11 Signs That Someone Is Playing the Victim, and How To Deal With This Sneaky Manipulation Tactic

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Have you ever talked to someone who seems to think the world is against them? No matter the situation, if there’s a negative outcome for them, they always claim it’s someone else’s fault. Maybe you feel like you’re running out of advice to give them because of their seemingly endless misfortunes. Knowing how to identify when someone is actually getting the short end of the stick versus playing the victim and how to stop this behavior in its tracks is essential for protecting your well-being.

As it turns out, those who play the victim are often seeking sympathy or attention in the people whom they subject to their victim mentality. After all, you’re probably more likely to help someone out if you think they’re facing a constant onslaught of bad luck… but for those playing the victim, the keyword is playing. Meaning, they’re not really a victim in all the circumstances they bemoan. Rather, they’re downplaying their own role in contributing to those poor outcomes.

Experts In This Article

Below, experts break down what it really means to play the victim, why people do it, how to spot this behavior in action, and how to deal with it—both in others and in yourself.

What does it mean to play the victim?

Playing the victim pretty much means what it sounds like. “People who are referred to as ‘playing the victim’ feel that people and circumstances are against them, out to get them, or that they are unlucky,” says clinical psychologist Monica Vermani, CPsych, who specializes in trauma, abuse, and relationships. “Knowingly or unknowingly, they repeat patterns where they relinquish their power and agency; allow themselves to be dominated, directed, and guided by others; and blame others when things don’t work out as they would have preferred.”

“Knowingly or unknowingly, [people who play the victim] repeat patterns where they relinquish their power and agency...and blame others when things don’t work out as they would have preferred.” —Monica Vermani, CPsych, clinical psychologist

This is the person who is constantly wrapped up in friend drama but claiming they never have any role in starting or perpetuating it; or the person who loves complaining about their job, relationship, or other life circumstances but won’t do anything to change the situation.

Why would someone play the victim?

Playing the victim is “often done for sympathy, attention, or to avoid responsibility,” says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD. This person may want support or an avoidance of accountability, she adds, so they play victim either consciously or unconsciously.

Ironically, playing the victim may also help someone feel empowered. “It can give the illusion of being in control,” says Dr. Vermani. After all, they’re spinning a specific narrative to convince others (and perhaps themselves) that life is just being unfair to them, thus temporarily absolving them from feelings of guilt or shame around their unfortunate circumstances. But in reality, “the unwillingness or resistance to playing an active role in their life choices and actions is a major source of their resentment, lack of agency, and lack of self-determination,” she says.

To be sure, someone who’s playing the victim is not genuinely the victim of a negative situation; in fact, people who are actually responding to trauma typically distort the experience and blame themselves in an effort not to be seen as victims. “Playing the victim is a method of manipulation in order to get one’s needs met,” says trauma-informed relationship therapist Amelia Kelley, PhD, LCMHC, podcaster, researcher, and co-author of What I Wish I Knew. She adds that individuals who play the victim often struggle to self-empower in other ways.

How can you tell if someone is playing the victim?

You’ll notice different behaviors in someone who’s playing the victim versus someone who’s actually a victim. When people play victim, Dr. Hafeez says, they shift the blame, refuse to take accountability, engage in manipulative behavior, and self-sabotage. Whereas with actual victimhood, she says, there’s more genuine trauma and a loss of control.

Below, you’ll find 11 common signs from the experts that someone is playing the victim.

1. They have a negative concept of self

A person who plays victim will often bad-mouth themselves or go on and on about how much they despise who they are. And the mental thought processes underscoring this dialogue can turn cyclical, too: Negative self-talk can lead to self-sabotage and low self-esteem, says Dr. Kelley, creating more reasons for, well, negative self-talk.

2. They shift blame onto others for all poor outcomes

Instead of seeing failures or conflicts as opportunities for personal growth, someone with a victim mentality will avoid acknowledging them entirely, says Dr. Kelley, by passing blame or responsibilities onto others—even when they had a clear and significant role in the situation.

