I’ve found a lot of value in seeking out opinions I disagree with and working to understand them better. I have learned a lot more from this approach than from standard debates where both sides are dug in and defensive.
Given this background, I decided to take a similar approach to something that is often discussed among personal finance bloggers in a broad and vague manner: victim mentality.
Especially on Twitter, personal finance bloggers regularly complain about other bloggers encouraging a victim mentality. These comments are generally met with likes and agreement.
But I didn’t understand. How could this be so prevalent in the personal finance community without me even noticing? Do we just have different definitions of victim mentality? Are we just running in different circles?
I reached out and asked folks to name names and explain their rationale to get a better understanding.
What is Victim Mentality?
In trying to define a victim mentality, there was a baseline definition that everyone agreed on: When someone believes that bad things in their life are the result of the actions and influence of others and there’s nothing that they can do to make things better.
In the world of personal finance an example would be someone that believes that there’s nothing they could possibly do to save money because the deck is stacked against them, so they don’t even try. It’s learned helplessness with a side of blaming others.
There are certainly people that fit this description. There are some people that believe that their money situation is a lost cause because the system is rigged, and so they don’t make any efforts to improve it. We can argue about how common this is (there is a common misperception that the poor generally fall into this category when the vast majority do not) but this mindset does exist out in the world.
It’s pretty clear, however, that there are no examples of this type of person in the personal finance community. If you are choosing to take the time to try to teach people about money, then by definition you are taking the time to learn about money and are working to get your financial house in order.
So where is the victim mentality in the personal finance community that people are complaining about?
Expanding the Definition
To get to where the complaints are coming from, we need to expand the definition of victim mentality to encompass a broader community. Which direction to expand the definition, however, was subject to different interpretations.
The substantive responses appeared to fall into two different, but related, categories: focusing on systemic problems and advocating for progressive policies.
(I specify substantive responses here because a number of people, when pressed for detail beyond the basic definition in the previous section, basically told me that their views were too complicated to explain and bowed out of the conversation. I have my suspicions about where their views come from, but without hearing from them I will set them aside.)
Highlighting Systemic Problems
The most direct expansion of the definition is the inclusion of people that point out systemic problems.
There were two main versions of this idea. The less sophisticated version is simply that pointing out systemic problems is embracing a victim mentality because you are identifying a financial issue outside of your control rather than one within your control.
While very few people were actually able to name names when I asked who in the personal finance space had a victim mentality, one of the people that was named falls into this category.
I was pointed to this person’s recent tweets as evidence. These included a comment about how 529 accounts have not been a successful policy fix in helping most people save for college and a tweet arguing that financial literacy classes are not a silver bullet for navigating 100-page, small print financial services contracts.
The complaints in these tweets are certainly accurate. Having a tax-sheltered college savings account only helps those with the ability to save money and disproportionately benefits people with higher tax rates. Financial literacy classes could be helpful on basic issues but would not prevent companies from taking advantage of consumers.
If the problem is not that the complaints are unfounded, then the implication to tagging these ideas as “victim mentality” is that complaints about systems and policies as a whole are unjustified.
This is backed up by other things that were categorized as “victim mentality,” such as suggestions that the minimum wage is too low, arguments that the tax code is unfair, and complaints about the rapidly increasing costs of housing, education, and other staples. The idea is that instead of flagging these systemic problems, we should be working on improving ourselves (and our readers) in order to overcome them.
The False Dichotomy
This approach is based on a false dichotomy between systemic problems on the one hand and individual actions on the other.
The idea is that you can either take personal responsibility or you can blame others. You can either pull yourself up by your bootstraps or you can complain about the system.
The problem is that this just isn’t true. Taking personal responsibility and addressing systemic issues are not mutually exclusive. We can, and should, be doing both.
My personal approach to personal finance is to work my ass off within the current system while advocating for a system that treats the folks coming up after me more fairly.
We should be working to increase our income and also working to address income inequality for the country as a whole. We should be trying to pay down our student debt while advocating for getting wildly escalating education costs under control. We should be fighting to improve our own situation and simultaneously fighting to create a system of equal opportunity for people of all genders, races, and orientations.
In short, we should be taking personal responsibility and trying to fix systemic problems.
This theory of “victim mentality” would write this approach off as impossible.
On top of that, internalizing the idea that systemic problems are off-limits and can’t be touched is just developing a learned helplessness and a victim mentality from the other direction.
