Many therapists say you have to let go of the victim role to heal more fully. While that is definitely a good goal, it is also important to understand how you were victimized. Why? Because your path to wholeness depends, in part, on cultivating compassion for that child, teen, or adult who was mistreated, neglected, or abused.
There is a crucial difference between identifying as a victim or someone who was victimized. Seeing yourself as a victim will block your evolution. Yet, it is important to acknowledge how you were taken advantage of when you were either powerless to fight back, manipulated so well you thought you had no recourse, or not ready to take the necessary steps to leave.
Current research finds betrayal by a family member can lead to deep post-traumatic stress. As brutal as war and other atrocities can be, they are not personal. Even though family abuse is not personal in that it is all about the abuser’s issues, it feels personal. You did not engender the abuse, but its fall-out definitely effected you. Physical and emotional abuse are such violent acts that the mind and ego can’t really make sense of them; especially, if they happened in childhood.
Though there are many books on dealing with toxic parents or relatives, few talk about the way abuse can continue into adulthood. The family bond is so strong that separating yourself can feel like an emotional amputation. Typically, it’s only done when the pain is so great it feels like a matter of life or death.
Ronald Fairbairn, a Scottish psychiatrist of the mid 20th century, wrote on Object Relations Theory trying to make sense of how a child reacts to abuse. Part of his hypothesis was that the child develops what he called the Moral Defense when faced with upsetting, abusive, or neglectful parenting. According to Fairbairn, even a young child understands that he can’t take care of himself. He needs his parents to survive. When they act in abusive ways, even when their behavior is not necessarily directed at him, like yelling at each other, he thinks there can’e be anything wrong with the people I need to care for me, so there must be something wrong with me. This is an unconscious thought, and a very strong concept that has far reaching effects.
In addition, Fairbairn talked about the hopeful child and the wounded child. When the parents behave kindly, even if it is seldom, the child thinks (usually unconsciously): “Everything will be alright now,” and becomes hopeful. When the parent is abusive or neglectful, the child thinks: “Oh, no, everything is horrible and I can’t stand it,” which creates a wounded feeling. Typically, that internal switching, from hopeful to wounded and back again, persists throughout childhood. The wounded child is unaware of the hopeful child and the hopeful child is unaware of the wounded child. Emotionally, he feels like a ping-pong ball. What keeps this pattern going is something Pierre Janet called the splitting defense. This enables each part to feel completely split from the other. One goal of therapy is to help these two very disparate parts dovetail. That way, when the adult feels wounded he understands that it’s temporary. Right around the corner is something to enjoy. Conversely, when he feels overly optimistic, he knows to temper that thought (which can lead to impetuous behavior) with a dose of realism. In adults, this splitting is seen in black and white, or all or none, thinking. It’s pernicious effects are more obvious when the person becomes flooded with a sense of despair because they can’t see any other possibility. (Internal Family Systems therapy is incredibly helpful at being gentle, deep, and supportive with any trauma, and helping this disparate parts weave together.)
The ego wants to maintain a sense of control, even when there was no way a child or teen could have had control at the time of the abuse. Sometimes, this results in the adult saying things like, “I chose to keep it going. I could have ended it. I liked it. It was my fault. I was too seductive. It wasn’t so bad.” In the short run, all of these ways of reframing the past serve to retroactively make the person feel stronger by implying he had a choice. In the long run, they add to the pain, by blaming the person who was victimized. Even if it feels empowering on some level, it’s a hollow victory. There is still that wounded little child or teen who now feels doubly abandoned. First by the perpetrator and then by self-blame and a lack of self-compassion.
What can be done to help shed the view of yourself as a victim while still acknowledging having been victimized? A combination of yoga and good therapy goes a long way towards changing the relationship you have with yourself, and making it safe to be in your body-mind. Different people respond differently to various types of therapy. Even the same person at different times of his life can respond differently to different approaches. I am partial to a combination of Internal Family Systems therapy, Rational-Emotive Behavior therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, mindfulness, breath work, and Yoga Nidra (you can read my short article on Yoga Nidra here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/yoga-nidra-for-relaxation-insomnia-and-posttraumatic-stress-0202154).
It is also crucial to give grief its due. Understand that you are grief stricken. Your grief can come unbidden any time, though it will lessen over the years, it will never fully leave you. Think of it as another way you can feel compassion for that little child or teen who endured mistreatment, neglect, or abuse. It’s also important to remember that grief is a shape-shifter. It can manifest as sadness, depression, anxiety, guilt, anger, or feelings of worthlessness. So, if one of those difficult emotions arises, be extra gentle with yourself and don’t assume you are necessarily feeling anger, per se, but grief that’s appearing as anger. That’s an important distinction as it helps you normalize your feelings. Everyone feels grief. It’s a natural reaction to loss; and, all trauma involves loss. It could be the loss of boundaries, loss of control over what happened to your body, loss of feeling safe, loss of trust, etc. Allowing yourself to grieve those losses is crucial to feeling more in control of your present and future. It even helps you leave the detritus of the past behind and move towards freedom from victimhood. Yes, you were victimized, but you are not a victim.
How you identify yourself sets the stage for your recovery. Picturing yourself as capable, strong, creative, self-compassionate, curious, intrepid, open to what the Buddha called the 10,000 joys and sorrows, and focused on this moment, will all accrue to feeling more and more resilient.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang