I have written many posts in the shape of giving life advice. I hear back from readers who take it and those who refuse it. Either is good — I’m just a guy on the internet, to be consumed as part of a balanced diet of opinions.
But occasionally I hear: who are you to give life advice, your own life is so perfect! This sounds strange at first. If you think I’ve got life figured out, wouldn’t you want my advice? I think what they mean is that I haven’t had to overcome the hardships they have, hostile people and adverse circumstances.
I talk quite often about things that are going poorly for me, but only from the point of view of how I fucked up. I avoid talking about being wronged, oppressed, attacked, discriminated against, or victimized. If you assume that it’s because I live a charmed life where none of these things happen, you may need a refresher on the base rate fallacy.
The reason I never talk about being a victim is that I’m extremely averse to victim mentality. It’s an insidious mindset, one that’s self-reinforcing both internally and by outside feedback. I’ve seen it claim people, groups, entire nations. On the flip side, I’ve noticed that the less often I think of myself as a victim the less I am victimized, which in turn makes that mindset even rarer. If I do feel on occasion that I have been harmed through no fault of my own by hostile actors I keep it to myself. This is a bad time to be a victim on the internet.
What’s bad about victim mentality? Most obviously, inhabiting a narrative where the world has committed a great injustice against which you are helpless against is extremely distressing. Whether the narrative is justified or not, it causes suffering.
See yourself as a victim prevents you from improving your situation by your own power, since doing so will contradict the story of your own helplessness. In particular that’s true of the story you tell yourself. That story is your identity, how your mind predicts your future actions. If your story is helpless victimhood your mind will refuse to help — it wants to be vindicated more than it wants to do better.
When I was young I was a weird nerd, and while that maybe hasn’t changed much I do find myself in social circles where weird nerdiness is welcome. In school it was not very welcome, and people weren’t nice to me. But I never really fell into thinking that I was singled out for abuse, mostly because I reasoned that if my classmates really wanted to abuse me they could do so much more than they have. I could come up with very creative ways to bully someone, and no one in my school seemed equally creative. I learned to avoid the worst people and slowly make friends with the rest.
Avoiding bad things is a usually a great tactic, but it’s not available to victims. Avoiding the victimizer makes it hard to sustain the story of victimhood. It also leaves behind the lingering residue of injustice, knowing that the culprit did not get their comeuppance. That sense of injustice often haunts the victim long after they’re safe from the original source of harm.
Most importantly, victim mentality leaves no room for empathy. Victims can’t see anyone else’s struggles or suffering, especially those of their perceived victimizers.
When I write about dating I get replies from young men who feel maligned and victimized by women. They complain about impossible standards, ambiguous behavior, and dating norms as if these were setup on purpose to immiserate them. When I was younger and finally managed to reject this line of thinking for myself I started understanding women’s own difficulties, fears, and frustrations with dating, the real issues behind their seemingly-unfair complaints about men. That’s when my dating life improved dramatically.
People in general don’t like victims, and they certainly don’t want to date them.
Why do people claim victimhood despite the drawbacks? It makes sense in a small group where people know each other and reputations are tracked. The group will band to punish the perpetrator and offer the victim restitution, knowing that this will redound to them in turn.
But in the world at large, and especially on the internet of beefs, there are a lot more punishers than restitutionists. Claiming publicly that you’ve been victimized by X will immediately attract everyone with an axe to grind against X. Any pure souls trying to help will get swallowed up by the sheer number and energy of anti-Xers.
The anti-Xers have a vested interest in your continued victimization by X. Nothing is more detrimental to their cause than X’s victims making peace with X on their own terms. Victimhood-mongering provides purpose and gainful employment to countless individuals. The victims end up doubly helpless and doubly beholden: both to their oppressors and their “liberators”.
Global recognition of one’s victimhood is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to anyone. It happened to the Palestinians.
The United Nations agrees that Palestinians are victims. That’s why in addition to UNHCR, the UN agency to support refugees worldwide, it has a special agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees: UNRWA. UNRWA differs from UNHCR in two main ways:
- It does not share UNHCR’s mandate to “assist refugees in eliminating their refugee status by local integration in the current country, resettlement in a third country or repatriation”, thus keeping Palestinianss and their descendants in refugee status for perpetuity.
- It employs twice the number of staff.
Muslim leaders from Tunis to Kuala Lumpur agree that Palestinians are victims. They need to because it plays well for public opinion and allows them to maintain an anti-Israel stance in the absence, for most of them, of any actual conflict with Israel. Until there’s something serious at stake like foreign investments or a weapons deal, that is, and then they sign a deal with Israel and tell the Palestinians to shut up and stop complaining.
