Are You Playing the Victim to Manipulate Others?

Donald Miller

To some degree, every one of us has been a victim.

We were either neglected by our parents, picked on at school or ripped off in a business deal later in life. When we are healthy, we can learn from those experiences, forgive and move on. But when we’re not, we tend to re-victimize ourselves over and over.

What I mean when I say re-victimize ourselves is we play the “recording” of the event again and again in our minds because it actually gives us some morbid form of comfort.

When we are somebody’s victim, we actually have a little bit of power over them.

Control freaks love to play the victim, for example. If they are victims, they can control the person who hurt them because that person “owes them something now” and they can also control everybody around them by draining sympathy and attention from their community.

I doubt there’s anybody reading this blog who hasn’t done this. I certainly have. In fact, it’s difficult to even realize we are doing it. Playing the victim shows up as complaining or whining about some task we have to do, or having a really negative attitude toward life.

*Photo Credit: rennes.i, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: rennes.i, Creative Commons

Henry Cloud and John Townsend define a real victim as a person who is completely and utterly powerless. That’s a tough definition, because it means you and I aren’t often victims. We almost always have some power in a situation. If we are a victim to a person, we can move away from them, even though it will cause a great deal of tension. We can quit our jobs, we can create better boundaries, there’s more often than not something we can do. We just don’t want to. We want to remain victims, because truthfully we are getting something out of the role, even if we don’t admit it.

The truth is, though, when we play the victim, we are actually making partial victims of the people around us. (tweet this)

We are using them and manipulating them.

In order to play the victim we need an oppressor. And when we manipulate by playing the victim we turn people who are otherwise innocent (or perfectly human) into a bad person in our minds. Instead of forgiving somebody who has wronged us and moving on, we demonize them in our minds and play them up as a villain so we can be their wounded victim. It’s an unhealthy game.

What is amazing, then, is the person playing the victim is often the real villain. What I mean is, by demonizing others and portraying them as oppressors, they themselves become the oppressors.

But it’s a tough pattern to get out of. For me, it started by learning to turn the other cheek. Forgiving people for their minor transgressions and just “getting over it” is not something a victim does easily. They see “being wronged” as an ATM machine spitting out cash and it’s tough to walk away.

The truth is, though, most victims don’t want to be oppressors themselves and when they realize what they’re doing, they feel awful. They thought they were the weak ones but really they were strong all along.

Not playing the victim will take a lot of practice, but it’s worthy practice. I promise you, playing the victim is holding you back, hurting others and taking needed attention and resources away from real victims, those who are truly oppressed and can’t do anything about it.

* If you’d like to know more about planning and organizing your life, consider registering for a Storyline Conference. You can learn more by clicking here.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is a student of story. He helps people live a better story at Storyline through this blog and the Storyline Conference. He helps leaders grow their businesses at StoryBrand, where they get an entire marketing education in 2 days at his Workshop. Donald lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Betsy, and their chocolate lab, Lucy. For regular updates, follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller) and Instagram. To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.

  • James Williams

    This is excellent. I cannot add a word; but want to say thanks for this. Should be required reading.

  • Katie

    Reading your blog refreshes me and makes me think. Thanks for sharing this: it’s so easy to point fingers at others who are doing this, and so much harder to reflect and see the places in your own life where you were causing your own pain. Thanks so much for guiding that reflection.

  • Deb Colarossi

    Fabulous. And a little convicting of course. It does touch on how I often feel some people are ‘toxic’ and can’t quite put my finger on why. And grace . Always the need for grace because of course I no doubt do it myself.

  • Adrian @ Life Before the Bucket

    I have days where I play the victim of my diseases. Technically speaking, there is no cure for my lung disease, so I have no power in overcoming it. However, through modern medicine, I’m able to keep the disease at bay, which is some power (as opposed to none), so I’m never really justified in my victimization.

    Thanks for making me think today.

  • Jacob Titus

    Great thoughts.

    It incredible how much this shift of mind can change our lifestyle. You don’t realize in the moment, but it permeates every area of life, and is destructive.

    Thanks Don!

  • Steve

    I have been praying about this very thing and asking God for comfort. because I felt like a victim. Today God answered my prayer through your post. Thank you God and Thank you Don.

