Why Do People Blame Trauma Victims? Why do Trauma Victims Blame Themselves?
Here are 16 possible causes of both Blame the Victim (others blaming the trauma survivor for their traumas) and Internalized Blame the Victim Mentality (the trauma survivor blaming themselves):
(Note: This is Part 6 of the Blame the Victim Series, originally entitled Blame the Victim Part 6 – 16 Possible Causes)
1. Perpetrators Feel Better Emotionally
Perpetrators may shift the blame over to the victim because it makes the perpetrator feel better by removing their own culpability, guilt, responsibility, and shame. They may actively and/or subtly shift blame onto the victim, who may be weakened by the trauma and have little capacity to defend themselves. This stance pushes the narrative and forms perceptions around the situation that are false. The victim accepts the perpetrator’s viewpoint because the perpetrator is more powerful, has more support, or because they care about the perpetrator.
2. Perpetrators Preserve Their Identity
Perpetrators could shift blame in order to retain their reputation and facets of their identity. The victim accepts the perpetrator’s viewpoint because the perpetrator is more powerful, has more support, or because they care about the perpetrator.
3. Perpetrators Want to Weaken the Victim
Perpetrators also shift the blame because they know consciously or unconsciously that it will weaken their victim significantly – it may confuse and undermine their victim, cause cognitive dissonance, dissociation, reliving the trauma, flashbacks, and activation of the fight-flight response – which will make many things easier for the perpetrator. The victim does not know how to protect themselves, possibly due to an ongoing relationship of abuse to which they have grown blind to, patterns from childhood, feelings of love for the perpetrator, etc.
4. Perpetrators Won’t Have to Face Consequences
Perpetrators also shift the blame because they know it will result in the victim losing agency and then the perpetrator will never be held accountable or face any consequences for their actions. If they are a narcissist, this is one thing that is of utmost importance to them.
5. Childhood – Authoritarian Parenting Style
Parents can blame children for things that they are, in fact, innocent of, as a way to feel in control and to cope. Parents may end up using a pattern of harmful forms of communication, controlling behaviors, and authoritarianism as a habit (as they were taught), or as a strategy to gain order, control, relief, peace, compliance, cooperation, etc. The communication of falsely placed blame can happen from teachers in school, other adults in the child’s life, and bullies as well.
Children put through this may learn to feel guilty for things they are not, in fact, guilty of, and then automatically take the blame on themselves when something bad happens to them as an adult.
6. Childhood Abuse – Need to Be Loved – To Accept Blame means to Retain Attachment and Attention
Abuse – more severe abuse than authoritarian parenting – is often blamed on children as well, also setting up a pattern of the child taking on blame for things that go wrong around them. Children may agree with a parent’s blame during the abuse in order to feel more connected to that parent’s love and attention, as negative attention is better than no attention. Negative attention retains the attachment bond in a way, a bond that if lost would mean the child may not survive.
If this person is then harmed or abused as an adult, they may repeat this way of connecting. They may confuse the abuse with love and attention, and then feel loving towards the perpetrator because on some level they want the attention just as they did as a child. They may agree that they are to blame to unconsciously retain the connection, love and attention.
7. Agency Recovery
Children may take on blame during abuse to feel agency and control in an out-of-control situation. Then, as an adult, they may automatically take on the blame, which again gives them a feeling of agency and control.
8. Childhood Abuse – Caretaking – Love of Parent/Perpetrator leads to Taking the Burden from Them
A child may want to unburden their parent, whom they love, and try to take bad things onto themselves so the overwhelmed parent can be relieved of them. As an adult, they may want to unburden the perpetrator by taking responsibility and blame onto themselves, especially if the perpetrator is someone they care about or love, but even it is a stranger.
9. The Nature of Trauma in the Body
“Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women (and men) experience when they are sexually violated. Sexual assault is, by its very nature, humiliating and dehumanizing. The victim feels invaded and defiled while simultaneously experiencing the indignity of being helpless and at the mercy of another person.” — Stop Shaming Victims of Sexual Assault for Not Reporting
During trauma, the body absorbs various powerful messages as a new lived reality. It is like an antennae or receiver of the characteristics of that new trauma-based reality. That reality is set in the nervous system from the time of the trauma onwards. If that reality contains the sense, in the body, of being guilty and ashamed, dirty and tainted, bad and less worthy, it may remain like that until the body is taught a new way of feeling and sensing itself in the world. This body sensation contains: horror, disgust, shock, sickness, exhaustion, dirtiness, feeling contaminated.
These sensations can be misconstrued and come to mean to the survivor that they did something wrong or are something wrong, not that something wrong was done to them. There can be a connection made between bodily disgust and feeling deep shame for getting into the situation, even though that linking of those two things is not the truth of the matter. The reasoning could possibly be – if I feel terrible I must have done something bad to deserve it. The fact is, the body can feel disgusting, and remain innocent of any wrongdoing. Disgust is a natural and authentic and genuine response to what happened. It does not have to have any connection with being blamed for what happened or feeling ashamed for what happened. I think that childhood messages might be behind why the sensation of disgust is linked with the feeling of guilt.
