“Stop being a victim.”
As an outspoken survivor of many abuses throughout my life, I’ve heard this phrase too often to count. It never fails to sting. The implication is that the abuse wouldn’t have hurt me if I had just chosen not to feel hurt. (Um, considering the residual pain in my shin from when one of my abusers threw a remote control at me & caused a muscle contusion, I beg to differ.)
If you’re an abuse survivor, you’d probably heard it too. “Stop playing the victim.” And you probably feel the same way I do about it: that it’s a hurtful and unfair thing to say to someone who has been victimized by someone else.
So imagine my surprise when the phrase “Stop being a victim” showed up in a guided self-love meditation I did recently! Where is the self-love in blaming oneself for being abused? That sounds more like a prescription for self-hatred, if you ask me!
I understand that many people see this phrase in a positive light, and that it is often said with good intentions. Empower yourself! Don’t let others bring you down! I also acknowledge that some people feel or act victimized when they aren’t necessarily the victim in a situation (abusers are especially fond of framing themselves as the helpless lamb while painting their victims as ruthless predators).
But I find the connotations of the phrase unfair, so I’d like to explain how I think we can convey the same truth and inspire people to empower themselves, without being mean-spirited or making unfair implications.
What is the function of victimization?
The function of victimization is very similar to the function of pain.
What’s the function of pain? Glad you asked!
We tend to think of physical pain as some annoying burden that exists solely to torment us, but it’s actually quite useful! The function of pain is to let you know that there is a problem. For instance, without pain in your wrists, you might never know you were developing carpal tunnel syndrome, and you’d never go see a doctor in time to fix it. Pain gives us a chance to assess our health and safety, so that we can take action to get better. Pain is a second chance, really.
Similarly, victimization is our signal that someone is harming us. It’s a form of pain. When someone makes you feel belittled, subjugated and afraid, that’s your signal to set some boundaries or all-together leave the person. Victimization gives you a chance to assess the situation, determine how much of it is within your control, and act accordingly.
There is nothing inherently bad or wrong or shameful about feeling victimized, because victimization is pain. Sometimes the pain is caused by something you did, but sometimes it isn’t. But you can only take steps to heal the wound after you’ve become aware of it.
So you feel victimized. Now what?
Of course, this is case by case, and there’s no way I can cover all this ground in one blog post. But as for me personally, here are my criteria for whether or not I think I’m justified in feeling belittled by a person or situation:
If I have
- attempted to directly communicate my concerns / stand up for myself
- changed my own behavior in ways that I think will positively impact the behavior of the other person
- exhausted all resources available to me in an attempt to stop the mistreatment (i.e. gotten a mediator involved)
- the other person continues to harm me, now knowing that they are harming me
then yes, I am within my right to feel victimized.
A more appropriate word would be “targeted.” Here’s why:
Feeling victimized is one thing, because people are capable of feeling victimized by just about anything (The train is late! I stepped on a LEGO! The whole world is out to get me!!!)
But being targeted is another thing entirely.
Sometimes people say or do things but honestly have no idea it hurts our feelings. Thus, it’s inappropriate for us to secretly harbor resentment towards them and expect them to read our minds & know what our needs are.
It’s only after you’ve communicated your concerns to them that you can reasonably claim that they are targeting you, because now they can no longer claim that they didn’t know their words/actions were hurtful.
If you can discern with certainty that a person is saying or doing something to you with the intention of harming you, then you are absolutely within your right to feel victimized by their behavior. But you can only discern this after you’ve done your part by communicating and taking action.
Who gets to decide who the “real victims” are?
I’ll tell you one thing: the people who’ve told me I’m ‘playing the victim’ are people who had never been through anything like what I’d been through. To be blunt, they had very easy lives and even said so themselves.
The people who validated my victimization, on the other hand, were either people who’d had similar experiences to mine, or mental health professionals who knew how to work with abuse survivors.
This has led me to believe that people who routinely tell others to “stop being a victim” may do it because it makes them feel superior to do so. Look at me! I’m not a victim! It’s so easy to feel good! Now I’m gonna go around telling people that if they don’t feel as good as I do, it’s because they’re choosing to feel that way! Aren’t I amazing at life?
No, actually, you’re a bully. You need to find a different way to feel good about yourself that doesn’t involve making people feel at fault for the suffering that’s been inflicted on them.
A Word to Victims/Survivors
You’re not ‘playing’ a victim or ‘acting like’ a victim. You are a victim. There is no shame in that. If you have been the target of any kind of abuse, the blame & responsibility lie on the shoulders of the abuser. Hardly anyone would blame a deer for being targeted by a trophy hunter — and as for those who would blame the deer, I question their capacity for empathy.
Our culture over all is unkind to victims. We are told to “get over it,” “stop exaggerating,” “stop lying,” “move on,” etc. And who benefits from such ~empowering~ ordinances? Certainly not us! This cultural phenomenon of victim-blaming serves abusers, in that it makes their behavior socially acceptable, protects them from scrutiny, and prevents them from facing consequences.
If you truly want empowerment, here’s what I think you should do:
One of my favorite quotes is “Be the adult you needed when you were younger.” There is no fixing what was done to you. But as time passes, you can practice taking care of your own needs. Don’t worry if you’re not perfect at self-love. (Pro-tip: nobody is!)
I know. It’s not fair that you should have to clean up the mess someone else made of your life. But if it’s of any reassurance to you: your abuser can’t take credit for your improvements. A narcissist’s or sociopath’s claim to fame is that they’re good at ruining people’s lives. What a horrid existence! You, on the other hand, can say that you’re good at rebuilding your life despite the damage they did to you. Just by virtue of not behaving like your abuser behaves, you’re already light years ahead of them in terms of inner strength & character. Regardless of what progress you’ve made (or have yet to make) take a second and find comfort in that. Give yourself the credit you deserve. ♥