Have you ever met someone who feels like nothing ever goes right for them? During conversations, they may spend a lot of time painting themselves as the martyr in a world that can't stop taking advantage of them. When they talk about their problems, they often blame other people and shy away from taking personal responsibility.
If you know someone who has a pattern of negativity and self-sabotage, they may have a victim complex.
What is a victim complex?
Licensed mental health counselor Elizabeth Mateer, LMHCA, defines a victim complex as feeling like you are a constant victim in your relationships and life experiences.
"If you have a victim complex, you feel a lack of control in your life, may blame others when things go wrong, and overall tend to feel like things are happening 'to' you," she explains. "While we all feel this way from time to time, if you have a victim complex, you feel victimized more severely, more often, and for a longer time than the average person."
Having a victim complex is different from experiencing actual trauma or victimization, adds licensed psychologist Traci Williams, Ph.D. "Survivors of traumatic events do not necessarily have the victimhood trait. In fact, most survivors of trauma do not feel like the event defined them, and see themselves as separate from their painful experiences."
It's also much different from someone speaking up about legitimate societal injustices. Mateer points out that someone with a victim complex tends to generalize the world being against them as an individual, specifically, while people in an oppressed, marginalized group usually observe injustice being perpetrated against their entire group, not just them. More importantly, systematically oppressed people speak about their personal experiences to move the needle and effect change—unlike those with a victim complex, who are actually often resistant to change.
"Those with a victim complex are typically unable to take accountability for their own contribution in challenges or conflict. Someone with a victim complex is fully focused on themselves and their own problems," Mateer says.
At the root, a victim complex is characterized by a feeling that life is happening to you rather than a sense that your life is within your control.
Signs of a victim complex:
They ruminate about bad times.
Williams says it's common for people with a victim complex to think back on the way they've been hurt by others. Instead of musing over positive and productive times, they minimize the good and often replay old memories that bring them distress and hurt. Through this processing, they are usually mired in an unhelpful and unhealthy thought pattern that keeps them tied to the past.
They blame others for mistakes.
"Your friend or partner with a victim complex won't take accountability for their part when things go wrong. They will typically blame others or make excuses for why they are not responsible for what happened," Mateer says. When they retell stories or bring up others, they often paint themselves as a helpless person with the best intentions and everyone else with malice.
It's never their fault.
"It is very hard for someone with a victim complex to take ownership over their own life, which keeps them stuck in the cycle of victimhood. Something is always going wrong for them, and it is almost always someone else's fault," Mateer says.
If something bad happened at work, they blame it on their boss. During a breakup, they complain endlessly about their ex and how they were mistreated. In each situation, they're the helpless victim and everyone else is the perpetrator.
They rarely take accountability.
Mateer shares a classic sign of victimization is being unable to reflect on what they might have contributed. Despite the situation, whether they're receiving feedback at work or they're in conflict with a friend, they tend to focus on what was negatively done to them in the situation. ("My co-worker has it out for me! As soon as I started the job, you know they never liked me, and that's why the project failed.") It's always about the other person and what they're doing to inflict harm.
They monopolize the conversation.
When you catch up with them, most of the conversation is usually around the victim's life and what they are going through. "They might be so absorbed in their own struggles that they are unable to acknowledge or empathize when you are going through a hard time," Mateer says. As a result, when you try to bring up situations you are going through, the victim is not able to appropriately hold space for you, leading to an uneven, one-sided relationship.
They need to be right.
Life is rarely black and white. In conflicts, it's tough to see someone as completely right or wrong. There are always learning and gray areas to navigate on both sides.
For people with a victim complex, though, Williams says they aren't able to see the specific subtleties of certain situations because they're so fixated on their point of view. "You view yourself as 'good' or pious and see many others in your life as 'bad' or 'evil,'" she says.
People's roles, expectations, and emotions feel absolute. No matter what, in every situation, the victim was pushed around.
They hold grudges.
Being able to let go of a situation with gratitude, peace, and acceptance involves seeing a situation for what it is and acknowledging how you can do better in future situations. But if someone has a victim complex, Williams notes they're not able to reflect on the hurt of others and how their actions have made others feel. Because they're not willing to let go, they're more likely to harbor ill will and want to see those who've hurt them punished.
They're highly suspicious and mistrustful.
Since they are so incensed to injustice, people with a victim complex have a perspective marked by social mistrust, egoism, and suspicion in interpersonal and social dynamics—so they're often looking for unfairness in situations. Because they're focused on the negatives, they can't see the upsides. One study in 20221 found these individuals have a hypervigilant tendency to catastrophize and judge many situations as unjust, even if the situation was socially ambiguous.
They don't look for a solution forward.
When you try to talk to them about their problems, they aren't interested in troubleshooting or finding a way out of their victim narrative. They're more interested in complaining about these circumstances because they see little hope in changing things, almost as if they have no control over the situation.
For people who put themselves in the victim role, Williams says it's also important for the victim to let everyone else know the ways they've been exploited or taken advantage of. Because of this strong identification, the victim rarely takes an empowered stance for their behavior and cognitive distortions.
What causes a victim complex?
Generally speaking, being a victim lets you escape responsibility, so it can be an attractive option for those who don't want to be on the hook for their behavior.
But people who have a victim complex have also usually gone through certain experiences to acquire this type of sensitivity. Research in 20152 outlined several factors that contribute to this narrow perspective:
If someone has a victim complex, they may have grown up in a dysfunctional environment where they were either subjected to or observed emotional and physical abuse, betrayal of trust, and social rejection during a critical life event. Not being able to see other people's inherent integrity and benevolence detrimentally affected their social behavior development and ability to co-create loving connections. Such experiences may have formed the basis for the way they view the world.
