Everyday Victim Blaming

challenging institutional disbelief around domestic & sexual violence and abuse

Complex Trauma theorists are victim blaming

Trauma theorists like Bessel van der Kolk blame victims by arguing that survivors of child sexual abuse with Complex PTSD have 'poor affect regulation' and 'maladaptive coping mechanisms'. Theorists  are mistaking overwhelming pain for faulty coping abilities.

This is a way of denying the pain and damage. It's a claim that the child had a range of coping skills to choose and chose the wrong ones. Instead of congratulating victims for surviving, these phrases blame them for not surviving unaffected.

It is as though they believe there is some imaginary child who can survive child sexual abuse without it affecting them. Presumably theorists think they would have and this allows them to judge survivors.

Adults who are affected by child abuse are not faulty, maladaptive or any of those things. The trauma theorists apply their own limited experiences of life to trauma survivors and judge accordingly.

The chances of a theorist having CPTSD are remote: to have healed since we understood CPTSD, enough to train as a psychologist, then progress in your field and get published- you would be very, very old.

I think it's really important to remember that they do not know what they are talking about. They haven't experienced C-PTSD. They don't understand the experience.

People with C-PTSD are not faulty- we were born perfect like everyone else and we had, and are having, normal, standard responses to being brutalized as children.

If you have C-PTSD then you were abused for a long time, and if you are reading this I want say that whatever shape you are in now, congratulations for surviving, you are wonderful.

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9 thoughts on “Complex Trauma theorists are victim blaming

  • Christine says:

    That’s spot on, this is what i talk through with my clients, I let them know that I’m going to keep telling them until they hear it, feel it and know it, “they are responding in a healthy way to unhealthy experiences’! That their brain, body & spirit did a great job of surviving but now it is time to start thriving.
    They are not responsible for what was done to them, the perpetrator is. Such an important message and one I know both personally & professionally.
    Survival is reactive, thriving is responsive.
    Thank you for raising these issues, so important!

  • Lynda says:

    Some Psychologist just talk out of their backside sorry I said it but their it goes I’ve said it. The emotional pain of people suffering from COMPLEX POST TRAUMATIC DISORDER is server and painful at the least. The times of disassociation because the psychological torture you go through on a daily basis is awful and the panic attacks at times can be gut wrenching and your breathe takes it away when the overwhelming tides of emotions set in like a tidal wave it can take your breathe away and then the panic sets in. Comments from professionals who have little or no understandings disheartens me. They call people manipulative or maladaptive and that is not what its about if you have been abused over along period of time over years and years you have a coping mechanisms sometimes albeit negative ones that your learnt to survive your abusive tortures world . People should leave judgemental comments at the door and try to help victims of long term abuse instead of pigeon holing them into tick boxes exercises. We all have negative parts of our personality nobody is perfect but I don’t understand when professionals go into to helping people with complex emotional difficulties and make judgmental comments that are not fit for purpose. When a victim of abuse for years has the emotions stifled and cannot express them because their to difficult to handle for the person because it hits you like a big wave and more waves and difficult emotions all of the time. At times we then can show the negative behaviours we have learnt from the past and connect to it because it easier than telling others they hurt us they make us sad or were angry at them because they are being unkind and cruel to us. People suffering with CPTSD need love kindness compassion firm but strong boundaries people who they can learn to trust not to be let down all the time. When another person invades your body and invades over along period of time they over step your boundaries, your personal space whether it’s sexual physical or emotional. This can have a devas ting affect on your life for along time in relationships to others and trusting others to let them in. Often in the mental health world full of doctors and nurses some do but others don’t want to hear or see their pain of the person in front of them. The more you reject someone because it makes you feel uncomfortable or because it brings up emotions in yourself and you can’t handle your own pain. Then you start having patients who keep presenting themselves at A/E hurting harming themselves because you won’t listen or understand their pain and the difficulties they are going through then the person reacts because they feel let down and then again they want you to listen to them to see them listen to their pain and you then get the ripple effect of patients at A/E departments . I suffer with flashbacks nightmares because of my CPTSD I even freeze at bed at night with frozen fear and cannot move my body because of that fear. People who suffer with this needed type of emotional distress others should show, empathy understanding, compassion, love, kindness from others not condemnation but because others want peace inner peace in their head mind and body because their inner world is so chaotic. Thank you for reading and take care

    • Jane says:

      Yes, yes and yes. I’m so sorry that you are suffering so much. We need good C-PTSD responses that support us to stay out of crisis, instead of responses that keep us in crisis and distress.
      So many health workers just don’t have a clue what they are doing.

