Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Protection Against Victimization


Newspapers and television bring us bad news including horrifying stories of people victimized by others. With the Duke lacrosse rape accusation in the news, a lot of people are stopping to think about victimization: how to understand the problem, how to protect yourself and your loved ones and how to cope if it occurs to you. In this column I'll be writing about emotional issues in dealing with this problem. This is not to de-emphasize the importance of security measures and self-defense training, since all contribute to an internal feeling of security and strength.

People of all ages, both male and female, can be victimized. Many kinds of the abuse are perpetuated upon others including violent crime, intimidation, physical abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse or rape. Important to self protection is developing an assertive approach to life. The issue of assertiveness itself has been discussed in a previous column and is now posted on my web site. Assertive self-care may serve as a deterrent to potential victimizers. Psychologists who study abusive individuals know that they often look for vulnerable people to victimize. Some people are victimized more than once, especially if patterns which existed earlier in their lives are re-created and their vulnerability to abuse is exploited. On the other hand, no one is immune to violence, and even strong and capable people can be victimized. Another crucial issue in self protection is the importance of using resources (books, internet, therapists, friends, doctors) to understand and deal with possibly dangerous relationships and situations.

The "code of silence" perpetuates shame, guilt and victimization, often additionally protecting the abusers from responsibility for their actions. Research has shown that recovery from victimization is facilitated when the abuse or crime is reported soon after the event, the victim is clearly seen as innocent and the abuser labeled as guilty and when therapeutic intervention is immediately available to assist the victim. Too often these conditions are not present and the victim is left with hurt and pain. Why should the victim continue to be traumatized? The many victims I've worked with over the years often feel helpless, powerless and embarrassed about the abusive actions perpetuated upon them, experiencing shame and guilt, re-traumatized by suspicion and doubt, feeling criticized as being somehow responsible for the abuse. They need loving support to help them make the transition from victim to survivor. As these survivors gradually master their trauma experiences, they develop inner strength and courage as they recognize they have triumphed over abuse.

It is often therapeutic for survivors of abuse to be able to "go public" when victims find the strength to recover and then to speak out themselves as a survivor. Many strong individuals currently in the news started as victims. The attorney Gloria Allred is one example, having survived rape when she was a teenager. Recently a former Miss America, Marilyn Van Derber, spoke in Chapel Hill about her experiences as an incest victim. It is very important that we help victims transition to survivors by supporting them and helping them break the code of silence.

Not all types of abuse are committed by strangers; many in fact start in the home and family or within ostensibly loving relationships. These types of abuse are very difficult to deal with because of the complicated emotional relationships within these situations and the feeling of guilt and personal responsibility felt by the victim. I would like to describe the problem of relationships which start out as positive but become dangerous when a partner suddenly finds him or herself in an abusive or even violent situation. Adults need to understand the dynamics of this kind of situation to protect themselves or their teenage children who may become victimized in an abusive dating situation. The dynamics of this type of relationship are aptly described in a book entitled Dangerous Relationships by Noelle Nelson, Ph.D. Dr. Nelson identifies the patterns of behavior manifested by this type of individual (male or female) with a dramatic romantic beginning to the relationship, intimacy which becomes possessiveness, the switch from positive romance to negative controlling behavior, blame, verbal abuse, lack of empathy and uncaring attitude or cruelty, sometimes but not always escalating to domestic violence. This book describes the warning signs and differentiates between positive intimacy in relationships versus narcissistic controlling behavior which ultimately becomes abusive.

Many Southern Neighbor readers have experienced victimization in their own lives or the lives of family and friends. Let's all try to protect ourselves and others from the effects of victimization and especially support individuals making the transition from hurt victim to proud and courageous survivor.