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When Did “Victim” Become a Bad Word?

Why do we despise weakness in ourselves and others?

123rf/Karel Miragaya
Source: 123rf/Karel Miragaya

On a recent TV commercial, a famous athlete admitted that he had been suffering from a debilitating disease for years but had never told anyone. Then he said, “I’m not saying I am a victim, but I just want you to know there is treatment that works.” He then went on to sell the product he was endorsing. The fact that he needed to make the point that he was not a victim upset me. He had just admitted that he had been a victim of this disease for years. Why did he feel compelled to let us know he was not a victim?

The answer is actually quite simple. He likely said it because he was afraid that being perceived as a victim was going to tarnish or ruin his reputation as a famous athlete. He said it because he wanted to make it clear that just because he had this disease it didn’t mean he wasn’t still big and tough and strong. He said it because like so many other Americans, being perceived as a victim is synonymous with being seen as being weak and being a loser.

When did the “victim” become a bad word? Merriam-Webster’s definition of victim is a person who has been attacked, injured, robbed, or killed by someone else or someone who has been harmed by an unpleasant event (such as illness or accident). There is nothing either stated or implied in the definition that indicates weakness.

More important, when did being perceived as a victim become a bad thing? We see it time and time again. A reporter sticks her microphone in the face of a tornado victim who has just lost his house and all his possessions. “How are you feeling?” the reporter asks. “I’m doing OK. I’m grateful that we all got out alive. That’s the important thing.”

While it is true that the important thing is that everyone got out alive, what about this man’s suffering? He just lost everything he owned—including all his photographs, his important records, his cherished memorabilia. He literally will have to start over. Why couldn’t he talk about that?

Wouldn’t a more honest response to, “How are you doing” be: “I feel terrible. I just lost my house and everything I own. We lost all our photographs and things that have been in our family for years—things that are irreplaceable. I’m going to have to start all over from scratch.” Why didn’t this man tell the truth? Why couldn’t he tell us how he really felt instead of putting on a false front? Certainly he was grateful he and his family got out alive. But gratitude for your life doesn’t wipe out the pain and suffering anyone would experience from such a devastating loss.

The man probably didn’t tell us how he really felt because he knew we didn’t really want to hear it. We wanted to hear him say he was OK and that he felt grateful. We didn’t want to hear about his pain and suffering because we didn’t want to feel bad. And we didn’t want to see him as a victim because that would remind us that we are all vulnerable—that we can also be a victim at any given time—or that, in fact, we have ourselves been a victim in the past.

When the Malaysian flight 370 disappeared a year ago, we saw the families of the assumed dead wailing and crying. Some were expressing anger. This was a very human and a very appropriate response to the loss of a loved one, especially the loss of a loved one in such a devastating way. But many Americans were critical of such public displays of emotion. It made us feel uncomfortable. In this country we are supposed to see the bright side of things. We are supposed to say things like, “Everything happens for a reason” or “I’m grateful that it wasn’t worse.”

We Despise Weakness

What’s really happening here? It seems that our hero-worshipping, optimistic, “Eye of the Tiger” mentality is robbing us of our very humanity. It starts in childhood when even small children are taught to “suck it up” and be strong instead of allowing themselves to cry or feel their pain. It is especially drummed into the minds of boys and both male and female athletes to not give into feelings of sadness at their defeat but to instead cover it over with fantasies of victory next time. It shows up in the numbers of children who are bullied because they are perceived as weak. And it shows up in the way we respond to victims of bullies. We tell them “don’t let them see you cry” or “don’t let this get you down” instead of acknowledging to them how frightening, humiliating, and damaging it is to be taunted, pushed, or beaten by those who are bigger or stronger than we are.

We are a culture of people who despise weakness when we see it. In that way we are all bullies to one degree or another. Think about it. Who are the school yard bullies? Research and experience have told us that bullies are children who have been abused themselves in their home or elsewhere. They are kids who are enraged because someone has been picking on them. And they are kids who feel humiliated and shamed because they have been victimized. So what do they do with their rage? They can’t take it out on their abusers, who are usually adults or older children who are much stronger or who have more power and authority than they do. So they take their rage out on those who are smaller and weaker than themselves. And what do they do with their overwhelming shame at having been overpowered? They punish those who remind them of their own weakness and vulnerability.

It is no wonder that we are raising yet another generation of bullies and abusers. Unless we turn this thing around and make it OK to admit when we have been victimized, admit when we feel bad, and not allow other people to shame us for it, the cycle will continue.

We don’t want to admit to ourselves when we have been victimized because we don’t want to have to feel our vulnerability in the world. We want to go on pretending, just as children do, that we are invincible—that nothing can get us down, nothing can touch us. Small children go through a stage of development where they feel they can do anything and they won’t get hurt. Many adults want to hold onto this fantasy as well. But at what price? One of the biggest prices is that we continue to ignore the cries of victims, especially our children, who are victimized everyday through child abuse, poverty, homophobia, misogyny, and racism. We continue to deny the reality of the rape of young women, sexual harassment, inequality, bullying in the workplace, and countless other ways that people are victimized every day.

