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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Victim Mentality

Q. I was told by a close friend that I have a "victim mentality". She said it in the nicest way possible! Can you tell me what that is, and can you also recommend any books that can help me to understand it more? I was physically and emotionally abused as a child, and am just now starting to work through the issues surrounding the abuse. How can someone who has a history of abuse become stronger?

A. When you say you are just starting to work through these issues, I am not sure if you mean you are doing so on your own, or with the help of a professional. But if you are not yet seeing someone in treatment, I would recommend it. As to your first question: I am not really sure what your friend meant by a victim mentality, or how helpful that label is for moving on with your life. Anyone who has been abused as a child is a victim-it is certainly not a matter of just feeling like one, or cultivating a perverse frame of mind!

On the other hand, your friend might have meant that your adaptation to the abuse has not been constructive or helpful, or that your life is limited in ways that indicate unresolved traumatic damage. For example, many individuals with a history of abuse have difficulty trusting others, forming intimate relationships, or feeling good about themselves. If this is true, the best approach to becoming stronger is to get involved in psychotherapy with a mental health professional who has expertise in post-traumatic disorders. Such therapists are not always easy to find, and not every psychologist or psychiatrist has the sophistication to work with victims of abuse or trauma.

Thus, you should try to get a recommendation from someone you trust (such as a family doctor), and inquire as to the therapist's experience. Sometimes, a support group (run by an experienced professional) may also be of help to victims of childhood abuse. Of course, there are things you can do on your own. Dr. Susan Forward has a book entitled "Toxic Parents" that has garnered at least one good editorial review (I have not read the book). Dr. Jon Allen has written a book I can recommend, called "Coping With Trauma: A Guide to Self-Understanding" (American Psychiatric Press, 1995). Either of these books might be helpful to you, but neither is a substitute for working with a competent, caring professional. I hope you succeed in moving on with your life in fulfilling ways.

June 2001

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