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5 Victim-Shaming Myths That Harm Trauma Survivors

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233 or the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

As an author and researcher who has communicated with thousands of trauma and abuse survivors, I’ve become all too familiar with the victim-shaming myths which cause retraumatization in those who have suffered the unimaginable. These myths are often normalized as everyday platitudes that, even when said in well-meaning ways, can pose unnecessary harm to survivors and their healing journeys.

• What is PTSD?

Research has shown the powerful detrimental effects of victim-blaming and victim-shaming statements. Studies have confirmed that when victims encounter negative reactions from professionals, family members and friends, this destructively affects the willingness of victims to come forward to disclose their pain and only leads to further self-blame and uncertainty about their experiences.

This is a harmful form of secondary gaslighting and victimization which needs to be reexamined and dismantled. Below are some common victim-blaming and victim-shaming myths which need to be exposed, reevaluated and reframed to help, rather than hurt survivors of abuse and trauma.

Myth 1. “You are not a victim! Get out of a victim mindset.”

Perhaps one of the most frustrating victim-shaming platitudes is the idea we are not victims, encouraged by both misguided coaches and invalidating family members alike. While it’s helpful to evaluate our agency to change our lives and make positive changes, nothing could be more inaccurate than the statement, “You are not a victim. Get out of the victim mindset.” When it comes to having endured horrific violations like chronic emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault or other traumas, there is no such thing as a “victim mindset.” You have been a victim, and that is a fact, not a manufactured identity. There is no shame in being a victim and it does not take away our agency to realize we are one or have been one. We can be both victims and survivors. We can make steps toward recovery even while acknowledging and honoring the adversity we have endured.

Being the victim of a crime or prolonged violence means we suffer through countless effects of trauma, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, a diminished sense of self-worth, difficulties with relationships, addiction issues, self-harm and even suicidal ideation. You can certainly choose to identify as a survivor or a thriver as well, but that does not take away the fact you were a victim of a crime — whether it was an emotional, physical or financial crime.

Myth 2. “You must forgive an abuser in order to heal. Don’t be bitter or angry.”

Forgiveness is a personal journey and skilled trauma therapists understand that forcing premature forgiveness, especially before traumas are processed, can actually hinder the healing journey.

As trauma therapist Anastasia Pollock writes regarding her experiences with clients, “I work with people who have experienced horrific traumas at the hands of other people. These traumas include acts of sexual abuse, rape, exploitation, and physical and emotional abuse… This is what I tell them: You don’t have to forgive in order to move on. Emotions are important and automatic. When we can acknowledge and appreciate even the darkest, most negative-feeling emotions, they often soften and release. As soon as I say, ‘You don’t have to forgive,’ the person usually breathes a sigh of relief.” When a person is forced to forgive by mental health professionals, loved ones or their perpetrators, however, in order to feel morally righteous or to placate an abuser or society, it only leads to what experts call hollow forgiveness.

Rather, healthily processing anger and honoring it is the way to go. In fact, researchers suggest that “righteous, empowering anger,” can actually act as a useful tool for self-protection and setting boundaries for those who have been abused. Verbal ventilation — the act of expressing one’s anger to a “safe” person — can also act as a key way to process childhood traumas, soften the inner critic, establish intimacy with others and reduce the impact of emotional flashbacks which bring us back to past states of powerlessness.

Myth 3. “Abusers just need love, understanding and more hugs.”

This victim-shaming myth of holding hands with our abusers and singing kumbaya simply does not cut it when we are dealing with highly manipulative individuals. While we’d all love to live in a world where everyone is capable of change so long as we give them a chance, this belief completely dismisses the reality of predators who never change their ways and actually further exploit us when we continue to let them back in our lives time and time again.

