Victim playing

Victim playing (also known as playing the victim, victim card, or self-victimization) is the fabrication of victimhood for a variety of reasons such as to justify abuse of others, to manipulate others, a coping strategy, or attention seeking.

For abuse

Victim playing by abusers is either:[1][2]

It is common for abusers to engage in victim playing. This serves two purposes:

  • Justification, to themselves, in transactional analysis known as existential validation, as a way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance that results from inconsistencies between the way they treat others and what they believe about themselves
  • Justification to others as a strategy of evading or deflecting harsh judgment or condemnation they may fear from others.

For manipulation

Manipulators often play the victim role ("woe is me") by portraying themselves as victims of circumstances or someone else's behavior in order to gain pity or sympathy or to evoke compassion and thereby get something from someone. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering, and the manipulator often finds it easy and rewarding to play on sympathy to get cooperation.[3]

While portraying oneself as a victim can be highly successful in obtaining goals over the short-term, this method tends to be less successful over time:

Victims’ talent for high drama draws people to them like moths to a flame. Their permanent dire state brings out the altruistic motives in others. It is hard to ignore constant cries for help. In most instances, however, the help given is of short duration. And like moths in a flame, helpers quickly get burned; nothing seems to work to alleviate the victims’ miserable situation; there is no movement for the better. Any efforts rescuers make are ignored, belittled, or met with hostility. No wonder that the rescuers become increasingly frustrated — and walk away.[4]

Other goals

Victim playing is also:

In corporate life

The language of "victim playing" has entered modern corporate life, as a potential weapon of all professionals.[6] To define victim-players as dishonest may be an empowering response;[7] as too may be awareness of how childhood boundary issues can underlie the tactic.[8]

In the hustle of office politics, the term may however be abused so as to penalize the legitimate victim of injustice, as well as the role-player.

Underlying psychology

Transactional analysis distinguishes real victims from those who adopt the role in bad faith, ignoring their own capacities to improve their situation.[9] Among the predictable interpersonal "games" psychiatrist Eric Berne identified as common among by victim-players are "Look How Hard I've Tried" and "Wooden Leg".[10]

R. D. Laing considered that "it will be difficult in practice to determine whether or to what extent a relationship is collusive" – when "the one person is predominantly the passive 'victim'",[11] and when they are merely playing the victim. The problem is intensified once a pattern of victimization has been internalised, perhaps in the form of a double bind.[12]

Object relations theory has explored the way possession by a false self can create a permanent sense of victimisation[13] – a sense of always being in the hands of an external fate.[14]

To break the hold of the negative complex, and to escape the passivity of victimhood, requires taking responsibility for one's own desires and long-term actions.[15]

See also


  1. Bailey-Rug C (2015) Life After Narcissistic Abuse
  2. Bailey-Rug C (2016) It's Not You, It's Them: When People Are More Than Selfish
  3. Simon, George K (1996). In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. ISBN 978-0-9651696-0-8.
  4. Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries (2014). Are you a victim of the victim syndrome? Organizational Dynamics 43, pp 130-137
  5. Evans, Katie & Sullivan, J. Michael Dual Diagnosis: Counseling the Mentally Ill Substance Abuser (1990)
  6. Susan A. DePhillips, Corporate Confidential (2005) p. 65
  7. Anthony C. Mersino, Emotional Literacy for Project Managers (2007) p. 60 and p. 43
  8. Mersino, p. 104
  9. Petruska Clarkson, Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (London 1997) p. 217
  10. Eric Berne, Games People Play (Penguin 1964) p. 92 and p. 141-2
  11. R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 108
  12. Laing, p. 145
  13. Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. 116
  14. Michael Parsons, The Dove that Returns, the Dove that Vanishes (London 2000) p. 34
  15. Pauline Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 201 and p. 30
  • Anthony C. Mersino, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers; The People Skills You Need to Succeed (2012) p. 60 and p. 43
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