Recently, Candace Owens, host of the popular YouTube channel Red Pill Black, and communications director for the conservative think-tank Turning Point USA, made headlines when she was endorsed by Kanye West for her views on the victim mentality. Her point can be best summarized by these two tweets:
The most controversial thing I've ever done was decide to think with my brain instead of my skin tone.
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) October 9, 2017
Far right? Allow me to clarify: I believe the black community can do it without hand-outs. I believe the Democrats have strapped us to our past to prevent us from our futures. And I won’t stop fighting until all black Americans see that.
I’m not far right—I’m free. pic.twitter.com/wtqCuYPtM2
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) April 21, 2018
Racial inequality and hyperbole aside, Owens touches upon an important topic: a dangerous, psychologically destructive victim mentality. This mindset breeds the insidious belief that one has no agency over their own life and that there are insurmountable barriers thrown in the person’s life, creating tragedy in which they take no blame for. The victim can feel helpless in promoting change and facing adversity.
Going as far back as Marcus Aurelius and brought into public zeitgeist by psychologists such as Carl Jung, and more recently Jordan Peterson, this mentality, argues Jung, stems from the nature of ownership. Victims, he argues, do not see that they can be the cause of their dilemmas, thus they cannot see that they are the solution. As a consequence, the victim sees the world as a cause of their misery, thus the world must change for the misery to end. If you perceive yourself as weak, unable to promote change, or simply a pawn in a poorly defined conspiracy designed to keep you from succeeding, you begin to feel as though you are trapped on the event horizon of a black hole. Unsurprisingly, peering down into the abyss is both terrifying and causes the individual to totally lose perspective. It is the very definition of an existential crisis. Jung summarizes this thus:
“It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going. Not consciously, of course — for consciously he is engaged in bewailing and cursing a faithless world that recedes further and further in the distance. Rather, it is an unconscious factor which spins the illusions that veil his world. And what is being spun is a cocoon, which in the end will completely envelop him.” Carl Jung, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: p 4014.
This phenomenon is well understood by clinicians. Usually this mentality emerges from attempting to tolerate the intolerable, often arising from having some bad experiences — sometimes awful experiences — and linking them together as if there is some form of pattern to one’s life outside of the individual’s control. This is not a difficult thing to do; our brain is hardwired to home in on negativity as a survival mechanism. Individuals who reach crisis tend to catastrophize by forming an erroneous life narrative whereby the highlighted circumstances are the rule rather than the exception to it. Importantly, the main thread of thought running through these individuals’ minds is that they hold very little control over their lives.
This mindset can reach almost conspiratorial levels. Life is simply happening to them, rather than it being something they have any control over. The client feels persecuted by life, destined to be hurt, let down, poor or unsuccessful. On a deeper level, there is another conflict. The individual who refuses to take ownership of their own demons, projects those demons onto others in order to avoid integrating and accepting them as a part of their self. In short, they push their negative qualities onto others as it’s easier to be angry at the world than it is to make the terrifying journey inward. This outward focus and lack of self-reflection promotes a victim mentality which is psychologically crushing.
There is little doubt that this profound sense of a lack of control over one’s own life narrative is a self-imposed prison, a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this state usually one of two outcomes occur, the person will implode, or they will explode. Those who implode will sink into depression or self-destructive patterns of behavior to alienate themselves, often leading to nihilism. Those who explode will seek to control the world around them to the greatest extent possible, seeking out external validity to make sense of the world and alleviate the anxiety over their lack of control. Combine hypervigilance with confirmation bias (the world is evil and other people control my destiny), and it’s not difficult to understand why individuals complete the deadly triad with the final component: salvation in ideology.
When you search for evil in the world committed by those outside of your control, you become consumed by it as an existential threat. Perhaps you find a group of likeminded individuals who share this fear, which allows you to relieve the hopelessness you feel by sharing a crusade to change the outside world. Your life now has meaning, you now have an identity, a purpose, and others who continuously validate your existence. Naturally, those who seek to dismantle the victim identity are going to be met with extreme hostility. Jung argues that failing to take ownership over one’s own shadow and instead project onto the world, make one susceptible to a collective ideology, which offers them the power they lack. The problem with a strict adherence to radical ideology, argues Jordan Peterson, be it fascism, communism, the Illuminati, or radical social justice, is that it cuts your intellectual capacity at the legs. No longer are you able to view each life obstacle and incoming information on its own merits, they are met with a prebuilt one size fits all filter the individual has adopted to alleviate anxiety.
