How Do you Counsel a Person Who is a Victim and Perpetrator?

It's Complicated

The term “perpetrator” leads us to believe someone is guilty, but sometimes people who commit offenses have also been victimized. What’s the best way to counsel someone who is both a perpetrator and a victim? Dr. Ed Welch, counselor and faculty member at Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), shares his thoughts and experience. 

Ed Welch has been counseling for over 30 years and has written extensively on the topics of depression, fear, and addictions. He is the author of When People Are Big and God is Small, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Blame it on the Brain, Depression—A Stubborn Darkness, and When I Am Afraid: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Fear and Anxiety. 

Ed said that caring for someone who is both a victim and a perpetrator is complicated. To whatever extent you want to show love to a perpetrator, you must remember that they have sinned against someone they love. At the same time, often perpetrators have themselves been victimized, which is one of the reasons they have taken action against others. Amidst the complexities, Ed generally would consider doing the following:

  • Discover which role is most neglected and speak to it. 
  • Speak to the shame likely involved in the offense.
  • Go to where the person is hurting. 

What is your experience having to counsel, or even sympathize with, someone who is both a victim and a perpetrator? Consider instances of crime, work circumstances, relationships, and anything else that comes to mind.
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If in counseling the perpetrator talks about being victimized, Ed will address his role as the perpetrator. If the person highlights his attack, Ed will address ways he might have been victimized in the past. Why do you think Ed would go with this strategy?
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Ed said he typically addresses shame because shame almost always needs to be on the counselor’s agenda. The victim and perpetrator often meet in shame—some kind of violation, often sexual. In what ways does the notion of shame or some kind of violation complicate the distinction between victim and perpetrator in your mind?
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What is one takeaway you've learned from Ed and working through this post? What action plan, if any, do you now have for counseling this kind of complicated scenario?
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Unless the person is truly arrogant, Ed said he will go to where the person is hurting. It’s in this place that he will “surprise them with Jesus.” Jesus, after all, didn't see some of God's people as "good" and others as "bad." He knew all of us were broken and hurting and full of sin. Take a minute to pray for Ed and other counselors you know who daily counsel people in pain and want to share the good news of the gospel with them. 

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