Why The Victim Role Appeals To So Many

Paiting depicts Joan of Arc chained to pillar

Most people think of the victim mentality as something of a modern development. Perhaps some of its more bizarre manifestations have come to the surface in recent years.

Today we do hear more about silly lawsuits and the plight of various victim groups—the “attention-deficit” disordered, the “weight-challenged,” and so forth.

But the victim mentality is actually rooted in traditional ethical values. It’s the traditional ethical notion of martyrdom and self-sacrifice as the ideal which makes the victim psychology both inevitable and necessary.

Think about it.

We have all been led to believe, by old-fashioned moralists as much as anyone else, that self-sacrifice is the ultimate form of goodness. Images of saints dying on crosses or being burned at the stake—often not so much for their own values and principles, as for the sins of others—are pounded into our minds as the essence of heroism.

Consequently, many of us internalize the whole martyrdom “ideal.” Here’s how it works: “I should be a good person. In order to be a good person, I must suffer. I must experience my own equivalent of burning at the stake or dying on the cross. Otherwise, how can I claim to be good?”

However silly such statements may sound, they are entirely consistent with the form of goodness which our religious leaders, professors, celebrities, and politicians continuously try to ram down our psychological throats.

Presidents, for example, don’t usually call on us to merely pursue happiness, while leaving others alone to do the same. Instead, they call upon us to sacrifice for others; to give up our happiness for the plight of the “less fortunate.” Popes, most Hollywood celebrities, and Ivy League elites do the same thing. The methods may vary, but the fundamental motivators are always the same: feel guilty for happiness; consider self-sacrifice to be virtue.

What kind of people are usually held up as role models and champions of virtue? The scientists, who find cures for diseases? The productive business people? Sometimes; but increasingly, it’s the people who renounce earthly happiness and dedicate themselves to suffering who are held up as the exemplars of supreme virtue.

It’s true that many, especially in the United States, still look up to successful entrepreneurs, sports stars, and others who excel or innovate. But even in America, in the end, it’s the “selfless humanitarian,” or some hypocritical, anti-technology environmentalist, who commands the highest moral authority.

Operating on the ridiculous idea that martyrdom, self-sacrifice, and suffering are somehow heroic, many people proceed to the next logical step. They take their victim show on the road. They go public. So many of these people seem to crave letting others know of their suffering. It’s almost as if doing so scores them moral
checkmarks on some kind of “Celestial Clipboard.”

This factor, no doubt, appeals to those who appear in front of the camera every chance they get. After all, if the essence of morality is sacrifice and suffering, why not take it all the way? Why not show it off and be proud of it?

Not everyone has the opportunity to appear on television, of course; and not everyone wants to go so far as to take part in a three-ring psychological circus. But most victim-types do want to make sure that at least a few people bear witness to their suffering.

Why? Because self-sacrifice, in their eyes, represents goodness. Some even see it as a nonstop flight to Heaven, fueled by the celestial checkmarks. Others are more concerned with being applauded as virtuous here on earth.

They feel that if enough people see their suffering, this somehow makes their plight more objectively real. Of course, an ever-dwindling minority of martyrs prefer to endure their pain in silence. They would be horrified at the prospect of displaying their pain and suffering before a national audience—or even in their local community or family.

Despite this perhaps admirable difference in approach from the public victim, the motivation of the private victim remains the same. Like the public victim, he operates on the same underlying premise: “I must suffer. If I don’t suffer, then how can I be a good person?”

Contradictory Beliefs

“But I don’t agree with the martyrdom idea,” you might protest. “I agree it’s silly and irrational. Yet I still sometimes enjoy being a victim, if I’m honest with myself. How can this be?” It means you’re conflicted. A contradiction exists. Your psyche may be built on a flawed foundation, which sooner or later will cause the whole edifice to falter and collapse.

Intellectually, you correctly reject the martyr mentality as illogical and irrational. Yet emotionally, you still subscribe to it. Your emotions don’t lie; they are, after all, a reflection of how you really think and what you most deeply value.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. The idea that self-sacrifice is good represents a deeply internalized viewpoint. How willing are most of us to challenge the notion that dying on a cross represents the essence of goodness? To challenge the idea that he who rescues his mortal enemy from a fire is morally superior to the one who rescues his best friend?

If followed with any degree of consistency, the notion of self-sacrifice is brazenly irrational and destructive to life right here on earth. Yet most people seem to cling to the traditional ethos with remarkable tenacity.

To challenge these sacred ideas is a frightening and radical concept for many individuals. Most would just rather not “go there.” Today, growing numbers of people—sensing the inherent contradiction between self-sacrifice and the pursuit of happiness in a secular, technologically and economically rich world—simply become agnostic and amoral, refusing to think about ethics at all.

But the psychological consequences of ethical contradictions do exist, whether you choose to name them or not. You can ignore the cause of your mental distress, if you insist—but you will never escape the effects. Even if you are daring enough to challenge traditional ideas intellectually, it can take time for emotions (which, by their nature, are slow and stubborn) to play “catch up” with what your intellect has already determined.

Of course, it’s not enough to just “get rid of” irrational or dysfunctional emotions and behaviors. You have to identify what’s going to replace them.

It’s not enough to say: “I don’t want to feel depressed and martyr-like any more.” You also have to determine what you’re going to feel instead; and what you’re going to do differently in the future.

This takes work, and time. Most of all, it takes thought. And courage.

So What Should I Do—And Think, And Feel—Instead?

If self-sacrifice is not the ideal, then what is? What should be the core of your new morality?

Here are a handful of suggestions to get you started. Set goals, both big and small, and make achieving them the overall purpose of your life. Don’t make excuses.

Don’t say, “I have attention deficit disorder, I can’t set goals.” Or: “My parents crushed my ability to set goals; I’m incapable of it.”

Plenty of mental health “professionals” will happily, gleefully tell you these very things. But all they’re really doing is helping you remain a psychological child. For their own twisted reasons, or perhaps simply to make a buck, they want you to remain a child.

If you find it hard to set goals, then start small—and dream big—every single day of your life. Big will eventually arrive; not magically, but as the result of your own efforts over time.

If you are a parent, raise your children by a rational code of self-interest and self-responsibility, rather than the traditional notions of “go with your feelings” and “be your brother ’s keeper.” Treat the task of child-rearing as a challenge to excellence, rather than a duty to be resented and minimized.

If you are not a parent, then don’t become one until and unless you are economically and psychologically prepared to treat parenting in this manner.

Parenting is not a duty, no matter what you were told. The world would be much better off if people accepted this fact.

Demand the absolute right to live a life of rational self-interest, and respect the absolute equal right of others to do the same.

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