Rather than take accountability for their own actions, says Dr. Hafeez, they will make excuses, deflect criticism, deny wrongdoing, or otherwise portray themselves as a helpless victim of circumstance. Sometimes, this can even go so far as to turn into gaslighting, where they lead others to question their own reality or recollection of an event in a way that serves their victim narrative.

3. They struggle to maintain stable relationships

Because of their desire to be viewed as the martyr in every circumstance, a person playing the victim is often codependent on partners or friends, says Dr. Kelley, relying on their constant approval to feel okay in the relationship. This can turn into a repeating pattern in nearly every relationship they have, as they lack insight into their role in the issue.

4. They exaggerate hardships

If a person often dramatizes their negative experiences, that can be another sign that they’re playing the victim, says Dr. Hafeez. They spin these grand stories to garner additional sympathy, attention, and validation, she explains. Even (and perhaps especially) when the situation doesn’t warrant such a sympathetic reaction, they’ll dial up their struggles in order to get a rise out of others.

5. They manipulate others’ emotions

Speaking of getting a rise out of people… A person who plays the victim will purposefully tap into others’ sense of empathy or sympathy or even guilt-trip them into thinking they caused the faux-victim’s misfortunes, says Dr. Hafeez. It’s all a means to “control or influence the behavior of those around them, often to their own advantage,” she says.

Alongside playing the victim, signs of manipulation include isolating someone, pressuring them to make decisions urgently, gaslighting them, and using passive-aggressive behavior.

6. They depict themselves as powerless

People who play the victim often act passively or portray themselves as being at the mercy of others, says Dr. Vermani. Further, she says, they don’t work toward changing or improving their negative situation, lest it become obvious that they actually aren’t just the victim of their circumstances and can influence their own lot in life.

7. They struggle with their mental health

Mental health issues can be both a cause and an effect of constantly playing the victim. Dr. Vermani says people with a victim mentality tend to exhibit low self-esteem; struggle with assertiveness and communication; and experience symptoms of low mood, high stress, and anxiety.

8. They react defensively to criticism

If you try to make suggestions to this person about how they might improve their circumstances themselves or note how they might be playing a role in their own misfortune, they will likely jump to the defense. “They will defend their lack of action and misinterpret the efforts of those who try to help them as an attack, due to their low self-esteem,” Dr. Vermani explains.

9. They prefer validation over solutions

Compelled by their low self-esteem, Dr. Vermani says, these folks often pity themselves. In turn, they’d typically rather hear validation from others of how bad their situation is, versus potentially helpful solutions or ideas for preventing such a negative outcome in the future. (All of the latter, after all, would require responsibility-taking and work on their end.)

10. They constantly compare themselves to others

In the mind of someone who plays the victim, there’s an endless loop of, “But everyone else has it better than I do,” which is how they continually validate their sense of victimization, says Dr. Vermani. If you notice that someone is constantly bringing up how others are so much luckier or happier or more successful than they are, that’s a sign they may be playing the victim.

11. They engage in dichotomous thinking

A person who plays the victim tends to see situations as all good or all bad, with no in-between or gray area. Often fueled by anxiety, such “black and white thinking” tends to reinforce the victim mindset: As they view any small inconvenience or minor misfortune as a totally bad situation, it supports their notion that they are continually and unfairly the victim.

What is the psychology of people who play the victim?

The psychology behind playing the victim can stem from a variety of cognitive, emotional, and social factors, says Dr. Hafeez. On the cognitive front, playing the victim can be a cognitive distortion, or a biased belief someone holds about themselves or the world around them that causes them to get stuck in a negative thinking pattern. Dr. Hafeez gives the example of the attribution error, where people misattribute negative outcomes solely to external factors, disregarding their own contributions.

Others who play the victim may have experienced trauma that broke down their self-image or perception of their own coping skills, says Dr. Hafeez. Or, on the flip side, they may have received some kind of positive benefit from the victim behavior that incentivizes them to continue it.

As noted above, mental health issues can also factor into victim behavior. Needing constant validation and support from others, wanting to avoid the discomfort of taking responsibility for negative situations, and dealing with low self-esteem can all trigger a victim mentality.

Indeed, Dr. Kelley says individuals who play the victim often struggle with insecurity, imposter syndrome, and/or an insecure attachment style. Playing the victim can also be connected to rejection sensitive dysphoria (which is common in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders.

