After Empire actor Jussie Smollett was attacked by two men in MAGA hats, investigators were appalled to discover that he had paid extras from the show $3,500 to stage the attack. Why would a man orchestrate a fake hate crime, with himself as the victim? Police suspect he did it because he was dissatisfied with his salary, but the compulsion to play the victim is deep-rooted and potentially pathological. And the foundation for seeking victimhood is often formed in early childhood from complex trauma that results in insecure attachment and, occasionally, personality disorders.
“This is an extreme case, but if you dig deep enough, you’re probably going to find some early experiences that informed the way he developed and contributed to what was ultimately pathological,” Alex Ribbentrop, a therapist and clinical social worker who specializes in treating trauma, told Fatherly.
“We don’t do things in a vacuum.”
Developmental psychologists generally agree that our earliest experiences and relationships have a significant and inevitable influence on who we become, across the board. Attachment theory states that when these relationships are unstable and needs are not met, babies and children form insecure attachment styles that can cause them to act out, often for the rest of their lives.
People with insecure attachment tend to be either anxious or avoidant. Anxious people cling to victim roles because because taking responsibility for themselves is too overwhelming, so they play the helpless card. Avoidant people are more antisocial, and usually come off more as perpetrators rather than victims. Although Ribbentrop cannot diagnose Smollett without a proper assessment, he notes that avoidant individuals tend to manipulate scenarios to make themselves look like victims.
In extreme instances of anxious and avoidant attachment, people develop full-blown personality disorders. Personality disorders are diagnosable mental conditions characterized by chronic problems in relationships and daily functioning. People who consistently play the victim display some behaviors consistent with “Cluster B” personality disorders. These include antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder, which are characterized by dramatic, overly emotional, and unpredictable behaviors.
“With trauma, oftentimes you’re going to see an acute behavior that sticks out where someone is egregiously crossing the line—personality disorders that are correlated with early childhood trauma experiences,” Ribbentrop says.
It’s important to note that trauma, attachment, and self-victimization all happen on a spectrum. People who play the victim to the extent of Smollett are almost always going to display personality disorder characteristics, whether they receive a diagnosis or not. However, a lot of everyday self-victimization doesn’t involve actors or thousands of dollars. It can as simple as misinterpreting a dirty look.
Whether they have a personality disorder or not, the challenge with people who play the victim is that most people do not see themselves as playing. In Smollett’s case, even when the truth came to light he doubled-down on self victimization—he was, perhaps, not a victim of an attack, but a victim of the media, or the system. For some people who struggle with insecure attachment, it might be enough for a friend or a loved one to point out this victim mentality to get them to see it. But for many people who experience it to an extreme degree, the consequences have to make life untenable to force a change.
In some way, Smollett and those like him legitimately are victims—of early childhood trauma and personality disorders. They have likely been hurt and need to heal, they’re just going about it all wrong. It can be challenging to have compassion for people who play the victim, but sometimes compassion is simply a matter of understanding where the awful behavior is coming from and setting boundaries.
“The compassionate thing to do is to allow someone to take responsibility for their actions so they can learn and grow from them, but it needs to come from a place of understanding,” Ribbentrop says.
“Sometimes compassion is a hug. Sometimes, it’s a kick in the butt.”