Blaming the Victim

Not only do we ignore the cries of victims and thus miss the opportunity for us to reach out to them in compassion, but we end up blaming the victim. Because we can’t tolerate weakness in others because it reminds us of our own weakness and vulnerability. We must find a way to protect ourselves from them. What better way to do this than to blame the victim for his or her own victimization? If the young woman who was raped at a college fraternity party hadn’t been drunk, she wouldn’t have been gang raped. After all, she put herself in a dangerous situation. She should have known better. It’s her own fault.

If a woman (or man) is emotionally or physically abused by her romantic partner, she must have asked for it in some way. Even if we don’t blame her for being abused, we blame her for staying. After all, if someone abuses you, you need to just walk away, right? If you don’t, you deserve what you get.

And if someone is being sexually harassed or bullied at work by his boss, he should be strong enough to walk away and find another job, right? If you have any self-respect at all you don’t stay in a situation where you aren’t valued or treated with respect.

We think all these things about people who are victimized because we want to hold onto the fantasy that we all have choices, that all it takes to get out of a bad situation is courage and determination. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that there are times when we have no choice—times when we have to take the mistreatment that others are putting on us. It is so much easier to believe that all it takes for the poor to step out of the overwhelming poverty that they find themselves in is to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps." We point to the few who were able to overcome tremendous obstacles and we say, “See, he did it. That means you can too.” We point to the one-armed surfer, the vet who lost both his legs and went on to play wheelchair basketball, the successful business man who overcame a childhood of poverty to go on to become a millionaire and we say, “Look at her, look at him, stop your crying, stop feeling sorry for yourself and just move on.”

Again I ask, what price do we pay for this attitude? What do you think happens to all the other vets who lost an arm or a leg in the war and who can’t move on to greatness? How do you imagine that person feels? Like a failure, of course. Like a loser. He thinks, “If he can do it why can’t I?” He begins to despise himself for his weakness. He hates himself because he can’t connect with “the hero inside” to overcome his disability in a grand way. He descends into a dark pit of depression.

Instant Recovery

We not only ignore and blame victims but we expect them to recover from their adversity in record time. In our culture we are supposed to “get over” adversity and “move on,” and many people don’t have much tolerance or patience for those who don’t. But this concept of “instant recovery" is an extremely unnatural and unreasonable expectation. It takes time to recover from adversity, and healing can’t really take place until there is a complete acknowledgment of what actually transpired and how it made the victim feel. So like the man who lost his house to a tornado, we have a lot of people walking around pretending they weren’t adversely affected by a crisis.

Abuse and other forms of adversity cause victims to feel helpless and powerless, and these feelings can lead to feeling humiliated. In this country we tend to believe that the way to recover from adversity is for victims to deny these feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and instead focus on becoming powerful and successful.

Many victims of childhood abuse try to recapture the feeling of omnipotence they felt before the abuse by shoring themselves up with walls of defensiveness, attempting to take back the feeling of control they once felt. Thus, we see the child who was emotionally abused by his mother growing up to emotionally abuse his wife and children; the boy who was physically abused by his father becoming a bully toward other children at school; the girl who was sexually abused growing up to be a stripper, fooling herself that in this way she can have power over men. In all these situations, the pain and shame of having been victimized have not been healed—they have just been covered up with bravado or grandiosity.

Victims Need Validation

It is very important for everyone, but especially children, to have their feelings and experiences validated by others. Lack of validation can result in the development of feelings of guilt and shame in reaction to negative experiences. Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another person’s internal experience as valid. When someone validates another’s experience, the message they send is: “Your feelings make sense. Not only do I hear you, but I understand why you feel as you do. You’re not bad or wrong or crazy for feeling the way you do.”

Instead of receiving validation, most victims are ignored, rejected, or judged. Instead of being encouraged to express their feelings, most are shamed into silence. Worse, many have their feelings and perceptions invalidated. To invalidate means to attack, dismiss, or question the foundation or reality of a person’s feelings. This can be done through denying, ridiculing, ignoring, or judging another person’s feelings. Regardless of the method, the effect is clear: the invalidated person feels “wrong.” Thus it becomes vitally important that their perceptions and their feelings are validated as a condition of healing. Showing compassion for someone can be a form of validation. And having self-compassion—connecting to your own suffering with love and acceptance—is a way of validating yourself—your feelings, perception, and experience.

People who deny or minimize their own suffering discover that all this pretending and “moving on” will eventually catch up with them in the form of health consequences, many of them stress related. Another negative consequence is that, ironically, the same people who smother and deny their own suffering become intolerant of the pain and suffering of others. The thinking goes like this: “If I got over it, so should you.” Their compassion for other people is stunted because they haven’t accepted that they themselves need and deserve compassion.