Many Americans agree that Palestinians are victims, especially those on college campuses. Shortly after I arrived on campus in the US I was invited to a “conversation” about the ongoing operation in Gaza with a left-leaning Jewish student group.
I asked them whether they though the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, which set off the operation, was justified. None of the 15 students in attendance knew who he was. Most of them couldn’t tell Hamas from the PLO, conflated the situation in Gaza with the settlements in the West Bank, and had little knowledge or interest in actual matters of Palestinian life and governance such as elections, security arrangements, water and energy supply, etc.
I realized that the vast majority of them joined this organization to establish their progressive bona fides and differentiate themselves from Jewish conservatives. Israel-Palestine is the biggest game in town, but it probably could just as well be male circumcision or female rabbis.
I want to make it clear — I don’t particularly disagree that Palestinians are victims in many senses and that their ability to help themselves is constrained by outside forces, chief among which is Israel. I have real compassion for them. I just want to note that decades of global recognition of Palestinian victimhood have been a boon for UN staffers, Muslim politicians, and American progressives, along with many others. Surely such a broad and powerful coalition would bring Palestine peace and prosperity and an end to victimhood?
Shockingly, it hasn’t.
These situations apply mostly to identifiable groups, examples of which are abundant, but it can happen to individuals too. In families, schools, organizations there are people who like playing the savior role, and they have a sharp nose for victims in need.
Isn’t this all victim blaming? This is a reasonable objection, although I have some issues with the concept itself and its provenance. Here’s the headline of the Wikipedia article on victim blaming:
Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them. The study of victimology seeks to mitigate the prejudice against victims, and the perception that victims are in any way responsible for the actions of offenders.
Equating the perception that victims have even a modicum of responsibility with prejudice gives up the game before it started. With this axiom in place “victimology” is not a field of inquiry, it’s a tool of advocacy to be used in competitions for victimhood status. These competitions have many losers and no winners.
But the concept of victim blaming as it’s naively understood still has value and needs to be addressed. To do so we need to clarify two distinctions.
The first difference is between being a victim in a particular instance and victimhood as an ongoing story. When you are the target of a crime you are a victim — you can appeal to an authority for help. You tell mom your older sister stole your toy and mom makes her return it.
This is entirely different from saying decades later that your career failures are a result of being victimized by your sister as a child. Even if the causal effect of your sister’s depredation is not literally zero, it has probably done less harm than the narrative of victimhood itself.
When I arrived in New York with little money I promptly lost $3,000 to a rental scam. If the cops had apprehended the scammer I would have confirmed that yes, I was their victim, and would have demanded the full amount back. But my main reaction was to analyze the situation, read up on similar scams, and build a plan for the future that will prevent me from falling for those again. I don’t even see it as an injustice — $3,000 is a fair price to pay for a class in scam resilience.
The second, related distinction is between public status and individual mindset. Blame is at its core a social concept, used to coordinate how we allocate responsibility and demand atonement as a group. We could very want for society to direct those at the perpetrator, and simultaneously advise the victim to hold themselves privately accountable at least in part.
The problem here is that every public discussion of the issue is perceived as mostly an attempt to shape the reaction of society, rather than the attitude of the victim. I care more about the latter, which is why this entire essay avoided talking about individual victims and how they could improve. The main way to change individual mindset it to talk about your own experience, which is also what I would encourage you to do in the comments. (I will heavily moderate less-than-perfectly-charitable discussion of the behavior of actual victims and all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict.)
In conclusion we must address privilege. It’s sure easy for someone who is safe from oppression to talk about the pitfalls of victim mentality; not so for the victim!
My first answer is that there is a strong bias in favor of overstating victimhood that needs to be corrected. This bias is caused by all people I discussed who benefit from being seen as protectors of victims. This bias is especially powerful in the United States, where victimhood is more and more allocated on the basis of group identity (which is enduring and political) instead of individual circumstance (which can be helped and overcome). If we lived in ancient Sparta, I would be giving the reverse advice instead.
Victim mentality is manufactured en masse by the American education system. It can only be resisted by individual efforts to reject it for yourself, in the privacy of your own blog-browsing.
But yes — I am privileged. In my nationality, my social and professional status, and more. But for all of those I, or the group that I’m part of, decided not to be victims and to take responsibility even when the former option was on the table. Again, I will not go into detail about how the option of victimhood was available, since merely talking about it is claiming it.
I don’t care if I miss out on the desirable status of having overcome great adversity™. It’s a currency that certainly has its value. But it’s not worth the price it demands.