      It’s so cruel. Anne McDonald, who spent from 4 to 18 being starved in a government institution for the disabled, once quoted Stephen Jay Gould in a beautiful speech she gave:

      “We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of a life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”

      Please know that you are not alone- there are so many of us trying so hard to have a life in spite of the catastrophic damage done to us.

  • Eliza says:

    I think it’s important to differentiate between the labelling of a person as ‘faulty’ and a behaviour as ‘faulty’ . An alcoholic is not ‘faulty’ but the maladaptation of drinking until you die a horrible death is ‘faulty’. Shall we never use the word ‘healing’ because the implication is that a survivor is sick? Can we never use the word ‘homeostasis’ when talking about a patients brain, because that implies their brains are not ‘normal’?
    Most theorists (not therapists) are focused on theory not therapy. They are interested in formulation of theory. They leave empathy and therapeutic alliance to therapists. Thank goodness for theory otherwise therapists would struggle especially with complex trauma.
    I’m a trauma specialist therapist working with domestic and sexual violence. It makes no difference to my clients whether or not I have been through what they’ve been through. It would be wrong to base my clients treatment plan on my subjective view or to choose a therapeutic stance based on what would work on me.
    Good luck to all those who struggle every day with their pain. And well done to survivors.

  • sangiec says:

    I once had the displeasure of listening to a presentation given by Bessel van der Kolk at an European conference, and not only was he extremely rude with the translator (trying to shame and humiliate her), but his whole talk was based on negatively pathologising victims of trauma, as if everyone is going to respond in the same negative ways and that there was no hope for victims.. The President of the Association, who was a woman, came and asked me afterwards how we can be ‘out’ as survivors in the UK and still be respected within our professions (she herself was a survivor, facilitated a group for adult women, but had never disclosed to anyone within her field). My response was that if all I had to refer and relate to was van der Kolk’s negative perspective, I think I too would be loathe to disclose; and rather than focusing on all of that negativity, they needed to change the language around to acknowledge and applaud the survival and the successes (we were with another survivor, so all three of us were surviving and achieving, overcoming challenges every day (not to say that we didn’t have our own struggles), and contradicting everything his presentation had told us that life would hold for us..). Some friends of mine who campaign on the recognition of non-state torture (i.e. torture perpetrated by family, neighbours, acquaintances etc within the private sphere)are changing their use of the language of PTSD to PTSR (response) in recognition that this isn’t a disorder, but a perfectly normal response to torture.. Have a read of their website http://nonstatetorture.org/

  • Andi says:

    Absolutely spot on. As a victim of child sexual abuse, I struggled with CPTSD for years (and I am not sure it is ever something which ‘goes away’ for good – it is a way of coping learned very early on, and in my experience the ‘symptoms’ still come to the fore at times of stress). After years of therapy myself I trained as a therapist. But I quickly left the profession after seeing quite how much of it is rooted in the idea of the victim as ‘damaged’ and in need of ‘fixing’. I saw this in many colleagues, and became exhausted from arguments with my supervisor who described my clients as ‘damaged’ and felt that I should challenge their behaviours which, to me, were a perfectly normal response to what they had been through. As you say so eloquently, such behaviours should be recognised for the triumph they are in helping a victim survive, not ‘challenged’ as if they are faulty responses, and certainly not pathologised. Surely the faulty person who should be changed is the perpetrator, not the victim!

    I have come to believe that much of the therapeutic process individualises victims (ie. they are an seen as abnormal compared to non-victims) and blames them (even if this is not the therapist’s intent) for their reactions to their abuse. To me, it is not the victim who should have to change, but perpetrators and a wider social structure which blames and silences victims. Victims’ ways of coping will adapt when the structures and support around them mean it is safe for them to do so. They should not be pressured to change or treated as if they need changing – by society, by therapists, by anyone – because this is more convenient for society more widely, or because society more widely does not want to have to deal with the damage that is done by patriarchal and child-silencing structures. To me it seems that it is not only acceptable but necessary that society should have to witness the damage that perpetrators and these structures allow to happen.

    I should clarify that I do not mean victims should have to live with effects of abuse that are hurting them or hurtful to them. But I do not think that ‘challenging’ these effects, or labeling them as ‘damage’, is helpful. I think accepting them, learning to see their huge value, and being provided with a safe, supportive and non-blaming environment is the best approach.

  • Karolina says:

    Bessel van der Kolk is a survivor of child abuse.

  • Jan says:

    Please consider listening to this video by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk…. Inspiring.
    It might give some of those who are critical of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk another perspective.

    And thanks for posting my earlier comments, btw. I realize they were critical and I appreciate your openness to different perspectives. I wish you all the best in your own work towards healing. It’s a tough road for all us. Whatever we can do to build awareness and be a source of support, inspiration and stength for each other is a good thing. :)