From Victim to Survivor to Thriver

A woman raises her arms in victory as she stands outside facing the sun.One way to understand the healing journey is to think of growing from a place of victimization to survival, and ultimately, to thriving. While a person has had no choice about being victimized, he or she does have a choice about growing through these stages.

Regardless of what the traumatic event was, where or when it occurred, there was a period of time when victimization occurred. This victimization is not something one should feel guilt or shame about, rather it is a factual reality to understand, accept, and grow through. When an individual cannot or does not grow through the period of victimization, one can think of this person as being stuck within the victim stage.

An individual in the victim stage feels as though he or she is still in the trauma—no matter how long ago the actual traumatic incident(s) occurred. The sense of being in that moment of time permeates the person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and even his or her sense of self. It is common for an individual in this stage to avoid many emotions while experiencing in abundance feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, fragility, self-pity, numbness, defeat, shame, self-hatred, and discouragement. The person might feel out of control or angry, want to hide and hope to be rescued. The individual often believes he or she lacks choices and has few possibilities and a shortened future. This combination of thoughts leads to little planning for the future and a preoccupation with the past.

In addition, the individual may feel plagued by memories of the event, particularly if he or she is struggling with flashbacks. Common behaviors that arise out of these thoughts and feelings are self-destructive ones such as addictions or a pervasive passivity. While most individuals, even those who have been stuck within this stage for quite some time, do not desire to be within the victimization stage, some individuals do experience secondary gains (such as love, support, attention, assistance) from being within this victim stage.

These benefits can also become intertwined with the individual’s way of life and identity, making it all the more difficult to grow through this phase. Just as some individuals struggle with leaving this stage, some individuals struggle with being in this stage and try to avoid acknowledging the truth of the victimization. Neither approach is healthy, because true recovery can only occur when ones has dwelt within and then healed out of this stage.

Once a person has grown through the victim stage, he or she enters into the survivor stage, which is the time when one begins to feel strong and confident and to truly believe that there are resources and choices. A key realization of this stage is that an individual has gotten through the trauma intact, or mostly intact, and is indeed outside of it. This understanding allows the person to begin integrating the trauma into his or her life story, to take control of life, and to recognize potential for change and growth.

For many, a sense of satisfaction accompanies this realization as does a shift into an emotional state that has less suffering, less pain, less guilt, and definitely less depression. Many of the difficult emotions decrease, and though this is not necessarily a happy phase of life, moments of happiness will start to occur more often. As one progresses through this stage, living one day at a time increasingly becomes a primary focus. Coping from day to day and acting upon a commitment to healing, trusting, and restoring relationships becomes the essence of healing.

The thriver stage crystallizes the growth of the survivor stage and takes one’s healing to the point where he or she has general satisfaction with life as well as a sense that ordinary life is both interesting and enjoyable. Commitment to moving forward, to taking care of one’s physical health, to investing in one’s career, relationships, and love and life allow these gains to occur. On an emotional level, feelings of strength, empowerment, compassion, resilience, and self-determination eclipse the emotions experienced within the victim stage. In addition a renewed sense of joy, peace, and happiness arises because one has grown, despite the traumatic experience, and is living well.

It is within this thriver stage that a person’s thinking becomes less pessimistic; he or she begins to think and believe that that there are long-term options, that there is a point to planning for the future, and he or she begins to recognize and embrace new possibilities. This living well is also exemplified in an ability to connect with others who are suffering, to accept imperfections in loved ones, and to reach out to others. Life is once again rich in meaningful relationships which help the person find a sense of meaning and purpose. If any symptoms of posttraumatic stress or other issues remain, the individual has learned how to effectively cope with these symptoms. Ultimately, he or she perceives him- or herself as more than a victim. One recognizes him- or herself as a valuable individual who, though tempered by tragedy, has risen and moved beyond the trauma.

© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Angelo mathews

    Angelo mathews

    January 7th, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    You know,it’s very easy to say-you don’t need to feel bad or guilty coz that was not your mistake,but sometimes things just become so bad that even somebody else’s mistake can harm us very very deeply

  • KP

    KP

    January 7th, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    when family an friends are supportive the transition from a victim to a survivor becomes so much easier.been there done that!

  • stacy

    stacy

    January 8th, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    If you tend to get stuck in that victim mentality then life is never going to give you all theat you have hoped for. There will always be let downs and failures, but survivors and thrivers of the world, not the victims, are the ones who will be able to take somehting positive from that and learn from it, and not constantly beat themselves up about something over which they may actually have no control. It is time to step up and stop being a victim- living life to the fullest is a much easier, and a way better journey!

  • GZ

    GZ

    August 19th, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    I’m not sure if I believe that the process is as linear as this. I feel as though I have moments where I’m a victim, moments where I’m a thriver, and moments where I’m just hanging on. Maybe I’m just not quite at the end of the tunnel, but I have a sense that this is something that will always be with me, but my manner of coping will change.

  • mary

    mary

    December 5th, 2014 at 6:39 PM

    It isn’t that linear. This is just a simple model, and like all models is not as nuanced as reality, but it is still a good model. Setbacks are usually the result of a trigger that sets off an automatic response. The important things to remember during our setbacks, are that we are not back in the trauma, recognize and take ownership of our patterns – whatever they may be, not judge ourselves and recognize the lows as an opportunity, slow down and develop detachment and compassion, recognize choices and act or not act with courage. Healing itself is a choice made moment. It is not easy, it is not guaranteed, but it is possible, even with complex PTSD, to get “Better”. Finally recognize and celebrate growth! It is real.

  • E

    E

    February 3rd, 2015 at 8:16 AM

    It has taken me three years to get here. I am now a “survivor who thrives”!

  • Ross

    Ross

    February 12th, 2016 at 10:10 AM

    BTDT (been there, done that)

  • S

    S

    November 5th, 2016 at 4:05 AM

    If you allow yourself to feel it, you can heal it. Don’t allow the past to keep effecting your future. It isn’t a quick process or an easy one but think of it like an onion. You have many layers to peel off to get to the core and find the you that is in there. It is so freeing to be able to thrive now considering everything I have been through. I also now have compassion towards the family member who abused me and have forgiven them. Forgiveness isn’t an emotion. It is a choice we make and when we keep allowing ourselves to forgive, we free ourselves more than anything. That person or persons never even need to apologize or show remorse because in all reality, you don’t need that to be healed from this. Do the hard work on working through the stages of healing from this and you will not regret it. I AM FINALLY FREE!!!!!

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