How do I Help the Victim in my Life?

Defining Victim
What is a victim? According to Merriam-Webster a victim is “one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions”. My favorite definition is “one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent”. By this definition, most humans have played the role of victim sometime in their life.

Are we all Victims Then?
What separates the acute victim from the chronic victim is that the former recognizes the discomfort following “being acted upon adversely” and finds a way to return to their empowered lifestyle. They look at the options in front of them consciously make a choice. The chronic victim finds it difficult to grasp the ever-elusive position of empowerment. Someone who lives as a chronic victim will feel like life is “happening to” them, the assessment of these happenings is largely negative.

A Word about Abuse
Before going any further, let’s talk about the much-overused-word “abuse”. Abuse describes “being acted upon adversely by an outside force”—this adverse action can be emotional, psychological, verbal, physical, sexual and even neglectful. Abuse of any kind is never acceptable. Abuse that could result in death requires a crisis response. Chronic abuse can render someone quite powerless. This is not a word to be afraid of and it’s important to ask more if this word is used. You need to know if the person using the word is in crisis, and to get them urgent help if so. Regardless, this word needs to be defined; it’s a word with as many meanings as there are people who use the word.

How to Spot a Chronic Victim
Often the victim ends up asking for help this way “fix them (the abuser) now!” or “tell them (the abuser) to stop!”. They are often looking to be rescued from their adverse situation. In some cases, the victim does need rescuing as their life is at risk. But in most, the victim is not in immediate danger. This victim needs to be taught that they have power and how to use it. I find victims to be very sensitive to being told that they have power. This is because when we do so, there is an implication that they might bear some responsibility for their current state.

The Challenges
There are several challenges here. First, how do you help someone who has been taught that they are powerless to suddenly see their power? This is sensitive work; work I am convinced that our culture often struggles to coach someone through. We often miss the point and inadvertently condone abuse or respond hastily and advocate premature termination of significant relationships. Second, helping a victim can be quite draining. A victim will often want you to do more work than they are willing to do themselves. Lastly, the victim does not see that they have a problem, other than the abuse that is happening to them. It’s the abuser that needs to be helped and make changes, not them.

Guidelines to Help the Victim in Your Life
Do not add to the victimization. This is someone who has been hurt enough in their life. If you do not think you can follow the guidelines below or do not feel equipped consider this: chronic victims are this way for a reason. Do you want to be just another person who has “acted upon them adversely”? Of course not. Know your limits and don’t take on more than you can manage.

Know what you are getting into. This is not easy work at first. Make the choice you want to make and are happy to make—to help or not to help. Choosing to help them or not is part of modelling empowerment; I will explain more about that later.

Never work harder than they are. Always be gaging who is working harder and find ways to put the problem back in the lap of the person it belongs to. I remember listening to Dr. Laura’s radio program one day; she was talking about “who owns the problem”. The caller (the mother of an adult chronic victim) wanted to know how to get her child to fix the problems in their life and grow up. Dr. Laura, ever so kindly, pointed out that this child didn’t have any problems because the mother was too busy feeling and fixing the problems for her child. Her advice was to stop and let the problems fall back on the person they belong to. Problems are motivators.

Work at their pace. Being an outsider, you will likely see more clearly what needs to be changed in their life. Be gentle as you try to shed light on these problem areas. Wait until they see it and are ready to address it before moving forward. Helping others always goes best if the person we are helping is aware and ready.

Model empowerment and never become a victim of helping the victim. The minute you find it impossible to remain empowered as you help this person, consider excusing yourself or referring this person to someone else. It must be ok for you to “live within your limits” and set boundaries. Isn’t this what you are going to be helping the victim with?

Practice assertive communication. Assertive communication is essentially the practice of communicating your opinions, desires, needs, thoughts clearly, with kindness and consideration. Assertiveness does not mean we don’t sometimes say things that hurt others (we cannot control how others respond to us). This is how you will need to communicate with the person you are helping and something you will be teaching them to do for themselves.

Teach them how to ask for help. Something that will make helping easier is to have a conversation early on about how best the victim can alert you to their needs. Let them know that it works better for you if they can be clear about their needs and feelings before calling you. It can be very tiring to have to decode highly emotional requests for help. In addition, the victim often has some “maladaptive ways of asking for help”. This is a fancy way of saying that the method they use to get their needs met often has the opposite effect; people are offended or turned off.

Do not do for them what they could be taught to do on their own. For example, if they have not followed through on a piece of advice you have given, you may be tempted to do it for them. Rather, do it with them. Take them to a therapist, sit with them on the phone while they call an attorney or help them write a letter to their landlord. Hold their hand while they do it rather than become their personal assistant.

Professional Therapy
If you choose not to help or find it too draining to help, find a trained, professional, licensed therapist and get help for yourself and/or the victim. In the state of CA, a licensed therapist has been through a minimum of 6 years of schooling, 3,200 hours of supervised therapeutic work and then passed a 4-hour state exam with a 50% pass/fail rate. This is someone who has been trained to work with people on a deep psychological and emotional level. Beyond that, one of the primary skills a therapist learns is know their scope of competence and to recognize when the concern is beyond their abilities, therefore avoiding further victimization. Professional therapy can be very helpful for friends and family of the victim as well. Getting help from a therapist will likely result in change and when one part of a system changes, it forces the rest of the system to adapt and often inspires change. Health, wellness, hope, change and empowerment are all contagious.

Freedom from Victimization
I have really enjoyed helping all types of victims in my practice. There is fullness and life within reach and I am passionate about presenting the hope of wholeness to each hurting person that walks in my door. There are many other professional therapists out there who feel just as I do. We’d love to help!

Greta Pankratz, LCSW
Owner of Santa Maria Counseling and practicing therapist for almost 20 years. To learn more, email her at or check out the website at