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Victim playing (also known as playing the victim or self-victimization) is the fabrication of victimhood for a variety of reasons such as to justify abuse of others, to manipulate others, a coping strategy or attention seeking.
Victim playing by abusers is either:
- diverting attention away from acts of abuse by claiming that the abuse was justified based on another person's bad behavior (typically the victim)
- soliciting sympathy from others in order to gain their assistance in supporting or enabling the abuse of a victim (known as proxy abuse).
It is common for abusers to engage in victim playing. This serves two purposes:
- justification to themselves – as a way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance that results from inconsistencies between the way they treat others and what they believe about themselves.
- justification to others – as a way of escaping harsh judgment or condemnation they may fear from others.
Manipulators often play the victim role ("poor me") by portraying themselves as victims of circumstances or someone else's behavior in order to gain pity or sympathy or to evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering, and the manipulator often finds it easy and rewarding to play on sympathy to get cooperation.
Victim playing is also:
- an attention seeking technique (see for example Münchausen syndrome, Münchausen syndrome by proxy and Münchausen by Internet).
- a strategy used by alcoholics to elicit constructive criticism, rescue, or enabling behavior from others
In corporate life
The language of "victim playing" has entered modern corporate life, as a weapon of use even for the most competent of professionals. To define victim-players as dishonest may be an empowering response; as too may be awareness of how childhood boundary issues can underlay the tactic.
In the hustle of office politics, the term may however be abused so as to penalize the legitimate victim of injustice, as well as the role-player.
Transactional analysis distinguishes real victims from those who adopt the role in bad faith, ignoring their own capacities to improve their situation. Among the games Eric Berne identified as played by the latter are "Look How Hard I've Tried" and "Wooden Leg".
R. D. Laing considered that “it will be difficult in practice to determine whether or to what extent a relationship is collusive” - when “the one person is predominantly the passive 'victim'”, and when they are merely playing the victim. The problem is intensified once a pattern of victimization has been internalised, perhaps in the form of a double bind.
- Simon, George K (1996). In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People.
- Evans, Katie & Sullivan, J. Michael Dual Diagnosis: Counseling the Mentally Ill Substance Abuser (1990)
- Susan A. DePhillips, Corporate Confidential (2005) p. 65
- Anthony C. Mersino, Emotional Literacy for Project Managers (2007) p. 60 and p. 43
- Mersino, p. 104
- Petruska Clarkson, Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (London 1997) p. 217
- Eric Berne, Games People Play (Penguin 1964) p. 92 and p. 141-2
- R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Penguin 1969) p. 108
- Laing, p. 145
- Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 1993) p. 116
- Michael Parsons, The Dove that Returns, the Dove that Vanishes (London 2000) p. 34
- Pauline Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire (London 2000) p. 201 and p. 30
- Booknotes interview with Charles Sykes on A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character, November 29, 1992
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