The term “victim” has become a dirty word in some circles. Should someone claim they have been injured or victimized in a relationship—especially if their wounds are not physical, they are met with shaking heads or raised eyebrows.
I cannot tell you how many times, when I was reeling in shock, I was advised (often with the best intentions) to “stop being a victim!” This after being left a few weeks before our wedding by my partner of six years.
Yet, discovering I had been living a lie injured me. It undermined my reality, shattered my trust, and stirred depths of pain incomprehensible to me at the time. I needed compassion and understanding more than ever before in my life.
Instead, I was often accused of not taking responsibility for my part in the relationship demise, suspected of wallowing in a “poor me” mindset, and charged with character assassination for suggesting I had been harmed. But, above all, I was chastised for taking satisfaction in taking on a new and exciting identity—as a victim!
Limitations of New Age Beliefs about Suffering
I was quietly reminded, “There is no such thing as a victim.” Or, “Nothing can hurt us but our own attitudes.” I was highly susceptible to believing these attitudes because for most of my life, I, too, felt disdain for victims. I believed I was a psychologically sophisticated person who understood that we are responsible for our own feelings. And spiritually “advanced” enough to believe that we “attract our reality.”
Previously, I had considered myself a resilient person who bounced back with relative ease from life’s slings and arrows. I believed others could do the same if they just put their minds to it.
That is, until this traumatic abandonment and betrayal fractured my world. Then, despite all my efforts to heal, to let go and forgive, I did feel like a victim! For a long time, I could not shake the feeling of shame at having been “used and abused,” in short, victimized. Somehow this unrelenting pain must be my fault.
Now, with the passage of time, I want to take a stand for victimization. I have come more and more to believe that in order to move forward and heal, there are times when we need to stand up and shout, “Yes, I am a victim!”
Victims Reveal our Vulnerability
I began to wonder why we are so anxious to blame victims. To be a victim implies helplessness and acute vulnerability. By denying victim status to those who are hurt by life, we attempt to banish our own fears of harmful events.
We can see how absurd the belief in “no victims” is when we consider natural disasters, war, genocide, rape, epidemics, children abandoned or born into poverty or abusive families. Yet, we still tend to rationalize misfortune when it is close to us, blaming the victim for their plight—even if we clothe our blame in concepts such as sin, karma or the law of attraction.
We like to believe we live in a predictable world, a safe and moral universe where our actions have consequences. If only we live, think and act well, terrible things won’t happen to us. “What goes around comes around” gives us a sense that we have some control over our destiny.
That misfortune is random and can happen to anyone at any time is terrifying. But the truth is that bad things do happen to good people. When we blame the victim, it offers us a last grasp at control. If they had behaved differently (like us), this bad thing would not have happened to them.
At the deepest spiritual levels there may be some truth that the victim of abuse, accident, disease, or crime shares responsibility for his or her suffering. On the human level, however, when we are faced with suffering, these attitudes not only cover fear of our own powerlessness, but shut off our compassion.
Facing the Truth Brings a Deepening, an Existential Crisis
When life deals us, or someone we love, a cruel blow, it shatters naive innocence and trust. Especially if this blow comes through the hands of another we have loved and trusted, we are forced to grapple with questions of good and evil.
Betrayal initiates an existential, spiritual crisis that requires spiritual healing. We have to dig deep inside and dispel many illusions to find answers. We must pass through the dark night of realizing how much we do not know. Most importantly, we need to find our way to a trust in a Higher Power beyond human relationship.
When a traumatic event shatters our reality, we need to come to terms with what happened, against the titanic draw of denial. This includes our victimhood, helplessness and powerlessness. Until we do, we cannot fully grieve what has been lost—our worldview, identity, and trust, to name a few—nor can we fully heal.
I learned that acknowledging “I am a victim” can be a statement of profound courage, compassion and insight. To move forward, first we need to stand on the firm ground of what happened. We need to face the existential crisis the truth initiates. Then, we can find our way to the compassion and strength that goes beyond victimhood. This solid strength endures regardless of what happens to us.
Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal”—now available in print and ebook.
A powerful book that will serve many.—Tara Brach, PhD.
Thank you for this, Sandy. The fear of being a victim, or being seen as one, in our society often leads many to victimize others: do unto others before they do unto you. Those of us who have been victimized and then, somehow, find the courage and strength to fully participate in our own healing, can tell our story for the benefit of others. We can be truly present for those who are suffering when we move past our own shame. Hallelujah.
So true,Fran. That calls for:
I think when I work as a Psychotherapist I try to avoid the word victim. It does not matter whether this person is ‘a victim or not a victim’ it is about coming to a joint understanding or appreciation of what has happened and how this can be changed for their future events. The past cannot be changed however the view of the perception of what happens next can become extraordinary rather than a long-term sentence in the shadow of this sadness and pain. There is light beyond……
I don’t like using the word “victim” either, especially in reference to myself and my circumstance.
