When we have been the victim of trauma, it’s natural to feel like a victim.
Being a victim plays out more clearly when there is a perpetrator. If we are the victim of a natural disaster or a freak accident (such as an unexplained fire), it may be harder to find someone/something to blame. We may still suffer trauma, and the urge to blame may nag at us.
Blame God/Spirit/Universe/Source? Blame ourselves?
If we suffered abuse, rape, incest, torture, etc., there may be clear perpetrators. Is it easy to blame them? For us, it has been easy to blame the abuser who used threats of violence to ensure complicity and silence. It has been harder to blame the perpetrator who tricked us into thinking we–at ages 6-8–had agency and chose to engage in the abuse.
After more than 30 years of misperception, a therapist finally convinced us that a 6, 7, and 8-year-old cannot consent. Therefore, what transpired was not “sex” in any definition of the word. It was abuse or rape or some other stronger word or term that we have not been able to find or invent yet. (If you one, please share it.)
We do not judge if a victim blames their perpetrator(s) or does not. Trauma is a very personal experience, and healing from trauma maybe even more so.
Dr. Colin Ross, who founded and runs a series of PTSD treatment hospitals, practices moving those with PTSD out of the Victim-Perpetrator-Rescuer triangle. These roles, he teaches, result in re-traumatizing ourselves and do not help us move to healing states.
This was eye-opening for us to learn because we discovered through therapy that in the majority of our delusions, we are (re)enacting the role of victim, perpetrator, or (occasionally) rescuer.
How many times per day from the onset of PTSD through this moment have we had a delusion where someone(s) is oppressing us, not necessarily in ways related to the trauma (often in simpler, though still empathically distressing, ways– like being accused of a crime we didn’t commit or misunderstood to be someone bad when we are not)?
Less frequently, we try on the role of a perpetrator (common, natural, and expected we are told by therapists)–again, not typically related to the abuse. However, infamously in our life, we ultimately blamed ourselves 100% for the abuse from the trickster perpetrator. We even convinced ourself that we were the perpetrator and raped the trickster abuser! Therapists have written extensively on self-blame as a means of controlling the narrative: better to pretend we are the perpetrator, the psychological theory goes, than to live feeling helpless, powerless, vulnerable, unsafe. (Note: it did not work. Self-blame has led us to debilitating shame and self-abuse. We are practicing healing.)
Again, a therapist finally convinced us that we–as a Little–did not rape our abuser (duh, right?). She abused us. It’s very clear to an outsider, while to us, some parts still hold feelings of self-blame because these neuropathways have decades of regular traffic. We are like holdouts of the Ptolemaic model of the universe with the Earth at its center.
More rarely, when not playing victim or perpetrator, we would envision ourselves rescuing victims of all sorts: from abusers, bullies, robbers, etc.
So how do we victims of trauma stop re-enacting our victimization by role playing or imagining ourselves as victims, perpetrators, or rescuers (who, in real life, often never materialized for us)?
Self-awareness: we need to catch ourselves playing these roles–such as (1) when we write our pity poetry (we do this), (2) when take on habits or even mannerisms of our abusers (abuse is a cycle: our abusers were probably abused and many victims become perpetrators. We used to yell at our children before starting therapy. This adds to our shame and furthers our entrenchment in victim-perpetrator-rescuer behavior.), (3) when we look for or imagine trouble so that we can intervene like a superhero or vigilante, (4) or when we dissociate/daydream about these roles.
When we catch ourselves, Dr. Ross advises us to recast ourselves as survivors–those who are healing or on the path to being the healed. The other roles, though not in a triangle, are challenger and coach–those who help transition us from the old triangle into the new circle. We heal faster and more completely with support.
Maybe staying in the triangle is so hard because (1) we’re so used to it and (2) the healing is so mother-fucking painful.
We survived the abuse. Why does the healing feel like it is equally, if not more, insufferable? Is it because we bear the scars of our trauma and have to simultaneously learn how to live? Again, maybe the reasons are personal, though the theme of struggling through the healing process seems to be shared by the survivors we have met.
If you subscribe to Dr. Ross’s model, try to notice your engagement with the victim, perpetrator, rescuer triangle and then nip it in the bud every time. You will start to atrophy the associated neuropathways.
Then begin to view yourself as a survivor and absolutely ensure that you have support from a coach and challenger, ideally a mental health professional and/or loved ones. If you are going at this alone, you can have the support of experts via their writings. And you can build a community through resources such as blogs and forums (for multiples, we recommend Discussing Dissociation, moderated by the highly capable Kathy Broady, MSW: https://www.discussingdissociation.com/).
Dr. Ross’s model isn’t the only option available. Maybe it won’t work for everyone. For adult-onset trauma, exposure therapy and EMDR have high success rates (see The Body Keeps the Score). However, for childhood trauma, exposure therapy has been shown to re-traumatize the victim (see the same book referenced above). It’s hard to get out of victim mode when the treatment model is based on re-traumatizing the victim over and over until we are numb to it!
Another emerging model, the AIR Network (Adaptive Internal Relational), actually relies on conducting rescue missions that the patient conducts to rescue our young self before the trauma occurs. This is not wholly incompatible with Dr. Ross’s model (eschewing victim and perpetrator re-enactment), and–still–you can see some divergence.
Whatever treatment options we pursue, we don’t have to forever inhabit the role of victim. Yes, we feel at times the weight of our survival like Atlas holding the planet, and when we remind ourselves that the abuse is over, we realize we can set the planet down and focus on the healing work available to us because we survived.
We hope we all find resilience on our healing journeys.