In listening to a survivor’s story, your response can have an enormous impact on that person’s healing journey. I want to point you to some tools—words, actions and resources—that can help you support someone who shares their personal experience(s) with you. Although you can never take away what happened to someone, you can be a source of comfort.
Just remember, if someone shares their story with you, that means you’re probably already a person they look to for support, compassion and guidance. You don’t have to be an expert—you just have to be yourself and a friend. Knowing what to say to someone who may be experiencing domestic or sexual violence can be overwhelming and downright scary. Though it may be tough, you can still be of some help.
In addition to the info below, there are some advocacy/healing based organisations and hotlines that offer free, confidential services to anyone who has been affected by domestic and sexual violence, including friends and families.
Sometimes you don’t even need words (or at least, a lot of words), to be there for someone. Many people share that just being able to tell their story to someone else lessens the weight of isolation, secrecy and self-blame. Remember, listening in and of itself is an act of love. If someone you know discloses that they are currently experiencing abuse or have been abused or sexually assaulted in the past, this could be the first time they’re telling anyone. Listening without judgment or blame and letting them know they’re not alone can make a huge difference. If the victim/survivor is in need of support, ask them if they’d like to talk to a professional counselor, and offer to support them while they find one. While you may have a strong reaction to what you’ve heard, it’s important to focus and fully listen to the survivor’s words. And if you’re in need of support for yourself after being there for your loved one, the hotlines can offer you help as well.
By letting a victim/survivor know that you believe them, you can change that person’s life. A victim/survivor may feel like what happened to them is their fault. It’s not unusual for victims/survivors to experience self-blame, doubt or denial. The assurance that you believe them and that this was not their fault can go a long way to making that person feel comfortable getting the help they need and deserve. Think about a time when you felt vulnerable or faced a crisis, and think of what helped you the most. Chances are that it was not a specific conversation that you had, but it was the knowledge and comfort in knowing that the person or people you told were there for you, believed in you, were on your side and were committed to supporting you through a hard time.
It can be helpful to communicate the following gently and repeatedly:
- Nothing you did or could’ve done differently makes this your fault.”
- “The responsibility is on the person who hurt you.”
- “No one ever has the right to hurt you.”
- “I promise, you didn’t ask for this.”
- “I know that it can feel like you did something wrong, but you didn’t.”
- I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
- “I believe you.”
- “You’re not alone. I’m here for you and I’m glad you told me.”
Ask what more you can do to help.
Rape, violence and abuse are about power and control. It is vital for survivors to regain their sense of personal power and agency. Instead of pushing someone into taking actions for which they are not ready, ask how you can support them. Any intervention that takes away power from the victim and survivor won’t help them, no matter how much it is in their best interest. Always remember that the victim and survivor should take the lead in the healing or recovery journey.
Keep an open heart.
Remind them that you are available should they like to talk about their experiences further. The healing journey can be a long one, full of many challenging—but sometimes joyful and liberating—conversations. Knowing that you are there to support along the way can make a big difference for someone.
There is a limit to what we are able to take in and process. The stories of someone else’s hardships related to a traumatic event can impact or become a part of us. This experience of second-hand trauma—often called vicarious trauma—is a human response to coming face-to-face with the reality of trauma and the difficulties of the human experience.
It’s important to care for yourself as you support another person. You cannot be your best self in your supportive role if you find yourself too tired to listen with care and compassion, or overfilled with your own emotions in response to another’s trauma. These feelings are totally valid. Take some time after a conversation to enjoy the outdoors, or do a healthy activity that makes you feel good as a way of re-centering yourself. We have more ideas on how to mitigate vicarious trauma here.
Finally, is it different when the victim/survivor is a man?
Both women and men must contend with socially-imposed, internalized messages that create barriers to getting help to heal from domestic or sexual violence. Common responses for anyone experiencing abuse or violence, like feelings of self-blame, fear of not being believed, and the way in which an individual might try to reclaim safety and control over their lives are inevitably deeply influenced by gendered social norms.
Efforts to identify and most effectively address the needs of females who have been victimized have improved over many years and continue to evolve, but in recent years, it has become clear that there may be great value in deepening our understanding of how men emotionally respond to and heal from sexual abuse, rape or interpersonal violence, using tools and strategies that may be different from our standard assumptions about providing support.
Any man who wants help to heal must first overcome widely-accepted standards of masculinity that discourage men from acknowledging any vulnerability or experiences of victimization, or from showing weakness. As outlined above, listening, validating and respecting whatever steps he’s ready to take are crucial elements of supporting a man who has experienced abuse and/or assault.
Additionally, a man may benefit from the assurance that asking for help is in fact a courageous act. Men deserve support to heal from trauma.
Normalizing the fact that 1 in 4 men has experienced childhood sexual abuse and that 1 in every 6 men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes can help counter some of the most damaging aspects of those norms and help a man feel less isolated and alone.
Tip→ A man may particularly benefit from the knowledge that whether he is gay, straight or bisexual, a boy’s or man’s sexual orientation is neither the cause nor the result of sexual abuse. This knowledge can help dispel some key fears men often have about being misunderstood or stereotyped based on homophobic attitudes. By focusing on the abusive nature of sexual abuse rather than the sexual aspects of the interaction, it becomes easier to understand that sexual abuse has nothing to do with sexual orientation. – Via 1 in 6
It’s also important to know that the vast majority of boys who are sexually abused will never sexually abuse or assault anyone else.
Adapted from No More: www.nomore.org