My mother was abusive—there’s no doubt about that. She made me feel worthless, she was controlling, and there was even physical abuse at times. I have no quarrels that, by definition, I was a victim of child abuse. But I’m arguing that my constant association with being a victim was actually more harmful than the abuse itself. And I’d extend this claim to a variety of labels.
I’m not convinced that humans need to label things. It’s a psychological belief that humans are constantly categorizing and organizing people and experiences, which is sound. However, the obsession with placing people and their experiences in boxes has become so extensive that the amount of labels has dwindled to boy or girl, single or taken, straight or gay, victim or non-victim, etc. There are countless experiences that do not fit into any of these categories, and thus, those experiences are ultimately dismissed.
This is demonstrated in my experiences. However, I hope to emphasize the particular danger in being outside of victim and non-victim, which is that being called a victim made me feel like I should have experienced more trauma in relation to the experiences I had with my mother.
Let me assure you, it’s not that I have sustained no short-term or long-term damage from the abuse that I experienced. But when I saw counselors, read articles online, talked to friends and family, and even landed in a psychiatric hospital, I was convinced that I should feel worse about my abuse than I really had. So I tried to. I thought long and hard about the abuse, striving to feel badly about it. And so I convinced myself that I did! But looking back over five years later, I really didn’t feel that badly about it at all.
If someone had tried to empower me instead of telling me that my pain was justified, that it wasn’t my fault, that I deserved better, I think I would have healed faster. I was mentally ill because people were telling me that I should feel bad, when in fact, people experience trauma differently. Just because my mother abused me does not mean I experienced trauma.
So, when we call someone a victim (even without literally calling them “victim”), we are summing up their experience by assuming that they are traumatized. In my experience, I felt like something was wrong with me because I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I should! These ideas, I would argue, extend to other areas in which people are commonly called victims, such as sexual assault and domestic violence.
In my experience with sexual assault, I was again labeled a victim. I didn’t even label the experience as sexual assault until numerous professionals told me that it was. So again, I felt myself trying to find the traumatized part of me. But it did not exist. In both instances, they were experiences that seemed to have happened and then left. I imagine that there are many people that feel similarly. Just because something bad happens, that doesn’t mean it sticks with you forever. Likewise, I’ll make the disclaimer that bad experiences often do stick around. However, there is almost always an assumption that it does.
Essentially, there is no way to be sure that a person feels traumatized by a commonly traumatizing experience. And so when we place labels associated with trauma onto people that have undergone these experiences, we are burdening them with the trauma that they did not experience. When we place these unnecessary labels, we burden those that are not traumatized and we minimize those that are.
So I challenge everyone to listen to experiences without the urge to place those experiences in boxes. Allow the person to voice the experience in their own way. Do not place your own ideas about those experiences onto them. If they do identify as a victim, that’s fine too. But don’t assume.