This is where outrage seen across university campuses comes into play. Someone who has not learned to master their cognitive distortions or learned emotional regulation, consumed by this victim identity often behaves in a way that works well to make people back off, conform or roll over. An example you may have seen is a knee jerk emotional response and vitriolic name calling towards those who disagree or offend (“you are offending me, you are a horrible person”). You may have witnessed a less sophisticated version of this among children when they have a tantrum (“you won’t give me X, I hate you.)” The defense mechanism that perpetuates the victim mentality cycle is summarized by the Zur institute:
“The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.” — Zur institute
Potentially, as argues Jonathan Haidt, this mentality may have evolved from helicopter parenting, which seeks to prevent children from being exposed to difficult experiences. A term I like to use is the cotton wool effect, which can lead to the upbringing of children who never learn how to deal with emotional pain or challenges and as they develop into adulthood they find themselves ill-equipped to navigate difficult mature experiences. As a psychologist you learn through exposure and training not to allow this outrage to alter your reaction. On the contrary the sheer outrage, which makes most people withdraw, tells you exactly what’s going on with that person, whom you then treat with compassion and respect in order to help navigate the pain. This was a lesson learned the hard way by those who attempted such a tactic to shut down Jordan Peterson. Hot tip: if you want to bully someone off of their platform with emotional outrage, don’t pick a psychologist.
The perfect storm of the victim mentality, magnified by the megaphone of radical social justice ideology is a clear-cut recent example of the psychological phenomenon that leads people to some very dark places. Take the ingredients of emotional pain and negative experiences, add a pinch of cognitive dissonance and projection to protect the ego, a sprinkle of confirmation bias, and a dollop of cognitive distortion wrapped in a nice “one size fits all” ideology, and you have created a prison for the mind that leads to only one place: disillusionment, anger, depression and an anxious individual without the tools to escape.
A recent Quillette article written by left-wing feminist writer Meghan Murphy described the inevitable conclusion to the victim mentality combined with a strict, radical ideology. Once one is committed to fighting a conspiracy designed to suppress the voices of victims and punish those who continue that conspiracy, there is an obvious and inevitable race to the bottom of the barrel, and those who are left behind are cannibalized and turned on. This knee jerk reaction of “self-defense” is the apparent result of feeling genuinely threatened by hostile ideas, and the brain, armed with the belief that people who disagree with you or challenge your world view are hostile, responds with a very physical and psychological reaction, including genuine emotional pain, and feelings of hopelessness and fear.
This makes sense; when someone is hurting, terrified, and feels threatened, what do you expect them to do? Unfortunately for the individual sufferer they will never control enough of the world to eliminate this existential anxiety/threat. The conspiracy and identity as a victim is dependent on an outside threat; as such it is perpetual in nature; regardless of changes made, information will be filtered to fit the narrative, facts become a matter of faith over proof, leading to a path of total imprisonment in a self-perpetuating, deeply harmful psychological prison.
The key to freeing oneself from this self-imposed prison lies with the individual and their cognitive restructuring, behavioral changes and emotional regulation. It is not about denying past or present horrific deeds, nor is it about “positive thinking” or being “happy”– both highly contested notions within Clinical Psychology. Instead, the solution is found in making sense of your life narrative by becoming its primary actor, rather than settling for a supporting role. Moreover, it is about becoming acquainted with your shadow, and understanding how projection can serve as signposts for the internal search to become whole. Along these lines, Jordan Peterson has popularized something known to many clinicians: metaphor in therapy is intuitive. Metaphors can be a durable and profound way to help a client navigate difficult life obstacles. In my experience individuals respond strongly to abstract metaphors that help put into perspective their personal experiences in a way that makes sense, narratively speaking. As narrative beings we relate to stories, and as such stories of triumph over difficulties can resonate with people. Obvious examples of this are found in the popularity with Disney animations such as the Lion King and the culture shifting Star Wars franchise. The messages are simple: take up your sword and shield and slay the dragon. When you see yourself as having agency over your own pain and suffering and choose not to allow others to control them, then you have the keys to your own lock.
 Kelly, C. (2011) Group Identification, Intergroup Perceptions and Collective Action, European Review of Social Psychology, 4(1), 59-83, DOI: 10.1080/14792779343000022 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14792779343000022?journalCode=pers20