What is the victim mentality? How can you tell when someone’s actions stem from a place of victimhood?
The victim mentality is the collection of beliefs, attitudes, and thinking patterns that emphasize your powerlessness in the face of circumstances and other people’s actions. In their book The Oz Principle, authors Craig Hickman, Roger Connors, and Tom Smith distinguish between two types of victim behavior: passivity and selfishness.
In this article, we’ll discuss what being a “victim” means in the context of “the Oz Principle,” and what the consequences of victimhood are.
The Victim Mentality
The victim mentality encompasses behaviors and thought patterns that keep you trapped, disempowered, and unable to realize your potential. They prevent you from taking advantage of opportunities to learn and grow.
That said, you really can be a victim of circumstance or other people’s mistreatment at times. No matter what happens, there are almost always ways you can act to make your situation better. (Shortform note: There’s a difference between playing the victim and being a target at work. Some employees are targets of bullying by a coworker or a group (called mobbing), but targeted individuals often have a choice in how they respond.)
The authors divide typical victim behaviors into two categories: passivity and selfishness. (Shortform note: The essence of both is that they’re reactive, in contrast to accountability, which is proactive.)
This category includes:
- Ignoring or denying problems
- Acknowledging a problem but waiting for it to go away on its own, or for an obvious solution to appear
- Using confusion as an excuse to not solve a problem
- Refusing to respond to a problem unless it’s on someone’s direct orders
We see these behaviors everywhere—in individuals, within companies, and even on a larger, national scale. Consider the issue of climate change: Many people ignore it, deny its existence, pretend it doesn’t and won’t affect them, or claim it will fix itself over time. But none of those approaches will resolve the problem.
(Shortform note: Passive behavior, which causes you to feel stuck at work so you complain rather than acting, may stem from a lack of energy and motivation, a lack of goals, or analysis paralysis. Alternatively, you may be passive simply because you haven’t learned assertiveness, not because you want to duck accountability. Either way, it doesn’t help you or your company succeed.)
The second category of victim behavior includes:
- Shifting responsibility or blame onto other people
- Preparing excuses in advance in case something goes wrong
- Creating a narrative that justifies your actions and absolves you of any wrongdoing
- Choosing not to get involved in order to avoid risk
By blaming others rather than considering how your actions (or inaction) played a part in the failure, you’re unlikely to learn, and you set yourself up to miss future problems as well. People who avoid accountability end up feeling powerless and losing motivation, which makes it even harder to move from failure to success.
(Shortform note: Similarly, a Harvard Business Review article also notes that shifting blame erodes your credibility and performance. To keep blame from spreading, the authors recommend that you: Resist blaming others, only blame constructively with the goal of learning, own failures, always focus on learning, and reward people for making mistakes that teach valuable lessons. Rather than blaming, sales trainer Grant Cardone recommends assuming “radical control” of your circumstances even when you’re not at fault, because when you assume a victim role, you give up your power to effect change.)
Victim Mentality vs. Victimization
The Oz Principle’s “victimhood” aligns with what other people refer to as a victim mentality: when you view yourself as a permanent victim, blaming every negative thing in your life on the actions of others. Usually, a victim mentality describes someone who consistently, repeatedly refuses to take responsibility for their actions, or exaggerates their suffering to gain sympathy. A key distinction is that a victim mentality refers only to people falsely claiming to be victims, not someone who has experienced a crime or disaster; you can suffer real hardships, literally becoming a victim, and not wind up exhibiting a victim mentality.
Scientific American’s “Unraveling the Mindset of Victimhood” gives an overview of psychological and clinical research on the victim mentality (or “interpersonal victimhood”), discussing its signs and consequences. For example, the article cites clinical research that observed four key components of interpersonal victimhood: wanting to be viewed as a victim, moral superiority, a lack of empathy for others, and dwelling on the past.
Another word for having a victim mentality is victimism—not to be confused with victimization, which refers to the process of becoming a victim.
Unlike typical characterizations of the victim mentality, The Oz Principle’s take on victims/victimhood is a narrow one, because this book is serving a specific purpose: to help individuals and organizations overcome work-related problems. Consequently, the book doesn’t always convey the complexities of distinguishing victimism from victimization. In real life, there are times when “passive” and “selfish” behaviors are the best course of action—or they’re your only option.
For example, in an organization where people are reprimanded for not following instructions or acting outside the boundaries of their specific role, you’re more likely to be “passive” rather than proactive for fear of losing your job. Likewise, keeping a written record of events and saving emails so you can defend yourself from potential blame—viewed by the authors as selfish or victim behavior—allows you to avoid being taken advantage of. The Oz Principle can come off as unempathetic to employees who may be dealing with truly toxic work environments.
Signs You’re Stuck in a Victim Mentality
You may be acting from a victim mentality without being aware of it. Here are the common passive and/or selfish behaviors indicating you’re stuck:
- Deflecting responsibility (making excuses, blaming others, or waiting for someone else to act.)
- Rejecting opportunities to improve (ignoring feedback and being defensive)
- Being pessimistic and negative (complaining without offering solutions)
- Being lazy (prioritizing easy or short-term solutions over long-term ones, or glossing over problems so you look like you’re in control)
(Shortform note: These behaviors are basically opposites of the authors’ four steps to accountability: face facts, admit your role, take responsibility for solving the problem, and take action.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Oz Principle summary :
- Why you have more power to create change than you may realize
- How to stop thinking like a victim
- The four steps to mastering accountability