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Breaking the Chains of Victimhood When You’ve Been Abused

“Toxically shamed people tend to become more and more stagnant as life goes on. They live in a guarded, secretive, and defensive way. They try to be more than human (perfect and controlling) or less than human (losing interest in life or stagnated in some addictive behavior).” ~John Bradshaw- Healing the Shame That Binds You

Do you feel like a victim? Are those around you suggesting that you are acting like a victim? Are these same people telling you to get over it and move on? Do these judgments and statements feel harmful or helpful for you?

Most people making these harmful statements and suggestions do so with very little understanding or experience with being a victim. They have not taken the time to really listen to your story of what has happened in your life. They make their judgments from the place of never being a victim or not being willing to accept that they were.

People with a history of victimization do not need tough love, harsh words, or anyone's reality check. Those things are most likely part of what happened to them. They need love, support, empathy, and compassion. If you are unable to give these things to them, the best thing you can do for them is to please stay out of it!

With that said, how do we break the chains that our victimization has had us bound in for so long? I know that many of the people I've worked with, like me, never totally allowed themselves to be a victim. We have lived our lives from the perspective that our victimization was somehow how our fault. It is this thought process that keeps us stuck.

I was sexually abused at the age of five by my mother. At that age, I didn't have the cognitive ability to understand that my mother was at fault or that she could ever hurt me. I only had the ability blame myself; I must have done something wrong or been bad.

In order for us to break the chains, we must be willing to give the responsibility, shame, and guilt of what happened to us back to our victimizer. When we hold on to these feelings we are kept in limbo. It keeps us trapped between the pain of our victimization and the feeling that we were responsible for what happened to us. It's no wonder we feel trapped.

In my case I unconsciously chose to bury the feelings from my abuse as deep and hidden in my psyche as I could. Of course, today I know that they never went anywhere except out of my conscious thoughts. Those feelings continued to work in my life like background programs running on a computer. Not seen, but affecting every area of my life.

“I think the first step is to understand that forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. It's a gift you give yourself.” ~T. D. Jakes

Forgiveness is the last link in our binding chain. But, how do we get there? The most important thing to understand about forgiveness is that it comes at the end of a process. Very often we stay stuck because we misunderstand this process and think that it starts with forgiveness.

That may work for a while, but it's like cleaning a room by throwing everything in the closet and closing the door. It's merely an illusion, and a temporary fix at best. Forgiveness is more than a cerebral action. To be complete it must include our soul, heart, emotions, and our physical body.

I know for myself it had to start with the complete acceptance of the fact that I was victimized. No more minimizing what happened or making excuses for my victimizer. No more false macho pride telling me I was a punk to admit I had been taken advantage of and that it hurt.

My start was sitting alone with myself. No music, phone, TV, or reading material. Just me, myself, and I. You would think that this wouldn't be very difficult. Well, it was for me, and after about ten minutes I thought I was going to rip out of my skin. The difficulty with it was that I was forced out my fantasy world and into reality. I was no longer running, ducking, dodging, or sneaking away from my life.

It was too much for me to handle on my own, so I decided to seek professional help. I found a great therapist who worked with me one on one and in a group setting. I always suggest to people to err on the side of caution and do this work with a professional.

I was stepping into a part of my emotional world that I had spent a great deal of time and energy avoiding at all costs. I knew that the way to forgiveness was through my abuse and its emotions, not over or around it. To do that, I needed an experienced guide.  

In therapy, we talk a lot about recovery by discovery. The peeling back layers of the onion. This describes my journey through my emotional quagmire to a T. As with most things, the first layer was the hardest. That was because my first layer was composed of anger, which has always been the hardest emotion for me.

I had been told all my life that it was not okay for me to be angry. I was too big and I might hurt someone.

When my siblings maliciously teased me and I did not have the words to stop them, my only resolve was to beat them up. In my parent's eyes, I was then the one acting inappropriately and was punished. By making me the perpetrator in the situation, they basically were shaming my anger.

So a great deal of work was needed for me to be all right with tapping into my anger. Once I became comfortable with feeling angry, the next obstacle was to be able to tap into my anger while working in a session with my therapist and closing the lid on it when I was done.

My anger had been bottled up and pressurized for so long it was like a blast furnace. I had to learn to cap it off so I did not leave with it raging and blast those around me like a flamethrower.

Once that work was done, I learned that the anger was covering my pain. So my process became one of removing layers. Finding and releasing the anger, then feeling and dealing with the pain. Over and over again until I reached its core, which was all pain.

I will always remember spending a whole session with my therapist on the floor sobbing and wailing as my body released waves and waves of pain and hurt.