  • Susie A.

    Great post! As someone who is a survivor of abuse as a child, this really hit home. I have never wanted to play the victim card but also realize that subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) I have done that…the hard part for me is on how to get out of that victim mentality. The reality is that I don’t know who I am with out that mentality. It is something that has been in grained for way too long and the process to get out is in my mind too painful to go through. The good thing is that I have been making step (albeit baby steps at times) to move toward a healthier me.

    Thanks again for a great post and a great insight.
    Be Blessed!

    • Shelly W

      I love your courage. Hold fast to God’s hand, He’ll finish what He started in all of us, making us all new, conformed to His image. Never give up. Blessings, lady. Baby steps are still steps. You’ll be running a sprint before it’s over. :)

      • Lynn

        And also remember that children who ate subject to abuse & control ARE innocent victims. It is never ok & it is never your fault. God understands your heart & How you feel like a victim. The correct response to this article is as the last line says: don’t let it hold you back or mark future relationships. Forgive perpetrators, forgive yourself & ask God to set you free from repeated patterns of behaviour. You are loved & lovely :-)

  • Jen

    Since “recording” is in quotations and being its literally been three years and still, the record goes round and round, I find a lot of issues, misunderstandings, you name it, can be resolved simply by at least “attempting” to make amends, forgive, hear the other person out, let them hear you out; where you’re coming from, where they’re coming from, and then perhaps a story can move on… to whatever it’s supposed to be. Otherwise the story ends and never resolves.

  • Not A Victim

    Ouch. I needed to hear this.

    And as the band Needtobreathe says in the song “Hurricane”:

    Play the victim here
    You know it’s nothing but your pride and fear
    But the more you hurt
    The more you love the one you were

  • ChadJ

    The corollary, I suppose, is that too often victims become victimizers, i.e. “hurting people hurt people.” It’s altogether human to want revenge, and when we find we cannot hurt those who hurt us, we hurt others instead. We often feel powerless, but are not–because we have the power to choose. Forgiveness is more for me–for my soul–than it is for the one who hurt me. Do you suppose this is what that scripture in Romans 12 means? “Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold.” (MSG)

    Thank-you, Don, for an excellent post.

  • Charlotte

    This is so good. I’ve been in the process of deciding to walk away from an unhealthy relationship and to reset my own emotional boundaries. I knew a week ago that this was what I was supposed to do, and haven’t done it. I realize now that it is because I get some comfort out of being the victim. Thankful for the confirmation and encouragement to be healthy, so that I can “learn from these experiences, forgive and move on.”

  • Kayla Muth

    This really convicted my heart. There was a situation that I constantly replayed over in my head and tormented myself with for months. Thankfully my close friends brought this to my attention and I was able to let it go, but your post serves as a good reminder to not use our hurt to manipulate the masses. It plays to our sinful nature to try and be the center of attention, even if it’s for something negative.

  • Spiritual Klutz

    Victimhood is a cheapest shortcut to significance, one that we sometimes tend to celebrate in American culture.

  • Donna Lee

    Take back the power from the one who hurt you and turn the recording of negative thinking OFF. If you think you cannot do this, ask yourself why am I allowing this person to rob me of the JOY in my life? Life is short. Forgive. Then take back your joy and move on. Through grace, it can be done.

    • Susan P.

      you make it sound so darn simple & it’s not!

  • Amanda

    Thanks for the post, Don. This week, I encountered a difficult situation that may take a while to come to terms with. Thanks for the reminder to not allow myself to fall into the “victim” trap-it is so easy to fall into and is detrimental to true emotional and spiritual healing.

  • Amanda Morris

    This is exactly why I stayed married as long as I did. Living healthy and free is scary at first, but absolutely worth it. Be brave.

  • Heather Kopp at

    Hi Don,
    I haven’t replied before but I met you once in Denver on your bus with my friend Susan Isaacs. In recovery we often remind each other when we’re kids we’re victims, but once we’re adults we become volunteers. Thanks for your great blog. I’m a Christian drunk in recovery and I blog about that and I take courage from people like you who tell it like it is. Thanks, Heather

  • Christina

    Guilty. Growing through this is one of the greatest victories in life, in my humble opinion of course.

