Licensed mental health counselor Elizabeth Mateer, LMHCA, defines a victim complex as feeling like you are a constant victim in your relationships and life experiences.
“If you have a victim complex, you feel a lack of control in your life, may blame others when things go wrong, and overall tend to feel like things are happening ‘to’ you,” she explains. “While we all feel this way from time to time, if you have a victim complex, you feel victimized more severely, more often, and for a longer time than the average person.”
Having a victim complex is different from experiencing actual trauma or victimization, adds licensed psychologist Traci Williams, Ph.D. “Survivors of traumatic events do not necessarily have the victimhood trait. In fact, most survivors of trauma do not feel like the event defined them, and see themselves as separate from their painful experiences.”
It’s also much different than someone speaking up about legitimate societal injustices. Mateer points out that someone with a victim complex tends to generalize the world being against them as an individual, specifically, while people in an oppressed, marginalized group usually observe injustice being perpetrated against their entire group, not just them. More importantly, systematically oppressed people speak about their personal experiences to move the needle and affect change–unlike those with a victim complex, who are actually often resistant to change.
“Those with a victim complex are typically unable to take accountability for their own contribution in challenges or conflict. Someone with a victim complex is fully focused on themselves and their own problems,” Mateer says.
At the root, a victim complex is characterized by a feeling that life is happening to you, rather than a sense that your life is within your control.