The Professional Victim

We’ve all met one.  No matter how much energy you pour into the relationship, be it professional, friendly, or familial, you somehow end up being the bad guy.  It’s your fault! There wasn’t a problem until you pointed out the problem, therefore, YOU are the problem.  Heaven forbid this person should feel badly in your presence.  What will you get? A tantrum of some kind be it The Sulks, The Rages, or Cold Indifference.  Sometimes, you’ll even get The Pouts.  The stories you hear are heart-wrenching.  You want to make it better for them, but Professional Victims don’t want to get better.  Not really.  They want attention.  A lot of attention.  They want to be told that they are right.  They want to be told that self-pity, entitlement, and inaction are justifiable, or, worse, that poor choices that potentially hurt others and even themselves are okay because they deserve that momentary bit of self-gratification regardless of the fact that they are motivated by things less than virtuous and life-giving.

I have a family member who could be described as a Professional Victim, and I know I sound judgmental when I say that; I say this descriptively.  We grew up together.  She got a degree in psychology, but she chose to use her degree differently.  She learned to manipulate.  She consistently complained, “I never had a life! I deserve a life, right? I don’t wanna work.  I wanna be taken care of.  I need to find a man with money!”

So, that’s what she did! She deceived two, wealthy Ivy League-educated men by getting pregnant hoping to force a marriage.  It’s a plot older than time: Woman traps man into marrying her.  Alas, this didn’t work–the first time.  The first guy didn’t marry her so she was left with a baby.  She was, thusly, left in an even worse situation responsible for a child and feeling even more trapped and victimized by circumstances of her own creation.  So, she left the baby with whomever would take him and began looking for Wealthy Man #2.  She did meet another well-to-do man from Yale, and her plot was enacted once again.  He begrudgingly married her, and they did not enjoy an authentic marriage of any kind.

What do you suppose she did? She got herself pregnant again to really seal the deal! Three kids later she was still wailing, “I have no life! I deserved a life.  Now, I’m stuck here with three kids.  I’m not a mother.  I deserve better.  How did I get here? I hate this! My body is ruined.  Look at my stomach. My husband won’t touch me!” So, what did she do? She flew to Atlantic City and refused to come back.  She actually abandoned her children, one of whom had a life-threatening illness, and her marriage all in the name of entitlement masquerading as victimization .  The only way she would return to her family was if her husband would pay for a complete plastic surgery overhaul complete with breast augmentation, tummy tuck, Botox injections, and liposuction which he happily did because he only married her out of obligation.

This is the Professional Victim in action.  No matter what they claim to know–“I have a degree in psychology!”–or how intelligent they are, they play the Blame Card as easily as I use my debit card.  It is always someone else’s fault.  If they have a sense that their behavior affects others, they will never admit it.  The narrative that they’ve crafted is dependent upon them being the victim in all scenarios.  If you attempt to dismantle this paradigm, then you will be met with blame, accusations, or more victim-like crying and tantrums–“I just try and try and no one seems to understand me.  I just want you to be happy! Can’t you see that? That’s all I want for everyone! I’ll just never be good enough.  NEVER!”  Every response you get from a Professional Victim will be a form of gaslighting.  Why? Because they themselves are confused about what is really true.  Gaslighting is about perpetrating mental confusion on another person so it makes sense that Professional Victims will use confusion as currency in relationships of all kinds.

Confronting the Professional Victim can be very difficult.  You’ll know for sure what you’ve got on your hands based upon the response.

Scenario:

A woman has been in counseling for five years.  She is yet again retelling the story of her father’s adultery, a story you’ve heard countless times.  She tells it with the same emotional intensity that she told it the first time you met her four years ago.  She has been receiving CBT and is also medicated and seeing a psychiatrist.  After hearing the same stories repeatedly, you finally say, “I understand that this is still painful for you because your father’s actions have far-reaching consequences on your family.  But, what has your therapist recommended to you as far as new thoughts around this event? Have you been able to grieve the loss of your family and form a new picture of what that might be for you now and in the future?” She then hisses, “Don’t you dare talk to me about CBT.  I’m very aware of it.”  Your response is then, “Okay.  I’m glad that you are, but, as your friend who has been with you through this, why do you not use what you know? If you know and are aware of all the tools given to you through CBT, then why do you continually not contain yourself or even practice emotional regulation? Why do you not use the tools you have acquired? There does come a time when you must choose to progress and use what you have.  It’s not like I don’t know this myself.  I make these choices, too.  Daily.”  She throws her napkin on the table, “Fucking know-it-all! You think you’re so superior! How dare you analyze me! I’m being open here and you tell me that? I’m leaving.”

This is not an uncommon response when attempting to ask a Professional Victim why they choose to remain a victim particularly if they have the tools to empower themselves.  They don’t really want empowerment.  They want to be enabled.  They want to stay right where they are, be patted on the head, and told that everything that they are doing is just fine.  One of the funnier Professional Victims in film is actually depicted by Will Ferrell in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”.  Ron Burgundy is an entitled narcissist who believes that he should be allowed to do whatever he pleases sans consequences.  Vince Vaughn’s Wes Mantooth questions Ron Burgundy before an epic fight between San Diego’s rival news teams.  He asks him if he needs his mommy to rub Vaseline all over his heinie and tell him that its special and different from all the others.  There is a kernel of truth in the absurd which is the point of satire.  Burgundy loses his job in the film and is completely unable to take responsibility for his actions.  The film is hilarious if you like over-the-top, dirty humor not to mention a brilliant a cappella performance of “Afternoon Delight”, and it portrays Cluster B personality disorders albeit exaggerated and parodied pretty well.  There isn’t a man or woman in this film who one would want to actually know personally.  That’s why it’s entertaining.

