Victim Versus Survivor

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Words cannot fully describe the complexity of an experience. They are generally agreed upon symbols, useful for the purposes of communication but also dangerous because they can easily obscure the truth they are meant to clarify.

We will discuss two words that are often used interchangeably for referring to people who have gone through traumatic experiences. Yet how a person attaches meaning to each word can have a profound impact on recovery and his or her sense of self. The words are ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’.

The word victim comes from the Latin root victima, and means ‘a beast of sacrifice.’ A victim is someone upon whom an act is committed. He or she has no real say in the matter. It is a passive word to describe a person who has lived through traumatic events.

Survivor is a more active word. Definitions for the word ‘survive’ include ‘to carry on despite hardships or trauma; persevere’ and ‘to live longer than, outlive’. As you can see, a survivor has more of a hand in his or her survival. Unfortunate events may have transpired but a person is able to persevere and ultimately triumph.

Which word is better to use when talking about emotional or physical abuse and how to label a person who has gone through traumatic familial experiences? Both words have great utility in the therapeutic setting and in helping a person to reshape his or her perception. The use of one word or the other needs to be guided by the psychic state of the person in question in order to help raise awareness.

If a person mainly feels guilt, shame, or other inward directed feelings about experiences of abuse, talking about the word victim is usually appropriate. Early childhood abuse takes place before a person really has any means at his or her disposal to fight back or get help. Basic anxiety is the feeling of helplessness in a world perceived as hostile. In cases of abuse a person will build up whatever small defenses seem available, and start to see the world from the vantage point of the defenses chosen.

This is probably one of the reasons why many people who have experienced abuse feel themselves responsible. If you are responsible for an issue, then that issue becomes solvable. By taking on the blame for the horrors of abuse a person is able to lower his or her painful feelings of anxiety that stem from feeling helpless.

You can probably see how letting go of responsibility, becoming consciously aware of past helplessness, and referring to oneself as a victim of traumas is therapeutic. By letting go of responsibility for an event outside of your control, it becomes possible to increase responsibility over events that are inside your control.

And this is where it becomes useful to use the word ‘survivor’. As a person moves beyond past abuses, he or she begins to expand awareness about the ways that thoughts, actions, and emotions have been limited by seeing the world from the vantage point of defenses against helplessness. There is nothing a person can do to change the past but there is much a person can do to change and improve the present. Being a survivor means living through painful experiences and ultimately growing from them. Growth is possible because you get to decide how you want to be in the world and how you want your current family system to be.

A person who was abused has inside information about the ways that abuse occurs in families. He or she can use this information to put a monkey wrench in the cycle of abuse by quickly picking up on and openly discussing moments of emotional abuse. People tend to harp on the fact that abuse is generational. However, those who have been abused have a choice to repeat the cycle or to have the courage to face their own anxiety and learn about themselves. With this knowledge you can accept responsibility for the times you are being abusive and deny responsibility for the times that you are not. You get to take the control back by letting go of control for a while.