“Victim signalling” is a peculiarly self-centred process, often promulgated on social media platforms, where it triggers an avalanche of virtue signal post – which is exactly what it’s intended to do.
It’s that thing where somebody writes a lengthy message about what an absolutely awful time they are having for no reason whatsoever of their own. In fact, they are totally blameless, the victims of circumstance and some other person’s heartless behaviour and though they are somehow bravely managing to struggle on, they really feel like giving up. If they ever do accept some culpability for the situation, it will usually be along the lines that they were foolish enough to attempt to nurture, support or help somebody else who cruelly rejected them or abused their sincere attempts to assist. This, of course, hugely enhances their victim status.
The responses to such writings are entirely predictable and are the sole reason the post existed in the first place; a torrent of virtuous messages each seeking to outdo the others in their assertions of sadness at the turn of events and that the victim is a truly wonderful person. The victim laps up the pity and the ego massage and attention, which is, of course, the object of the exercise.
It’s not the same thing as a single post of a tale of woe – that’s probably just a search for support and reassurance – but a repeated litany of disaster after disaster (or, indeed, the same disaster because they do often keep on going back for more.)
It might seem that it’s a harmless enough exercise but there’s a dark side, in that the outpourings of pseudo-love and reassurance are as addictive as any drug. And just like all addictive drugs, its effects begin to wane, requiring the user to increase their dose until no matter how much they have, it still doesn’t have the effect they’re after.
Now, most people just stop doing it at that point, going cold turkey and eventually getting over it. But not all. Some cannot bear to forgo being told how wonderful and deserving they are and so start to report even greater distress and more disasters. They have created a dependency, an emotional addiction.
The biggest problem is that while the victim might experience transient feelings of well-being after the outpouring of nurture and support, the reality is that nothing has actually changed. Whatever problem motivated the individual to create their victim signal post – and there always is one – is still there, unresolved and still creating a sense of neediness that cannot be assuaged, no matter how reassuring and nurturing the virtue signal response. So, the next phase is to search for another insurmountable life problem to announce, preferably something more profound than the previous one.
And so it is that the individual has now started searching for problems instead of solutions. To them, the pity of others is like a soothing balm or salve that they continually crave but which they are unable to recognise is gradually disempowering them and disabling their own intrinsic problem-solving abilities.
The problem is part of the psychological concept of Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer. Many people, perhaps most, tend to fall into one of those three modes and indeed cannot even see that there is an alternative. The nice people among us frequently become rescuers, who may even have a need themselves, the need to be seen as ‘lovely’. They might even decide it’s their calling in life, attempting to keep the victims safe from the nasty persecutors. They sometimes become a therapist and though they can be quite effective, they usually are not the best and can quite unwittingly create a new dependency.
So, what can one do when presented with what looks like a despairing plea for help from somebody? Well, responding in persecutor mode is not going to help at all and opting for a ‘me-too’ victim mode – which many actually do – doesn’t achieve anything either. The rescuer comes naturally to many but ultimately solves no problems, as we’ve already seen.
So, what’s left? Guide. There is a mammoth difference between a rescuer and guide.
‘This awful thing has happened, and I feel wretched,’ says the victim.
‘Hang on in there – you’re a wonderful person!’ replies the rescuer, whereupon they might or might not experience a frisson of wonderfulness themselves, which is often the nature of such interaction.
But the guide doesn’t seek anything for themselves. They don’t want that. Instead, their response will be along the lines of: ‘OK, what can you do to sort it out?’ or perhaps: ‘What resources do you have that you can use to tackle the problem?’ In one fell swoop, they have moved the victim from problem-seeking to solution-seeking.
And that has always been, and will always be, the only way to get past the difficulties that life – and persecutors – pitch at us from time to time.
Terence Watts has been a therapist in full-time private practice since 1989.