Then a miracle occurred: I was done. It was over. Not like a faucet was turned off. It was like a vessel becoming empty.

It was shocking and I looked at my therapist expecting her to ask me why I closed down. She looked at me with the most beautiful and empathic look I have ever seen and all she said was “You are done.” Not with all the work that I needed to do but with being a victim of my sexual abuse.

I was now in a place where I could completely forgive my mother with no residual feelings of attachments. I have learned that what works best for me when I have made big shifts like this in my healing is to ground them in a ceremony.

So, I wrote my mother a letter and traveled to where her ashes were cast. I read the letter out loud and then burned it. The last thing I did was to say aloud that I forgave her and have a friend cleanse me with burning sage. I walked away feeling complete and resolved.

Did that mean that I was whole and complete? Of course not; I still had a lot of work to do. But I now knew that I had worked through the biggest and most painful victimization of my life. If I could do that, I could handle and was willing to do any other work needed to be done.

The greatest act of love I have ever given myself was the willingness to do what I needed to do to heal. It no longer feels like work but it is now a blessing I have been given. Every day I pray that all those who need to heal choose to do this work. My hope is that you do!

About Paul Hellwig

Paul Hellwig is a Certified Spiritual Life Coach who empowers adult children of alcoholic and addicted families to live the life they have always dreamed of. He is an adult child of an alcoholic and a recovering addict with over twenty-seven years clean. He’s dedicated his life to helping others on their spiritual and healing journey. Visit him at  thejourneytohealing.org.

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  • Dee

    Thank you for sharing your story Paul. So many things in this article have resonated with me. I am currently working on my victimization/self doubt with my counselor and I can appreciate a lot of what you said. I come from a family that deals with alcoholism myself and while I myself am not an alcoholic, I have been the victim of it. Some where along the line my self doubt was learned and I am working towards undoing it. I wish you well!

  • Paul E. Hellwig

    Dee,
    Thank you so much for your positive comment. It warms my heart to know that writing about my struggles and lessons learned from them can help others. I hope you find the healing, love and acceptance that you are seeking and working towards.

    There are other posts on my website http://www.thejourneytohealing.org/ that maybe of interest to you.

  • Lars Nielsen

    Hi, Paul-Thanks for sharing this, and congratulations on your courage, perseverance, and resilience. Your story is an inspirations to all of us who have experienced intimate betrayal.

  • Paul E. Hellwig

    Lars,
    Thank you for your comments. I am just blessed that I have the ability and opportunity to share my words, path and healing with others to help them as well as myself.

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Paul. I resonate with this deeply! I was constantly feeling like a victim and found it very hard to forgive. I buried my pain and hid behind layers of anger. And then I beat myself up for not being “over it.” So I recently entered therapy and look forward to my path to healing.

  • Paul E. Hellwig

    Cassie,
    Thank you for your comments. I know that getting into therapy was the most loving thing I have ever done for myself. My wish for you is that you have the courage to shine a light into those dark places and work through what you find there.

  • Linda Hasenfang

    Paul, I just found this website minutes ago and your words are the first thing I read. This journey of recovery seems to be a lifelong effort. I applaud your courage to share and inspire others, as you certainly did me. It takes vulnerability to stare your demons in the face and feel the feelings and finally say, no more. Like your empty vessel. I feel I’m almost there with the “no more.” Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Pam Lame

    Thanks Paul, Your article touched me as well. I am on that journey now and I can’t tell you what it would mean to have someone in your life that isn’t busy trying to tell you to how to heal or to just let go, or You Have TO FORGIVE. Especially when you are doing all you can just to stay sane. How I long to hear someone just once say, you deserve your anger, or your tears are cleansing, or, you can talk until you’re blue and I will still be here. I know it’s human nature to want to help a friend in need, but sometimes it feels like just one more person saying, you’re doing it wrong. And all that does is add more to deal with in your journey through the hurt. Just once I would appreciate it if someone would just listen and show that they really wanted to hear what’s going on in my head. I swear, I think that is the toughest part of all. I feel I have to act like all is well, because I don’t want to run anyone else out of my life.
    Maybe that is the value of therapy, they are paid to listen. But at this point its terrifying to even think about telling a complete stranger what I’m going through, and then hearing, “Well, times up. Next week we will start discussing how you need to forgive and let go.”

    I do agree though, you have to face your feelings and even wallow in your pain and not bury it somewhere in the back of your head, only by doing that can you get things sorted out and then look at what it’s going to take to heal from it all.
    I don’t really even know what my point was, but I did want to thank you for sharing and pointing out what not to do if you want to help a friend in trouble.

