Thomas Fiffer pinpoints 5 signs that a ‘victim-player’ is playing you and shares 5 traits of true survivors.
Well you are such an easy evil
Such a sensuous sin
Sometimes I don’t know where I’m going
‘Till I’ve been taken in
—Alan O’Day, Easy Evil
They have an unfair boss. Or horrible parents. Or a back-stabbing best friend. Or an ex bent on their destruction. And sometimes—all of the above.
We’ve all heard their sad stories and been sucked into the tragedy and drama. They have an unfair boss. Or horrible parents. Or a back-stabbing best friend. Or an ex bent on their destruction. And sometimes—all of the above. They spin a sob story to profess their innocence, confirm their helplessness, and engage our sympathy. They never tell us what they did—their role in the saga—or what they are doing about it, other than nursing their wounds and plotting revenge, but focus instead on what’s been done to them and what they wish someone (that someone soon to be revealed as us) would do about it.
Let’s call these people victim players, or VPs for short. And let’s make an important distinction between real victims, people who have suffered hurt and abuse at the hands of others—particularly those they trusted—and VPs who, while they may have experienced real injury, devote the bulk of their energy to playing the role of the victim and reaping the rewards it affords instead of pursuing healing to become functional and whole.
Below are five red flags that will help you determine when a VP is playing you, along with five contrasting traits of true survivors.
A gift utterly out of scale with your action that lets you know just how much it meant to the VP. Small investment, huge reward. Sweet deal, right?
1. Grandiose rewards for small acts. The VP’s strategy starts small, and that’s what hooks you. You’re asked to do a minor favor, something seemingly innocuous and inconsequential that causes you little trouble or expense. Perhaps it’s picking something up on your way home from work, doing some Internet research, or making a quick call. Often, there is something inappropriate about the request—such as calling in sick to the unfair boss on the VP’s behalf—but whatever it is, it won’t require much effort. Then comes the reward. A huge bunch of flowers. Theater tickets. An expensive bottle of wine. A gift utterly out of scale with your action that lets you know just how much it meant to the VP. Small investment, huge reward. Sweet deal, right? Well, bait isn’t called bait because it’s sour and unattractive. The next request will be a bit bigger, and the reward somewhat smaller, given humbly as all the VP can afford right now. Then come the IOUs, which the VP’s strapped circumstances will make you hesitate to cash in on. Your reward is now the relief of the VPs anxiety and the feel-good you get from helping someone “in need.” And the cycle is just beginning.
You are the knight in shining armor, the dragon-slayer, the indispensable one, and the one who can do no wrong—at least, until you refuse a request.
2. Hero worship. As you become the VP’s helper, your stature grows to heroic proportions. You are the knight in shining armor, the dragon-slayer, the indispensable one, and the one who can do no wrong—at least, until you refuse a request. Don’t be fooled by the VP’s false worry about how much stress he or she is causing you, how much he or she owes you, the sacrifices you’re starting to make in your own life, or statements that turbo-boost your ego and make you feel superhuman. The VP is playing out a well-rehearsed dysfunctional pattern, and while you’re being put on a pedestal now, you’re being set up for a big fall.
It’s one thing to be helpful to someone. It’s another entirely to enable them. The VP has chosen you carefully because you fail to make this distinction.
3. Progressive transfer of responsibilities. Pretty soon, you’re doing things for the VP that he or she is perfectly capable of handling—and frankly should be—and you may start to feel used. There’s always a reason, an excuse, a mitigating factor that prevents the VP from, say, picking up kids from school or camp, shopping for groceries (you shop, you pay), dealing with family issues or finances, even co-parenting with an ex. Eventually, all these tasks and more begin to fall on your capable shoulders. It’s one thing to be helpful to someone. It’s another entirely to enable them. The VP has chosen you carefully because you fail to make this distinction. Your involvement deepens to the point that removing yourself—which at times you consider—would devastate the VP, leaving him or her to fend for herself in a cruel world filled with uncaring friends and vicious enemies. The hook was barbed, and now you’re stuck, because pulling it out will cause you pain—the pain of abandoning a person who depends on you—along with hurting the VP, who, you conveniently forget, got along just fine before you came along.
