"butterflies do not spring from silken cocoons
to fly their beauty into the blackness of tombs."
from cult survivor to thriver...
It is sometimes difficult to relate to survivors of abuse simply because we want to take their pain away. Any human with empathy feels this compelling urge to make things better for those who we feel are suffering. Encouraging a survivor of abuse to leave their memories in the past as an attempt to make them feel better, when the survivor is in deep emotional pain, or trying to minimize the emotions, such as telling them that at least they're alive, or here now, usually only serves to make the survivor feel dismissed, minimized and worse. This type of behavior is not support, although this may be your intent.
Here are some suggestions to implement into your life if you intend to be a great support person to a trauma survivor.
BELIEVE THEM. Sometimes what we hear is so horrible, our brains cannot accept the reality of it. When we do not believe a survivor of abuse, we create a new wound in them. Sometimes they may doubt their own memories, since abuse memories can be vague. Sometimes they sound so extreme, you cannot picture the survivor's description without recoiling. It is not your place to make an abuse survivor be in a position of defending their memories. They simply need to be believed and supported.
EDUCATE YOURSELF. Be willing to educate yourself. If they write a blog, journal or wrote a book, be willing to read their story so that you may have a deeper understand of who they are. If you are here reading because you want to be a good support person, we applaud you.
OFFER TO ASSIST. Assist in helping the survivor feel that you and their environment is always safe for them. They may feel shame and fear. Help them identify these feelings by having open conversations with them without telling them what they should do or need to do. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help them feel more safe. Listen to their suggestions and be willing to implement them.
NEVER sympathize with or apologize for the abuser. You are neither a judge nor a lawyer. You should never try and reason why an abuser would do what they did or ask a survivor if there was anything the survivor could see good in the abuser in attempt to initiate "forgiveness". This can create another wound of invalidation. Hold space quietly, and tell them that you are very sorry they have been harmed.
BE PATIENT, and remember that there is no definitive timeline on a someone's healing. People grieve, heal and recover in different ways. Ask the survivor what they need. For instance, some survivors may need to feel a long hug, while others may need to just have you listen because they don't like to be touched. Sometimes touch is comforting for a survivor. Sometimes it can be a trigger.
OFFER ENCOURAGEMENT if the survivor decides to seek professional help. Ask if there is anything you can do to help them choose the right person for them. Offer to go with them to group therapy if they choose to talk with other survivors.
UPLIFT SURVIVORS. See their strengths and vocalize it to them. You may find it is difficult for them to take compliments. Do not criticize or put them on the spot for that. Allow them to process the compliment by letting it be. The more you continue to vocalize the strengths in the survivor you relate to, the more they will see those same strengths in themselves.
BE OPEN TO CHANGE. As a survivor heals, the dynamic between you and the survivor may change. For partnerships, remember that open, mindful and kind communication, which is not blaming or projecting. is best to grow and resolve issues. Be willing to be flexible and understanding. Many things may change, from intimacy to time to behavior. Be willing to also talk to your partner or friend's counselor about how you can adjust to these changes.
LISTEN. Silence is best in moments of sharing. Let them talk. You might have a reaction when listening to something that feels horrible for you. Remember it's more important that you let the survivor know that you are there for them and to not express your own feelings, as this can serve to minimize or push them further into their pain. Let them know you accept their truth and you respect their courage in being able to speak about it. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help them. Often, listening is the most supportive action you can give a survivor. Make sure your reactions to their stories doesn't override their feelings about what has happened to them.