There is a difference between a coworker getting on your nerves and a toxic one. And since the word toxic gets thrown around quite casually when discussing potentially dysfunctional and problematic relationships, it can be hard to distinguish between the two.
The solution? Ask science. A team of Israeli researchers recently introduced a new personality trait, the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood (TIV), which they define as “an enduring feeling that the self is a victim across different kinds of interpersonal relationships.”
So if your coworkers are constantly indulging in woe-is-me talk, it could very well be a sign of toxicity. This is not so much about someone having a one-off reaction to a conflict, but more about a sustained, consistent personality trait. “Victimization becomes a central part of the individual’s identity,” said Rahav Gabay, one of the researchers behind the study on TIV.
Here are six signs someone you work with has an unhealthy tendency for playing the victim.
External locus of control
In psychology, the locus of control is a concept that relates to a person’s beliefs about the world and how much control they have over their circumstances.
Those who have a victim mindset tend to have an external locus of control, which means they believe life is happening to them and that external variables are largely to blame for the results in their reality.
So if you have a coworker who is constantly pointing fingers when it comes to unmet goals and deadlines or a lack of career advancement, she may just be the perfect example of someone with a toxic mindset.
Need for recognition
People with a victim mentality crave others’ recognition of their victimhood. It comes from wanting their very-real feelings of suffering acknowledged and validated.
The thing is, it takes a tremendous deal of self-awareness to separate events from our interpretation of events. And it’s often their interpretation of events that leave people with TIV feeling distressed, wronged and hurt.
Having others validate their perspective is comforting. And it can even be a misguided, subconscious way to get their needs for connection met, perpetuating the cycle of interpersonal victimhood even further.
Moral elitism — the belief that one is morally superior to others — is often a superiority complex in disguise. A coworker with a superiority complex may believe she is better than her teammates and have an exaggerated opinion of herself. But it’s really a defense mechanism to protect herself from her low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.
Those with a toxic tendency for playing the victim often display behaviors associated with moral elitism: They see the world in black-and-white, good-or-evil terms (and they perceive themselves as good). When someone makes a mistake, they are quick to tie the person’s actions to a lack of moral judgment in general. They say things like “I would never…”
The problem with constantly categorizing people and situations as good or bad is that it doesn’t allow for a more nuanced view of reality, which is full of grey zones, or the ability to make good judgment calls based on context. Having a morally elitist colleague can lead to all sorts of issues in the workplace.
Lack of empathy
A lack of empathy is a pretty big red flag when it comes to identifying potentially toxic coworkers. And, if your coworkers have TIV, that lack of empathy will show itself as an entitlement: They’ve been wronged and thus it’s OK for them to be inconsiderate.
A study comprised of three experiments concluded that feeling like a victim can indeed make people behave more selfishly.
So if your coworker is constantly coming to you to complain about being treated poorly yet seems to be disregarding the fact you’re in the middle of a really important project, you may just be dealing with someone toxic.
Wondering what rumination looks like? You probably know someone who seems to take pleasure in rehashing negative events from the past. People with a victim mindset find comfort in going over unpleasant scenarios where they felt victimized and replaying them in their minds. They dwell — a lot.
If you recognize any of your coworkers in the description above, they could very well have an unhealthy tendency for seeing themselves as a victim in all sorts of interpersonal scenarios.
Desire for revenge
There is dwelling and holding grudges. And then, there is actually seeking revenge. If you know a person who is the type to try to sabotage someone else to get payback, it might be a huge sign of toxic behaviors at play.
This is a more dangerous trait because while other behaviors associated with TIV can be detrimental to relationships and other people, this one can be straight-up directed into malicious action. Pay attention and stay away.