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Psychotherapy: Does looking at the past create a victim mindset?

Image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay

N.S. Golemi, M.A., LPC

“I just don’t want you think I’m playing the victim, and I don’t want to focus on the past. I just want to move forward.” 

A common sentiment expressed after an intake appointment, often after historical information is gathered. Psychotherapy is not intended to generate a “victim mindset,” but is a process of understanding and processing the nature and etiology of the current distress. The human psyche is magnificently complex, and much of who we are today is derived from past experiences. Aversive experiences can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms that have outlived their original purposes. Psychotherapy allows for the disentanglement of these natural process to permit growth and forward momentum.

An objective understanding of one’s past does not involve the manufacturing of an external locus of control that is present in “victim mindsets.” Rather, it assists in the empowerment of the self as an active agent of change by evaluating areas of strength and areas in need of growth. From this newfound insight into the self, a direction for forward momentum is obtained. Nowhere does one find room to endorse statements such as “it’s her fault I’m like this” or “if it weren’t for so-and-so and what they did to me…” as such phrases are powerfully self-limiting and do not contain potential for the desired forward momentum. However, if such statements are issued, they are met with compassion and the intent to discover their origin and function.

The fear of addressing the past is itself a manifestation of the mind’s attempt to avoid pain. The pain avoidance is also an indicator that the past requires a modicum of healing. Our culture is replete with sayings that provide such false comfort:

“Let the past be the past”/”Let bygones be bygones”

“Just forgive and forget”

“Just get over it”

“Don’t be a victim”

However, these messages are less than superficially palliative and are as illogical as they are impossible. It is now well known (thanks to leading trauma specialists such as Bessel van der Kolk, MD) that what the mind attempts to forget, the body remembers. Nervous system disorders, inflammatory responses, and gastrointestinal complications are but a few of the myriad of complications that arise from longstanding psychological distress. In short, it is not “all in your head.” For example, an understanding that messages communicated through abuse or neglect by a caregiver can be difficult to sort out, but not as difficult as living the rest of one’s life believe they are true! By reincorporating the past into a cohesive personal narrative, freedom to be authentically oneself is discovered.

Closing Thoughts

Not all presentations require the same degree of historical processing. No matter what therapeutic route is taken, the clinician will not prescribe a “victim mindset.” Besides, the origins of this orientation are much more involved (and are better left to another article…). Also, intake appointments are not the best example of a typical psychotherapy session. It is important to remember that you are expert in yourself and have the right to co-create your treatment goals.

Recommended Reading:

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.