Following the trauma of domestic violence people are often identified as victims. Victimhood is only one stage in the recovery process. The stages aren’t linear, they don’t proceed in a straight line. I often tell the people I work with that progress is often one step forward two steps back. The following identifies the various stages of survivorhood: victim, survivor, and thriver.
Stage 1: Victim
Victimization by a domestic violence (DV) perpetrator often leads a person to feel worthless and incapable. Domestic violence is about controlling another person and depleting their sense of power. Control and power over another person can take the form of physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse.
People who are victims often have low self-esteem, feel a sense of shame and worthlessness, and may not feel that they deserve nice things or that they deserve to be treated respectfully by others. Victims may be hypervigilant, always expecting a threat, and feel guarded. People in the victim stage of healing often feel alone, selfish, numb, damaged, confused, and hopeless. It’s common for perpetrators to isolate victims from friends and family. Isolated, lonely people with low self-esteem are easier to control and maintain power over.
Victims of DV are often afraid to tell their stories for a number of reasons. They may fear that their partners will retaliate or be fired from their jobs. Victims may believe that their stories are not worthy of sharing. It is also common for people in the victim stage to feel overwhelmed by their past as they come to recognize the struggles they have endured. DV victims commonly have difficulty setting healthy boundaries and find themselves wrapped up in drama and unhealthy relationships with toxic, unsafe people. Victims tend to put their own needs last and often have difficulty communicating in ways other than being passive or sometimes passive-aggressive. Victims tend to believe that suffering is just the way things are and have a hard time finding joy. Victims also frequently turn to substance abuse or codependent relationships to help them feel like they are doing okay.
Stage 2: Survivor
Once a person begins moving away from unhealthy and violent relationships with an abuser, they can begin reflecting on their experiences in a safe environment. As they recognize the struggle they have survived they begin searching for reasons why this experience happened and how they can heal. People in the survivor stage view themselves as both wounded and healing and begin gaining a sense of hope. A grieving process may take place as the survivor comes to terms with the different losses that have taken place.
Survivors are often eager to tell their stories and want to talk about all the aspects of their experience in their attempts to heal. Support groups can be a great help for people in the survivor stage since they want to share their stories and hear others’ experiences as well. Survivors begin learning ways to set healthy boundaries and explore what is safe or dangerous in their relationships. Through their curiosity and sharing of experiences with others, survivors begin identifying patterns, which can become goals to begin changing. Change takes time for survivors and doesn’t happen overnight or in a matter of weeks. Whereas victims tend to believe that suffering is normal, survivors begin gaining a sense of hopefulness and relief as they see a journey leading them forward.
Survivors also learn to laugh again. They have a healthy sense of humor and can find moments of joy. Instead of needing substances or codependent relationships, survivors can begin regulating their emotional pain and may seek out therapy to explore the new and uncomfortable feelings that have been numbed or disregarded before. Survivors begin learning about a wider range of emotions.
Stage 3: Thriver
Although many people feel satisfied reaching the survivor stage, others believe that there is still more to go on their journey and these people become thrivers. People in the thriving stage have a sense of gratitude for this new found life that seems to be overflowing with miracles and wonderment. Instead of feeling isolated, thrivers feel a sense of connection with others and the universe. Thrivers have healthy connections and are both independent and interdependent. Thrivers have a sense of pride in their ability to care for themselves. They live in the present moment and understand that emotional pain passes and can be learned from.
Thrivers set healthy boundaries with others and protect themselves from toxic people but are also capable of living with an open mind and heart. Thrivers place their own needs first as they recognize that helping others requires care for themselves first. Thrivers create peace instead of chaos and find joy around them. They use healthy humor and feel a range of positive and negative emotions which helps them feel alive and genuine.
Each of the first two stages takes time move on from and some people feel quite content and happy living life in the second stage. Some people experience great difficulty moving from victim to survivor stages and even become more comfortable staying in the victim role. The victim role offers familiarity. Oftentimes when I meet with survivors of DV who have entered into what seem to be healthy relationships, they describe feeling fear and confusion because they don’t know how to cope with a healthy partner and it feels scary. Survivors have often learned a number of coping skills during the victim stage to get through a violent relationship and learning to be in healthy relationships can require learning or building on a whole new set of skills. Reaching out for support is common for survivors and many of them turn toward family and close friends.
More can be found on these stages in the book: Surviving Domestic Violence: A Guide to Healing Your Soul and Building Your Future by Danielle F. Wozniak, PhD, and Karen Allen, PhD.
Inspired by the daily prompt: Survival