You actually feel selfish when you think of yourself, and the VP magnifies this by minimizing your needs and accusing you of selfishness.
4. Use of guilt, bullying, and emotional blackmail to gain compliance. By now, your own life is in turmoil. You’re having to make uncomfortable tradeoffs, to choose between serving your master and attending to your needs, which seem to pale in comparison to the VPs. Your parents want you to come for dinner, but the VP is having a crisis. Your child needs help with homework, but the VP has to unload the horrors of the day. Your friends want to get together over the weekend, but you’ve got an errand list a mile long. And forget about taking a walk or going to the gym. You actually feel selfish when you think of yourself, and the VP magnifies this by minimizing your needs and accusing you of selfishness. “How can you think of seeing your parents at a time like this?” “Homework is not a crisis.” “Are your friends more important than painting my porch?” “All you ever do is go to the gym. What about me?” You may hear shades of narcissism in these statements, and many VPs display narcissistic tendencies. If you insist on your own agenda and refuse to do the VPs bidding, you will be badgered unendingly and threatened—either by the prospect of the VP’s life collapsing without you and this demise being your fault, or with horribly unpleasant consequences. Chances are the VP has gotten you to reveal a few secrets and vulnerabilities, and these can and will be used against you to keep you in the game. Compromising your position at work, lying about you to friends and family, or flaming you on social media are typical threats the VP uses with great success, and it is your own fear of acknowledging being stuck and calling out the VP for what he or she is that keeps you a prisoner.
Now, you are no better than all the rest, in fact, worse than all the rest, a selfish, uncaring, ungrateful asshole, a pathetic excuse for a human being, a dick, a pussy, a bitch, a c**t.
5. Character assassination. This is the death blow that ensures your enslavement. At first, you were a hero. Now, you are no better than all the rest, in fact, worse than all the rest, a selfish, uncaring, ungrateful asshole, a pathetic excuse for a human being, a dick, a pussy, a bitch, a c**t. If you were up on cloud nine before, you’ve now descended to the deepest pit of hell. You thought you were a good person, but a good person doesn’t hurt a poor victim who’s been badly hurt before, trampled to near death, and who trusted that good person and asked for assistance. Now the VP has you by the short hairs, because your need to be good outweighs your need to be sensible. Seeing yourself as bad, as a wounder or abandoner, no different from the ones you and the VP commiserated about, proves too much for your psyche. You implode, and the carefully built walls of your life, which the VP so skillfully encouraged you to erode, collapse in on you and bury you under the rubble. Without help, there is no escape.
In contrast to the five red flags that reveal a VP, the five traits below are common to true survivors, people who have been through tragedy and determined not to let it define them.
1. Resilience. Survivors are fighters. They overcome things, and they are proud of their accomplishments. They don’t get upset over small stuff and don’t manufacture crises. They’re already part of a supportive community, and they get appropriate help if and when they need it. A survivor doesn’t need to enslave a pawn, as he or she himself may have been similarly trapped. The very thought is distasteful.
2. Genuine concern for your welfare. If a survivor asks you for a favor—small or large—your own needs will be considered, and there will be an option to refuse with no guilt. A survivor does not try to overstep your boundaries and fully expects you to maintain them.
3. Progressive self-reliance. A survivor has determined to leave being a victim behind. A survivor may need a lot of help walking in the beginning, but each step is a step towards greater independence. The last thing he or she wants is to dwell on the past (though it remains haunting) and to depend on another person for emotional or financial security.
4. Appropriate appreciation. A survivor says thank you in a way that’s commensurate with your contribution. You will feel gratified, not overwhelmed.
