When I was in grad school, I met a woman about my age who was wrestling with childhood abuse she’d never dealt with before. Clinical psychology programs have a way of doing that–teasing out whatever unhealed wounds are still hiding from the light. One day in a class discussion about abuse, someone began loudly proclaiming that “victim mentality” keeps people stuck in the past. My colleague’s hand shot up immediately. “If you never deal with the fact that you were victimized, how can you possibly move forward? It’s okay to stay in your pain for a while!”
I never, ever forgot that.
Talking about being victimized, allowing yourself to feel the hurt and the terror and pushing through it to the other side into healing, isn’t synonymous with “victim mentality.” Who came up with this phrase anyway? Some of it seems to be associated with the New Age movement, which seems to believe that humans have far more control over the universe and people than we actually do. It actually takes great strength and support to face one’s experiences of victimization. It’s what I say to my clients, perhaps weekly, when I see them trying to push their minds, hearts, and bodies past their threshold, denying their pain over certain events and the people who caused them. It’s what I’ve had to say to myself, many times.
Survivors who bravely and with much trepidation begin to talk about their abuse are often silenced with the “victim mentality” moniker. I can’t tell you how many of my clients I’ve had to extricate from this blaming and shaming view. Society needs to have an open discourse on abuse. It takes as long as it takes to heal. There are things we can do to speed it up a bit, such as leaning on your support system, excellent self-care, reducing stress, going to support groups, and engaging in therapy. But even when they’re doing “everything right,” I’ve seen survivors take many years to heal and put their abuse past them, to the point where they can have healthy, loving relationships and feel generally content with life.
When you’ve been abused, you’re rarely invited to talk about it. The subject makes people uncomfortable, and so a projective process begins of identifying with the perpetrator (the person with the perceived power). If a person can’t tolerate feeling vulnerable, if they equate it with being weak, with being a victim (the person perceived as powerless), then of course, they’re going to push it back onto those who can freely admit they were hurt. Victimization is equated with losing. And in our one-up, one-down society, our culture of having power over rather than true empowerment, it is not okay to lose. You must have brought it on yourself with your victim mentality. Is it any wonder survivors are afraid to speak out, with this mantle of shame we place wrongly upon them? The shame that rightly belongs in the perpetrator’s corner.
Ironically, many abusers approach their eventual victims with what’s called a victim narrative, or pity play. In an effort to gain their target’s trust and sympathy during the love bombing phase of the relationship, they falsely spin their stories so that they are always the victim (when they were in fact, the aggressor). This works incredibly well with empathic types, who see this person and feel a compassionate recognition. This person is like me, they think. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The vast majority of survivors I’ve known would never lead with their abuse when getting to know someone new. While much of this is due to shame, of being judged or re-victimized, with time and trust, these narratives come out.
So let’s place the responsibility back where it belongs. On the perpetrators, who actually take on a victim mentality in order to manipulate and abuse.
It’s okay to not be okay. Abuse hurts. If you allow yourself to experience your pain, you’ll get to the healthy kind of anger that cauterizes these wounds. Beyond that is acceptance and integration of the abuse. Life becomes bigger. Abuse is just one of our stories.