09/15/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rescuing 'Victimhood' for Victims (Letting the Sharks Take Care of Themselves)


So this is awful, but imagine that you have just been diagnosed with cancer, or HIV, or been raped or experienced violence in your relationship, or escaped a burning building or a mugging or an act of terrorism.

How're you doing?

Well, here's some advice in the form of titles of some articles and videos posted on

"It's Not the Circumstances, It's You"

"Don't Be a Doormat!"

"Iylanla's Health Prayer -- 'I Am Not a Victim'"

"How a Young Shark Attack Victim Got Back in the Water"

Now, don't get me wrong, I love me some Oprah Winfrey. I think she's singlehandedly brought our culture waaaaay forward in its conceptions of psychology, identity and human development. I also think she understands trauma, experienced both as an individual and as a member of different identity groups, in her case: women, African-Americans and people with histories of abuse in particular, and that she's been super-courageous in speaking publicly about some of the things she's struggled with.

But I also think she can handle the criticism that her media empire is vulnerable to our "soundbite" communication culture's addiction to shorthand and overly-simplistic messaging about complex issues of healing and recovery.

The concept of victimhood is very preoccupying to me as a therapist and as a human with his own past traumatic experiences. I think many people are robbed of their right to be a victim as a stage in a healing process in response to trauma.

I want to rescue the term "victim" because our culture in its thirst for the myth of safety and empowerment and wholeness (read "invulnerability") is prone to "jumping the shark," as they say on television, and creating the expectation of just "shaking it off" and getting right back in the water as a "survivor." It seems to me that "victim" should come before "survivor" and not instead of it.

Trauma is, well, traumatizing. There is often a shock response that has stages of its own. When I used to train health care workers to give people who had been tested for HIV the news that they were infected with the virus, I guided them to tell them in a safe environment immediately, clearly and definitively and then to hush up, wait and watch.

Inevitably, even when such kinds of difficult information might be expected, there is a sort of "turtling" response where people go deep inside themselves for a spell.

How many times have you heard someone say that they received challenging health news and then didn't hear a word of whatever the doctor or nurse or whomever said next? To be helpful, to be kind, one needs to allow for this internalizing process and not overwhelm the person with information that requires an intellectual response when they may still be in the middle of an emotional process of letting new information and circumstances "sink in."

Beyond the most immediate response process, there is also then an integration process where the person comes to terms with a significant shift who they previous saw themselves as and the life they had expected to continue living.

It's this stage where allowing oneself to feel like a victim may be particularly human and particularly useful to optimal recovery or management or healing.

Immediately asking ourselves or someone else to "pull it together" or "rise to the challenge" or "not be a victim" runs counter to reality. When trauma strikes it outpaces an individual's ability to respond adequately -- that's what trauma is. Rushing them through this stage, however long it takes, can worsen the shock and struggle and interfere with the victim marshaling the skills or the help that is needed, just like with grief and mourning. Time heals all wounds, they say. They also say, wisely, that time takes time.

It's sort of like something that can happen every once in a while in 12-step meetings, when someone who's sharing starts to get upset or weepy and six people rush over with boxes of tissues. For goodness sake, such a show-stopping expression of sympathy may well be likely to shut the person's emotions down completely, and it might be done, unbeknownst even to the tissue pony express, as a method of trying to "clean up" a display of distress or pain that is difficult to witness.

Let 'em weep and let the snot run down their nose -- that's what shirtsleeves are for. Trust that the person can handle their own emotion, and those bearing witness to it can as well and that it's probably healthy for all concerned.

So, three guidelines for reclaiming the nobility of victimhood:

1. Victim isn't a bad word. It shouldn't imply that someone is a loser, a weakling, a malingerer or a chronic sad sack. For most people, being a victim is a stage in response to experiencing something traumatic that had a victimizing impact on them.

2. "Big Momma Love" 'em. In our own fear of disaster, vulnerability, sickness, violence and death, sometimes we might not realize that we could be being hurtful, cold or rushing someone when what they need more than anything else is to be heard, empathized with and loved on big time.

3. Go where it's warm. If you are a victim and you don't feel like the people around you, whoever they are -- family, doctor, victimizer, Oprah Winfrey or a therapist or health care worker like me -- aren't understanding what you need, are rushing you, aren't being kind, then tell them so if you can, but whether by asking them to change their tune or by accessing other sources of support. Find yourself a "Big Momma Love." Oprah would never do that.

By the way, I hate the concept of "tough love." I think it's the stupidest idea ever. The world provides plenty of "touch love" all on its own without any extra help from coach or counselor or parent. "Tough love" is being mean and cold and rejecting, rejecting. Love should be soft, don't you think? Like pillows or bandages or a sympathetic hand on your shoulder.

After a gosh darn shark bites you, honey, it's okay with me if you never go in the ocean again. But even if you want to, why not just wait until next summer at least and see where you are then? The ocean will still be there.