How to Wound an Already Wounded Person

“I think you have a victim mentality.”

An accredited counselor and therapist to whom I had been referred spoke these words. Later I heard them again, out of the mouth of a psychologist whose specialty is the treatment of war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The first professional said this to me while I was still living in a single room at a women’s refuge, had no assurance of any long-term accommodation, and had lost all of my possessions in addition to my community, friends, financial resources, means of transport and livelihood.

The second time I heard those words was during a psychological assessment to determine whether I was a suitable candidate for specialized traumatic memory therapy. My assessor, a clinical psychologist, is employed by the British National Health Service, and works in the outpatient department of a hospital. Her findings determine whether patients will receive professional therapy, and what type of therapy is suitable for their needs. Therefore, her opinion and referral are critical for obtaining help with serious psychological problems.

At the time of my assessment, I was still living in temporary housing, displaced from everything and everyone familiar to me, and still unable to recover any of my possessions from my former partner. I had been sent to her because of ongoing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, since fleeing from domestic violence. After hearing detailed accounts of the mental, emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse I have suffered, and the nature of my traumatic memories, her only comment was to ask me, “Why didn’t you just leave?” My response, an uncomprehending and quietly indignant, “But I did leave, obviously!” was brushed aside, blanked, as she moved on to tell me that we all have an entire range of choices in life. Then she continued by saying that she thinks women who don’t leave abusive situations are unwilling to take responsibility for their choices.

‘Martyr’, Masochist, or Victim?

Afterward, I wondered exactly how much trauma and distress a person must experience to qualify as an actual victim, rather than being suspected of exaggerating and playing a martyr role. How much evidence of post-traumatic stress would a non-military patient have to exhibit, to escape some label that could mean the same thing as: self-pitying attention seeker who chooses to blame others for her own bit of bad luck and poor judgment, making herself out to be a ‘victim’ of abuse and violence?

Although she didn’t put it quite as bluntly as that, her implication was clear from the term ‘victim mentality’ and from her indirect accusation that I had lacked the courage and common sense to “just leave”. Her persistent interrogation and repetition of the phrase “Why didn’t you leave?” at least another half dozen times without any other comment, no matter what my reply or explanation, made me feel disbelieved and traumatized all over again. I returned home trembling from this rough encounter, confused and shocked that someone in a ‘caring profession’ should speak to me that way.

When I recognized the familiar anxiety and panic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder kicking in, I called the National Domestic Violence Helpline from the safety of home. An extraordinarily compassionate volunteer spent considerable time with me. She validated and supported me, and reassured me that what I described to her was indeed inexcusable and appalling treatment. It took three anguished conversations with my best friend from the refuge and encouragement from my usual counselor, who knows me very well, before I could collect myself and summon the courage to return to this psychologist’s office to speak to her about what she had said to me, and about her inappropriately harsh tone.

When I expressed my objections to the psychologist in a final appointment, explaining how her statements had affected me, she admitted that she has received no training in dealing with domestic violence or abuse of any kind. She even stated that her colleagues would find her attitude objectionable and prejudiced. However, she re-asserted her beliefs, showing no desire to consider any other opinions as valid or to admit that maybe she could be wrong. She dismissed her colleagues’ objections as ‘political correctness’. In fact, she has no valid experience in treating people like me. She made no apology and did not express any concern or sympathy for me.

I wonder how many other women have been sent to her for assessment and have been treated similarly. How many would question her ‘professional’ evaluations and methods, or receive the support I was so fortunate to have? How many would dare to face her and confront her about the effects of her words and judgments, at a time of fragility, vulnerability and distress? How many other ‘professionals’ are behaving this way toward abused people in need?

I am told that the phrase ‘victim mentality’ is an accepted psychological term. However, I have noticed that it is typically applied in a belittling way that blames someone for causing or prolonging his or her own state of distress. People use it in the same way they call someone a ‘masochist’ or a ‘glutton for punishment’. It goes hand in hand with an attitude that anyone who struggles through a long recovery process must be a weak-willed whiner, probably deriving some kind of sick satisfaction from their own misery, and most certainly trying to get more than their fair share of help and sympathy from others. Assumptions like these, and related attitudes toward domestic abuse, are what I want to write about.

The Perpetrator’s Point of View

I have heard a number of perpetrators of domestic violence who tell people their partner simply cannot be taken seriously, that she is exaggerating everything, even making up a lot of it out of her own sick fantasies… because she has a ‘victim mentality’. Now, I think it is fair to ask: Shouldn’t we re-examine any professional label or jargon that the abuser can borrow so easily and aptly to justify, excuse and deny his actions? Doesn’t use of the phrase, ‘victim mentality’ shift blame away from the criminal and place it on the person he has assaulted? Is it possible that the same kind of logic a perpetrator uses also lies hidden behind the respected professional’s use of that phrase?

I asked a friend from the refuge. She replied that she had never heard the term ‘victim mentality’ spoken in any helpful way whatsoever. Have you? We all need to improve upon our weaknesses and flaws, to recognise ways in which we have let down others and ourselves, behaviors of ours that have contributed to relationship problems. Honesty and candor about ways in which we need to grow and change are an important part of any therapeutic counseling. However, those matters are completely different from assaults upon a person’s mind, emotions and body that occur in domestic abuse and violence.

Before justice can be done, the distinction between relationship difficulties and domestic abuse must be made clear to everyone. For this reason, a number of counseling and psychotherapy organizations strongly discourage any kind of couple counseling if abusive behaviors are in evidence.


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