5. Engaging you in their healing process. This is the ultimate sign of friendship. A survivor considers you truly helpful and a blessing not if you enable dysfunction and dependence but if you participate as a partner on the journey of healing.
Photo—Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr
This is the viewpoint from a classic narcissistic personality.
Stop “beating around the bush” – this crap is nothing but Borderline Personality Disorder, plain and simple…although NOTHING is plain or simple with a Borderline…
I am new to this type of issue, I dated crazy women before but I think I hit a new type of situation and I did a lot of research the last few weeks. I dated this girl for about 2 years but the last 4 months her actions have become very peculiar. She was always very clingy and needy and would do strange things here and there but nothing alarming at that time. I just chalked it up as her just being sheltered. Her mother has been very abusive to her and this is when the ordeal started when… Read more »
PLEASE READ: This person sounds like they have borderline personality disorder. Hope you survived the trauma and didn’t go back. Not worth it- at least not without professional mental health experts. I went through years of this with a best friend. 15 years passed by and I was still hearing the same damm story. Through the years I realized her victim story of her mother abandoning her wasn’t actually true and was completely ornamented. This girl had me do so many things for her to the point that I too was always on egg shells, always wondering when she was… Read more »
Do you really love her? Can’t you see that she is so damn sensitive? What kind of a boyfriend are you? You have made it clear to yourself after posting this that you don’t love her. She is clingy because she dreams of future with you. God!!!! WTF! Did you even understand the difference between a VP and a real survior after reading this? I bet you didn’t. There are similarities in a real surviovor and a VP. You should look it up.
So what your saying is anyone who asks for help should be treated with suspicion? Way to add to the culture of silence. The first thing you find out is it’s best to keep your mouth shut because guaranteed some idiot is going to trot out the “playing the victim” rubbish and you’re going to get laid into on top of everything else. Why trust someone if they’re just going to throw it back in your face, attack you for it, or worse? You don’t get sympathy or assistance when you speak up, what you do get is predators show… Read more »
Wow a bit defensive…Maybe you we’re just defined by this, thus your anger in your post. There is a difference between real victims and people who use it as a perpetual excuse. Can’t blame your parents in your 30’s or 40’s. If you are doing things for people like taking out the trash, small and large favors but they never seem to return them; but they have a subsequent anger or bitter mentality when you stop going out of their way for them; that’s playing the victim. Easiest way to learn if someone plays the victim mentality is catch them… Read more »
“Easiest way to learn if someone plays the victim mentality is
catch them in a lie via a dishonest method. They will focus on
the way you “dishonestly” caught them more than the real
issue that caused it”
You sound like a VP.
Preach. The first person to demand you get over it is the narc.
Spot on, but I am pretty sure it went over someone”s head.
I think you may have skipped or misread the section of this article regarding 5 traits of a true survivor. You never give up helping others, but you do not become a slave to someone because of guilt. And you don’t give up your own life because someone is manipulating you. Borderline Personality Disorder affects everyone and it is important to learn how to rise above it. This article is the first one that I have read in years that completely describes the ugly truth about BPD. I am glad I found it and grateful to the author’s honesty. It… Read more »
Think you’ll find this all comes under Narcissistic Personal Disorder. Some of us are enablers/ care givers/ and can be spotted a mile off from the conmen/women.
Thank you for this response, Thomas. It was exactly what I needed to read today. I left my (female) undiagnosed BPD abuser after several years of abuse earlier this year and at times like this it is difficult to differ between self preservation and “rejection”. Good article, btw.
Misconduct, Thank you for your comment. It can be so hard to distinguish self-preservation from rejection of your partner. The key is realizing that you are rejecting and abandoning yourself if you give your life over to another person’s untreated dysfunction.
I think there’s another type of victim who is not explained here. The type who have been victims in the past and that has colored their view of all future interactions. Therefore their perception may be of victim hood because they have learned not to trust anyone and push them away at the first sign of possibly being abandoned.
