mental health

[Free to disagree] Ending victimhood

Sylvia Estrada Claudio

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[Free to disagree] Ending victimhood
Is a public display of indignation and grief the only way to heal?

“Cancer so often comes with a package of terms – survivor, thriver, warrior – and it’s great if someone wants to hang their existence on those words if it helps them get through the day – if it helps them get perspective, great. But for me, I couldn’t really resonate with those words ever. Because I say, unless I’m happy being alive, then what is the point in surviving?” – Kris Hallenga, who pushed for early breast cancer screenings until her death at 38 in May 2024.

In a recent consultation with an online para-counseling service on violence against women, the counselors and staff were asking me whether it was okay, during face-to-face meetings organized as learning seminars, that “trauma dumping” was happening. What they meant was that during our informational events, the attendees who had received online counseling would get together, tell their stories, and grieve.

I have no objection to support groups run by victims themselves. What I do find a bit troubling is the many times such groups do not have the skills that can turn these sessions into beneficial ones. In fact, some of the outcomes can be harmful instead.

I am not going to talk about how group therapy sessions should be run properly by a trained mental health professional. Well-run sessions are a boon especially in resource-poor settings where there is a dearth of properly trained professionals. Many times, because of the inherent sociality involved, group therapy may be more suited for certain people and psychological problems.

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But it is troubling to me as a longtime proponent and practitioner of feminist counseling that popular culture and social movements have distorted our views of victimhood. This is causing harm to victims ands is also distorting the ethics of resistance struggles.

Victim and survivor

Take, for example, the case of “trauma dumping.” My advice about this was both practical and theoretical. 

On a practical level, I suggested we need to brief people more and ensure that all participants understand that these were not therapy sessions but discussion/learning opportunities.

My theoretical advice is that we need to be clear about our “therapeutic contract” with our counselees. That therapeutic contract is simply that at the end of the process, they would not be victims or survivors, but merely themselves again. They themselves, not as they were before the trauma, but older and wiser. Ordinary, like the rest of us. Those who suffer from fame, notoriety or are “unusual,” know something the rest who are leading  less challenged lives may not grasp: normal and boring is good. I hear it from many of my patients who have had abusive childhoods, have suffered from sexual violence or are have disabilities – the invisibility and boredom of normality is both a sign of healing and what being accepted means. 

Thus, to request our counselees not to trauma dump during informational sessions is to help them imagine a life where they are just the same as other attendees. This is the life we are aiming for.

Even celebrities who seem to lead charmed lives are burdened with being marked out and take extraordinary measures to find their privacy. Many celebrity meltdowns, usually relating to attitudes of privilege and rebellion against the public, come from leading life in a gilded cage. The most stable among them are able to cope and lead “normal” lives, such as it is. But many are harmed. Only narcissists thrive on this attention but then narcissists are dysfunctional and unhappy anyway.

If there are benefits celebrities get from the attention given to their public persona, there’s really no benefit from getting your ego strokes from victimhood. It is not healthy to stay a victim or survivor beyond a certain point. Speaking again of narcissism, one of the signs of the narcissist is their inability to get past their victimization if they are indeed at the receiving end of abuse. But even the most privileged of narcissists will play the victim card for the flimsiest of reasons.

It is true that telling one’s truth is a necessary step towards healing and justice. It is also true that it took the women’s movement (locally and globally) a long and difficult time to get people, prosecutors, judges and governments to believe women when they talked about violence against women and children. It took brave and heroic women to come out and talk of their experiences to get to a point where women are not automatically dismissed for claiming that they had suffered sexual abuse. And, yes, we still have a long way to go.

But I have broken with a certain women’s group because of their formulaic approach to victims: one that insists that they speak out and make a public event of their abuse. One that then praises a woman for her brave stance over speaking out. One that seems to say that the only way to heal is a display of public indignation and grief.

When I work with victims of abuse, the question of going public is something we discuss thoroughly. If the goal is to return to anonymity, the older wiser but ordinary self, then becoming known for being a victim is at cross purposes. Choosing to preserve the victim’s privacy over these events is not a silencing nor stigmatization. The psychologist must believe, support and emphasize that guilt and moral burden accrues to the perpetrator. Usually, telling the story to  a supportive inner circle of friends and family is all that is needed. If necessary we prepare to open up to lawyers should the legal process be chosen by the victim as a means of finding justice. Make no mistake about it, often justice is necessary to healing. But justice can be obtained in ways that do not thrust the victim in all their pain into the public light. In some very rare cases, going public is necessary. But this is very rare and it would be unethical for me to sacrifice the well-being of my patient for the larger goals of the women’s movement.

