What If the Buzz Says, "Don't Be a Victim"?

Here are five things to watch out following trauma.

Posted Aug 31, 2018

Imagine a soldier coming home from a long deployment in a war zone. He has gone through the worst and suffered many losses. As he experiences nightmares and depression, he seeks out psychological counseling and gets told, “Get over it. Everybody suffers. Life is tough. Get your act together, and don’t be a victim.”

Anybody can see how damaging these words would be. It has become common sense that most people who have gone through life-threatening events cannot just snap out of their reaction. Trauma needs to be understood and new coping skills learned, not only with the support of a book, but with a sympathetic, trained professional. We know that coping with trauma is a process. While the soldier might feel ashamed of his need, we would like him to know that he is brave for facing his trauma, instead of sweeping it under the carpet. Untreated traumatized people are prone to act out with addiction and anger. It is okay to feel like a victim after trauma. And yet.

Look up the word “victim” on the worldwide web and notice how many slogans are thrown around about how not to be one. Occasionally you find an article like “Don’t blame and shame the victim,” but the buzz is about “victim mentality” and “victim identity.” New-age teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, warn against whining as if it were a psychological disorder1:

"To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness."

Statements such as these do not recognize that the wimpiest cry can be a first step to liberation in a seemingly hopeless situation, especially when a wise listener asks poignant questions (Also see: "Four Ways to Turn Passive Complaining into Healthy Behavior"). Pop psychologists, such as Jordan Peterson, are convinced that the new generation has abdicated all responsibility for their lives while perpetually crying for more and more freedom and rights.2 Everybody would be a victim at some point. People should accept that life is suffering, try to reduce it, focus on becoming a better person, and be grateful for what they have. Being sorry for ourselves seems like a federal offense.

Apart from gross exaggerations, this attitude rings of the old Germanic times during which people had to be hard as steel, in control of all vulnerable feelings (anger was just fine), and wear a stiff upper lip no matter what. Don't get me wrong. I see value in warnings against whininess and entitlements. There is much to say about the need to be proactive and take responsibility, with “Claiming your Life” being a whole chapter in my new book. However, as a clinician, I find it rather disturbing that tens of thousands of people listen to messages like these with wide-open ears, regardless of whether they themselves were victims or know victims who depend on them.

While teachers, authors, and public speakers mean well and hope to motivate, their exaggerated, judgmental messages can cause a victim to withdraw further. Why risk being called a weak whiner? Why come forward with child abuse, battery, or rape when others have it worse? Why speak up when one’s helplessness and anxiety are viewed as signs of immaturity? So many clients come to a therapist thinking that they have caused their own suffering. Shame and guilt are overwhelming sexually abused victims. Many would rather be insulted in some fashion and remain under the cloud of depression before admitting that they were assaulted. In a large audience, there are going to be boundless victims. Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Every sixth American woman has been a victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.3 It is of the utmost importance not to talk down to victims and to refrain from simplistic, one-size-fits-all advice.

With this said, it is important to realize what to watch out for when people are victimized. It is normal to experience:

1. Sadness

When sadness turns into a pervasive sense of helplessness, passivity, or depression, it is high time to seek professional help.

2. Fear

To be afraid after an attack is more than understandable. But when the fear becomes generalized and extreme in intensity and duration, seek extra support. 

3. Anger

After realizing fully that a person has been abused or severely harmed, anger erupts often. Acting out anger, or becoming a perpetrator or addict, are clear warning signs that the person needs to face the abuse and begin the healing process.

4. Demanding punishment for a perpetrator

Often, people seek justice when harmed. When they become cruel and demand unusual punishments, a bigger problem arises. While forgiveness cannot be forced and should not be expected prematurely, it is an important step in the healing process. 

5. Needing to be heard and understood

It is healthy and well-adjusted to fulfill this need. It is important to be listened to. People should not, however, seek to cure themselves by talking endlessly about how else they were wronged, usually in ways unrelated to the original trauma. It is essential to face the real issues and work through them. 

"Do no harm" is the base for all happiness and for all good to follow. After realizing this basic rule in your life, practice compassion in all endeavors. This does not mean always being agreeable or nice. It means doing what is of benefit to yourself and others. It means being wise in your giving. Sometimes compassion means speaking the truth bluntly, but don't kid yourself. Do not use your words like darts in the name of honesty. Do not add insult to injury, especially when people look up to you.

© 2018 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.

References

1.    Eckhart Tolle, (2004). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, p.82

2.    Jordan Peterson: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/201801/are-you-ready-stop-feeling-victim

3.    https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence