From Victim to Survivor and Beyond

by | Jun 4, 1999 | Deliverance, Forgiveness, New Life

Today in this newspaper you will read about victims: stabbing victims, shooting victims, sexual assault victims, and victims of natural disasters, like hurricanes. There will be elderly victims of fraud, young victims of parental abuse or neglect, and civilian victims of wars.

I’ve been victimized too. Most of us have, if you look at life that way. Most of us have endured bad people or bad politics or bad weather. And too many of us embrace the victim identity. We cling to self-righteous anger about the inconsiderate or cruel ways we have been treated by other people, or by life itself.

I’ve got a better idea. Let’s define ourselves in terms of what we can do, or who we can love, or how we contribute to society, instead of defining ourselves in terms of what someone else did to us.

Here’s how this worked for me: When I was a young teen, I was molested by a man in his mid-twenties. He was my coach. He said it was “okay to love more than one person at same time.” He said we were having “an affair.” It lasted three years. In fact it was statutory rape, and it wounded me in many ways.

In my early thirties, as I read books by and about sexual abuse victims, I began to realize that I, too, had been abused. Though I did not relish the prospect of seeing myself as a victim (it felt humiliating), the term fit, and it was almost big enough to contain my rage.

A few years later, feminism helped me reframe my experience. I heard the preferred phrase “sexual abuse survivor” and adopted it as my own. Designed to empower, the term “survivor” did sound stronger than “victim.” Seeing myself as a survivor gave me credit for something, albeit only for continuing to live.

Then I forgave my molester, and my identity changed again.

After not seeing each other for more than a quarter century, “Bruce” called me, apologized, and asked me to forgive him. Wary, angry, and mistrusting, I initially responded, “No.” Forgiveness was on his agenda, I thought, not mine. But then I celebrated my fortieth birthday and began to wonder if I was going to go through another forty years of feeling enraged about something that had happened in my teens. Maybe something has to give, I thought, and maybe that something is me.

So I called Bruce back, and over the next six months we exchanged dozens of letters, spoke on the phone many times, and met in person twice. Ultimately I did forgive him, and told him so. The process transformed me. I felt free, not only from my anger about the past, but from my intense interest in it. Now neither “victim” nor “survivor” fit. Sure, I had been victimized, and sure, I had survived, but that phase of my life no longer seemed so influential in how I perceive myself.

Another woman I know was raped by her uncle when she was eight. “I’ve accepted it as just one of many things that happened to me,” she told me. “It doesn’t take center stage anymore. It doesn’t dominate the way I think about myself and my body. It’s not sitting there at my core, defining me.”

Heather P. Wilson, a clinical psychologist and director of The Forgiveness Web, says that giving up the “victim” role can be a critical part of healing. “The challenge is how to incorporate what happened without negating the seriousness of it but also without letting it define and debilitate and determine you for the rest of your life,” she says.

My point is not to “forgive and forget.” Remembering exactly what happened, and how it affected you, can be a source of strength, and an illustration of your own ability to triumph over adversity. But it doesn’t have to sit there at your core, defining you.

Nowadays, I think of myself as neither victim nor survivor. Rather, I think of myself as an author, writer, speaker, friend, daughter, sister, partner. I think of myself as courageous and honest and kind. These are identities based on the interests, talents and relationships I value. They’re much more freeing and powerful than “victim” or “survivor” could ever be.

Here’s what I’m recommending, with more compassion and gentleness than these three words can convey: Get over it. Through therapy or prayer or forgiveness or however: Stop identifying as a victim or survivor or anything that refers back to how someone treated you in the past. Treat yourself to this gift: a new, positive and empowering identity, based on who you are or who you love or what you do well.

Mariah Burton Nelson, an author, athlete, and professional speaker, is the

author of The Unburdened Heart: Five Keys to Forgiveness and Freedom (Harper San Francisco.) Her website:


From Victim to Survivor and Beyond