Victimhood is a vicious cycle. It leads to helplessness which leads to victimization which leads to external recognition of victimhood which in turn leads to helplessness and so on down the spiral. Rejecting victimhood works the same way, small decisions that compound until one reaches escape velocity.
Not being a victim is indeed a privilege. With time and a change of mindset, this privilege can be yours too.
32 thoughts on “Against Victimhood”
free will doesn’t exist; people cannot willfully change their thoughts or actions. if someone changes their victim mentality, it will be because fate compelled them to, not b/c of conscious choice (which doesn’t exist).
Maybe, but I was fated to believe in free will.
I was too, until fate compelled me to watch Sam Harris talk about it and change my mind.
One of the mechanisms by which someone can be compelled by “fate” to change their mentality is exposure to a blog post explaining why they should change their mentality.
Yes, but all the “choices” leading up to that point we’re not consciously decided. And whether someone changes their mentality upon reading this blog post is not a conscious choice. There are no conscious choices.
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One can be conscious that they are making a choice, even if the outcome of that choice is wholly under the control of the deterministic/stochastic nature of the laws of physics. Whether that should be described as a “conscious choice” is a matter of semantics.
In any case, I’m not sure I see how your original point is more relevant to this blog post than to any other advice given by anyone anywhere. Jacob presents information and analysis about his own experiences, preferences, and reactions, without claiming that these are the products of his free will. Nowhere does he advocate for conscious choice; he does say that the victim mentality “can only be resisted by individual efforts to reject it for yourself, in the privacy of your own blog-browsing”. Does your anti-free-will stance conflict with the idea that some (perhaps small) fraction of individuals, in reaction to something they read on a blog, could exert effort to change their mentality?
“One can be conscious that they are making a choice…”
The subconscious chooses between A or B before the conscious brain is aware of having made a choice. “I chose A over B” is an after-the-fact realization and not part of the decision making process.
“Does your anti-free-will stance conflict with the idea that some (perhaps small) fraction of individuals, in reaction to something they read on a blog, could exert effort to change their mentality?”
No, but their reaction and subsequent effort are not under conscious control.
I would say that there is still a useful distinction between a choice which you are conscious that you have made, even if this consciousness comes secondarily after the choice, and a choice that you have made completely subconsciously and are unaware of.
“No, but their reaction and subsequent effort are not under conscious control.”
I guess my question is, do you find that fact particularly relevant to the content of this post? Or do you think it’s such an important fact that it is worth mentioning in response to any advice?
I guess it is ultimately irrelevant. A false belief in free will may lead to better life outcomes than knowing the truth.
All models are false, some models are useful.
Love this. I believe “See yourself as a victim prevents you from improving your situation by your own power” should read “Seeing yourself as a victim prevents you from improving your situation by your own power
More typos for Jacob to fix:
“Palestinianss” – should be “Palestinians”
“We could very want for society to direct…” – should be “We could very well want society to direct…”
Great post as ever.
Reminds me of something: I saw lots of commentary about Jessie Smollett’s hoax, and none of it paused to consider why he would pay to be perceived as the victim of a hate crime. It was sufficiently obvious to all commentators that victimhood is desirable and nobody seemed to consider that that isn’t a good state of affairs and maybe we can change it.
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wow! Fantastic article, Jacob. I’ve privately held the same belief for some time now (and I suspect many other rationalists do, too), but I think most of us see it as one of those “things you can’t say” that Paul Graham talks about. I would have expected you to take the Kolmogorov option on this, but I’m glad to be wrong.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that the people who need this advice the most are the ones who are the least likely to find it persuasive.
IMO victimhood and goes hand and hand with the liberal mindset (“the government or higher authority is trustworthy and effective at serving justice”) as opposed to the conservative mindset (“the government or higher authority is not trustworthy or not effective at serving justice, therefore preventing injustice is the best path”).
In our time institutions are becoming weaker and worse at serving out justice. Liberals are open to new ideas for adapting to this, but only when sugar coated… Game of Thrones fantasy caught the imagination of a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t entertain the satisfaction of extrajudicial justice and effective defense (however cruel and inhumane it often is in that instance).
I vibe with this. Best thing that ever happened to me was this kind of mental reframing. I greatly dislike attempts by outside parties to assign me the status of Having Been Wronged. Even if it’s true it doesn’t help!
I love your analysis. It overlaps much with a framework and skills I learned in psychotherapy and found very useful. I’ll attempt an overview.
Other-blame can both be well justified (I’m angry about an injustice, care about people being treated well, shows my beautiful values and principles, gets me sympathy and attention, shows that I have high expectations, …) and have negative effects (masks one’s responsibility in some cases, holds one back from improving one’s life, can be addictive, can make one resentful/bitter, …).
