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The Promotion of The Victim Mentality

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by Izzy Kalman (December 2002)

The Western World is moving in a dangerous direction – with good intentions, of course. In the interest of helping people, we are legislating policies that are anti-therapeutic and reduce individual responsibility for one’s actions. To prevent anyone from experiencing the misery of being a victim, we are unwittingly teaching attitudes that actually encourage people to think and act like victims. The result is more victims, not less.

In this newsletter, I present my ideas about how and why this is happening.

The Sin of “Blaming the Victim”

“Izzy, you are blaming the victim.” This is probably the most frequent criticism I get. We can only blame people for doing things they know to be wrong. Victims of abuse and bullying can’t possibly see how they are causing and/or perpetuating their problems. Nevertheless, some of my readers and seminar participants become enraged by my views and attack me for “blaming the victim.”

How do I help victims? By getting them to take responsibility for their problems. I reveal to them the “optical illusion” that is causing them to unwittingly make the abuse continue. But I don’t stop there. I give them the solution to their problem. I show them how to defeat their bullies without anyone else’s help and without getting anyone in trouble. However, the taboo against “blaming the victim” is so strong that some people cannot tolerate the idea that victims are in anyway responsible for what happens to them, even unintentionally.

When It’s Okay to Blame the Victim

In our topsy-turvy social climate, there actually is one instance when you can get away with blaming the victim. How do you do this? By calling your victim a “bully.”

The same mentality that forbids “blaming the victim” is actually responsible for one of the most widespread instances of “victim-blaming” in modern history.

Many recent articles about school violence state that bullies are responsible for most of the violence in schools, like the Columbine massacre and the other school shootings. Because nearly all of the kids who perpetrated these massacres experienced themselves as victims of bullying, bullies are to blame.

But are “bullies” shooting up their schools? Are bullies going on violent rampages at their workplaces? No! Bullies may not be saints, but most of the heinous acts of violence are committed by people who feel like victims!

Victims believes they are totally innocent and blame their “bullies” for their misery and unfair lot in life. The “innocent” victims believe that their evil bullies deserve to die an agonizing death.

Of course, most victims don’t carry out their revenge fantasies. They are greater dangers to themselves than to anyone else. But the horrible acts of violence that make the news are all actions of victims trying to pay back their bullies. Yet society is blaming bullies for these actions and not victims!

Which, by the way, means you have to be very careful how you treat people. If you develop a reputation as a bully, someone can kill you and society will declare it was your fault!

Now, we no longer blame rape victims for the acts of rapists. Why are we blaming bullies for the violence that victims commit against them?

I think it may have to do with confusion caused by the word “victim.” This word implies innocence. Once a kid is known as a “victim” of teasing and bullying, he is deemed innocent regardless of what he does, especially since it is now taboo to “blame the victim.” Likewise, once a kid is labeled a bully, he continues to be considered guilty even when he is the victim of the victim.

The scary thing is that society is now unwittingly encouraging these revenge fantasies. How? By teaching that we must have no tolerance for bullies – in other words, that bullies have no right to exist! Many “victims” will be more than happy to help us end the existence of bullies. Literally.

The Origin of the Taboo Against “Blaming Victims” in Modern Psychotherapy

The taboo against “blaming the victim” has taken firm root in the psychotherapeutic world. This is what Michelle Bograd, PhD, writes about domestic violence March/April edition of Psychotherapy Networker:

“Most [psychotherapy] models emphasize the accountability of the abuser in order to be clear about the power dynamics at play and avoid the risk of blaming the victim in any way.”

Notice the words, “avoid the risk of blaming the victim in any way.” One of the basic principles of human dynamics is that a relationship is the product of the two people involved. Another principle is that to solve problems one must stop blaming others and take responsibility for oneself.

Despite these basic truths, psychotherapists are walking on eggshells, trying at all costs to aviod the danger of “blaming the victim.” It doesn’t matter that the victims’ actions are unwittingly encouraging their abusers. And it doesn’t matter that if you were to talk to the abuser, he would probably insist that he is the real victim. Since the person sitting before us is a “victim,” we have to be really careful not to further hurt his feelings by holding him responsible for his role in the relationship. Amazing, isn’t it? With such a mentality, how are psychotherapists ever going to help “victims” get better?

What is responsible for this development?

I believe that ultimately it is due to the efforts of the feminist movement, though I’m sure this was not the feminists’ intention.

Once upon a time, it was common for victims of rape to be blamed in court for getting raped. It was believed that by acting or dressing sexy, or by the very act of going to a place like a bar or party, women provoked men to rape them. The rapists, therefore, were absolved of responsibility. The feminist movement successfully – and rightfully! – fought this bias, and it is no longer legal to blame a rape victim for being raped. Women can now enjoy being sexy without worrying that they will be held responsible for men’s loss of sexual self-control.