  • Ann

    I’m in my 20’s now. I have been physically, emotionally and verbally abused by my biological parents since childhood. I didn’t realize the psychological trauma it left ranging from severe panic attacks to chronic illness. The worst past is when i finally reached out to help noone believed me including my family friends and therapist. It only made me more resentful and withdrawn. I wish i just could let it go like you… I totally wish.

  • Paul E. Hellwig

    Linda,
    Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post. I have been so blessed to be given all that I’ve needed along my path of healing! From 12 step fellowships, sponsors, mentors, teachers, supportive people and the strength and courage to do the work. Today, I show my gratitude by sharing my story, healing and recovery to help others. I wish you all that you need to travel your path of recovery and healing.

  • Paul E. Hellwig

    Pam,
    I remember I tried to talk with my older sister about what had happened to me soon after I started working on my family issues. Big mistake, she basically told me that I was nuts. It truly hurt, but it also taught me a great lesson. I needed to be careful and selective with whom I shared this with. I was doing enough questioning of what happened, I didn’t need it from others. I first found supportive people in the 12 step fellowships of Narcotics Anonymous and Adult Child of Alcoholics Anonymous. These people lead me to a wonderful understanding and very qualified therapist.

    I realized that at this time in my life I trusted no one. I started slowly with my supportive in my life as well as with my therapist. Giving a little at a time and seeing how they handled it. I slowly learned to trust as well as who I would be supported by.

    My suggestion would be to start attending ACA (Adult Child of an Alcoholic) meetings in your area to find the supportive people that you need. They can also be a great reference in finding a professional person to work with.

  • Paul E. Hellwig

    Ann, I am so sorry that you have not found anyone to believe you. I am not surprised that family friends didn’t believe you, they are too close to your family and situations to be objective. What I don’t understand is a therapist not believing you. My suggestion is that you don’t let one bad apple ruin the whole barrel. If you want to find a new therapist, my suggestions is that you research them as much as possible. Find one who specializes in working adults that were abused as children. This person will be able to address your specific needs that a general type of therapist could not.

    Another great place to start would be be to start attending ACA (Adult Child of an Alcoholic) meetings in your area. There you will find people that not only understand you , but what your going through also. I wish you well on your path of recovery and healing!

  • Ann

    Mr. Hellwig,
    I come from a very reserved community. So i guess my therapist wasn’t the right person to discuss the taboo. Your post resonated close to home and i could remember feeling ashamed and guilty of myself because i was “bad”. I also have the pattern of attracting toxic relationships and being a “doormat”. This post was timely because i was feeling too hopeless these days. I’m very happy you free yourself from the victimhood. Keep writing as there are many people out there who rather not to speak about it.

  • Pam Lame

    Thanks for your reply Paul, it means a lot when people reach out like this. And I will think about what you suggested but my problem really wasn’t due to alcoholism, although it was a symptom. The trust issue is my biggest problem right now and it’s a tough one to get past. I”m learning that I first have to trust myself and my own judgement and also realizing that things happen to us in order to help wake us up to the true problems that are really at the heart of it all. We have to quit blaming and expecting to find happiness from others and instead heal our own inner demons. Then we can go on through life and not be so susceptible to what other people think and want from us. In other words not bending over trying to please everyone else and instead learning how to say no and knowing when it’s time to walk away from those that would hurt us. Taking responsibility for what happens to us and owning those things goes a long way in taking back your own power. I’ve learned that we allow things to happen sometimes, and that no one can really hurt us unless we allow it to happen. This has been a huge wake-up call for me and I’m learning to look inside for the problem instead of what I’ve always done. IT’s amazing how we get so programmed as children that we unconsciously use those same protective things as adults and as long as we are unhealed from the hurts of childhood it’s very difficult if not impossible to live a free and healthy life. That’s where I’m at right now, working on the hurts inside and learning how to trust my own self first.
    I ended up so alone that it was scary at first, but now I’m realizing that it had to get to that point for me to really take the time to hear my own heart. So much I’ve learned lately would never have penetrated my brain if I had not had the quiet of being so alone. And it all comes down to healing and learning so I can finally step outside again and move on with my life. I hope this makes sense and again I thank you for sharing parts of yourself with me, it helps a lot to know I’m not the only one struggling with life’s problems.

    Hawk

  • Paul E. Hellwig

    Pam, In your reply you talk about dealing with your programming and hurts from childhood, I am not sure if either of your parents are or were alcoholics, But I do know that dysfunction is passed down from generation to generation. I am not sure if I explained Adult Child of an Alcoholic thoroughly. It is for people whose life has been affected by alcoholism and family dysfunction. It is a place that you can go where there are other people that are working to get over childhood hurts and programming. It is a place where you won’t feel alone, but where you will be accepted, understood and listened to.