Betrayal of trust
People with a victim complex had early childhood experiences where their trust was violated. They weren't able to live in a world where people were primarily seen as honest, reliable, and stable. From a young age, they became keenly attuned to feelings of helplessness, moral outrage, disappointment, and rage, which made them defend themselves against exploitation and being controlled. While some can experience fleeting emotions of anger, people who are sensitive to victimhood stay with the emotion much longer.
Lack of vulnerability
Over time, the victim complex becomes a coping strategy to ward off painful situations and inadvertently turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because they expect noncooperation from others, they enter situations uncooperatively and are less willing to help others who may need help. Researchers noted people with a victim complex were also more likely to foster feelings of envy and jealousy, and were less likely to accept apologies from their partners.
Fear of exploitation
Seeing a person act selfishly or convey unfair behavior can feel grimy. With people who suffer from victim sensitivity, it brings strong, sustaining feelings of indignation and anger. The fear of being victimized is so strong that a 2015 study2 saw that they were likely to behave aggressively and destructively to any signs of exploitation. Their actions feel reactionary to avoid being attacked.
Developing an anchored, consistent sense of self allows you to move through life with stability. For people with a victim complex, they often have a negative self-concept. It's typical for them to think of themselves as weak, unlucky, too sensitive, an easy target for bullies, or prey for bad behavior.
Innate personality traits
While the causes and the qualities of a victim complex are clear, the research is still ongoing. With recent research, Williams notes there is evidence suggesting that the victim complex may actually be a personality trait, existing as a core aspect of a person's identity since it's supported by their developmental and cognitive processes.
When parents have a victim complex.
"If your parent has a victim complex, you likely grew up with the feeling of being at least partially at fault when things went wrong in your family. Parents with a victim complex will often use the narrative of 'before I had kids' or 'if I didn't have kids, I would have…,' both of which transfer the blame of their current dissatisfaction onto their children," Mateer says.
First and foremost, emotionally unsafe parenting leads you to internalize your parents' blame and criticism as self-criticism. You may not have felt safe or comfortable expressing the full spectrum of your emotions because they weren't able to co-regulate with you, which leads to problems sitting with your feelings later on. It may also be hard for your parents to accept when they've made a mistake because they're preoccupied with finding fault in others.
"As a result, you as the child are left feeling immense guilt for a situation that you had nothing to do with. As a child of parents with a victim complex, you may struggle in adulthood to set and uphold healthy boundaries, voice your own needs, and may gravitate toward people-pleasing," she adds.
Is the victim complex tied to narcissism?
According to Williams, people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder more often see themselves as victims than people who are not narcissistic. "However, not everyone with narcissism has a victim complex, and not everyone with a victim complex is narcissistic."
Recent research3 suggests that while victimhood is a defining characteristic of narcissism, the origins are distinctly different. People with a true victim complex often see themselves in that light as a trauma response from previous painful experiences. They want to avoid being hurt again.
People with narcissism deploy the victim narrative when they believe they can benefit from making the other feel guilty or use a past experience to avoid liability. ("My ex was an awful person; that's why it's so hard for me to trust again.") ("My mom didn't love me when I was growing up; that's why it's difficult for me to show you the care you deserve.")
How to deal with someone with a victim complex.
Williams and Mateer share some tips on how to interact with someone who sees themselves as a victim, including:
Do not take responsibility for their feelings.
Mateer points out everyone is entitled to their feelings, but you don't have to fix, advise, validate, or enable their outlook on life. Trying to help them manage their emotions will reinforce them as a victim of their own circumstances rather than giving them the opportunity to work through issues on their own.
"Oftentimes, those with a victim complex gravitate toward people who they think can save them. While you may be well intentioned in trying to help, that can often perpetuate the victim state for the person with the victim complex," she says.
Set clear boundaries.
If you're feeling drained when they're keeping score on grievances with their roommate or obsessed with past traumas from their living situation, you can let them know you want to have limits for how much you talk about certain issues over and over again.
"Setting healthy boundaries in your interactions with someone with a victim complex is important while also gently reminding them of their own power in the situation and reiterating that you support and believe in them to handle it," Mateer advises.
Be mindful in your interactions.
"Avoid engaging in arguments over whether or not they are actually hurt," Williams suggests. "Their feelings are valid to them even if they do not make sense to you."
On that note, she recommends not fueling their victimhood with excessive attention and sympathy and focusing on centering the conversations on empathy and neutral ground. While you want to be there for them, you also don't want to create codependency or nurture black-and-white thinking where there's a clear villain and a powerless victim.
Affirm them of their own power.
The victim complex originally starts because of a fundamental distrust in the world. To bring sweetness and levity back to how they view situations, encourage them to find the bright side in situations. The world can be a bad place, but there are also a lot of beautiful and kind people too.
Remind them they have autonomy over how situations play out. While there's a possibility for things to go wrong, gently guide them toward the possibility that there's also the chance things can work out too.
Encourage your loved one to get professional support.
Ultimately, it's up to the person to understand the behavioral pattern of the victim complex and how it's affected them. Williams recommends therapy as an effective way to explore their beliefs and heal from their hurt.
"Several therapeutic approaches can help you understand why you feel the way you do and can empower you to improve the quality of your life—like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) motivational interviewing, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)."
Holding space with someone who has a victim complex isn't always easy. With boundaries, you can help empower them to build a balanced worldview that allows for the good and the bad. But at the end of the day, it's up to them to move on and let go of old stories.
And if you're someone who may be sensitive to victimization, know that change starts with self-awareness. By releasing the compulsion to see yourself in limitation, it is possible for you to build the self-confidence, compassion, and kindness needed to reclaim your story.
Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.