We all know a person with a victim mentality. It is that person who suffers more than anyone and continually regrets his sacrifices, but denies any help that allows him to lighten his burden and even seems to seek new burdensome obligations that allow him to preserve his role as martyr.
It can be a partner, a parent, a co-worker, a friend, or a family member. Whoever it is, the person with the victim mentality will make sure you know how much he is sacrificing for you and everyone around him. He will make sure that everyone feels sorry for him and feels indebted. Obviously, maintaining a relationship with someone who suffers from the martyr complex is not easy.
The dynamics behind the victim mentality
In relationships with people with a victim mentality, is usually established an unhealthy dynamic that reaffirms the role of the martyr. Normally, the person who wants to play the role of victim is appropriating different tasks that relegate you to the plane of a spectator. He assumes more and more obligations and boasts of knowing what you need while pushing you to assume a passive role in your own life.
At the beginning, this person is usually very attentive and full of good intentions, so it is difficult not to fall into their networks, especially when you are exhausted or have gone through a particularly difficult period. In those cases, it is normal that you need support, so that you will end up surrendering and giving up space.
However, when you try to take control of your life or want to lighten the load, the person with a victim mentality will push you aside because they do not really want your help. By subtracting obligations, you subtract power from his role as a martyr. You attack the identity that has been built around that role. That is why these people cling to all the things they regret.
In fact, very soon your sacrifices will begin to weigh on the relationship. The person with a victim mentality will begin to suffer out loud, lamenting all of his obligations and bringing out his complete and total self-denial. In practice, he holds you in a psychological double bind: he mourns his sacrifices and blames you for them, but he does not allow you to help or reward him.
By clinging to his narrative of suffering, the martyr refuses to let in love or outside help, so it is very difficult to get out of the script that he has created. That person has locked himself in his role as a sacrificed victim and condemns you to play the role of the perpetrator.
Do not ignore the warning signal of your intuition
Intuition usually gives the first alarm signal when a victim-type relationship is established. The “unselfish” help that person offers you may not make you feel good. Such seemingly disinterested help doesn’t make you feel at ease, protected, and cared for, but rather has the smell of resentment.
Therefore, help does not provoke feelings of gratitude and warmth, but rather creates an unpleasant sense of guilt. In fact, the help that comes from a martyr is often experienced as an unwanted burden, punishment, or gift.
At this point, you probably spend a great deal of energy wondering why such generosity generates such unpleasant feelings and why you are not feeling more grateful. Often the answer is to blame yourself for those emotions.
In reality, what happens is that this person does not want to help, but since he believes that he is condemned to a life of sacrifice and suffering, he sees no alternative and offers his help reluctantly. What your intuition perceives is that this help does not come from love, selflessness, kindness or authenticity, but that you are receiving something forced that forces you to contract a relational debt for life.
Intuition warns you that very soon you will find yourself trapped in the martyr’s narrative, assuming a very unfair role with which you probably do not feel comfortable because it is not that you do not want to help, but that they do not let you help. For that reason, the relationship with a martyr can be very frustrating, confusing, and even disappointing.
How to get out of the victimist script?
Sooner rather than later, the person with a victim mentality will demand attention to his sacrifices. That person will construct a narrative in which he plays the role of the martyr, giving everything for the others, but no one understands or appreciates him. And, of course, no one can help him.
The problem is that most of these people have not learned to relate in another way. They believe that they can only get attention by sacrificing themselves for the others. Martyrdom is their workhorse and the way to feel valuable in the eyes of the others. They have spent years building their identity around that role, so many times they prefer to suffer than abandon their role as martyr.
That means it can be very difficult to move them from that preset script. Therefore, in a relationship with a martyr, there is generally no other option than put the cards on the table, discovering the dynamics of victimization that has been established. It can be helpful to follow a basic script:
1. Recognition. Acknowledging the person’s effort will help them lower their defenses and be more receptive to your message. You can say: “I acknowledge everything you have done for me and I thank you deeply.”
2. Problem/Solution. It is important that you make the problem clear, how that situation makes you feel, but without blaming them. You can also propose a possible solution that you are willing to compromise with to make the relationship work better. “When I offer you my help, I feel like you are rejecting it. That confuses me and makes me feel bad because I don’t want you to carry that weight alone. I don’t think it’s fair either, neither for you nor for me. That is why I propose that from now on you only take care of X while I will take care of Y”.
3. Validation. The person with a victim complex needs to understand that his worth or love is not conditioned on his indiscriminate surrender. For this reason, it is important to provide emotional validation: “I want you to know that it is not necessary for you to continue doing that for me, I will continue to appreciate and love you in the same way.”
In any case, don’t expect to see miraculous change overnight. In the end, sharing responsibilities and obligations implies a great change in the way of seeing and facing life for the person with a victim mentality. Keep in mind that this person’s favorite phrase could be: “I suffer, therefore I exist.”
In practice, you are asking him to change the core of his identity and his “mission” in life. Let him stay away from what he thinks makes him valuable. Therefore, letting go of the martyr narrative will require patience, until that person understands that he does not have to continually suffer and sacrifice for the others.
Kets de Vries, M. (2012) Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome? INSEAD Working Papers; 70.