Aurora, Past victimization can surely color one’s perspective. Regardless of the causes, the individual needs help to shift his or her attitude and become emotionally healthy.
This is by far one of the best pieces I’ve seen on this site. As a survivor of marital abuse inflicted by a borederline narcissist, I have experienced each of these abusive tactics. And our children were victimized by their mother as well. She was the classic “mommy dearest”. I stayed until the kids were out of the house and then fled surreptitiously. The financial, emotional and reputational scars inflicted on me will take years to heal, but I have my life back and truly can appreciate what it means to be free. And of course she is still crying… Read more »
Max, Thanks for your compliment and for sharing your story in your comment. Leaving a situation like yours is extremely difficult and layered with guilt. I am glad you got out and recovered your emotional health and well-being.
But Max stood by while his wife was being mommy dearest with his children. And, he “fled “surreptitiously.” Sounds like a dedicated victim?
Thomas, Thank you for addressing what I see as the critical question here: how do we deal with a partner—a person who claims to love us and whom we also love—who hurts us? Mental illness can be a cause of relationship dysfunction and hurtful behavior, but it is never an excuse. Women gaslight, too, and the article was in no way meant to suggest that woman play victims more than men do. It works both ways. I also believe there is a difference between, as you say, “rejecting” someone with a mental disorder and choosing not to live with someone… Read more »
I thought you were very careful to remain gender neutral in your article. It’s a very difficult line to walk and I think you did it wonderfully. There are many man and women who are VPs. We just need to recognized the warning signs.
I follow The Good Men Project because I’ve encountered and shared dozens of smart, inspired articles through the site— this is NOT one of them. As a woman, I am justified in being suspicious of this article from the outset because it is written by a man, and men have a centuries long, still ongoing history of “gaslighting” women. That is, delegitimizing their suffering by emotionally manipulating them to believe their feeling are irrational or abnormal, rendering them mute, thereby denying their personhood. I’d have felt much more secure if you had began by acknowledging this history. Also, if you… Read more »
Dear Alison, (I had tried to post a comment before but I do not see it, so I shall attempt to leave it once more.) My question is the following: How did you deal with your bipolar boyfriend`s condition on a day-to-day basis, and how long did the relationship last? What I would really like is concrete advice rather than accusations of being `ableist´ or ´morally reprehensible´, as you say. If my resolve to continue to support/love a person who treats me like a punching bag due to her disability (BPD and BP) is wavering, does this make me the… Read more »
Thomas – thank you for your well thought out response to Alison. I was thinking the same thing. My mother is exactly the type of VP you describe in your article. It took years and an almost failed marriage to extricate myself from that toxic relationship. I endured the “but it’s your mother and you MUST love her in spite of her shortcomings” for years afterwards. Once I removed myself from that relationship, I became a healthier person. You cannot build your life around a manipulative person, it destroys you and any healthy relationships you have. I’ve always approached people… Read more »
Alyssa, Thank you for presenting and modeling such a balanced approach. It is particularly difficult when a family member is a VP, because we feel an obligation to offer sympathy and more. But if we get stuck in the pattern, we are living their life, not ours. And handing the problem over to a professional is generally the wisest way to go.
Thanks so much for your response, Thomas F. Just to clarify or perhaps correct my own word choice above. What I meant by `just because I am not the legitimate victim (the word *victim* is confusing here) of a mental disorder´ should rather have been stated somewhere along the lines of `just because I am not suffering from, or afflicted by a mental disorder myself´ should not mean that I, as a person, do not deserve any kind of consideration, because, hey, I am mentally `able` and thus should just deal with it, while the person with a mental disorder… Read more »
Excellent article Thomas. My son is currently going through this as a “rescuer” with an ex girlfriend. I’ve had several experiences with both men who were my significant others and women who were my friends and professional victims. They spotted me a mile off because I’ve always been a “rescuer” of professional victims too. I learned my lesson eventually. It was expensive both emotionally and financially but worth every penny. I hope that he learns earlier and doesn’t have to pay the same price. Well done, and Thank You Thomas. I hope that he reads this article. I’ll give it… Read more »
You are right in not staying with any adult who eats your soul and spirit.
