I deleted a thread in which I wrote about sexual abuse victims becoming survivors because I did not do full justice to this complex subject, and want to do that now.
In 21 years of successfully guiding sexual, emotional and physical abuse victims into healthy recovery, the word victim has always been a point of challenge. There is a strong movement to do away with the word, as many feel that the word itself is degrading and encourages a person to see themselves as weak. Others feel that the word can instill a sense of shame, deformity or stigma upon someone who needs more than anything to feel good about themselves.
I am deeply sensitive to this perspective. Indeed, I have engaged with many, many abuse clients who come in very unwilling to see themselves as victims even though they are in a lot of emotional pain and their lives and relationships are not working as well as they need to. Many have worked with therapists and counsellors who have discouraged them from seeing themselves this way in a well-intended effort to strengthen that person’s self-esteem, self-image and overall ability to function in their lives.
Yet they come to me because something is missing in their healing. They have heard from friends that I do a deeper level of work and that my clients achieve real healing. And what I am going to share with you is what I share with my clients.
None of us who have been abused want to see ourselves as victims. It is the nature of the human mind and will to want to get back to normal as soon as possible and especially in the case of abuse, where our power has been taken away from us at a certain level, it can seem counterproductive and perhaps even self-defeating to see ourselves as victims. The reality of being victimized however – and you can substitute such words as abused, betrayed, traumatized, violated, attacked, assaulted, raped, or degraded, and we’re still talking about the same thing – is that it is a complex emotional, neurological and cognitive alteration of our normal world, and that alteration and deep impact within us does not change simply because one chooses to not use the word victim or see themselves that way.
Believe me, I understand at a profound level the challenges of being forced into a state of emotional survival after being abused. The initial post-abuse days, weeks, months and years are often a very fragile, post-traumatic stage where the shock of having been abused takes root and various dysfunctions that come from a deep loss of boundaries begin to take over: triggered, reactive emotions and body states, hypervigilance about one’s environment, loss of trust, safety and purpose are all commons reactions to having been abused. I also understand from personal experience as a recovered abuse victim that using the word survivor to describe ourselves as we take action on our healing is a deep emotional anchor of intention as well as proactive choices. The word survivor allows us to begin separating ourselves from our abuser at a core level, and feeling our boundaries regrow.
In that state and those stages, we try to hold on to whatever is strong and good within us, to stay in control of our lives and to create as positive a narrative within us as we can about what has happened. The word victim can seem cold, absolute and entrapping, and part of our early post-abuse survival strategies is to minimize and compartmentalize the extent of the victimization within us. It is only when the pain in our lives reaches a certain point of intensity – and we have become inherently strong enough – that we seek out the healing that can begin to allow us to fully accept the experience of being an abuse victim, and to integrate that into our identities.
The initial healing stages can only be successful if a person receives the necessary level of empathy from their support people. Any abusive behavior comes from a breakdown of empathy inside the abuser, and the impact of that deep inability on the part of the abuser to have empathy for the impact they are having on the person they abuse is perhaps the most intense internal shock that gets created within us. How could you do that to me? Where was your conscience?
Abusers use the people they abuse. They force their own wounded energies and unprocessed grief into the body and psyche of the people they abuse against their will, even if the abuser seduces a person into letting them abuse them – and that is why I embrace the idea of victimization as being real, and essential to the understanding and experience of recovery. We are victimized when things are done to us against our will, even if we are not entirely aware of that at the time that the abuse is happening.
If we cannot emotionally, neurologically and cognitively grasp how we have been victimized by abuse, and that in being used by the abuser we were made a victim in those moments, our emotional ability to make healthy boundary assessments and choices becomes moderately to severely compromised. Our conscious ability to trust our own emotions and what they are telling us does not fully recover until we feel and process that shock and disruption to our lives that abuse creates. And the most important healing stage of all – doing the deep grief work that allows us to fully feel what we lost at the hands of the abuser – is nearly impossible if we are in some form of denial that a real victimization has occurred in our life.
This is the place where I meet many clients. They have been encouraged to “get over it – don’t see yourself as a victim” by well-meaning people. They tell me that they either don’t see themselves as victims, or don’t want to as a part of their healing experience. But when I take them into the cause and effect dynamics that the abuse has had in their lives – such as, your anger is an expression of the fear, confusion and grief caused by being abused, or, when you are yelling at your wife you are really confronting your abuser through her, or your depression is being anchored inside of you at a level of sustained shock that you have been carrying for years and didn’t know it – the light bulbs begin to go on, and they begin to emotionally, neurologically and cognitively make the connection between the moment when they were made a victim, and the way they are behaving dysfunctionally or making bad choices in their life now.