You can take control of your personal finances. You can fight back against unjust systems.
You can do it all.
The more sophisticated version of this argument says that these writers don’t necessarily have a victim mentality, but they are encouraging such a mindset in their readers.
The idea here is that by focusing on systemic issues you are leading your readers to focus on those big picture problems rather than on their own actions or specific situation. This, in turn, causes your readers to decide that systemic issues are the reason they can’t succeed financially and leads them to adopt a victim mentality.
One person that espoused a more nuanced version of this view acknowledged that systemic issues are real and need to be addressed, but said “I see a difference between ‘here’s why it might be harder for you; don’t despair if you aren’t getting where you want as fast as you want’ and ‘the system is against you look at all of the examples, life sucks, this is why people can’t get ahead, you should be mad at these people for it, bootstrapping is 100% stupid, this isn’t your fault.’”
Essentially, systemic issues should be addressed, but they should be addressed in a way that uplifts rather than depresses your readers. This person said, “I also think people who are money influencers have a responsibility not to discourage people from improving their financial situation.” In this view it is fine to highlight systemic issues, but only if you are also presenting a solution.
How We Are Perceived
This is an idea that is worth exploring. Before we do, though, I want to note that while this is the most thoughtful approach to “victim mindset,” it was also the least common. None of the people that publicly rail against, or even sporadically complain about, victim mentality espoused this view. Instead it was discussed by a few people that DMed me to discuss the issue despite not taking a public stance.
With that out of the way…
I view this critique in a way that is similar to some of the more thoughtful critiques of the privilege discussion. It doesn’t mean that those of us discussing systemic issues are wrong, but it does mean that we should be mindful of how our words may be perceived.
None of us want to discourage our readers. The reason that we are writing and sharing our experiences and our knowledge is to help others. To the extent that our framing and our language holds us back from that goal, we should be cognizant. We should work both to challenge the system and to provide a path forward for individuals.
This is made especially difficult by the character limits on Twitter.
Some of the names mentioned in discussions on this topic are folks who write extensively in their blogs about how people can take control of their financial lives, but focus their twitter presence on highlighting systemic issues.
While we’d all prefer our audience to read and remember our full bodies of work, this isn’t usually the case. Because of this, it is possible that some readers may be taking away the wrong message.
I don’t think that this is a reason to stop flagging systemic issues. If we give our readers the impression that they shouldn’t try to change the system, then we will simply be instilling a different type of victim mentality or learned helplessness.
Instead, I think it is simply something to keep in mind as we tweet. Maybe for one person this means finding a balance of systemic and personal issues to discuss. Maybe for another it means continuing a focus on systemic issues but including calls to action that empower your readers. There are plenty of different ways to handle this and plenty of examples out there of people that are doing this well.
Just make sure to take a bit of time to think about how your words may be perceived by others before hitting “tweet.”
With that aside covered, let’s head to the second expanded definition of victim mentality: supporting progressive policies.
This was the most common approach taken by folks who complain about a victim mentality. The argument here is basically that looking to progressive policies to solve problems (including income inequality, racial inequality, gender inequality, minimum wage, health care, education costs, housing shortages, monopolies, and many more) means that you are refusing to take personal responsibility and are instead treating yourself as a victim. Advocating for government to solve problems means that you aren’t willing to put in the work to solve them yourself.
As one person told me, “My biggest struggle is when my favorite people in Personal Finance…want to turn over more power to the government.” Others made similar, albeit less direct, comments pointing to progressive policy positions.
If you’re arguing for a raise in the minimum wage, then you’re against people working harder. If you are advocating for decreased education costs or loan forgiveness, then you are preventing people from taking responsibility for their debt and choices. If you are supporting policies that push towards gender equality, racial equality, or anything else, you are viewing individuals as cultural monoliths and taking away their autonomy.
But really, when it comes down to it, you’re supporting political priorities with which these folks don’t agree.
Straying from Libertarianism
Where the previous interpretation of “victim mentality” said that we must provide solutions, this one says that those solutions can’t be from the left side of the political spectrum.
As we’ve discussed before, the default political position in the personal finance community is libertarianism. It’s a community where complaining that taxes are too high is fine, but advocating for an increased minimum wage gets you a bunch of messages from people telling you to leave politics out of it.
