Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Victim. We seem to hear that word a lot lately. “Victim” is often used to describe individuals who are living with challenges that are not of their own choosing, that came about randomly, or were perpetrated upon them by others. Furthermore, victim also implies that other people have to step in and take care of you, because you can’t take care of yourself.

“Victim” is also sometimes used as a derogatory term, to describe people who refuse to take responsibility for themselves and instead look to others to take care of them. We have a very complicated relationship with that word, for sure.

If you’re living with a chronic condition, I suspect that what you have read so far has already pushed a button or two, or brought up some unpleasant memories.

Health and victimhood

My clients often talk to me about their own perceptions of, and experiences with, the word “victim.” Here are a few examples:

“I didn’t ask to live with a chronic condition. It’s the last thing I would have chosen. So while I don’t want to be referred to as a victim, let’s face it, I kind of am.”

“I was just venting with a friend about some issues I was having lately with managing my chronic condition. She said to me, ‘Do you think it’s healthy for you to play the victim role?’ I was so angry and hurt. All I needed was for her to listen, not judge.”

“My wife worries about me, and I appreciate that. But sometimes she does things for me before I have a chance to do them for myself. I have tried to explain to her that when she does that, she makes me feel like I am some kind of victim. And I’m not!”

To me, these comments bring home the complicated feelings that individuals living with chronic conditions have in regard to the victim word.

When I hear the victim word applied directly to someone as a result of a health condition, it is generally referring to a diagnosis of a more catastrophic nature. I guess that’s why, for example, we often hear of someone described as a “cancer victim.”

Does “victim” even belong in your vocabulary?

The Cambridge Dictionary describes a victim as a person who has “suffered the effects of violence or illness or bad luck.” So, in my mind, if you’re living with a chronic condition, you technically fit the description.

As I said, your chronic condition isn’t something you chose. However, that doesn’t mean you’re any more likely to want to label yourself as a victim, be labeled as a victim by others, or be accused of claiming victimhood.

So, what’s your perspective on the word “victim”? As I would say to my clients, “Just between you and me?” Here’s where my clients and I net out on the “victim” word:

I repeat: you didn’t choose this. Victimhood notwithstanding, living with a chronic condition comes with a lot of responsibilities and challenges. It’s not an easy road, and some days are more difficult than others. So give yourself some points for doing the best you can.

It’s okay to vent. And it’s also okay not to love how your chronic condition impacts your life. When life feels especially difficult, it’s only human nature to want to let out your frustrations with someone who is willing to be a listening ear. Look at it this way: when you give voice to what’s going on inside, you clean out all the congestion in your brain so you can think more clearly. Venting is not crying “victim,” it is doing something healthy for yourself.

Don’t let other people disempower you with kindness. When your loved ones fuss over you in ways you don’t need them to, they are doing this because they love you. That’s a given. But let me add something here. Your loved ones are feeling helpless. They see you coping with your chronic condition and they just want to make it go away. They know they can’t, and it’s not easy to sit with that helplessness. Doing things for you helps them to live with their own helplessness: “I can’t make it go away, but at least I can do something about it.” So all that fussing can be a way of coping with their own helplessness. It’s not done because you’re helpless, but it can result in you feeling disempowered—and perhaps being subtly labeled as a victim. You may need to be kind, but firm, and set limits on what you allow others to do for you.

You don’t have to back down when you’re accused of victimhood. Very few things in life are more hurtful than being accused of crying “victim.” In fact, that is a pretty aggressive way to put someone down who is already doing their best to cope with a lot of challenges. All too often, my clients in this situation blame themselves, saying things like, “I was being a big baby” or, “I probably deserved that.” It breaks my heart when I hear them put themselves down. Asking someone to listen, even asking for their help, is not being a victim. So when that accusation gets tossed in your direction, refuse to accept it. Simply say something like, “I am traveling this road and you aren’t. I don’t expect you to understand what it’s like. But I need your support, not your judgment. If you can’t give that to me, then that’s something I will just have to accept.” Strong words? Probably. But also empowering!

You and your chronic condition. Nope, you didn’t choose it. But that doesn’t mean you have to label yourself a victim, or be labeled a victim by anyone else, regardless of their intentions. The power to create the best possible life for yourself is in your hands. Where it’s always been.

What helps you to deal with others who label you a victim—or to resist labeling yourself that way? Add a comment below and share your insights.