Beyond such mood disorders, Dr. Vermani points to dysfunctional households. “The victim persona is often something that we acquire from our family of origin,” she says, noting how we model our actions based on the relationships we witness as kids. “We can learn from family members that holding grudges; seeking validation for victim status; being unwilling to forgive and forget; and being harsh, critical, and judgmental while taking no responsibility is an acceptable way of interacting.”

Is playing the victim narcissism?

Narcissistic people are prone to playing the victim (but every person who plays the victim isn’t necessarily a narcissist). Among the types of narcissists, the victim narcissist, in particular, uses the victim mentality to convince those around them that others are constantly out to get them and that they are 100-percent innocent, thus garnering support and affection.

“By portraying themselves as victims, [narcissists] can deflect blame, avoid accountability, and manipulate others for sympathy and validation,” says Dr. Hafeez. “This behavior reinforces their sense of entitlement and superiority while exploiting social dynamics to their advantage.”

“By portraying themselves as victims, [narcissists] can deflect blame, avoid accountability, and manipulate others for sympathy and validation.” —Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, clinical psychologist

The more they depict themselves as a victim, the more likely others are to stick by their side and support them, which is also highly appealing to the narcissist who craves attention, says Dr. Kelley. In this way, the narcissist uses victimhood to take advantage of other people’s sympathy.

How do you deal with someone who plays the victim?

Do a self check-in

The first step is acknowledging and taking stock of how you’re doing—with self-compassion. “Recognize the damaging effects that a relationship with someone with a ‘victim’ mentality has on you,” Dr. Vermani says.

This might look like doing a body scan meditation (or, bringing your awareness to how different parts of your body feel, or where your feelings are showing up in your body) or simply being honest with yourself about the ways in which this person’s behavior has caused you stress.

Set compassionate (but firm) boundaries

It’s important to acknowledge that this person’s experiences and feelings are valid for them, and at the same time, their actions are harming or depleting you, says Dr. Kelley. (Two things can be true at once.) Given that we all have limited resources, you may need to set boundaries around the time and energy you’re devoting to this person, so you can conserve your resources for your own responsibilities and well-being.

That might look like communicating that you’ll only be available for support during certain timeframes or in regard to particular topics and otherwise suggesting that they speak with a mental health professional, says Dr. Kelley. You can also set boundaries around how you engage with them: Perhaps you refuse to engage in enabling behaviors or in offering excessive sympathy, says Dr. Hafeez, in order to avoid reinforcing their victim mentality.

Stay objective

After hearing their emotional retelling of certain misfortunes or negative events, it may be hard not to fall into the trap they’ve set. But Dr. Hafeez encourages you to try. “Focus on facts and reality rather than getting caught up in their exaggerated narratives,” she says.

Show empathy while also encouraging problem-solving

Offering compassion to a person who feels as if they are always the victim is important. After all, their behavior may stem from “deep-seated emotional pain or unresolved psychological issues,” says Dr. Hafeez. That said, it’s important to be discerning about how you show that support and how much of it you offer: Validating all of their stories or repeatedly rescuing them will just further reinforce and enable their victim mindset.

Instead, Dr. Hafeez recommends focusing on the emotions bubbling up for this person, versus the elaborate stories they’re telling. “Acknowledge their feelings while gently challenging distortions in their stories,” she suggests. You can also offer constructive feedback and support them in finding solutions to their problems. Even if they’re resistant at first, a gentle nudge toward empowerment can help them begin to develop self-awareness and avoid perpetuating the victimhood cycle.

Maintain perspective

If the victim-player is tossing blame in your direction or suggesting that you are the reason for their misfortunes in any way, it’s important to keep a firm grip on your reality, and avoid allowing yourself to be guilt-tripped into taking on responsibility for their well-being, says Dr. Hafeez. “Remember that their behavior is not a reflection of your worth or capabilities.”

Surround yourself with positive people

Being around someone who’s constantly playing the victim can be energetically and emotionally draining. Conversely, spending time with people who fill your cup can revitalize you. For that reason, Dr. Vermani says it’s all the more important to surround yourself with positive people whenever you’re dealing with someone who constantly has something to complain about.