This policy has slowly crept into all areas of behavior, with the result that it is never, ever considered proper to “blame the victim,” even when the situation has nothing in common with innocent victims of rape.

The Confusion of Law with Psychology

There is a second development that has contributed to the “blameless victim” philosophy that has taken hold in psychology. That development is the intrusion of law into psychology. Psychology strives to have scientific objectivity. Psychologically, the idea that a person has nothing at all to do with what happens to him is nonsense, especially if the same thing keeps happening to him.

In law, the basic premise is different. The job of a court is to determine who is innocent and who is guilty, even though the judge is well aware that situations are rarely clear-cut. That is why judging is such difficult and serious business. Nevertheless, the judge or jury determine who is guilty and who is innocent.

Psychotherapists are not above the law. They must obey it just like everyone else even if they think the law is against the best interests of their clients. In other words, law takes precedence over science for practitioners of psychology.

Society continues to pass laws protecting victims and giving psychotherapists responsibility (and income) for identifying and helping victims of abuse. These psychotherapists are bound by the idea that the victim is innocent and the abuser is guilty, even though this is a legal model, not a psychological one. New books on abuse are constantly appearing. Look at the authors and you will notice that many of these books are written by psychotherapists with law degrees, or co-authored by a psychotherapist and a lawyer. Is it any wonder that the boundaries between psychology and law are becoming muddled?

The problem with the mixture of law and psychotherapy is that the very nature of these professions are diametrically opposed. The psychotherapist’s goal is to get clients to take responsibility for their own problems. The lawyer’s goal is reverse: to prove that someone else is to blame for their clients’ problems. Since psychotherapy has adopted the legal model that holds that the victim is innocent, psychotherapy has become anti-therapeutic!

The Solution to the Dilemma: Two Types of Victims

What is the solution to this dilemma? How can we reconcile the legal principle that victims are innocent with the psychotherapeutic principle that we must take responsibility for our lot in life?

Very simply. By recognizing that there are two kinds of victims. In medicine, there two types of illness: 1)acute illness, and 2) chronic illness. An acute illness comes once and is gone. A chronic illness keeps coming back. The prognosis for an acute illness is better than a chronic illness because, having appeared only once, it has less chance of returning than a chronic one, which has proven itself to come again and again.

Similarly, you can be victimized once and it is over with. Or you can be victimized over and over again, which, of course, is much worse.

Anyone can be victimized once. If you are attacked by a thief or a rapist, or insulted for the way you look, you certainly can be innocent of any role in the attack against you. However, if you keep getting raped or robbed (assuming you don’t live in a crime-infested neighborhood) or insulted over and over again, it is absurd to think that your behavior has nothing to do with the attacks against you. This doesn’t mean you are “asking” to be attacked. On the contrary – you are trying very hard to make the attacks stop – but you can’t see how your behavior is unintentionally encouraging your abusers to continue abusing you.

Most people who need psychotherapy are chronic victims. They keep getting abused by the same people, or by different people in similar situations, no matter how hard they are trying to make their abusers stop. In the legal sense, they are innocent. In the psychological sense they are responsible for what is happening to them, though they cannot be blamed for their abuse because they have no way of seeing how they are causing their problem. All they are trying to do is stop the abuse.

I propose, therefore, that we start talking about “acute victims” and “chronic victims.” Acute victims can indeed be held psychologically free of responsibility for their victimization. All of us are occasionally victimized by someone looking to take advantage of someone. However, once a person is repeatedly victimized he becomes a “chronic victim” and should be treated differently. Our compassion for chronic victims shouldn’t blind us to the fact that they play a role in being victimized. Otherwise it becomes impossible to provide them with the help they really need to stop being victimized.

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2 Responses to The Promotion of The Victim Mentality

  1. Kathe Skinner, M.A., L.M.F.T. November 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm #

    Thanks for an extremely provocative piece. As a Marriage & Family Therapist, I see “victimhood” not only in many of my clients, but in myself, too. Being “taught” to play that role often begins in family of origin, illustrating the concept of a system’s need for a scapegoat. This can most clearly be seen in the highly socialized and structural behavior of wolves.

    Teaching couples, especially couples where invisible disability is a factor, includes looking at self-responsibility. It would be, and too often, is, tempting to absolve onself, especially since the “answer” lies out there somewhere, not with ourselves. It makes it too hard to have to take ownership because once we do that, we’re faced with the decision to change or not to change.

    And, as we all know, change is hard.

  2. Maggie February 27, 2016 at 4:08 am #

    Your article in eye opening! How can I stop this pattern with my child who is being bullied at school “for his lack of interest in soccer”? I understand with your article that the issue is not the sports, but that he may be putting himself in the position of being bullied. How can I make him understand that he is victimizing himself? And that he can break this pattern?

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