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We Are Much More Than Our Experiences: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog

In my various roles working with men who have experienced childhood traumas, I’m repeatedly reminded of the limiting nature of labels, which often morph into identities. Especially when the label has a negative connotation, it can be used to shame, to punish, or to diminish a person’s sense of self- worth.  (Think, ‘’he’s a drunk,” or “he’s an ex-con.”)

Bottom line, who we are, is different from whatever experiences, diagnosis or illness we’ve had, or what behaviors we’ve engaged in

It’s why I love “person-first” language. “Person-first” demands that we view each other as complex individuals with a multitude of characteristics. (The same principle holds true for how we view ourselves.)

Person-first language was initially introduced to avoid the tendency to label someone with a particular disability only in terms of that disability (i.e. “he’s a schizophrenic” vs. “he’s a man with schizophrenia.”)

Bottom line, who we are, is different from whatever experiences, diagnosis or illness we’ve had,  or what behaviors we’ve engaged in.

No question, when acts of physical or sexual violence or abuse are involved, it becomes a bit more complicated. There’s a natural tendency to label as “bad” anyone who has hurt us or someone we care about. Some fear that using “person-first” will somehow diminish the validation of the experience.

But I’ve found that the use of person-first phrasing actually opens up the options, rather than ignores the impacts of the abusive behavior, because it specifically describes the behavior or experience.

When I speak about “my abuser,” I’m forever locked into a relationship with that person. When I refer to him as “the man who sexually abused me,” the interaction is clearly in the past. It still starkly describes a violation, but neither of us is defined solely in terms of that abusive act.

Even describing myself as a “survivor” or “victim” establishes a set identity that ignores all my other characteristics and ways I’d like to present the meaning of my life.

Using “person-first” language can feel clunky. Labels are like shorthand, brief and to the point. But describing myself as a “man who survived sexual abuse” or “a man who was victimized” allows me the option of placing that experience in the larger context of all my life experiences.

Men I work with who have been violent with their intimate partners, frequently describe themselves as “dirt bags,’’ or worse, when reflecting on some violent action they took that hurt someone else. The person they victimized may well be gratified to hear them describe themselves in such negative terms, have even harsher terms they’d like to apply.  Anger about abusive behavior is absolutely valid. Nothing about ‘’person-first’’ language takes away that person’s right to be angry.

When the men in my groups are able to move past that shameful identity, (that’s just the way dirt bags behave), they are much more able to see themselves as the person who committed that violent act; to actually take responsibility for the harm they caused; to believe that they have the capacity to change their behavior in the future; and to be willing to consider how to change.  

The same is true for the men and women I work with who have be abused. When they can see themselves in all their complex glory, as a compilation of all the positive and negative experiences of their lives, the abuse doesn’t dominate. It no longer defines them. It no longer stands as a barrier to living a healthier happier life.

Try “person-first.” It might change how you view the world!

peter1Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.