This approach to victim mentality stems from that libertarian base. As one person told me, it’s a “bootstraps or bust” mentality. Either you man up, take responsibility, and grab those bootstraps, or you whine and cry and ask the government for a handout. Like a certain personal finance manifesto laid out earlier this year, libertarianism is the right way to get to financial independence and everything else is bull.
Obviously I don’t believe this is true.
First, as it relates to personal finance writers, most of us progressives aren’t necessarily advocating for policies that would help us on our way to financial independence.
I support Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan, despite the fact that it won’t help me. I advocate for a living wage despite making six figures. I support policies and social changes that help lift up women and people of color and LGBTQ people despite being a straight white man.
It’s not about thinking I’m a victim and looking to the government to help me hit my savings goals. It’s about recognizing that there are a lot of systems in place that hold other people down through no fault of their own and trying to correct that. It’s about using my position in society to help other people. It’s about lifting people up rather than tearing them down or trying to stand above them.
I do a lot in my personal life to try to improve my family’s situation. I also advocate for progressive policies and support progressive causes because I want to improve other families’ situations.
Quietly Defending the Status Quo
More importantly, we live in an unfair system.
Brushing off people that highlight systemic issues as having a “victim mentality” is a way to defend the status quo without having to explain why you support an unjust system.
In 26 states you can be fired for being LGBT.
That’s ridiculous and indefensible. But you can help keep the policy in place without directly defending it by telling people that they should ignore that and focus on things within their direct control. You can say that a focus on LGBT rights divides us when we should be focusing on the things we have in common. You can say that the free market knows best and we should work as hard as we can within that framework. You can tell people to stop seeing themselves as victims and instead spend their time working on what is in their direct control.
In over half of the United States, a demographic of people can lose their source of income just because of who they are. That is a major systemic issue that needs to be addressed. There is no bootstrapping your way around it. There is no personal responsibility solution. It can only be addressed by public pressure on state, local, and federal governments to change the laws.
Highlighting problems like that to raise awareness and increase the pressure to solve them does not mean you are acting like a victim. It means you are being proactive and taking steps towards creating a more fair world.
We should all be in favor of a world where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Acknowledging that we aren’t yet there is not having a victim mentality. It is a recognition of reality and an important first step to getting there.
Locus of Control
One of the themes that came up often in these conversations is “locus of control.”
An internal locus of control is where you believe that you are in control of your own life. An external locus of control is when you believe that you don’t have any influence over what happens to you.
This has mutated lately, first within the self-help community and then within the personal finance community, into a belief that you should only focus on issues in which you directly control the outcome.
Under this mindset you should focus on working hard, learning new things, building relationships, and other self-improvement staples while ignoring the larger systems around you. Have an internal locus of control.
However, this ignores the fact that you can influence the systems around you. Working to impact policy is completely consistent with having an internal locus of control.
You can vote for politicians based on how they will reshape policy. You can call politicians and rally and march to push them on issues. You can advocate for causes to raise awareness and create grassroots support.
You can advocate for more diversity within your company. You can use your leverage to get them to hire more women. You can be proactive about discussing your salary to help to level the gender pay gap.
It’s true that you can only control your own actions and not necessarily the results of those actions. But your actions can have far more impact on systems than you may believe.
Don’t let people use vague bad faith accusations of “victim mentality” to make you into a passive victim of the systems around you.
Do It Anyway
Confession: I almost didn’t write this piece
I wanted to find out what the people constantly complaining about victim mindset meant. It seemed like it was mostly just a way of complaining about progressives without seeming political, but I wanted to find out.
Turns out, that’s pretty much it.
For the loudest people it is just a way of arguing against progressive policies without actually engaging with those policies. It’s pretending that an “either/or” exists rather than an “and,” because you don’t want people fighting to change the system, but you can’t (or don’t want to) argue against the actual ideas.
It’s a way of preventing a discussion on how to make things better. It is a way to defend the status quo without appearing to defend the status quo.
Calling that out is not really a useful article.
Ultimately, I decided that it was worth including the other interpretations, even though they did not come from people that are vocal about victim mentality within the community. It’s useful to understand what other people think and how they see things differently.
There is some useful advice in learning how to reframe issues and debates and how best to reach others.
With that said, the answer to my original question is that people complaining about a victim mentality on Twitter are usually trying to discourage you from talking about something. Think about what that is and shout it even louder.
Systems can change, but you need to make them.