The Difference between a Victim and a Survivor

I really thought I was over it. Done. This thing happened over 1o years ago and I talked about it, worked through it ad-nauseam.  But the interview we did with Alia (Imams who Cross the Line & The Woman Who Keeps Them in Check) set off a flurry of thoughts and feelings that have apparently been dormant.

So while my sister, Hanaa, is the regular “blogger,” she graciously let me share my thoughts with you all this week.

After the interview, I went to FACE, reported the “sheikh” who was caught 10 years ago staying in the house and bed of a woman he was supposed to be counseling. He was supposed to help save her marriage. But there he was in the middle of the night. This is not an accusation of cheating or adultery. I didn’t jump to conclusions then and I chose not to still. Besides, there is much more to this story, but it’s not my story to tell so I’ll leave it at that.  The woman was a good friend of mine and I had a front row seat to this relationship playing out (although I was unaware it had gone that far).  Toxic habits and personalities have enablers. Often, like me, they are unaware of what they are enabling.  In my case, I gave away too much of my trust, turned a blind eye to little things that should have been red flags, and ultimately enabled behavior that was not in line with my values.

This is for any of you who have had experience with toxic relationships and betrayal of your trust.

After the podcast was recorded, one thing that really pushed my buttons was the possibility of being seen as a “victim”. I didn’t know it at the time, but that word is loaded for me.  The concept is not. I kinda feel like you need the “victim” status for a time. At different points in your healing journey, you need to give your grief and rage room to breathe even if you misplace blame and revel in self-pity. For a time.So it’s not that I have a problem with temporary “victim mentality” per se, I just don’t like the pity that comes behind words like “victim”.

People are capable of surviving and thriving because of their trauma and not in spite of it.

But feeling sorry for “victims” robs them of their power and potential to fully heal.  Telling this story on the podcast, using words like “abuse”,  highlighted the possibility of being pitied and my aversion to it.

After talking to my coach, my sis, my friends, I now realize why. There is a difference between a victim and a survivor.   First I’d like to say I don’t believe in labels and I don’t that there is a distinct line between a victim and a survivor. But I do think there is indeed a line. In my experience, here’s the difference:

  1. Victims are stuck in the same cycle of feelings and thoughts over and over. “Survivorhood” is a choice and a  PROCESS. And often one of the core questions that needs to be answered is “Who can I “trust?” and “How can I trust again?” A survivor goes about examining their experiences to review where their instincts were muted or ignored. That requires bending one’s mind and getting out of old thought patterns.
  2. A victim is still in a place where they are needing or wanting a lot of compassion, sometimes sympathy (vs empathy) and they are not really ready to face the role they played in being a part of a toxic relationship.
  3. A survivor can get curious about their situation and honor their messy feelings at the same time. They recognize that they stand to benefit by looking closely into their own story. But they can also stop and “feel” those pesky messy unwelcome feelings at the same time. They don’t button up emotions and shove them under the rug to fester. They may take their time and take it step-by-step but it’s a proactive process.
  4. Being a survivor does not mean that you “take all the blame” or that you don’t hold others accountable. In fact, it’s not about divvying up blame for the past at all. It just means you are willing to look at what elements made you vulnerable to the toxic relationship in the first place and course correct.  I like how Will Smith put it in one of his videos. It may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility. Your happiness and joy is your responsibility.
  5. In our episode, Alia sagely pointed out that people in positions of power and influence carry 100% more responsibility even if a relationship is fully consensual. Survivors learn to hold others accountable, they don’t feel “bad” or sorry for toxic people. They learn to draw new boundaries for themselves. “Victims” haven’t closely worked out the difference between playing the blame game and holding someone accountable and their boundaries are not sturdy.
  6. The trauma you face is as much about what you say to yourself about yourself as it is what others say about you. Survivors get that. They work through their shame allowing self-compassion to live side by side with taking responsibility for their role.
  7. “Victims”  might get stuck in the victim role to compensate for the very harsh critic in their own minds.  Ex:  …”How did you get yourself into this mess?”, “How could you be so stupid?”. In order to balance out the inner judge, they find themselves oscillating between blaming themselves and blaming others.
  8. A survivor is eventually empowered by examining their trauma. They recognize that it’s in the “rock bottom” that all the gems appear. They will eventually come away with a real sense of self-confidence because confidence doesn’t come from empty praise or gassing yourself up. Confidence is the knowledge that you have what it takes to get through what life throws your way.  “The wound is where the light enters you.” says Rumi.  Survivors walk away from their experience with honed instincts,  a pretty good “toxic person” radar, and are able to navigate the world of line steppers with expertise.

My sister’s blog posts are short and sweet. I, on the other hand, am a rambler. If you’ve read this whole thing, wow! Leave your thoughts in the comment box. This is by no means an exhaustive list so we’d love to hear your own observations about victims vs. survivors.

Till next time,

Meimuna Garad

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Get the Bold True Life Toolkit!
  1. Bold Peace Meditation: Sometimes, living boldly takes courage and getting uncomfortable. Invite calm back in with this short and sweet (3 minute) guided meditation.
  2. Bold Leap Journal Prompts: 25 Questions to get clear, confident, and free of overwhelm when you're thinking about making a bold new move in life.
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