To flourish, not just survive

Each person has their own path to healing and must take their own time. But if the person is doing the work and if the woman has no previous psychological disabilities then she will eventually realize she is not a victim anymore but a survivor. Here she recognizes that she has indeed suffered but that she has fulfilled the only duty one has in the face of abuse and violence: to survive. Close to the event, that can mean physical survival. Further on the survivor will address issues of psychological survival.

After survival comes flourishing and well-being. And it is at this stage when the person finally leaves the past behind. In my mind, it is the ultimate victory against the perpetrator of abuse whose goal is to mark the victim indefinitely – a form of continuing possession and control. To live a life where the abuse no longer marks your being except in that it is a part of what has been your life–that is for me the end goal. From a movement perspective women healed from abuse and living joyfully break the mass terror that the culture of violence throws at us.

My break with the women’s organization mentioned above was precipitated by my difficulties in counseling women who had spoken out, proclaimed as heroes, presented at news conferences and fora. For some, their move away from victim identity was not a problem. But there were some whose experiences of being petted and stroked as a victim made the transition difficult. There were some who refused and remained victims for years or decades, using the plight of victimhood to feed their narcissism as taught to them by the women’s movement.

Narcissistic progressives

I have noticed, however, that it is not only the feminist movement that has fallen into the trap of celebrating victimhood. Other social movements have come with the same message. The initial impetus is compassionate and correct. Systemic inequities mark our societies and many seek out those that bear the brunt of these inequities. There are many “victims” in an increasingly unjust world. Class, race, class, caste and sexual oppressions do exist.

Thus we form groups and advocacies along class lines such as worker and peasant groups, gender lines such as women’s rights groups, and so on and so forth. In essence we form groups along lines of victimization so the victims can struggle together to end the victimization.

But here again the message can go wrong. Here again identities marked by victimization such as “worker,” “woman” or “trans” become fought for so hard that we forget that in the future we fight for such identities would be meaningless because they would no longer be marked categories.

I see this as well in the theories of certain groups and individuals  that would prioritize certain struggles over others. I for example do not believe that class struggle is more important than the women’s struggle or that one needs to feed into the other. Such a stance breaks cooperation and ethical behavior between movements, because the one who believes their  struggle is more fundamental (i.e. they are the “real” victims) can often use other groups and movements in very transactional ways.

But I shall return to the level of the individual. The point of intersectional analysis is not just that we see victimization wherever it exists but also that we see privilege where it exists. My call for balance is not that we should not give sympathy for the victims or call out privilege.

My call is that when we clothe ourselves with the mantle of victim (woman, LGBT, peasant) we do not forget that even the most oppressed among us are swathed in some form of privilege.

I am honestly sick of a culture that allows someone to set themselves up on the pedestal of victimhood and then allows them further to call out someone else because they said something they believe is elitist, ableist, lookist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and on and on and on. Often this is done to people who actually consider themselves progressive and sympathetic. Often this is done to people who merely do not understand activist niceties and meant no harm. 

Such actions speak to me more of a person who revels in their own cause/victimhood while blithely ignoring their own privilege. It is not directed to powerful individuals that must be held accountable. Systems of power certainly will not be changed by our bickering and a toxic culture that intimidates people from speaking.

Cancellation and political correctness is the trojan horse that regressive people use against us. Their claims about our censorship of ideas and our snobbishness is the mirror image of our being supposedly judgmental. Practically speaking, who wants to be with us when the other side is far more welcoming?


To see one’s victimization in an intersectional world is to simultaneously understand one’s privilege. To see both victimization and privilege is to realize we must work together to end both categories for all. It is called solidarity. That means that we need to be kind not just to those who are victimized as we are but those who are victims in ways we are not.

The call for victims to “move on” when justice has not been rendered or healing has not yet been supported is a bad call. It is at the very least insensitive. Perpetrators and those who wish to coddle the perpetrator use this to stop processes of accountability. It keeps oppressive power relations intact.

But the process of counseling towards healing is a nuanced one. It requires pushing people towards growth and reconstitution gently but surely. In short we do need people to move on. We need people to move away from victimhood towards wholeness. Our sympathy belongs to victims, our admiration for survivors but our applause belongs to those who think of themselves as part of something bigger than their own aches, pains and joys.

 On a movement level, the call to caring for the self is to be self-reflexive about how we use our agency. We need to approach victimhood and wholeness as an ethical dilemma. 

We all need to be the change we want to see in the world. Because my foolish dream is that someday the world will move on too. Away from systems of victimization towards systems of solidarity. –

Sylvia Estrada Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also has a PhD in psychology. She is Professor Emerita of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She has been giving free counseling services to women victims of violence for almost 40 years.

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