing high-volume headphones, that they cannot pick up notes of distress in others. Those in the throes of victimhood might deny that they have a selfish bone in their bodies, but their inner monologue and dialogue with others, if soberly examined, would often strike others as aggressively self-centered. It seems strange to say, but victimhood sometimes represents a kind of egoism, in the sense that afflicted individuals jealously protect their entitlement against others who claim to put forward their own grievances.

The final feature of the tendency to interpersonal victimhood is rumination, which derives its name from a Latin verb meaning “to chew the cud” – hence the term “rumen” for the four-chambered stomachs of ruminate animals such as cows and horses. Everyone recalls and sometimes relives past experiences, but some persons continue such revisitation long after events have passed and despite the fact that doing so perpetuates distress. The goal of rumination is not to solve a problem or adopt a new perspective but simply to experience the situation over and over again. In some cases, such as Littlefeather’s, afflicted individuals ruminate over experiences they never endured, such as specific periods of suffering or catastrophic events in the lives of groups of which they claim to be a member.

Unfortunately, the tendency to interpersonal victimhood is associated with many adverse consequences. Cognitively, such individuals tend to operate with what psychologists call an external locus of control, meaning that they believe they cannot do much to affect the course of their life and the reactions it provokes in them. Persons with an internal locus of control would tend to focus on aspects of adverse situations over which they exercise some influence, trying to improve circumstances or their responses to them. By contrast, those with an external locus of control feel that they are the victims of forces they cannot influence or perhaps even understand, beyond labeling them malign. As a result, such individuals tend to demonstrate less initiative and adaptability, with correspondingly poor life outcomes.

Emotionally, such individuals enter new situations and relationships expecting to be hurt. They may perceive malice where none is intended, lack the capacity to laugh at themselves, and when hurtful words and actions are directed at them, take them far more seriously than other people. Where ambiguity exists, they will tend to interpret it as directed to their own detriment. We tend to find what we set out looking for, and when persons operate with the assumption that others are out to victimize them, their expectations tend to be fulfilled. They view the past through a similar lens—that is, they continually rewrite their memories in ways that contribute to their own sense of victimization. As a result, they are quick to take offense and often find it difficult to build and sustain relationships.  

In terms of conduct, forgiveness can be very difficult or impossible for those with a strong tendency to interpersonal victimhood. Rather than deescalate and defuse situations, such individuals are inclined to ratchet up their sense of hurt and outrage and expect others to do the same. At the very least, reconciliation is likely to remain impossible so long as the perceived perpetrator does not “make the first move” by acknowledging responsibility and offering an apology. Such individuals often cling fiercely to their victim status, but in order to continue to identify as the victim in the situation, it is important to avoid looking at words and actions from the points of view of others. Rather than forgive, many such individuals are more likely to look for opportunities to exact vengeance.

The authors of the study speculate that the tendency to interpersonal victimhood may be rooted in what psychologists call attachment style, an approach developed early in life. Afflicted persons are likely to exhibit what is called anxious attachment. They are very sensitive to others’ words and actions, find it difficult or impossible to regulate their own feelings, and anticipate being spurned. Yet they also depend to an unusual extent on others for their own sense of self-worth. As a result, they often find themselves caught up in a vicious cycle. In some cases, the role of victim may seem so difficult to relinquish that doing so proves nearly impossible, even to someone who does not really belong to a group of victims. Littlefeather seems to have maintained her “Native American” identity right up to her death.

How should individuals and groups with a tendency to interpersonal victimhood be approached? First, it is usually unhelpful to attempt to argue them out of it, because doing so would require them to relinquish their victimhood. Second, when confronted with persons who are unable to forgive, it is best to redouble efforts to be forgiving, since the only alternative is often ruptured relationships. Third, because such individuals bear a psychological affliction, it is best not to rely on them to provide fair and balanced accounts of situations or to make prudent, well-informed, and thoughtful decisions on behalf of others, largely because they see matters only from their own point of view. Above all, we need to acknowledge that victimhood is not a virtue and over time reorient ourselves toward moral excellences such as fairness, resilience, and compassion. 

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