Staying Stuck in Victimization

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

Awhile back I provided input for an article at The Epoch Times by Conan Milner, “The Costs and Benefits of Victimhood”. Milner’s piece examined the psychological underpinnings of a victim mentality, differentiating the reality of victimization from destructive patterns of unceasing blame and disempowerment. I shared with Milner that it takes tremendous work to develop the awareness necessary to break out of a victim mentality. However, as Milner’s article points out, it is even more difficult when forces conspire to keep us locked in that mindset.

This got me thinking about my own history with aggrandizing victimization and the sundry psychological and cultural influences that enable victimization. As a trauma therapist who provides treatment for folks presenting with brutal histories of victimization, I am led to ponder how these enabling forces impact the process of healing.

Throughout much of my early adult life I wore my history of victimization, rooted in child abuse, rape and poverty, as a badge of superiority.

Victimhood became a conduit for my rage and an identity I could latch on to. It was challenging to relinquish my attachment to it as there was so much truth to the pain which underscored its existence.

Also, I simply didn’t have any other available way to conceptualize and work through my hardship. I felt broken, outraged, and very afraid. Glorifying my suffering offered me a feeble identity. It was my story. There was nothing else.

Then, at eighteen I entered therapy. I took proactive steps to heal and actualize academic goals, but I resisted taking corrective action when it came to destructive relational dynamics. That arena of life was plagued by countless episodes of humiliating victimization. When my therapist dared to examine my choices and question my part, I railed at him with indignant infantile rage.

“I was the victim here! I was duped!”

Naturally I couldn’t fathom how my lack of boundaries, standards, and absence of discernment factored into these unfortunate repetitive occurrences. Nor did I have the humility to face how my insatiable desperation fueled compulsive and reckless acting out with alcohol, drugs and sex. I convinced myself it was all in the pursuit of love. Ironically to some extent, it was.

I know now that I was plagued by traumatic loneliness and a form of traumatic bonding known as Stockholm Syndrome.

Victims of Stockholm Syndrome are driven to seek redemption from their tormentors.

This pathological attachment is a survival strategy, which enables the victim to dissociate from pain. By disowning the horror of this traumatic reality and taking on the abuser’s perspective, the victim wards off the threat of helplessness and terror actually experienced.

Discontinuing repetitious compulsive cycles of traumatic bonding is extremely difficult. As a patient and a psychotherapist I can attest to the rigorous process of breaking free. Nonetheless liberating oneself undoubtedly necessitates owning up to how one’s harrowing past and resultant developmental disasters inform one’s current behaviors and decisions.

Sadly, in this age of ‘us-them’ polarization, it has become culturally prescribed to denounce the notion that recovery from victimization entails taking full and honest responsibility for one’s actions.

Like myself, many victims of narcissistic abuse were groomed by disordered parents to accommodate servitude and objectification. However, suggesting that predisposing traits might contribute to being targeted and fascinated with malignant narcissists is often met with acrimonious backlash.

Some survivors contend that highlighting complex trauma rooted in early child abuse, or even examining core beliefs that hinder adult discernment and discrimination places a level of responsibility on the victim that is not his or hers to own.

Even when there is copious evidence of repetitive victimization by different offenders, efforts to delve into predisposing traumas and corollary beliefs and patterns of behavior, may be viewed as victim blaming.

This trend is evident in the #metoo movement where casting couch scenarios and unsatisfying sexual encounters are characterized as rape. This is not to say that one can’t be psychologically scarred, or even traumatized in the aftermath of a negative sexual experience, but relegating unlawful aggressive intent when consent was offered, promulgates detonated rage that repudiates personal responsibility for one’s choices. Furthermore it unjustly incriminates men and negates the opportunity for recovery and growth.

Paradoxically Michelle Kelley’s article at Human Parts, “Why I Went Public About My Abuse in the Sex Trade, sheds light on how victimization is vehemently denied and touted as empowerment. Ms. Kelley discloses how sex workers who free themselves from ongoing exploitation and share about their traumatic experiences, are maligned and intimidated by those in the industry who laud prostitution as sexual liberation.

The vehement denial and glorification of prostitution by the very women who commoditize their sexualities obstruct the efforts of those seeking to recover and rebuild.

I was subject to aggression akin to what Ms. Kelley is routinely a target of, when I was interviewed for an article about FOSTA-SESTA (The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act). I was asked to comment about the psychological hardships of sex work. My words were twisted to characterize me as ‘the enemy’, as one who condemns, stigmatizes and demeans sex workers.

This narrative couches victimization as fraudulent, castigating those who have the courage to demythologize prostitution and confront the traumas incurred.

Psychologically this sort of defensive posturing is referred to as a ‘reaction formation’.

So how can victims achieve true healing and empowerment if taking accountability for one’s decisions is deemed as abuse? How then can we assist victims to constructively assimilate suffering and elucidate the protective impulse to deny its very existence, when doing so might be characterized as persecution?

While there may not be an absolute formula to dismantle victimization one thing is certain. Ascribing to fantasies of forgiveness or compensation is not the panacea.
In my humble opinion, the only way to come to terms with intractable memories of betrayal and traumatic abuse is to willingly alter beliefs and behaviors so as to accommodate healing and growth.

The only conceivable way to rise above the gravitational pull of self destructive victimhood and martyrdom is to willingly accept the terror of one’s helplessness, so as to paradoxically exercise one’s agency in life affirming ways. Grieving losses entrenched in traumatic occurrences of victimization can take years. It is a grueling process, albeit a liberating one.

My personal immersion in over three decades of in depth dynamic therapy to address complex trauma rooted in systemic child abuse is testimony to the restorative possibilities when responsibly facing the ravages of victimization.

As I shared with Milner, “When you feel worthy of your suffering, you want to take it to a more elevated place. There’s nothing noble about staying in suffering, tenaciously holding onto it as a way of feeling righteous. It denies you your own life, and it denies the world what you are capable of giving.”

Comments / 0

Published by

As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

More from Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

Comments / 0