Playing the Victim: Avoiding Responsibility While Getting Sympathy

Most of the time, when the manipulator casts themselves as a victim, they don’t really see themselves as victimized, they just really want the other party to see them as wounded, injured, or suffering in some way in order to elicit sympathy, cloud the picture about just who is the victimizer and who is the victim, and otherwise impression-manage the real victim.

This is the eighth article in a series on behaviors which disturbed characters frequently engage in that not only keep them from becoming responsible but also serve as effective ways to manipulate others.

One of the things the disturbed character knows very well about relatively well-adjusted or “neurotic” individuals is that they hate to see someone else suffer. Not only that, they hate it more to think of themselves as the cause of someone else’s suffering. That’s why playing the victim role is such an effective tactic. Especially when they’re confronted about their own malicious behavior, disordered characters will try and turn the tables by trying to get you to see them as the injured party. The eminent researcher Stanton Samenow calls this “taking the victim stance.”

A most egregious example of this tactic is deeply embedded in my memory. I was once interviewing a man who had actively participated with two others in the vicious bludgeoning of his victim. When questioned about the motivation for his act, he complained that he had no idea how the vivid memories of the event had haunted him and that he would probably have to live with them for the rest of his life. All of a sudden, I found myself tempted to feel somewhat sorry for him. Here he was, a vicious killer with a long history of cruelty to others, and he was beginning to appear as a victim of post-traumatic stress. In earlier years, it might never have crossed my mind that this re-casting of his self-image was a deliberate attempt at impression-management — a slick game of responsibility-avoidance and manipulation. This man’s history, however, was a living testament to the fact that he lacked the normal sensitivities and emotional response capabilities that keep most of us civilized.

We would all be much safer if some individuals could actually be as emotionally affected by their actions as this man was claiming to be. But this man was the kind of individual I described in earlier posts (see “Understanding the Predatory Aggressive Personality” and “Understanding the Predatory Aggressive, Part 2”) and as such was a heartless victimizer pure and simple, not a victim in any sense (not even of a traumatized past). Yet, he was so effective in playing the victim role he actually was able to secure a commutation of his sentence, and a much earlier than anticipated release from prison. Within weeks, he had committed another heinous, brutal act but fortunately was caught, re-convicted and re-incarcerated.

I give the egregious example above mostly to point out just how effective the tactic of playing the victim can be, especially if done with artfulness, and especially when the audience being played to is the typical “I just can’t stand to think of anyone suffering” type of neurotic. These kinds of situations play out every day in abusive and/or dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. Most of the time, when the manipulator casts themselves as a victim, they don’t really see themselves as victimized, they just really want the other party to see them as wounded, injured, or suffering in some way in order to elicit sympathy, cloud the picture about just who is the victimizer and who is the victim, and otherwise impression-manage the real victim. They often use this tactic in combination with the tactic of “vilifying the victim,” which is the subject of an upcoming post.

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched

One-time victims of abusive relationships who have become determined not to be victimized again have learned to empower themselves by seeing through the various manipulation tactics, especially the playing for sympathy card. Before they can stop being victims, they also need to know with greater certainty how to distinguish a victim from a victimizer. Once they learn how to distinguish an offense (in all its various covert forms) from a defense, become acutely aware of the extraordinary differences between persons with character disorders and relatively neurotic individuals, and abandon old, worn-out and inaccurate explanations about why people do the things they do, their lives are changed forever.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

33 Comments (7 Discussion Threads) on “Playing the Victim”

Would you like to join the discussion on “Playing the Victim”?

Overseen by an international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe, CounsellingResource.com provides peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. CounsellingResource.com is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2002-2019. All Rights Reserved.