    PS this was a direct answer to a prayer of mine this morning. Grateful.

  • jeremy

    Great half a chapter. The other half should be

    • jeremy

      “are you the victimizer that needs to stop manipulating people?”. It’d be a nice 2nd side to the same coin.

  • Cory

    I agree and disagree. Playing as the “victim” is a “way” of gaining power but it still relies on other people to respond to you. Ultimately, victims are powerless because they rely on others to make a change rather than making a change themselves by being a powerful person with action. The same way anger is a tool to instill fear into others in order to gain control/power. It’s a defense mechanism in the same way of playing the “victim card”. Ultimately, they rely on these tools out of fear as they ultimately do not feel confident to do it themselves.

  • Shelly W

    Townsend & Cloud should be proud; you really nailed the idea. Another reader who hears the word & becomes a doer. The world is a safer and better place because of those guys; and I’m grateful to have escaped the victim mentality. It just drains the life out of everything and everyone.

  • Billy V.

    Definitely needed to hear this, very enlightening. As many of you, I play the victim as well as having made mistakes where the victim in that situation continues to use it for attention and brings me down. I wish he could read this. Everyone needs to. Thank you.

  • Ethan

    Ouch, this one hits close to home. Thanks – this was fantastic. So holistic, too. I’ll be chewing on this one for days.

  • Nancy C

    Were you in our livingroom last night???

  • Noch Noch | be me. be natural.

    guilty as charged. thanks for the reminder for a more positive outlook
    Noch Noch

  • Mike Moore

    Agreed. Many of us weren’t so much victims as we tried to go up against a social entity (a committee, a church oversight collective, parents, a corporation or the like) and we lost. Maybe they cheated, maybe the odds were unfairly stacked in their favour, maybe we never had a chance of winning and maybe we even had a legitimate point which was being ignored. But ultimately in a situation like that, we can look at it like we were an innocent, helpless victim, victimized by oppressors, or we can look at it like we lost that one. I struggled to try to make/charm/”honesty”/talk/demand/reason/scripture quote the isolationist little church group in which I was born.
    I was trying to get them to honour my having played by all the rules, having followed all the advice (attend church five times a week, read the bible and pray constantly, do not watch TV or movies, do not listen to secular music or drink alcohol or swear or smoke or hang out socially with people outside of the church group (which had its adulterers, extortioners, addicts and freaks, like any other group would) and so on). I wanted them to recognize that, rather than just playing lip service to the structure and cheating, that I had actually lived that life and was here demanding/pleading to have it recognized that this lifestyle did not end in health, sanity, happiness, closer relationship with God or any of the other advertised benefits. It was me against a couple hundred years of tradition, me against unthinking older people whose authority was not allowed to be questioned. There were others like me, I knew that, but we got slapped down and removed from the playing field (we got excommunicated and officially shunned). Game over. Resistance was futile. Good thing they were lying when they said it was really the only game in town that God was in any way emotionally invested in. There are many. Not many of them are very much fun, nor very fair, but you can (despite the objections of scores of people) make your own.
    I think understanding it is one thing, and milking it for special treatment is something else. I think many people are still kicking against those pricks and could use some insight. And viewing oneself as a victim doesn’t seem like a winning formula. In terms of a story, this could be the discouraging part in the middle third of the book, before things get much worse and much better at the same time.

    • Rebekah

      Mike this is excellent and so timely for me. Thank-you

      • Mike Moore

        so nice to see someone read it.

  • Maurice Overholt

    This is so true. I have been so guilty of this in the past, and it poisoned my marriage relationship. Thankfully God has helped me to get out of the cycle, but the transition was painful. Giving up the “right” to complain and play the martyr is like withdrawal; it takes time and prayer and support.

    The end result, however, is beautiful freedom.

  • Jason

    Hey Don, not sure if you even read these, but this is the only way I can contact you directly. I know that you will be coming to Covenant Theological Seminary next Saturday, and I was wondering if you had a personal email address I could email to you about a few questions that I had. I’m sure you get bombarded with questions like mine, and you’re busy with the tour, but I hope you could spare some of your time. Thanks.

