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Why We Must Reevaluate the Notion of “Victimhood” and Abuse

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The significance of labels cannot be overstated; they hold the power to shape our perceptions and experiences. As a clinician, I've observed firsthand the profound impact that words can have on our psyche. Our thoughts, values, and memories are all influenced by the language we use, ultimately shaping our emotional responses. Identifying oneself as a victim can start a self-destructive cycle for many individuals, which could cause dysfunction and emotional struggle that may be as or more damaging than the “abuse.”


The Loose Application of the Term “Abuser”

Consider the term “abuse.” Often, it is wielded with little regard for its actual definition. According to Merriam-Webster, abuse entails causing harm or injury. Abuse implies cruelty, violence, and harm, as well as ill-intention on the part of the abuser, awareness and consequences for the abused, and a pattern of behavior (repetition) in the dynamic. Yet, it's frequently applied to regular situations. For instance, I've encountered individuals who label parental requests for household chores as "abuse" and not only that, but they label themselves as victims of “childhood trauma,” a big and loaded term. Others describe their partners as “narcissistic abusers” just because they lied or raised their voice during a disagreement, using clickbait terms that are easily adopted as reality. Furthermore, some actions may be abusive but a random abusive act doesn't make that person an abuser. What I'm concerned about is not only that such casual usage dilutes the gravity of genuine abuse but the fact that if we identify ourselves as abused, the immediate result is to call ourselves victims, which may unfold as developing a victim mentality.


The Term Trauma Victim as a Lens

The term “trauma victim” is frequently used to describe individuals who have experienced abuse, often without much consideration of the nature of the abuse itself. In the mental health field, clinicians trained as trauma-informed responders often validate those who have experienced abuse, categorizing and treating them as “trauma victims” before they have the whole picture. While it’s true that people who have undergone abuse may have been victimized, it’s also crucial to consider whether they view themselves in that way. Experiences that we may find horrifying don't necessarily imply that we understand the perception or the suffering of the person. Since we all have rich but different backgrounds, some individuals may not see themselves as having been abused or as victims, and the clinician needs to pace themselves before assigning labels. I find it important and essential to approach each individual’s experience with sensitivity and avoid making assumptions about their feelings or experiences. I have had many clients that idealize the abuser—from parents to molesters—because the abuser may be the only resource the client have or had. The work is to help them develop other resources before attempting to confront the damaging nature of their relationship with the abusive person.


The Danger of Embracing Victimhood

Identifying oneself as a victim initiates a negative cycle, often leading to dysfunction and emotional turmoil rivaling the perceived abuse itself. Yet, this trend is alarmingly prevalent. As a trauma therapist I see many individuals burdened by a victim mentality failing to distinguish between genuine trauma and perceived victimization. When a client comes to me complaining of being traumatized by abusive treatment, I take my time finding out how much of the issue is the abuse itself and how much a victimhood mindset may be part of it. Why? Because victimhood can interfere with the healing process and the resolution of traumatization. So, if present, it needs to be dealt with before any processing could take place.


The Pitfalls of Victim Syndrome

Adopting a victim mentality can have profound repercussions, perpetuating a cycle of negativity and helplessness. Individuals may internalize their suffering, viewing themselves as perpetual victims entitled to compensation for their pain. This mindset not only erodes personal agency but also hinders the healing process, preventing individuals from assuming responsibility for their own well-being.


The Damaging Effects of the Perpetrator and Victim Labels on Abused Individuals

The term “perpetrator” is commonly used in connection with abuse. It refers to a person who commits a harmful, illegal, or immoral act. The term carries the tone of the legal system and political agendas. When someone is referred to as a “victim,” it is easy to call all types of victimizers as perpetrators, regardless of their actions. There are no synonyms of “perpetrator” that do not have a condemning tone. Why is this important? Because many abused individuals end up becoming abusers themselves. For example, many individuals that have been psychically abused are aggressive and abuse others psychically.


"Hurt people hurt people"

Yehuda Berg


The strain of physical or emotional abuse often leads to cruel behavior due to the dysregulation and internalized anger of having been through, for example, violent situations. Carrying both the stigmas of being a victim and perceiving oneself as a perpetrator (usually in secret) can be devastating to one’s psyche. The shame and guilt they carry add to the emotional consequences of abuse, keeping them forever struggling.  The combination of abuse, shame, guilt, and victimization can cause this type of traumatization, eroding an individual’s connection to themselves and their ability to achieve normal life milestones. As a result, they may develop maladaptive, detrimental, dysfunctional, and even self-destructive survival strategies.


Devictimizing the Abused

Therapeutic interventions should be empowering, and clinicians’ language should provide comfort without taking away agency. It’s essential to give people time to come to terms with the severity and consequences of what happened to those that have been abused. If mental and emotional protection is removed all at once, the person may feel exposed, confused, overwhelmed, and their system may decompensate, leading to a loss of emotional stability. People may not be ready to accept, for example, that the love for their parents was founded in fear. Psychoeducation to develop awareness is necessary, but should be introduced gradually and tactfully.


To truly assist individuals who have faced abuse it would be helpful to avoid defeating terms and use words that are more objective, inclusive, and emotionally neutral, such as "a person that suffered from...," “abused” and “abuser,” “offender” and “offended,” or “injured” and “injurer.” Referring to someone as an “experiencer of adversity” or even a “trauma thriver” instead of a “trauma victim” could be a way to begin the healing process.


A complete discussion on whether abuse is traumatizing is included in the author’s book Traumatization and Its Aftermath (Routledge, 2023).

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