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Victimhood Is Tearing Us Apart

Here’s what the evidence says about the impact of feeling like a victim.

Key points

  • We tend to blame people for experiencing harm(s) because we want to imagine a fair world.
  • Feeling like a victim is associated with negative feelings, feeling more self-absorbed, and being less ready to assume responsibility
  • “Victim” is a powerful identity because it makes us feel moral as if we’re acting out of necessity, not a choice.

Since late January, a “Freedom Convoy” has been occupying parts of Ottawa, the capital of Canada. There is no clear leadership, and many different people and groups are involved with different agendas—from more moderate positions to neo-Nazi ideologies. There seems to be at least one common thread: feeling victimized by COVID-19 public health mandates. What can we learn from this bitter conflict? One key lesson is to study the role of victimhood.

When someone harms you, or you believe that they have, how do you react? Victimhood is a thorny subject, but it’s central to every serious conflict in our lives and every major conflict in the world, so it’s important to understand.

The Benefits of Feeling Like a Victim

When you feel like a victim, it is often based wholly or somewhat on real issues. Yet there’s a devastating tendency for people to blame you for the harm you experienced. One theory, backed up by experimental evidence, is that most of us like to believe that the world is fair. As such, when we hear that something bad happened to someone, a common response is to imagine that they must have deserved it.

In responding to claims of victimhood, it’s vitally important to listen openly and not blame people for experiencing harms. And when you feel like a victim it’s important not to deny that feeling or pretend that the harms haven’t happened.

Speaking up when there’s a problem is essential to addressing that problem. But what matters more, is speaking up in effective ways. There’s at least one other benefit of feeling like a victim: evidence shows that it makes you feel more moral.

The Downsides

What complicates things is that victimhood is just one possible framing. In addition to some benefits, it has serious drawbacks. Research demonstrates that feeling as if you have control in your life (even when you don’t) is important to your wellbeing. Seeing yourself as a victim, especially a helpless one, can reduce your wellbeing, and may be within your power to change.

Another problem can be rumination. “Studies have found that people who are victims of assaults and accidents tend to ruminate on questions like ‘Why me?’ or ‘What did I do wrong?’.... [often] people are left with envy, self-blame, and useless, invasive thoughts.”

Unfortunately, believing in conspiracy theories—as many of the “Freedom Convoy” protesters do—is one powerful way to both feel like a victim of injustice and regain some sense of safety and of mattering in the world by having a “true” understanding of what’s going on and fighting back against it (no matter how wrong one actually is).

Doctor of psychology Rahav Gabray explains that evidence shows feeling like a victim is associated with dwelling on negative feelings for longer; feeling more self-absorbed and less open to other people’s experiences; being less ready to assume responsibility for harms you cause; and being quicker to seek revenge. Those are serious downsides.

“Victim” is a compelling identity because it makes us feel moral and as if we’re acting out of necessity, not a choice. Author Jim Ferrell says, “We complain about the suffering that we have, and yet what we’re blind to is that we value the innocence we find in that suffering.”

Large-Scale Victimhood

Victimhood narratives aren’t just for the “Freedom Convoy.” They’re found in every major conflict. Feeling like a victim even helps people to commit atrocities. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister reports in his book Evil that torturers and murderers regularly justify their actions by framing themselves as victims. Even entire countries tell stories about how they’re morally righteous victims. These stories can be passed on, upholding violence and bitterness for generations.

Shared-victimhood identity within groups is based on what psychiatrist and conflict mediator Vamik Volkan calls “chosen traumas.” Media, elites, and others in the population choose which traumas and grievances to raise and hold onto and which aspects of history to ignore or downplay. This is a shaping of collective memory. The result can be huge groups of people feeling like morally superior victims, whether or not this is justified.

As much as we might expect that expressing victimhood will help to resolve a conflict, that doesn’t usually happen. In part that’s because people will interpret a group’s claims in very different ways. A common response to hearing about another group’s victimhood at the hands of our group is for our group just to compete to be even bigger victims!

Much evidence shows that the more you align your identity with being part of a group (as “Freedom Convoy” members do in protesting together), the more willing you are to minimize concerns about its behaviors.

Ironically, then, it’s when you are the most certain that you’re a victim who’s fighting for justice that you may behave in the most harmful ways, ways that outside observers would consider particularly unjust.

For instance, members of the “Freedom Convoy” feel that honking truck horns incessantly is moral. But to outsiders, it seems particularly aggressive and antisocial, and an Ottawa judge ruled that it causes harm.