The problem with the parodies and caricatures is that many of these personality problems are indeed real.  If you walk away from a person feeling like you’re dealing with a child, then you probably are.  Developmentally speaking, there are people who are arrested in their emotional development.  Is it our job to parent them? There is a word for this–parentification.  It’s one thing to parent your own screaming toddler.  It’s quite another to be dealing with an adult hellbent on throwing a tantrum.  It’s a question worth asking, and it’s a question I can’t answer…yet.  What are the boundaries within relationships when someone you love refuses to use the tools they have acquired to progress and mature? Where do we draw the hard lines, and what does it look like to enforce those boundaries? Does it ever become necessary to leave the relationship?

This article, however, might help you find the right answer for YOUR situation.  What I have learned is this.  I can’t rescue someone who wants to be a victim.  If someone has the tools but refuses to use them, then that’s my cue to move on.  If someone refuses to even seek help and prefers their own misery and learned helplessness, then I have to consider what my role in that relationship is.  As soon as someone begins blaming me for their unhappiness, starts enjoying their own misery, or, worse, begins using their painful circumstances to garner sympathy, I am not sticking around to enable that dysfunction.  There are better relationships to be had, better ways to think, and healthier ways to get needs met.  Something that Professional Victims don’t often want.

Strategies to Deal with A Victim Mentality by Dr. Judith Orloff

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4 thoughts on “The Professional Victim

  1. MJ, more breathes of fresh air! Sadly, there is someone very close to me who has begun doing this (no, not my mom this time). It’s an impervious shell, this victim mentality. Every time I express a disappointment or even lightly challenge her thinking there’s either shutdown mode or “you caused this” mode. Mix this mentality in with a codependent (me) and some theological teaching that says the guy should always own up for everything, even when it’s not his fault (yes, my pastor said this) and you get some textbook enabling.

    And this breaks my heart. Since I’ve had to detach from this person, I now have sympathy that she’s so fearful of being in the wrong or taking responsibility for herself. Through no power or virtue of my own, God’s brought me to rock-bottom and I’ve been allowed to taste the bittersweet (mostly sweet) experience of penitence. It’s cathartic and freeing to see and recognize “I did this, I am THIS way” and let the rest of the chips fall where they may.

    Well, you’re really plumbing the depths on these personality disorders. I hope you can keep your head above water. It reminds me of the story I heard about CS Lewis writing the Screwtape Letters. He tried to live inside the mind of a demon for so long that it started to affect him and he was glad to be done with it when he was.

    • I was stopped in my tracks when I read that your pastor told you that men must own everything that goes wrong in relationships. That is in no way true! What is he basing his relational advice on? I would so love to challenge this man’s thinking because he is burdening his congregants. It’s wrong.

      As difficult as this relationship sounds, what you describe sounds almost healthy as far as what you’ve discovered about the dynamics. I actually like figuring things out–learning my role in codependent relationships. Discovering the truth. It is so freeing. It’s painful, but then I finally know the boundaries. It’s a relief.

      I am, I suppose, plumbing the depths, as you say, but it’s where I am. I have been free of dealing with my mother for a few years, and she is hurtling down upon me with a ferocity that I never expected. I didn’t expect to go back to therapy either. I thought that perhaps I was in the clear, but I have found that there are tendencies in my personality to enable…STILL! And, there are body memories, and I want to be sure that I am healthy in my thinking. My mother’s therapist’s phone call was actually so inappropriate, and, while I knew that on some level, I only really understood it later. It’s those sorts of things that I want to understand as they are happening rather than only understanding later–after they have happened.

      What’s more, I am seeing disordered thinking in a lot of people that I meet. While there are people with personality disorders, there are also people with disordered personalities. It’s kind of like the difference between an eating disorder and disordered eating. What seems to be common among both groups of people is a desire to stay put. When confronted with an idea that there might be something better–better ways to think, tools, options, and resources–one is met with something venomous in return. They say that they want to be happy, but they are wont to do nothing meaningful and remain in a state of blame. It’s not something I really understand. CS Lewis once said that we were half-hearted creatures satisfied with so little much like playing in a mud puddle when God was offering us a holiday at the sea. I want the holiday at the sea. And, for me, if I’m satisfied with mud in any way in any area of my life, then I want to know so that I can l learn a better way. To me, that’s the point of life. And, unfortunately, I understand these personality disorders a little too well having grown up with a few of them. I’d actually like to be free of them.

  2. Sooooo good! Thank you for sharing this! I sadly can identify with this in a few (too many) people in my life. I like this “If you walk away from a person feeling like you’re dealing with a child, then you probably are”. Ah, there’s a reason why that interaction reminded me of dealing with my toddler!!!! Sheesh…Thank you for writing this!

    • My pleasure. Thanks for reading! I really found the article helpful, and, of course, I’ve been able to relate it to interactions in my own life. So, I have to blog about it….

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