A Way to Avoid Taking Responsibility or Taking Action

Still, another reason some people blame victims for their circumstances is that it is a convenient way of avoiding any responsibility for their own actions. Our current tendency to have contempt for victims gives us all an easy way out. For example, those who work with abusive people know that they have a difficult time taking any responsibility for their actions. This defensiveness, although unacceptable, is understandable. If they were to admit that they have been abusive and take responsibility for how much they have harmed their victims, they would end up feeling horribly shamed in the eyes of others. They would feel like the lowest of the low. So instead they make excuses for their behavior, they give us endless reasons why their victims “asked for it.” We hear this from every type of abusive person, whether from a batterer, a rapist, or a child molester. I have even heard child molesters blame their innocent victims. One such man told me, “If she hadn’t of gotten in my lap and wiggled around I wouldn’t have gotten turned on to her.” While this is an extreme example, it brings home the point that it is far easier to blame the victim than it is to admit our own culpability when someone is hurt.

By continuing to blame victims, we all get to avoid facing up to our own acts of inappropriateness, indifference, and cruelty. If we continue to hold to the ideas that it is always the victim’s fault, or if we can convince ourselves that there really are no victims and even when people are victimized they should “just get over it,” we can continue to avoid looking at how we have hurt others and how it has affected them.

By blaming victims we also get to continue to avoid facing such problems as the rape of our young college women and the amount of racism we still have in this country. If we can convince ourselves that rape at our universities does not exist to the extent to which it does we do not have to do anything about it. Boys will continue to be boys and girls will continue to be held responsible for what boys do. If we can continue to believe that racist policemen are just doing their job when they beat up African-Americans in record numbers, we can continue to avoid the fact that we have a major problem with racism in their country.

We have to get over our hatred of victims. We have to stop pretending that victimization doesn’t exist. We have to admit that when a person is victimized—whether by act of God, by abuse, by poverty, by racism, or by any other form of trauma or adversity, that person is changed, at least temporarily. That person needs to cry and to scream and to feel his or her pain. That person needs to be held and nurtured. That person needs our compassion for his or her pain and suffering. And perhaps most important, that person needs validation that yes, he was abused, yes he did lose his house, yes she was raped, yes she is living in poverty. And yes, it hurts, it is painful, it is debilitating to experience these traumas, these assaults, these inequities.

You might say, “Yes, but if we coddle those who have been victimized they will stay stuck in being a victim. We need to encourage them to move on by encouraging them to be strong.” To this I say, who are you really thinking of the victim or yourself? Sure, there will come a time when a victim will need to be encouraged to connect with her strength and determination, but not right after she has been victimized. If you push a victim to “get over it” too soon she may end up feeling shame and even self-hatred because she isn’t as strong as you want her to be. And even more important, if you don’t acknowledge the fact that she was indeed victimized she will question her own perceptions and perhaps her own sanity. Victims need to be validated—they need to have their victimization and the feelings that come with it acknowledged. Then and only then can they truly move on. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve worked with who are stuck in their victimization precisely because no one validated the fact that they were abused and that they had a right to their feelings surrounding it.

Why Victims Blame Themselves

In addition to victims being blamed by others, and partly because of it, victims also blame themselves. Psychologists have long understood this tendency. Rather than have to face the fact that they were utterly helpless by the act of victimization, victims will look for any reason to hold themselves responsible for what happened to them. Believing they are to blame for the abuse can give them a sense of control, however illusory, over the abuse. If they believe it happened because of something they did or didn’t do, then they don’t have to face the reality that they were a helpless victim.

Human beings strive to stay in control, both because a sense of control makes us feel safer and because in our society we are raised to believe that we are responsible for what happens to us and that we both can and should control our own lives. Thus, when something goes wrong, we tend to feel ashamed about the fact that we have lost control of our lives. Being victimized causes us to feel helpless, and this helplessness leads us to feel humiliated and ashamed. As a protection against feeling this helplessness and shame, we may take personal responsibility for our own victimization.

As Judith Herman, M.D. wrote in her classic book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from domestic violence to political terror: "Guilt may be understood as an attempt to draw some useful lesson from disaster and to regain some sense of power and control. To imagine that one could have done better may be more tolerable than to face the reality of utter helplessness.”

It doesn’t help that a victim blaming mentality runs rampant in our culture today. There are even those whose spiritual beliefs hold that if something bad happens to you it is because of your own negative thoughts or attitudes. Cultural influences like this serve to segregate and blame victims rather than encouraging a self-compassionate acknowledgement of suffering.

And because our culture discourages people from acknowledging and/or talking about their suffering, many people can even feel embarrassed when they feel bad. It’s as if they’ve done something wrong—as if their personality or their character has failed them in some way. It’s no wonder that many victims have a strong belief that to stop and acknowledge their pain and suffering is to “feel sorry for themselves” or “have a pity party.”

So let’s stop making victim a dirty word. Let’s open our minds to the truth of the situation. There are people in this world who are victimized and they have a right to have that victimization recognized and affirmed. They have a right to feel their pain and anger and helplessness. They have a right to the time it takes for them to heal. They have the right to not be pushed to “get over it” or to be grateful it wasn’t worse. They have a right to not be further shamed because they aren’t getting over it or seeing the bright side on our timeline. They have a right to not deny their pain by saying, “There’s always a reason” when bad things happen. And perhaps most important, they have a right to our compassion, our care, and our kindness.

More from Beverly Engel L.M.F.T.
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