Surah Yusuf and the victim mentality

As salaam alaikum,

My name is Yasmin, and I’ve been in a perpetual victim mentality for decades. Alhamdulillah for the past couple of years I haven’t been in it perpetually – there have been moments, even days of clarity, of recognizing that I am not still a victim.

But that feeling of being constantly the victim does hit me frequently, especially when confronted with another victim. And then I must dig myself back out of the old thinking and back over into the new.

What’s victim mentality?

Quite simply, victim mentality is when someone who was victimized hangs onto those feelings. Unfortunately, this is encouraged a lot – social media, the social justice movement, feminism, television shows, and even those who work in psychiatry and psychology actually treat being in a perpetual victim state as if it is something inevitable, or even desired.

The problem with being a perpetual victim, however, is that you look for others to fix the problem. Definitely if you’re being actively oppressed, seeking or hoping for outside assistance is normal. But it’s unhealthy to remain in this state indefinitely, and for one very good reason:

You fail to see that you need to change

When you’re a perpetual victim, you don’t need to be introspective. You don’t have to look inward, or try and fix yourself. The problem lies with everyone else, and it’s their job to fix you, or coddle you, or apologize, or expect less from you. No, the problem is with everyone else, not you, so don’t even look inside at your emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual states and see what you can do.

What does this have to do with Surah Yusuf?

Surah Yusuf features the story of two prophets, Yaqub (Jacob) and Yusuf (Joseph), peace be upon them both. Yaqub is a father and the patriarch of his family. He has ten sons with his first wife, and two sons (Yusuf and Binyamin – AKA Benjamin), with his second wife. Yusuf has a dream and he tells his father, Yaqub, about it, and Yaqub gives Yusuf the gladtidings that Yusuf, despite being a small boy, will be the next prophet in Yaqub’s family tree.

Yusuf’s older brothers, the ones from the first wife, become jealous, saying:

“Joseph and his brother (Benjamin) are more beloved to our father than we are, despite us being a strong group! Surely our father is in clear error!”

Yusuf and the well

So the brothers debate amongst themselves, finally deciding on throwing Yusuf down a well while they’re in the forest, leaving him effectively for dead, or at the best, a slave for whoever finds him.

They lie to their father to persuade him to let Yusuf go out with them to the forest, and they take off Yusuf’s shirt and throw Yusuf down the well. They then slaughter a sheep and put the blood on Yusuf’s shirt, and return to their father, sobbing, about how Yusuf was killed by a wolf.

The brothers have just victimized Yusuf and their father, Yaqub.

What happened to Yusuf after this?

Long story short, some travellers come and remove Yusuf from the well. They sell him to a high ranking minister in Egypt. After some time, the minister’s “cougar” wife tries to seduce Yusuf. Yusuf is innocent in this regard, but he goes to jail despite his innocence (largely due to the gossip of the women in the city). It is only much later, when he interprets a dream for the king, that he is released and his innocence is declared.

But the story of Yusuf doesn’t end there. The dream of the king revealed there would be seven years of a bounty in harvest, and then seven years of drought. Yusuf is given authority over the silos containing the grain, and Allah sends Yusuf’s brothers to Egypt of all places, looking for provision. Long story short, eventually his brothers are standing in front of him and he reveals that he is Yusuf.

What did Yusuf say to his brothers?

I know, this is the question I wanted to know, because I knew what I would say. “You left me for dead. You’re horrible. I’m never going to forgive you, look at how you’ve ruined my life, I never got to grow up in my family, I haven’t seen my parents for years….”

Right? The usual, victim-filled tirade.

This is not what Yusuf said. He, peace and blessings be upon him, replied:

“I am Yusuf, and this is my brother (Binyamin). Allah has definitely favored us. Indeed, for he who is mindful of Allah and bears patience, then Allah will definitely will not waste the reward of those who do good”.

Can you imagine? He could have seen all that was bad of the tests that befell him – tests he never asked for, but were afflicted upon him. But instead, Yusuf recognizes that he would never been such a high ranking person in Egypt, ensuring those afflicted by drought are able to survive, and he is grateful that he is united with his family – including the brothers who plotted against him when he was but a boy!

Did Yusuf hold a grudge?

No, in fact he tells his brothers:

“No blame is upon you today. Allah will forgive you, and He is the Most Merciful from those who have mercy”.

I think one of the biggest mistakes people like myself make is we let what was done to us affect our sense of self-worth. But we forget that the people who (metaphorically) throw us into wells aren’t doing so because there’s something wrong with us. They do it because something is wrong with them. The reality is, however, that being in this victim mentality prevents us from looking at those who wrongfully oppressed us and see them as human. They become some sort of super-human villain to us, but the reality is that they are flawed beings and it is the fact that they never faced their inner demons that caused us to suffer at their hands.

And because hanging onto this victim mentality also causes us not to face our own inner demons, we risk becoming the oppressors ourselves. This alone is reason enough to let it go.

Isn’t this Qur’anic example a bit unrealistic?

Not at all. In fact, if you go and read Surah Yusuf, you’ll learn that Yaqub struggles a lot with the loss of Yusuf while putting his hope and all his requests for help only in Allah. Yaqub is so overcome by grieving the separation of his son that he eventually becomes blind.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to immediately forgive and accept. We can come to that slowly. But we need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and we need to stop expecting other people to act while we do nothing. Perhaps the best starting point is to take all those emotions regarding being victimized and pour them out to Allah privately. If the emotional load feels too difficulty to carry then seek help from someone who is competent in helping others. (And don’t look so much at title but rather recommendations and credibility.) But tie your camel – do something productive towards healing – and put your trust in Allah

Is this the only lesson from Surah Yusuf?

Absolutely not! Subhanallah, the entire Qur’an is such that if you pick it up daily and read with understanding, and refer to the books of tafseer, you will constantly find new lessons and new advice in it. This is but one small aspect that I wanted to share with you, in the hopes that Allah’s word might give you a change in direction away from darkness and into the light.

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