Dr. George Simon, an expert on highly manipulative people, notes that our immense level of conscientiousness and agreeableness leave us more vulnerable to further manipulation. As he writes, “Disturbed characters know how to spot the conscientious. And they’re eager to exploit and abuse them. Sadly, sometimes overly conscientious folks delude themselves. They think they can ‘fix’ the morally broken among us.” Encouraging victims of abusers to love their abusers into changing does not work — in fact, it just continues the abuse cycle. It is a victim-shaming practice which gets us to refocus on how we can serve the perpetrator rather than obtain justice and healing for the actual victim.

Myth 4. “What about the abuser? They had it so rough! We are all interconnected, so we have to help each other.”

There is a prevailing myth that if an abuser had a tumultuous childhood, is struggling in life in some way or has an addiction, a victim should stay in the relationship to “help,” even while enduring terrifying incidents of emotional or physical abuse. According to relationship experts, it’s not uncommon for domestic violence perpetrators to have narcissistic or even antisocial (sociopathic) personalities. Although this does not automatically make someone an abuser, we have to understand that abusers on the malignant end of the narcissistic spectrum often stage pity ploys to keep us trapped in the abuse cycle and are usually unwilling to get help or be responsive to treatment.

Dr. Martha Stout, an expert on sociopathic behavior, asserts in her book “The Sociopath Next Door” that pity ploys, along with continued mistreatment, are a surefire sign of the conscienceless. Love and more compassion cannot change hardwired behavioral patterns which have been present since a young age, nor can they cure a lack of empathy in another person.

Regardless of someone’s childhood upbringing, abuse is never justified. Remember: there are many victims who have also had rough childhoods, past traumas and self-esteem issues, but never used that as an excuse to abuse another person. Those who are serious about changing their behaviors make a commitment to create long-term, long-lasting changes on their own without expecting their victims to save them or tolerate their abuse. They do not require another person to help “fix” them. Thus, the most compassionate thing you can do for an abuser is to recognize that their issues are theirs alone to solve — hopefully, with the help of their own therapist.

Myth 5. “Everything is a mirror. Send positive energy to this person and situation and it will be reflected back to you!”

There are many spiritual ideologies which encourage active denial, minimization, rationalization and self-blame when it comes to abuse and trauma. Our new age society has us attending judgment detox workshops, participating in loving-kindness meditations about our enemies, and viewing our abusers as “karmic” soulmates meant to teach us essential life lessons. Now, there’s nothing wrong with meditating, praying, doing yoga, having an alternative belief system or engaging in meaning-making — when these activities are done to heal ourselves and believe in a bigger picture, they can lead to tremendous recovery and post-traumatic growth.

However, when spirituality is misused to blame ourselves, free abusers from accountability and repress our emotions, it can become dangerous to our mental health. Spiritual bypassing of trauma is so common in our society that we’ve normalized the idea that if we don’t wish our abusers well, we are somehow “bitter” or not working hard enough to remain positive. That goes against everything we actually know to be true about trauma recovery from the experts.

Psychotherapist Annie Wright describes spiritual bypassing as a process “where people use spiritual principles or ideas to avoid dealing with their unresolved emotional issues and their strong ‘negative feelings’ and instead sidestep this work through following and espousing ‘more positive feelings’ or concepts.” However, as she goes on to note, spiritually bypassing trauma rarely works, because these negative unprocessed emotions tend to leak out in even more intense and maladaptive ways. It’s much more healthy to process your authentic emotions — not repress them for the sake of seeming mature, spiritually enlightened or morally superior.

It’s far more healthy to process your trauma with a trained professional before even thinking about sending love and positivity to anyone who has violated you. Only then will you know it’s coming from an authentic place. Whatever you feel about your abuser and the suffering you endured, you are not wrong. This is your healing journey. No one should police or shame you. You are allowed to feel what you feel. Honoring your true emotions is sacred and a form of spirituality too. Honoring yourself also means honoring your divine right to be treated with respect and kindness. Show yourself love, kindness, positivity and compassion by exiting toxic relationships which no longer serve your highest good. You owe it to yourself to live your best life without the presence of toxic people.

A version of this article was previously published on Psych Central.

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

Originally published: July 18, 2019
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