CC-BY-3.0 JIMMYSUPERSTARZ/Wikimedia Commons
“Freedom Convoy”, Wellington Street, Ottawa, Jan. 28, 2022.
Source: CC-BY-3.0 JIMMYSUPERSTARZ/Wikimedia Commons

Moral Decision-Making

Experiments suggest that simplistic judgments about perpetrators and victims occur very quickly. We seem to apply moral templates to understand even harmless transgressions from social norms (such as uncommon dietary choices) as creating a victim.

Ideas about victimhood appear to be significantly impacted by expectations that we use to decide morality (moral typecasting). For instance, studies have found that “participants assumed a female employee claiming harassment was more of a victim than a male employee making identical claims.” And a recent article in The Guardian noted that donors might choose not to fund programs aimed at women in prisons mainly because the women have more “complicated” life stories. They don’t fit “a neat profile of victimhood.”

In sum, research suggests that we decide who is a victim based on prior assumptions. We struggle to see someone as being both a perpetrator and a victim. And when we can’t see someone as a victim, we’re less inclined to care about their needs. The latter fact incentivizes fighting to be the biggest victim.

Many of us learn early on in life that we get more attention if we make a bigger fuss. Some adults, too, find this technique helpful. Attention-grabbing expressions of victimhood may be attempts to get taken seriously.

Luckily, there are more effective ways to get your needs met without getting sucked into an endless battle to make the other side see that you’re the real victim.

How To Communicate Across the Victimhood Divide

In the case of the “Freedom Convoy,” there are many different protesters with a range of beliefs and goals. There are key actors like social and traditional media outlets impacting what information people access, which makes a huge difference to how we think and act. In most large-scale conflicts, there are also groups working to fund and help organize their side.

The roles that different actors play in creating the “Freedom Convoy” would need to be carefully studied to find entry points for addressing the situation. Individuals may not be able to do much about how Facebook helps lies spread, but we often can engage in dialogue with people.

I spoke with someone who was strongly supportive of the “Freedom Convoy.” Firstly, I had to check how I was feeling to do so. People around me have died of COVID-19, and if I came in feeling outraged and seeing this woman as the problem, it was unlikely to go anywhere constructive. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to slow down, and then, when I was ready, I asked a few questions and listened.

She expressed a mixture of some views I found extreme and some that were entirely relatable. She showed a lot of care for the state of the world. I picked up on that and explained that I felt the same care, which is part of why I chose to get vaccinated against COVID-19. While she disagreed with me, we could see how the same values and needs contributed to exactly opposite choices. This is often the case, and it’s powerful to discover. In disagreements, we can usually find shared values and needs.

I asked questions for clarity. What does “freedom” mean to her, and what does it not mean? What limits on “freedom” are acceptable in a society that has to address different peoples’ needs during a pandemic?

These questions helped steer the discussion away from simplistic and absolute moral judgments. However, she returned to morality and spirituality when she seemed to run out of other reasons to support her choices.

I didn’t engage in a back-and-forth debate about the false information she believes because I knew that most (but not all) evidence doesn’t show debates working to reduce belief in conspiracy theories.

I avoided frustration by not getting sucked into the content of the angry beliefs she expressed. Instead, as psychologist Marshall Rosenberg recommends, I tried to hear her views as an attempt to express an unmet need. In this case, it seemed that her big need was for connection—she wanted to hug people without fear. Who doesn’t?

By not evaluating who deserves what treatment but rather staying curious and asking questions, we got to a place of real human connection even while we continued to strongly disagree. Part of this came from my not assuming that she fit with the particular “enemy image” I had of the convoy. (Any time you catch yourself thinking, “I can’t stand those people,” ask where you got that enemy image from. Chances are it wasn’t from directly chatting with “those people,” and the image is overly simplistic, if not entirely wrong.)

There was no neat resolution, but we both agreed that chatting had been worthwhile. It’s up to you whether you think this sort of thing is useful or not. It’s definitely not a solution. And again, nothing here is to say that you should deny harms that happen to you or not seek accountability for perpetrators. But do carefully examine the impacts of feeling like a victim. How is it helping your life, and how is it harming you? Most importantly, do you have the skills you need to effectively address harms when they happen (whether you perpetrate them, are the recipient of them, or some combination of both) and get your needs met?


Horwitz, R. Politics as victimhood, victimhood as politics. Journal of Policy History 30, 552-574 (2018).

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