Actually Alison, your BIZARRE claim that a man writing an article is “suspicious” gives your motives away. Perhaps you fit too many of the criteria mentioned above? I would suggest more self-examination and less dabbling in bizarre conspiracy theories.
As an independent woman, I say you are writing hogwash. The article was fine. You are trying to justify your dysfunctional need to save this man, or others, and to be a martyr — victim. Putting a DSM label on behavior doesn’t mean aiding and abetting it.
This pretty much nailed what occurred in causing my marriage to unexpectedly, and suddenly fail. Thank you for this article, as it’s helped me to put some of my feelings into an understandable context. I’ve been blaming myself, and although I certainly made my share of mistakes that contributed to the split, this has helped me to see things from a healthier perspective.
Holy shit, all but #5 describe my wife to a certain extent.
A great article .
We should talk more about this.
I have just escaped and celebrate every day . It is day 28:))))))
The scary thing is that I did not see it until I was emotionally involved with the man and saw how others reacted to him with anger and critic . That opened my eyes to why I was feeling bad.
The “five red flags that will help you determine when a VP is playing you” are a perfect description of most of the men who sexually assaulted me. They used little blackmails and inappropriate rewards that led to bigger demands with bigger inappropriate rewards (as if we were dating or friends or (even sicker) a couple. And, if I didn’t get it right, I was extremely stupid and despicable. The list reads like a definition of a sexual abuser. The 5 traits common to true survivors sound good (wishful thinking if demanded). Let’s hope behavioral science comes up with a… Read more »
Daniel, Thank you so much for sharing your painful and relevant experience here. And your comment, “We have no ‘cure’ for the disorders brought about by abusive people” has inspired another article.
I am so sorry you had that experience Daniel. I just wanted to say that this really resonated for me, and it’s not always sexual or sexual abuse (though clearly that can be a result of this dynamic and how awful 🙁 ). In my case it was a friend. And there is still crazy stuff happening in my life almost a year after trying to really leverage the toxicity out of my life, but I had to take a good long look at why I was played this way, and I am beginning to understand, and I have begun… Read more »
Deb, Thank you for sharing your insight. It is often so hard to recognize and understand the why of these situations. I’m glad the article was timely for you, and I also appreciate your responding to Daniel’s comment above.
I have a couple of questions:
1. How do we know that the healing process has started?
2. what is the healing process and how do we heal ourselves? How can we help the victim a person so close to us that we cannot leave them, be healed?
Thanks & Regards
The only person that can do the work of healing is a victim/survivor him or her self. Our job as partners and friends is to offer hope and support and encouragement that healing is possible. Once the balance is tipped to the point where you begin to think that without your presence or work someone else can’t heal, it’s time to step away and look at what’s really going on. Survivors find ways to carry on. Perpetrators, sociopaths, and toxic people find ways to get you to carry them.
Akanksha, I think Christopher provided a beautiful response.
Hallmarks of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder AND the person unable/unwilling to disengage could benefit from support around co-dependency. Great article! You seem to speak from experience):
Edie, Thank you. Let’s just say I have my sources.
You made an interesting comment!
May I ask for a verify this? Any recent reteach?
I asked for links to recent research that say this a typical trait or behavior BPD, since I am not all sure you are right.
Persons diagnosed with BPD often end up being used themselves due to their background.
So any links will be appreciate.
But BPD rolls so trippingly off the tongue. Why bother with accuracy when a psychiatric label will do.
How many times can you write Borderline Personality Disorder in two minutes. The new catchall, and not accurate.