  • James in StumpJazz

    I like what you are saying here. But I am concerned it falls short. You address a problem but its a complex problem. There are plenty of people who share their issue of _____ with the intentions of becoming known, council, or direction/connection.

    I have read a few counseling books and I get their concerns for people playing the victim. But my question here is: What is the danger of shutting your “yapper” when speaking to friends because you do not want to appear or be heard as a victim? How many will keep their story to themselves out of fear of that label? There is a line there that needs to be better understood.

    Great thoughts on victim worship, but wonder if you should take a stab with a follow up to this piece.

    • shellybell

      I agree with your concerns James.

      It’s a beautiful thing when you have a close group of friends that can walk you through the process of healing.

      Unfortunately, when one is hurt by others, it takes a long time to unravel the lies inside the ole noggin’ and keeping those lies trapped makes them bigger and more lethal.

      I kept my mouth shut for years and years because I didn’t want to be viewed as weak or imperfect (honestly), so I about went insane from anxiety and depression.

      Now, I yap, but my friends keep me on the straight and narrow…they are women of excellence, so they help me heal, but help me grow just the same.

      And before there was them, there was therapy…oh the joy I felt when someone was being paid to listen to me…I mean really listen to whatever I had to say. It’s the most brilliant thing to a tortured introvert who was living amongst pain and lies.

      All that to say, “there is a time to yap, and a time to listen. A time to pay a person to hear you yap, and a time to find incredible people who will listen to your yapping free of charge, but pray over your yapping and your heart.”

      • James in StumpJazz

        Don writes well and writes a lot of stuff that pleases me to no end. Few are harder on Don than…..oh lets see…!

        Here is my question:

        When a high school friend rips me off $360,000 cash just a few years ago, and it was intentional, and calculated . . . and the result of that financial interception throws me and my young family into a 5 year financial meltdown…how do you not refer to that in your story when speaking to others? So I can’t say that I took a hit? How do I/you not use that when explaining to your social circle how you work to barely keep the utility guy just at the edge of the sidewalk? That you did not go to church on Sunday a few months back because you could not find gas money? That one moment you were financially stable and the next moment the Titanic Soundtrack is on auto-play because of one man’s greed, and lust for money? Some people actually think we must have shopped our way into ruin. It affects my image professionally like I have no business chops — no common sense really. How do I operate in that cloud? Do you offer nothing to people as to why you appear to be shipwrecked?

        Or this one: I help a friend turn around a $230,000,000 Company in a BK (Bankruptcy) in Portland and 25 consultants tell him to go one way and I …. the lone consultant insists they are wrong and advise to go in a niche direction and he goes with my advice and vision and its off the charts successful ………. and the other consultants ride the train off the cliff – AND then I hope I get an offer to join the executives of that company . . . and its been nothing but crickets for 2 years?? How does that not fit into my story at some point? How does that not have some kind of value to others during specific conversations? Those are real scenes in my life.

        I think in A Million Miles in A 1000 Years — talks about, “A great story is about a character who had to overcome some great conflict & barriers . . . that’s what makes for a great story!” So Don’s post here **might be** sending the message of: Keep your Injustices/Pain in check or locked away during social interactions — less you look like you are sounding like a victim?

        Nooo, I can’t buy that victim/control book speak. Townsend and Cloud books have been on my desk 25 years at least. I don’t buy into all of their gear. They are fine guys and offer really good stuff most of the time. They can keep this insight in their room with 2 couches!

        I think the damage and pain, and fallout from a injustice …. leaves most of us so stunned and emotionally electrocuted at so many levels, that we do not have the energy nor the mental capacity or time to play “controller”, “victim”, “manipulator”, “replay tape-ster”, “forgiveness withholder”! I think most victims have no where to turn but to a swan dive face first to their bed, body spread out and palms up. Emptying all that can be emptied out to God in emotional burnt offerings. With that goes the “victim” costume that was offered by the great costume artist of all time.

        We then get up after some time and tell our story.

        Don, I guess if you really hold to what you are saying in this post as strongly as I think you are stating, then please reconcile this post with: Million Miles/1000 Years and the beautiful frame work in that book?