It’s important to realize such potential negative effects of clinging to other-blame. Then one can consider this trade-off and how to dial it.
Writing down a cost-benefit analysis (advantages vs. disadvantages of blaming other person) is a useful exercise.
Reframing and dialing down other-blame has been very empowering and liberating in my experience, which is why I want to share this overview and some pointers. We can teach kids that drivers should watch out for pedestrians (and it is unjust when they don’t), and we can teach them to watch before crossing the street (ie. taking control by planning and taking precautions).
It is worth noting that, paradoxically, pointing out the negative effects to someone who suffers from other-blame will invite resistance on their part. It is important to acknowledge all the good reasons (advantages/benefits/values) before considering the trade-off, then it becomes possible to decide to change and brainstorm ways how (without giving up important values).
I picked up this framework and methods from David Burns (author of Feeling Good, and upcoming Feeling Great, books which build on CBT). Here’s an episode on blame (self-blame and other-blame, which can both be cognitive distortions worth examining):
I largely agree with small caveats. As you pointed out above, victimhood is useful to marshal resources that address issues beyond your control. It is useful as a tool to leverage change in passing and at pivotal moments.
Weird Example :
If a person has a mood disorder and needs treatment, they have to embrace the victim mindset to get treatment. Eg ; the initial diagnosis of severe mood disorders rely on a persons ability to embrace the narrative that these are defects and they are the victim of some mental disorder that prevents them from otherwise achieving X, where X may be stability or health. They have to embrace the victim mindset, to simply recieve medical attention or if not – be really miserable. Stoicism and self determination are virtues but it’s important to know when to fold, albeit temporarily, for reasons of diagnosis or assessment.
Also, yeah, victimhood is a positive agent of community and can be a cornerstone of community foundation. Victimhood is entitlementent. It implies the victims are entitled to things the don’t have. And sometimes they are. But, sometimes they aren’t, and that’s where it should be abandoned.
I also think it’s possible to be a victim in very limited senses, but not in global scope. As a pervasive attitude, it is a shit way to form an identity, but in smaller perspectives, it is a useful way to view specific interactions and relationships. If you can avoid being a victim or extricate yourself from said victimized situation that is wonderful, but also a privelage. Sometimes that is not possible, and that’s when the identification of self as a victim is questionable as opposed to accepting that maybe that’s the way things are, not because the person is not a victim, but because the perspective is no longer useful. Sometimes.
Recognizing that you suffer from an ailment does not strike me as victim mentality. For one thing, it lacks a victimizer.
Deciding to seek help or treatment or making plans to mitigate the problem are the types of behaviors encouraged by the actor mentality.
The link to “victim mentality” in OP defines “Victim mentality is an acquired personality trait in which a person tends to recognize or consider themselves as a victim of the negative actions of others, and to behave as if this were the case in the face of contrary evidence of such circumstances”. It maps closely to the “other-blame” cognitive distortion from CBT.
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Came here to say mostly the same thing, so instead I’ll add.
I’ve noticed a growing and somewhat alarming conflation of the concepts of cause-and-effect relationships and the concept of blame, among my children and out in the world.
The OP is rightly pointing out that one must acknowledge that a condition exists, is out of their direct control, and is having negative consequences on their life.
Where I think things can get dicey is that in this situation, someone might say “ah, my mood disorder is to blame.” (Or is at fault.) From there, one still has to make the connection that action can be taken, and I think that doesn’t always happen. Moreover, if action is taken with limited or no success, one might develop a sense of learned helplessness, which is a similar enough condition to victimhood that I think a lot of Jacob’s advice is pertinent, too.
I am not sure what to do about this. More than once I have seen that describing a cause-and-effect relationship to my kids triggers a sense of being blamed. Either blamed for ignorance of the cause, or generation of the effect, or both. I think the way out really is to adopt a non-victimhood mentality, but how do you teach or encourage that?
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My original comment failed to post, so I’ll be short :-(
Your kids are probably feeling guilt or shame. It’s worth pausing to acknowledge that.
Then the “double standard” technique may be useful: what would you tell a good friend in the same situation?
For kids, maybe that means brainstorming what a character in book/story might do: “What might Peter the rabbit do when he’s crossing the street?”
Yes. The same kind of approach can be used for feelings of hopelessness. There are benefits (avoid getting hopes up and being let down, being realistic about low chances of success, avoid wasting effort, …) but also downsides (holds back from trying, assumes we can tell the future, …). Considering this trade-off, one might want to be less hopeless (merely cautious and skeptical) but still persist.