Another important thing to remember: You’re always allowed to straight-up end a relationship with the victim-player, if you want or need to.

Encourage professional help

Therapists receive special training and education in handling situations like these (and they get paid for it!). You can show support to both yourself and the other person by encouraging them to see a professional, who can identify any underlying mental-health issues that may be causing their victim behavior and help them develop healthier coping mechanisms, says Dr. Hafeez.

How do I stop playing victim?

If you think that *you're* the one playing the victim, it's certainly possible to work toward undoing this tendency with self-reflection and behavior change. Experts outline steps to take below.

Identify signs of this behavior

Psychoeducation is key. “The first step to treatment is awareness,” says Dr. Vermani, urging people to be mindful of times they tend to play the victim. “Notice when you are making the choice not to accept responsibility or take on the work of problem-solving, or blaming others.” Becoming more self-aware can help you identify insecurities and fears so you can address them effectively, too, Dr. Hafeez adds.

Be introspective

“If you feel like you are always faultless and everyone is always out to ‘get you,’ take a moment for mindful introspection about your part in the dynamics in your own life,” Dr. Kelley says.

“Remind yourself of your internal locus of control.” —Amelia Kelley, PhD, LCMHC, trauma-informed relationship therapist

Are there any changes you can make to improve your life in some way? “Remind yourself of your internal locus of control,” says Dr. Kelley, referring to the ability we all have to influence and make changes to our own reality. “Ask yourself, ‘If I did take responsibility for this situation, relationship, issue—how might I try to influence it?’” she suggests. The answers that arise can empower you to act, rather than simply claiming victim status.

Reframe negatives as opportunities for growth

When you wind up in a negative situation and start to blame others for your misfortune, consider how you might reframe the bad outcome as motivation for growth.

For example, if you notice that you keep having the thought, “No one ever likes me,” you might adjust it to, “I haven’t found my people yet,” or “Maybe I would benefit from reading more about how to find friends.” In any case, the point isn’t to judge yourself (as judgment can be counterproductive); it’s to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t rest solely on external factors.

Build your self-esteem

The more confident you feel in yourself and your capabilities, the less you’ll fall into the habit of constantly perceiving yourself as the victim of your circumstances, says Dr. Hafeez. Some self-esteem boosters include only talking to yourself like you’d talk to a friend (You wouldn’t needlessly criticize a friend, right?) and repeating affirming “I am” mantras, like “I am positive,” “I am loved,” and “I am kind” to your own face in the mirror each morning and each night before bed.

Remind yourself of the consequences of playing the victim

Taking action to problem-solve your issues or otherwise improve your own life might feel undesirable, especially after enjoying the illusory comforts that playing the victim can bring. So, Dr. Vermani recommends reminding yourself that when you don’t take action and choose to blame or shame others instead, you’re also relinquishing your own power.

Set realistic goals

Completely changing your mindset and dropping a victim mentality that you’ve clung to for some time can feel daunting—so try not to put too much pressure on yourself. “Breaking free from the pattern of playing the victim can be a transformative journey requiring self-reflection and commitment,” Dr. Hafeez says.

With that in mind, she encourages setting small goals along the way and celebrating your progress when you hit them. For example, maybe never playing the victim again is too lofty a goal from the outset, but perhaps you can set a smaller goal around simply identifying moments when you might be playing the victim or catching yourself in unproductive thought patterns and pausing to adjust.

Seek support from professionals and loved ones

Just as you might suggest a friend who constantly plays the victim seek mental health support, you can also benefit from working with a therapist to break free from this unhelpful mentality and reconnect with yourself, says Dr. Vermani.

In particular, consider searching for a therapist who practices reality therapy, which is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focused on changing your behavior (because that’s all you can really change) to get what you want.

Friends, family, and other loved ones can be additional support people as you go through this process (just remember they have to take care of themselves, too). If you inform them that you’re looking to let go of this behavioral habit, they can help you pinpoint when, exactly, you’re playing the victim and offer ideas for productive problem-solving (versus casting blame).

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