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Controversial Coaching 101: Clients who Play the Victim

Is it really better to just cry wolf?

Woman who looks sad with multiple hands pointing at her
Feeling judged? Maybe they're just pointing out you're the main character.

Clients who Play the Victim

Have you ever encountered someone who seems perpetually stuck in a cycle of dissatisfaction, regardless of the paths they pursue or the goals they set? For some individuals, every failure and setback is attributed to external forces—an unfair world, mistreatment by others, or just plain bad luck. It's as if life has cast them in a never-ending drama where they are the victims, unable to influence their own destinies.

This perception, however, might not always be a genuine reflection of their circumstances. Sometimes, what appears as genuine victimhood could actually be a strategic display known as "victim signaling." This is a psychological maneuver where individuals portray themselves as victims to gain resources or sympathy, even when the evidence might suggest otherwise.

How should coaches navigate these complex waters while still being mindful not to victim blame? Join CLCI Live as Jen Long (MCLC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC) delve into the multifaceted reasons behind this phenomenon and explore effective coaching strategies.

Crying Wolf, Playing Victim

Victim mentality, as outlined by Psych Central, occurs when someone perceives themselves as a victim across various situations, often ignoring contrary evidence. This mentality of learned helplessness can intersect with conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, but it can also be a tactical approach to extract resources or gain attention. The classic fable of the boy who cried wolf offers a clear analogy. Initially, the boy's false alarms were driven not by actual threats, but by boredom and a desire to manipulate the concerned villagers for his amusement.

The concept of "victim signaling" as described in a 2020 study by the American Psychological Association, highlights how some individuals might use their perceived victimhood as a strategy to survive, flourish, and achieve their goals in environments that are responsive to their claims. However, this strategy is not without its risks, as repeated signaling can erode the perceived virtue and morality of the claimant, thus diminishing the likelihood of support. Other studies further explore the intriguing relationship between victim signaling, virtue signaling, and "virtuous victimhood," suggesting that the more virtuous a person appears, the more support they are likely to garner.

But what of those who may be manipulating these perceptions deliberately?

The study probes the correlation between victim signaling and the Dark Triad traits—Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. It posits that those predisposed to deception and manipulation, particularly those with Machiavellian tendencies, might be more inclined to emit signals of virtuous victimhood.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial for coaches, as it helps in distinguishing between those genuinely in need of support and those who might be exploiting these psychological tactics for personal gain.

Navigating the Complexities

As a coach, you may encounter clients who consistently see themselves as victims of an unjust world. They pour their efforts into relationships and situations, only to feel overlooked or betrayed. It might seem more than coincidental—perhaps a pattern of behavior where they cast themselves in the role of the victim repeatedly, across various scenarios with different people.

The question then arises: Are these narratives of victimhood based on actual events, or are they reinterpretations of neutral circumstances portrayed as adversarial? This chronic recurrence might lead you to suspect that your client is engaging in victim signaling.

Victim mentality, as described by Psych Central, includes behaviors such as blaming external factors for personal setbacks, difficulty accepting responsibility, perceiving the world as hostile, maintaining score in relationships, and struggling to accept constructive criticism. These traits could very well align with your observations of your client, suggesting a pattern of 'crying wolf'!

However, it's crucial to pause and reassess before drawing conclusions.

Consider the possibility that to your client, the 'wolf' might indeed feel real. Their repeated victimization, whether factual or perceived, could be a deeply ingrained part of their reality. This isn't necessarily about consciously manipulating others for sympathy or resources; it might be a belief solidified by prolonged distress, or perhaps a narrative they never intended as deceitful.

Moreover, your client might recognize their own exaggerations but resort to them out of a sense of desperation rather than malice. Conditions like depression or trauma can lead to learned helplessness, where individuals feel so powerless that they might amplify their plight just to secure the necessary attention and help.

Identifying genuine manipulation versus a cry for help is not straightforward. Hastily labeling clients as manipulators risks oversimplifying their experiences and potentially exacerbating their challenges. This is especially pertinent in a societal context where victim blaming is prevalent, as highlighted by a 2021 study. This tendency to blame victims is deeply embedded within many cultures and can often overshadow the genuine support they require.

Thus, as coaches, it's vital to approach these situations with caution and empathy. We must avoid becoming like the villagers who dismiss the boy's cries without understanding the full context of his actions. Coaches are to strive to provide a supportive environment where clients feel heard and helped, not judged or dismissed.

Coaching with Curiosity and Compassion

When faced with a client who seems to consistently play the victim, it's natural to wonder about the authenticity of their experiences. Are they exaggerating their struggles? Are the issues they raise within your scope as a coach, or do they require referral to a therapist or other professional? These are critical considerations, but how you respond as a coach should remain consistent, regardless of the suspicions you might harbor.

First and foremost, it is vital to approach each session with an open mind and a readiness to believe in your client's perspective. Remember, they may genuinely believe in the adversities they describe. Even if there's a pattern where the client appears to be the common denominator in their problems, it’s important to remain present and engaged with them, not the problem they're presenting.

Instead of immediately trying to poke holes in their narrative or directly challenging their views, focus on understanding their experience more deeply. Ask questions. Lots of questions. This approach isn't about doubting them, but about being genuinely curious. Through these inquiries, you encourage the client to explore their stories and perhaps even recognize inconsistencies themselves.

Provide a safe, non-judgmental space for them to express their thoughts and feelings. This environment is crucial for fostering an open dialogue. As you gently work through the conversation, the client might begin to see alternative perspectives on their own. This process requires patience and careful listening—avoid the urge to rush or impose your interpretations.

The goal here is not just to challenge their views, but to assist them in expanding their internal locus of control. By encouraging them to explore their capabilities and the role they play in their circumstances, you help them move towards a more empowered self-perception.

Ultimately, the key takeaway for any coach is to maintain a stance of curiosity and support. Each question you ask should aim to open up new avenues of thought for the client, helping them to explore their situation with greater clarity and insight. This approach is fundamental to fostering an authentic change in perspective, guiding them towards recognizing their own strength and potential to influence their life's direction.

In coaching, the consistent response to any client, victim mentality or not, is to believe, be present, and help them navigate through their narratives towards greater self-awareness and autonomy.


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC)!

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