Look up the Feeling Good podcast (and book) for more details on dealing with helplessness.
(I’d be happy to chat in email or other if you wanted, let me know)
Maybe a better alternative to a victim mentality is a plaintiff mentality. Yes, you may be entitled to compensation and/or injunctive relief–but as a plaintiff you have your own set of responsibilities. You have to pursue your claims in a timely fashion and in good faith. You have to mitigate your damages. There may have been signs that something was wrong that you had the experience and knowledge to recognize, but for some reason you didn’t investigate these earlier. Etc.
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This is a bit of a side note, but I really hate that somewhere along the line we started calling not being oppressed or not being a victim, “privilege”, as the namespace collision with the other common usages of privilege (i.e. A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.) leads to the impression that the socially acceptable default is to be a victim or to be oppressed. More specifically, at the 5 second timescale the definitions get muddied and you get the inference that a special exception was made so that the group or individual is not oppressed or victimized.
More insidiously, if you take the previous statement as a given and there is no good justification for this “privilege”, it implies that group or individual are not deserving of this “privilege” and that they should have their “privilege” removed. (i.e. they should be victims or oppressed like everyone else.) Environments where people will try to actually adjust for these privileges, either by directly oppressing people or imposing other costs on them, create incentives for people to vastly overstate their degree of victimhood so as to avoid having said costs imposed on them.
Consequently, I think that it would be far more productive to refer to these things as “rights” and due to the current dismal state of the world the people who enjoy them as “fortunate” or “lucky”. The underlying concepts haven’t changed, but the inferences we draw from them at the 5 second level will bring up different associations that don’t imply that we should all be oppressed victims.
There is a difference between being treated well (ie. not oppressed) and having “privileges”. The two are often conflated…
We would like everybody to be treated well (not be oppressed) but nobody to have “privileges” (special rights/immunities).
I think the categorization you’re describing is: Oppressed (rights are violated) < normal (generally respect rights and has their rights respected) < privileged (special immunity/rights).
That said, there is room in the “normal” category for different levels of treatment and fortune. I’m not sure what terms to use there.
I’ve been struggling with past events where someone treated me badly. I agree that focusing on my victimhood is not healthy—but, what to do instead? I could focus on my own role, at the risk of exaggerating my responsibility for the events, or I could avoid thinking about these things at all. Which is what I generally do, but it’s hard to avoid obsessive thinking. Has anyone else dealt with this?
Jocko Willink has a tool for addressing it that he just calls “Good”. Recognize that the event you experienced has utility as a lesson.
Got scammed? Good – now you know to be more vigilant.
Partner was dishonest with you? Good – this is a chance to develop as an individual through adversity, examine communication and expectations in your relationship, etc.
Jordan Peterson has a similar line of thinking around events from the past that still drive obsessive thoughts. His take is that if it’s still bothering us, we haven’t learned from them yet. Journal about the experience, how you feel, where things went wrong, how it can be avoided in the future, and how you can grow from it. Then your subconscious can give you permission to drop it, because you’ve gotten the necessary adaptation that you need from it.
So definitely address it, but worry less about “Do I blame them or do I blame me?” and more “What useful lessons can be derived from this experience.”
I like the Work of Byron Katie.
It consists of 4 questions to ask yourself about a
I am the victim of X
It goes like this:
1 Is it true (that I am the victim of X)?
2 Can I really know it is true?
3 How do I react when I believe that thought
(I feel bad, I hate X, I feel disempowered)
4 How would it be without the thought:
(Better, maybe more understanding about X)
Then turn the thought around: I am not the victim of X
or: I am the perpetrator of X
and try to find the ways that might be true.
It is not about changing your thoughts, it is about recognizing cause and effect and an inquiry into the validity of your assumptions.
Its baseline assumption is: Reality is as it should be because reality is as it is.
Anyway, maybe this is helpful.
I think there’s also a link between victimhood mentality and a sort of just-world mindset—an enduring hope that if you can just catalog convincingly enough how unfair the world has been to you, restitution will come from somewhere, because that kind of unfairness can’t just stand, can it? But of course, it can.
“Life isn’t fair” is the most popular phrase to express the relevant insight here; “nihil supernum” is a fresher one; but today I’m going to go with “as is“. A magic tautology that activates the First Sight, directing you to see what’s actually there instead of what’s supposed to be there, and preempting any complaints about the discrepancy.
The world is “as is”, not as it should be. Any faults you find in it, you’ll have to either work around, or repair yourself—using whatever tools you can find in that same faulty world.