And in making that connection, this is where new choices – conscious, self-empathetic, self-loving choices – begin to form. In this stage taking full responsibility for our triggered emotions and where some or all of those triggered emotions originate in our having been abused is the essential recovery work that moves us to the next level of being a more functional survivor.
Cause and effect: the impact of the abuse on your life at an earlier moment has surfaced in this breakdown, this rage, this acting out behavior, this choice of partners – the impact of abuse often damages our ability to even know what healthy boundaries, communication or self-expression looks like, much less to be able to make those healthy choices. This is a big part of what it means to be a victim – that the awareness of what is healthy, the confidence that you know what your emotional rights are, and your ability to safely confront dysfunction without feeling ashamed, wrong or scared have been taken away from you by another person’s abuse of you.
When what you have lost at the hands of an abuser controls your life, your choices, your ability to create healthy relationships and your self -love, that is when the word victim means something. Even though we have begun our healing work and can honestly say we are survivors, we still reveal to ourselves the fact that we are also recovering abuse victims when we act out the damage and impact of the abuse within ourselves or on each other through our triggered emotions without having conscious choices that heal that damage. We are recovering abuse victims when the impact of the abuse alters the directions of our lives in such a way that we do not have good, healthy control over our boundaries and lives.
Nowhere do we recover our choices more completely than when we can confront our abuser and regain full consciousness of our right to have our own boundaries. Typically, I guide my clients to confront their abuser through role-play exercises where they are safe, in control of the experience and able to monitor their emotions successfully through the fear and even terror of confronting that person. Sometimes confronting their abuser in person is the right thing to do, but even then I find it is better to do deep role play work first to get confident and grounded in all the emotional, neurological and cognitive dimensions of what always comes up in the act of confronting the abuser.
This works equally well whether the abuser is alive or dead. Our bodies, emotions, hearts and minds remain stuck and disempowered at a certain core level of self until we can reclaim our boundaries and our healthy control through the ritual of confrontation. When we do the confrontation work successfully together with the grief work that makes us conscious of what we have lost, we really do heal at the deepest levels within us. I have guided hundreds of clients through this successfully.
So my point about the semantics of the words victim and survivor is this: abuse victims are victims until they can begin their recovery work, and then they are in the first stage of being a survivor. Is it then helpful to use the word victim to refer to yourself when you begin to act on your own behalf in your recovery? Yes, when you are referring to the unhealed, not fully processed emotional and cognitive impact you are still carrying within you. Does it ultimately work to suppress the impact of the abuse and disassociate within one’s self from the deepest truth of having been rendered a victim? No. Is it a deep life challenge to get to the healing of that deepest place, which requires a well-structured healing that goes in stages of appropriate decompression and integration? Yes. And are there stages of being a survivor that can finally culminate in a fully functioning life, free from the grief of it all? Yes – if, as we gain our strength in being a survivor, we are willing at some point to embrace having been rendered a victim as we do our core grief work. Why? Because victim = many dimensions of loss, consciously grieving that loss = a core point of recovery.
One of my guiding principles in working with abuse and trauma recovery is decompression. Just as deep sea divers cannot come up too fast or they get the bends, likewise it is not healthy to attempt to heal too deeply, too quickly – we must decompress the deep impact of being victimized that is held deep in our psyches, our emotions, our bodies and our hearts.
When we can own the reality of having been victimized and allow the word victim to describe a real place and a time in our lives, and then do the confrontation work and grief work that rebuilds us so that we can love ourselves and be in good relationships, then we have reached an advanced stage of survival around the devastating losses that come with being abused. When we have done the core grief work that breaks the cycles of inherited generational dysfunction that is transmitted through abuse and then acts out through our own unhealed grief, we have truly taken our power back. That is when the word survivor, both in my own personal experience and in the lives of my clients, takes on its fullest and most liberated meaning. And that is when another dimension of being fully alive in the present moment becomes possible.
When we can come out of the painful emotional survival and isolation in which abuse traps us, and move into creative interdependency with each other, possessing the emotional skills to be deeply empathetic to our own abuse experience as well as that of others in our lives, our hearts have recreated the world we lost in having been a victim of a heartless or unconscious person who needed to abuse someone just to find a connection in the world around them. Then we are well-balanced survivors, and can share that confidence with others in loving relationships.
That makes embracing the journey from being a victim to a strong and healthy survivor a very positive and healthy choice.