My therapist has never used the word “victim” to describe me in the current situation, and I’m not sure I would like it if she did.
She tends to bring the focus back to the present and what I can do now. I appreciate that guidance as it is easy for me to focus on what happened and on who did the damage.
But, while I don’t like to call myself a victim, it does bother me a little when she brushes off the events that I believe have hugely contributed to my state of mind. At times I’ve told friends and family what happened and how I feel it affected me, and they say I’m blaming him for my problems.
So the reality is that right now, I am the victim who has been damaged by abuse and I feel a need for people to see that I did not just become “this way” out of the blue. I didn’t just loose my last marble for no reason. Someone took my last marble!
I could change my mind in time, but at this point I feel it is relevant for people to know what happened and what he did to me. Not because I want to play the victim card or get sympathy, but because a person is treated differently based on their background.
For example, If a walks around with a broken leg because he hit a median while driving drunk, he will get a very different response than someone who has a broken leg as a result of being hit by a drunk driver.
People’s perceptions of you, their understanding of you influences how you are treated.
So, while I do appreciate therapists who guide me back to the present and future, I do feel that the events of the past, especially if they caused or hugely contributed to a person’s current struggles, should not be treated as just “in the past.”
To be a victim is to experience life in it’s sometimes brutal reality. To look down on a victim is to dwell in a closed world without compassion for others. I am not afraid to say I was a victim, and sometimes I am a victim still—when others dismiss and degrade me because they don’t understand my pain.
Being a victim does not always mean you are not strong. It can mean you have to fight harder and longer to be true to and take care of yourself. But sometimes victims are not strong enough to pull out of their situation. It’s not a crime when that is the case.
Selfishness is a disease as far as I am concerned, and those who don’t wish to acknowledge your pain do so in order to protect themselves and not be bothered with your problems. Accusing you of being a victim as though it is a disease, is a convenient excuse to let themselves off the hook. Those are the people we don’t need in our life. If you are a victim you need nurturing. You need someone who will care about your feelings.
To find out you have been betrayed is devastating emotionally. You begin to question everything and wonder how you could have been so blind. You cannot help but put so much blame on yourself, without anyone else adding to it. With my knowledge of abuse (I wrote a book on the subject) I might add that if you were left and deserted a few weeks before your wedding, you were given a gift by your abuser, because if he had married you it may have become something much more toxic than it already was.
To have been a victim of emotional betrayal means you have now grown and gained a new tool to help you help others, and to also maneuver through your own life as a stronger, wiser person. I hope you don’t mind such a long comment. I’m passionate about this subject.
Sandra, thank you so much for this interesting point of view on victim-hood. I sincerely believe that it is imperative to look at any situation from all points of view.
As someone who has been “victimized,” there was a time when I stayed in that “victim mindset” for much longer than I feel was healthy for me. While I do believe that it is important to feel the feelings of any moment, of any situation, it is also important to learn to empower ourselves to move past that “mindset”.
While I don’t suggest that my situation is like any other person’s set of circumstances – we are all highly individual and our paths to move forward are just as unique – for me, it was not until I WAS able to see my contributions to the situation that allowed me to feel like I could take back my power and move forward and really grow.
When I work with others who have been “victimized,” I often help them find their strengths that they had been hiding from even themselves by clinging to the label victim. When we choose not to make victim a label, it empowers us all. It is something that happened to us, but doesn’t define us.
Thanks, again, for this beautiful piece offering a needed alternate perspective from which one may look at this!
Thank you, Shellie,for your balanced perspective that grew out of your own experience on this subject. I completely support exploring our own weaknesses/ contributions to any situation we find ourselves in. Sometimes, even after we do our best taking responsibility, however, we still have to grapple with the existence of cruelty and malevolence in the world.
Perhaps not a lot of people face needing to deal with being on the receiving end of transitory or characterological sociopathic tendencies. But if/ when we are, it is likely to set off an existential crisis about the nature of good and evil in the world that goes far beyond issues of personal identity and identification.
Thank you again for taking the time to comment in such a kind and wise manner.
Thank you for putting into words what-I believer-a majority of us feel. Being a victim does not mean you are sitting around feeling sorry for yourself all the time. There IS such a thing as a victim and society needs to stop blaming them by trying to rationalize an irrational act. A woman wearing a short skirt is NOT asking to be raped-especially when rape has nothing to do with sex. I personally am sick of the blaming the victim mindset that is so prevalent in society.
Great article! This is such a challenging area for those of us who have been victims — and yet don’t want to admit that vulnerability. It’s not hip to be a victim and it can make the people around us REALLY uncomfortable. No one wants to believe bad things can happen to them. We think if we can hold our (or anyone else’s) victim identity at arm’s length away from us, we’ll be okay. But that leads to such a disconnect and sense of separation, from ourselves and others.
I wrote a very similar article about my own experience: http://www.survivingtherapistabuse.com/2009/08/but-i-dont-want-to-be-a-victim/
Thanks for sharing yours!