In order to make sense of our lives, we humans tell ourselves stories which provide a sense of the context and meaning of our experiences, and labels are the short-hand terms we use to refer to our stories. We refer to people as “victims,” for instance, when other people have harmed them, but the term conveys other meanings as well – that the they experienced was unjust, for instance; that it was a violation, that it was injurious, and that they deserve both justice and compassion.
Unfortunately, for some, the term “victim” also carries contemptuous stories about the victim, as well – that victims are dupes and losers; that they’re weak and full of self-pity, that people who call themselves victims are just “whiners,” and so on. These stories are enough to dissuade too many people from identifying themselves as victims. But since assault, rape, betrayal, theft, abandonment, etc., really are victimizing experiences, authentic healing only begins when these experiences are recognized for what they are. It can require great courage to acknowledge that you were victimized, because it means overcoming the fear of being stigmatized, and also accepting the reality, not that we’re “weak”, but that we’re vulnerable. All human beings, without exception can be overpowered, terrorized, wounded, and deeply hurt by others, and the damaging effects of victimizing experiences can last a lifetime. The truth of our vulnerability can be a terrifying reality to take in, but until we can accept this aspect of our humanity, it is difficult to recover from the shame and guilt that victimizing experiences often tragically engender.
But having said that, when real experiences of victimization congeal into a solid and global identity of Victim with a capital V, an opposite problem can result – not disavowing our vulnerability, but instead denying our power and agency. If I believe that I am “the one who will always be hurt and taken advantage of,” then I can start to see those around me as perpetrators no matter how they actually treat me. If I do that, I become dangerous to others, because I’m liable to “perpetrate from the victim stance,” that is, to mistreat others without feeling any shame or guilt because my story is that I am always an innocent person who is only defending myself. One of the most famous historical examples of this dangerous psychology was Adolf Hitler, who avenged himself on millions for the (very real) abuse he suffered as a child.
According to trauma specialist Mardi Horowitz, there are five distinct phases of recovery from severely victimizing experiences. The first is a period of stunned confusion which he calls “outcry.” This is typically followed by a self-protective phase he calls “numbness and denial.” At some point the pendulum swings from numbing to “intrusive re-experiencing”, which leads to “working through, and, finally, to “completion.” It is in these last two phases of trauma recovery that some people begin to feel that the label of “victim” no longer reflects their lived experience, and begin to prefer the label of “survivor” instead. This change reflects a new story about the experience – that “I’ve had this trauma, but it no longer has me.” The survivor story emphasizes strength, growth, and empowerment.
A remarkable few are able to move from the story of the “survivor,” to the story of the “victor.” This story is about the human capacity for self-determination. It was this power that Viktor Frankl found in Auschwitz., where he discovered that, even in the midst of that hell “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This is the same power that Nelson Mandela found after enduring twenty-seven years in prison. He reports “As I walked out the door to the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” His victory over victimization manifested in his personal and political commitment to healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The victors among us are our spiritual heroes. They inspire us to have faith in the story that we are not defined by our adversity and our suffering, but that, even in the midst of our personal winters, we, too, have within us an invincible summer.