    • Rebekah

      Amen to this.

  • Mike Moore

    Commiseration has value. Agenda is all.

  • Mark

    The brutal truth is some of us experience victim status more than others through no fault of our own. The environment or DNA was ours at birth and we must fight to make the best of the hand we were dealt.

    People are loath these days to admit the Potter’s hand had a part to play in their “total” creation. We permit best-sellers with letters appended to their names tell us how God forms and purposes an individual soul.

    Ask Job if his victim status was self-inflicted or how he could have escaped?

    The same God who knows the number of hairs on our heads knows the truth about how much power He did or did not give in the lives HE FORMED.

    There is purpose in everything, even the so-called negative. It’s not so much about “fixing” but “accepting” ourselves.

    I believe some of us carry a heavier load, right from birth, for a reason. We have an innate sense of the powerless that natural born “achievers” will never understand.

    The dark night of the soul breeds a tight childlike faith that bonds creation to creator like no man-made faith. Read Fenelon, Chambers, Spurgeon or Richard Sibbes “The Bruised Reed” they understand.

    There is less about your condition that needs to “fixing” than you realize.

    Yes, stop whining and fight to be mature in Christ. But where and when the spirit permits share your pain with those who have “ears to hear”.

    Man do I love God, but there is a part of me that doesn’t even know why.

    And that’s a good thing.

    • James in StumpJazz

      Down right excellent thoughts. When is your book coming out! I will pre-order. You get it!

    • krg

      I like the line about the innate sense of powerlessness that “achievers” never know. For myself, I think it gets me to Jesus that much faster. I want to believe that we who are most weak, have a God given gift, to acheive and be that much stronger, than those who do not know their own weakness. Thanks for writing that.

  • Samantha Keller

    This hit home with me today. My teen who has always been super at everything (sports, school, volunteer, etc…) got into trouble at school. People are talking and gossip is swirling about the pastor’s kid. I’ve had friends letting me know where I have gone wrong. Ouch! On some level it’s hard not to feel like a victim even though I know I hold a share of the responsability. Thanks for reminding me to seek grace and to let go, less I start using my anger to fuel a sense of control. I love that old saying, hurt people hurt people.”
    If we let ourselves become a victim we simply continue to perpetuate a hurt cycle and never jump off the hamster wheel to find consolation and healing.
    Thanks and many blessings,

  • Mike Moore

    I have a problem. I’ve always had it. I was raised to it, and I accepted it and I have never been able to beat it. I am not in any way ever really going to do what ‘the group’ says, what conventional, one-size-fits-all wisdom dictates, and what individual people say.
    Oddly: I’m going to ask them what they think so they’ll be most annoyed when I then go ahead and don’t do it. And then, as perverse as I am, I am going to feel horrible if they reject my doing things my own way for my own reasons. They don’t get that part of my process, the way I decide things, is I wonder “What would ‘everyone’ or ‘Some other guy’ do, in my situation?” and then I ask people that.
    What invariably happens is this then inspires me to see that I think that I and my situation, my skills, my goals are direction, are different, I decide that I don’t see the wisdom or the worth in my doing their thing, and I go ahead and do my thing. And then I want the blessing of the group. For being an individualist. For rejecting their wisdom. I have just enough self-whatever to not do what they want, but not enough to feel okay about having so not done. Groups do not respond kindly to people like me. Even just going ahead and not doing their thing isn’t kosher.

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  • Lee Ann

    I spend a lot of time trying to defend myself in my mind against the people who have hurt me. I want to explain to them that what they’ve done is wrong and that I’m not crazy for being so damaged by them. And I keep trying to prove myself to them – show them that my life can be a success even though I’m not living it their way. The truth is, all this is just playing the victim because I’m still allowing them to put me on trial and tell me which of my feelings are legitimate.

    • eli

      this is me right now.

  • Mike B

    Amen on that last post by Mike Moore. I am sooooo like that…..always different and against the norm or flow.

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  • Ruthie Dean

    Excellent post. I never thought of victimization in this way. It just shed a whole new light on a difficult relationship I have with someone close in my life. But before I think about them, I will examine myself. Thank you!

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