Victim-blaming is a touchy subject for many survivors, and rightfully so. Survivors of emotional and/or physical abuse are sickened by victim-blaming. I am, too.
Why wouldn’t we be? We have been in relationships where we were constantly gaslighted, mislead, invalidated and mistreated. The last thing we need is the outside world blaming us for not leaving soon enough, or for getting into the relationship in the first place.
It’s a whole other degree of invalidation that survivors simply don’t need. It hurts us even more that the world refuses to acknowledge how difficult it is to leave an abusive relationship when you’re in the midst of it, because you’re experiencing so much cognitive dissonance that you don’t even know whether to trust your own perceptions and realities.
Abusive relationships severely hinder our perceived agency, overwhelm us with a sense of learned helplessness, and make it difficult for us to navigate the seemingly impossible constraints imposed by these toxic relationships.
I wholeheartedly understand this, and sympathize. However, I want to draw a distinction between victim-blaming versus acknowledging that we do we have the power to change our lives. I feel this gets lost somewhere in our resistance to concepts that may challenge us to evaluate and examine ourselves during the healing process or may appear to be blaming us for the abuse but can actually challenge us to move forward towards self-improvement and fulfillment.
I feel, as both victims and survivors, we have a tendency to belittle or demean any concept, idea or helping resource that tells us to also look inward when unraveling our own relationship habits. I understand why this would be the case—we might perceive these resources as being patronizingly ignorant.
We might think these resources are telling us that we somehow asked for the abuse, or that we attracted it. Some resources are in fact victim-blaming, but we have to learn to distinguish between what is victim-blaming versus what is encouraging us to own our own agency.
Only when we learn this distinction can we also own our “surviving” and thriving status as well as our legitimate victimization by the toxic partner.
I know that there are many survivors out there who had never experienced interacting with an emotional abuser such as a narcissist or a sociopath before they had this experience. They feel strongly about the fact that their relationship patterns were healthy before they met the narcissist, sociopath or another toxic, abusive type.
Still, even for those survivors, we can learn a lot about our own strengths (and weaknesses) from this experience. Not because those weaknesses justify the abuse, but because all human beings have imperfections and vulnerabilities, and emotional predators tend to prey on these.
If we tend to enjoy flattery and equate it with genuine care or love (which most people do!), we now have the power to change that perspective and acknowledge that the next time someone tries to excessively “lovebomb” us, our experiences have taught us that it is not necessarily equivalent to sincerity and that it may actually be a red flag.
Acknowledging that we have the ability to now see red flags and recognize them, is not victim-blaming, but owning our agency and ability to protect ourselves. It is true that emotionally abusive people can hide behind masks for so long that we may never know we’re with one until years later.
However, that is why it is so important to create strong boundaries early on so that no one person can dominate your life. That is why it is so important to spend time alone before you enter new relationships, to get accustomed to enjoying yourself, so that should these red flags come up, you know you have the choice to leave, and the threat of being lonely will not stop you.
For survivors who do have a pattern of getting involved with pathologically unstable men and remaining with them, I do not believe it is blaming yourself to try to understand yourself better as a result of this. Whether it’s acknowledging that you had a narcissistic parent that may have influenced your own relationship with a narcissist or whether it’s examining how the relationship took a toll on you, it really is beneficial to always reflect upon what happened, how it affected you, how it may have triggered past traumas.
This reflection shouldn’t be confused with blaming the victim or saying that the victim “wanted” the abuse—it’s about recognizing the impact of the trauma bonds that kept us tethered to this person while still maintaining our ability to heal ourselves.
It’s about recognizing any insecurities or any people-pleasing behavior that may be holding us back from fully healing and owning our full potential while knowing that we were unfairly mistreated.
It’s also about acknowledging our strengths—our empathy, compassion, the beautiful qualities of humanity that the narcissist or sociopath lacks, and recognizing that these were taken advantage of.
Whether you call the patterns of an emotionally abusive relationship codependency (a controversial term) trauma bonding, Stolkholm Syndrome, in my (humble) opinion, isn’t as important as acknowledging that you cannot change or control the pathology of the other person, but that you can make positive changes in your own life by initiating and maintaining No Contact, engaging in taking care of yourself fully and holistically during the healing process and afterwards, and pursuing your dreams while moving forward.
This is about owning our story and owning our agency. This is not saying that anything the narcissist or sociopath did to you was your fault; not at all. It is saying that you are stronger than what he or she did to you, and that you will use this opportunity to reflect, return any blame to your perpetrator, and acknowledge that in the future, you have the power (and now the resources) to walk away from what no longer serves you.
The reason I am writing this post is because I don’t want our resistance to victim-blaming (a perfectly legitimate protest) to be confused with not acknowledging our remaining agency and power, something we felt was threatened or even lost completely due to the abuser’s control over us.
We do not have the power to determine the terrible things people do to us; but we do have the agency and power to turn to constructive outlets for healing. We do not have the power to stop ourselves from being a victim of a crime; but we do have the agency and power to help other survivors by sharing our story. We do not have the power to change a narcissist or sociopath or control the degree to which they abuse us; but we do have the power to take the time to heal and not enter a new relationship until we’re fully ready to do so.
Our choices still exist.
We are simultaneously victims and survivors; we have regained our agency and power from the abusive relationship, and this enables us to thrive and heal in ways we must recognize and acknowledge.
Our interactions with narcissists give us an immense opportunity to look at what needs to be healed within us (whether these wounds were created via the relationship, past traumas or both), what boundaries we need to be more firm about (for example, not letting a partner communicate with us only via text and stay in contact 24/7 can protect us from what is likely the lovebombing from an emotionally unavailable con artist), and what values we hold most dear (if someone doesn’t share our values of loyalty, fidelity, and integrity, we now know these are deal-breakers even if we tried to negotiate this in the past).
We may have lost our sense of agency and power when were struggling in a relationship with narcissists or sociopaths, but now we can take back the control.
These experiences remind us what is most important: self-love and self-care. It is not victim-blaming to look at what positive changes we can make in our lives to better ourselves, nurture and heal ourselves from the abuse we’ve endured. Not because we’re “attracting” or “asking” for these people in any way, but because we did in fact experience harmful relationships with them.
We are not perfect, but we did not in any way deserve or invite the abuse. We can improve ourselves without having to blame ourselves. This means that we have to be proactive about healing without victim-blaming.
There IS a distinction, and there is power in acknowledging that distinction.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Jen Weddle / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Shahida Arabi