So this is another kind of logical fallacy – I feel disgust therefore I did something bad and am guilty and ashamed.
The truth is – I feel disgust therefore someone did something to me that I find disgusting.
10. Shame for Not Being in Control
“Victims of sexual assault also feel shame because as human beings we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we believe we “should have” been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness causes us to feel further humiliated.” — Stop Shaming Victims of Sexual Assault for Not Reporting
11. Logical Fallacies
There are other logical fallacies (see article about logical fallacies – 7 Blame the Victim Logical Problems). Some may be case specific. For example, “I must have some character flaw or have done something wrong to bring it upon myself, otherwise why would I have been the one singled out?” This is assuming the person chose their victim due to some character flaw in them, but it could have been random, or just bad timing, or something completely unrelated to the survivor. Also, even if there are a host of character flaws, none of those character flaws caused the perpetrator to make the choices he or she made.
12. New Age Thought
New Age spirituality (see Part 5) has a bunch of ideas that are illogical and can lead to blame the victim such as “You create your own reality.” and “You attract your experience.” There is some truth to these statements but that small filament of truth is only one small piece in a much greater and more complex reality that contains individuals with free will, their own motivations, pasts, thoughts, choices. It’s like pointing to a piece of potato in a vegetable soup and stating that the only thing in the soup is potatoes, ignoring all the other vegetables taking part in the entire soup.
13. Some People Don’t Want to See Themselves in Perpetrators
Another facet of this is that some people – outside observers of the situation – really are like the perpetrator in some ways. Perhaps those people don’t want to look at their own tendencies to violate or invade or assault or lie or manipulate. So they focus all the attention on the victim so that they don’t run the risk of having to examine themselves. Some people are highly threatened by the idea of honest introspection.
14. Projection of Own Unacknowledged Traits onto Victim
Also, it could be that some people who are outside observers can more easily project a lot of negative traits onto the victim because they actually have the negative traits they are projecting. They don’t want to know or see this about themselves, so they project all this negative stuff – stuff that is not true – onto the victim and it helps them feel better about themselves. Also it makes sense to them because, on some level, they think people are like they are. So they may project that a victim is lying because in their world, they lie and others lie frequently for various reasons (but they would not admit this), so it makes sense to them that someone in that circumstance would lie.
15. Society Values Strength and Control
“We need to stop blaming victims. In fact, our entire culture is guilty of victim blaming. At its core, this tendency to blame the victim comes from our cultural intolerance of weakness in any form. We can’t tolerate weakness in others because it reminds us of our own weakness and vulnerability. What better way to avoid this than by blaming the victim for her own victimization?” – Stop Shaming Victims of Sexual Assault for Not Reporting
Western Society values strength and fears weakness.
Even if there was no weakness necessarily in the victim when the attack/assault/violation happened, there can be perceived weakness in the victim due simply to what happened to them. This is a logical fallacy that states that because someone was violated that means they are weak. It is because they are weak in various ways that they were violated. These are not logical statements.
Perhaps people don’t want to look at their own weaknesses or to imagine that what happened to the survivor could happen to them. They desire to sublimate the idea that the same thing could happen to them. Therefore, they make the victim out to be different than they are, with character flaws that they don’t possess, to separate the event from themselves. If they view the victim as different than they are, nothing of the sort could or would ever happen to them. If they blame the victim, and they are not like the victim, it follows that they are safe.
This is just a theory but – by using this illogical thought process, people distance themselves from the victim and ensure they are strong and that what happened to the victim could never happen to them – or more importantly it could never be them, in terms of their identity as someone who is in control.
They take this stance into social media, articles, and public arenas of various kinds, and the mentality seeps into the victims themselves.
“We blame the woman who was raped for wearing sexy clothes, or for drinking too much, or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time because we want to hold on to the fantasy that we all have choices—that we are in control. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that sometimes we don’t have a choice—that sometimes we are not in control.” – Stop Shaming Victims of Sexual Assault for Not Reporting
So, this theory is that people don’t want to see or feel their own weakness. They want to feel in control, so they won’t acknowledge that the same thing could happen to anyone, including them. It only happened to that person because that person was different from “us” – weak, asking for it, stupid, sloppy, needy, naive, etc. Not only is the victim a different and highly flawed character, they are less than others and therefore deserving, ultimately, of what happened. All this to bring more separation to avoid facing themselves honestly and to avoid feeling connected in any way to things that make them uncomfortable, threatened or vulnerable.
16. Archaic Beliefs
“We need to help women understand that they need to stop blaming themselves for sexually harassing and sexually abusive comments and behavior. Even in today’s culture, women tend to blame themselves (and other women) when a man tries to force himself on them. This belief has been ingrained in women’s psyches for decades and is based on the idea that: 1) women are responsible for men’s unacceptable behavior, and 2) it is a woman’s job to never arouse a man unless she wants to follow through by having sex with him. This arcane belief needs to be unearthed and exposed as the lie that it is. No one is responsible for a man’s behavior but the man himself.” — Stop Shaming Victims of Sexual Assault for Not Reporting
Everything in this article is the author’s personal opinion based on her experiences.