Experiencing something traumatic but not being able to process or move on from it can lead to a negative outlook, whereby the person feels like they have no control over their lives and the things that happen to them.

Psychologists refer to this as a victim complex or victim mentality. It can be classified as a personality trait and persists even when it is proven that the person is not being victimized in any way.

It’s not uncommon for people to experience some self-pity at some point in their lives. This could happen if you are going through the loss of a loved one and are grieving. But generally, these feelings will only last for a short period. Somebody with a victim complex is likely to have much more prolonged feelings of hopelessness, guilt, shame, despair, and depression. This affects everyday life and can be extremely difficult to cope with.

It’s relatively common for those who have experienced physical or mental abuse to develop a victim mentality. It could result from a manipulative relationship or some form of trauma.

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Victim complex vs. martyr complex

The terms victim complex and martyr complex can sometimes be confused due to their similarities, but they are very distinct problems. A martyr complex is a personality trait of somebody who wants to feel like a victim. Somebody with a martyr complex will intentionally look to become a victim due to a psychological desire or need. Those diagnosed with this condition are likely to put themselves in relationships or in situations that lead to their suffering on purpose.

A martyr is originally a term for somebody who is punished or even killed for something they believe in and for the refusal to give up on that belief, whether it is religious, a god, or something other than this. Somebody with a martyr complex will look to suffer this way, sometimes under the ruse of doing it for love or duty. In some cases, this disorder can also be linked to the personality disorder of masochism, where a person enjoys and seeks out suffering.

Traits found in those with a victim complex

Those living with a victim complex are likely to focus heavily on any problematic situation, trauma, or crisis they have experienced. They also tend to place special significance on those which occurred when they were young. When developed as a defense mechanism or survival technique, those with victim complexes start to believe that people have it out for them or that their suffering is simply due to fate.

This mentality helps them to deal with all kinds of problems, from serious to more trivial everyday issues. Some of the symptoms you are likely to notice in somebody with a victim complex include:

  • Refusal to take any responsibility for sorting out their problems
  • Refusal to take any blame for their problems
  • Often finds reasons why possible solutions won’t work or aren’t worth trying
  • Holds onto grudges and cannot seem to forgive others or move on
  • Has difficulty expressing their needs and is not very assertive
  • Thinks that everybody is out to get them and has trouble trusting people
  • Are generally very negative and tend to find negatives even in good things
  • Tends to be very critical of others and doesn’t have very strong or long-lasting friendships

Generally, those with a victim complex tend to think that it’s better to flee than fight, which is used as a way to cope with difficult situations or avoid life’s troubles. These conditions can minimize your enjoyment in life and make it difficult to reach your full potential. Sufferers place this limitation on themselves by not being able to accept their circumstances, so they find it hard ever to change them.

How a victim complex affects relationships

In a relationship, somebody with a victim complex can cause a lot of emotional turmoil. The person who has the complex is likely to continually ask for help but then go on to reject any suggestions or support that is offered. They may even blame the partner for not being able to offer enough help or tell them that they are making things worse.

This can result in a cycle of behavior in which the person with the complex begins to get better at manipulation and drives their partner into making more and more attempts to care for the person with the complex. For this reason, bullies tend to seek out those with a victim complex and use this to their advantage.

How does a victim complex fare when met with a savior complex?

Aside from often drawing in those with bully-like behavior, people with a victim complex are also likely to find themselves in touch with those with a savior complex. This occurs when a person feels an overwhelming need to save others and is referred to as a Messiah complex. People with a savior complex believe they are doing the right thing by trying to help or even save people and don’t expect anything back. As a result, they believe they are better than others.

Those with a victim complex are convinced they can’t be saved, while those with a savior complex believe they can save anyone. When these two meet, it only drives the victim deeper into their complex, causing them to refuse help. In this way, the behavior of somebody with a savior complex can end up doing more harm than good, regardless of their intentions. The person with the victim complex will continue to see any good things as temporary, while negative things are permanent and will continue to cause problems.

Where to get help

If you or a loved one has a victim complex, you should first be aware that this is a real disorder and should be treated with care. You will need to seek medical advice from a professional who can help diagnose the problem and offer the following steps and treatment where appropriate. If you’re unsure where to look, you can usually find a list of medical professionals near you, including psychiatrists and psychologists, from your state or local health agency. Otherwise, you can ask your physician for a referral to a mental health professional who can help you further.