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The Emotionally Abusive Moms’ Playbook: Playing the Victim


Photo: Getty Images


Contrary to popular belief, a mom doesn’t need to be a narcissist to play the victim. Abusive moms of all shapes and sizes can (and do!) play the victim.


Wondering if your mom is guilty of playing the victim? Keep reading because in today’s blog post I’m going over what you need to know. We’ll look at what playing the victim is, what playing the victim isn’t, and why abusive moms are motivated to do it in the first place. I’m also including examples that will help you spot it out in the wild should your own difficult mom give playing the victim a go.


Let’s get started!


What it Means to Play the Victim

Playing the victim is when someone takes on the role of the hurt party—the victim—even though they haven’t been harmed at all. Like gaslighting and blame-shifting, playing the victim is far from harmless. It’s actually a form of emotional abuse.


Playing the Victim vs. Being a Victim

Before we go further, I want to take a minute to point out that playing the victim and being an actual victim are two very different things. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use emotional abuse to illustrate, but just know that emotional abuse is only one of many things people can be victims of.


Say Person A has experienced emotional abuse and they disclose this to a friend. Because Person A is a legitimate victim of emotional abuse, they’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to {apologize} for.


Now say Person B hasn’t experienced emotional abuse, but they communicate to a friend that they have. Person B might do so by exaggerating, lying, etc. Unlike Person A, Person B has done something wrong—they represented themselves in a way that’s not true.


When you’re someone who’s been victimized in some way, you aren’t “being a victim.” You ARE a victim. There’s no “being” about it. In claiming this, you’re simply owning your lived experience (which is necessary for healing BTW). Don’t let the people who pretend they’re victims for nefarious reasons stop you from claiming your full story.


With that, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled blog post!


Why Abusive Moms Play the Victim

Abusive moms play the victim for four key reasons. These reasons are:


  1. Existential validation: This is when an abusive mom plays the victim to avoid the discomfort of acting in ways that are inconsistent with how she wants to see herself (cognitive dissonance).

  2. Reputation management: This is when an abusive mom plays the victim to avoid being seen by other people in a way that differs from how she wants to be seen.

  3. Manipulation: This is when an abusive mom plays the victim to coerce someone into doing something for her own benefit.

  4. Justification: This is when an abusive mom plays the victim to avoid accountability her own harmful actions.


Now let’s take a look at each of these four reasons up close. Examples are included, so have your tiny violin ready!


Existential Validation

When a mom acts in ways that are inconsistent with how she wants to see herself—say for example she wants to see herself as a good mother—she might play the victim to avoid a confrontation with the truth. Let’s look at an example.


Susan was abusive to her daughter Stephanie throughout childhood. Having never felt close to her own mom, something Susan unconsciously holds near and dear is the idea that she’s a good mother to Stephanie. It’s not the truth that matters to Susan. It’s the idea.


When Stephanie turns 29 she cuts off Susan. To keep her good mom narrative going, Susan tells herself on repeat, “My daughter didn’t go no-contact because I abused her! I know myself, and I was a good mom! Stephanie estranged because she’s so borderline and abused ME!” After not very long at all, Susan starts to believe her own lie.


Reputation Management

Unlike existential validation, reputation management is all about playing the victim for the purposes of managing what other people think. Here’s an example.


Melanie’s an estranged mom of two gay sons who cut ties with her three months ago due to her intense homophobia. Here’s the catch. Even though Melanie was so homophobic that her own children decided to estrange from her, she still wants to be seen by her friends and extended family as a loving mother. Obviously, Melanie’s got a real problem: other people might start to see her for who she really is.


Melanie has two choices. She can:


  1. Be accountable for her homophobia (aka the hard road).

  2. Play the victim (aka the chicken shit road).


Of course she takes option 2. You knew that didn’t you? Fast forward to the next time a friend asks Melanie about her sons. In her best poor me voice Melanie says, “Everything with my sons was perfect. We had the best relationship! We never fought! Then all of the sudden they refused to speak to me, and I have no idea why!! They didn’t even call me on my birthday!”


If the victim card she played worked as intended, Melanie’s friend left the conversationy thinking, “Gosh, poor Melanie. How could her boys do that to her? So cruel!” Queue all the eye rolls!


Manipulation

Sometimes abusive moms play the victim for more than just approval. Sometimes they do it to manipulate people into taking certain actions. Consider this example.


Sheri, a mom of four, has one estranged son. Whenever her three non-estranged adult children communicate with their estranged brother in any way Sheri becomes enraged. “They should be on my side! I’m their mother after all!” she screams to her husband. What Sheri doesn’t tell her husband is that she wants her connected adult kids to cut off their brother to punish him with a “united front” for cutting her off ten years ago. She’s creates a plan.


It’s Mother’s Day and Sheri’s sitting with her non-estranged children when she suddenly bursts into big fake crocodile tears. “What’s wrong mom?” they ask. “It’s hard for me to understand why you still speak with your cruel brother after everything he’s put me through,” Sheri says. “That’s why I’ve been getting up and leaving the room on and off all day today. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take! Each time you talk to your brother you’re breaking my heart as your mother a little more!”


The real victims here certainly aren’t Sheri who thinks she has the right to pressure her children to side against their own brother. Unfortunately, however, her manipulative victim playing accomplishes exactly what she wants it to: her non-estranged children feel guilty and promise to stop speaking to their estranged brother all together.


Justification

If there’s something abusive moms don’t like, it’s taking accountability for their actions. Da doot da dooo! Playing the victim to the rescue! Below is an example of such a mom using victim playing as her own personal get out of jail free card.


Adult child: Mom, I didn’t come home for Easter because you called me a really derogatory name last week.


Abusive mom: I was all alone on Easter! My own child didn’t come to see me, and here I was hoping you would. I can’t even tell you how hurtful that was. People at church felt so sorry for me that they called to check in on me.


That derogatory name the mom called her kid the week prior? The abusive mom wants her child to forget that all together and focus instead on how victimized she is by their absence on Easter. Talk about woe is me!

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