What Helps, What Hurts
written by a sexual abuse survivor who attended the Shining the Light Conference 2015 in Greenville, SC
Imagine that someone comes to you and tells you that they are being (or have been) sexually abused? How do you react? What do you say?
You may be caught off guard and surprised by their admission. You may feel awkward and uncomfortable, or embarrassed. You may wish they had told someone else instead of you. You may fear how this will affect your church or your family. You may have no idea how to respond to them at all.
We often are unsettled and uncomfortable when we find ourselves in situations where we don’t know what to do, and a disclosure of sexual abuse is one of these situations where we might be unsure of the right way to respond. A little knowledge and preparation can help tremendously.
At the Shining the Light Conference, held in Greenville, South Carolina in November 2015, one of the topics that was discussed was how to respond when an individual shares that they have been sexually abused. Dale Ingraham led the session and shared ways in which supporters of abuse survivors can help, and also common (but well intended) mistakes. Then this question of “what helps and what hurts” was opened up to the audience, and abuse survivors were able to share their own experiences, some simple, practical ideas of ways that others had helped them.
It’s important to realize that it is difficult for a survivor to share their “secret” and if they have chosen to share it with you, this means that you are trusted. While you might feel uncomfortable and unsure of what to do or say, the survivor has these same uncertainties. They are likely feeling deeply vulnerable. They probably are unsure of what to say, or how much to share. They are also fearful of not being believed. So, even if you feel inadequate and unsure of how to proceed, the most important thing you can initially do is to not reject the survivor during this time. Validate the survivor by ensuring them that they are safe, and that you are glad that they have told someone. Acknowledge their bravery for coming forward. Don’t ask them to describe their abuse, but listen to what they desire to share.
It’s ok to admit that you might need some time to think about how to proceed. You might feel that you need to seek counsel from others, but ask the survivor permission to do so first. Respect their wishes about whether or not you are free to ask others for advice. Except for cases in which abuse needs to be reported to authorities, such as a disclosure from a minor, always keep what you are told in complete confidence, and if you think that you need assistance from others, discuss this with the survivor. This will give them confidence that you will not betray their trust.
Respect the timetable of healing
Realize that once someone has trusted you with this information, for you to just dismiss or abandon the survivor is incredibly damaging to them. You might be “in it for the long haul” with them. Healing is an extended process, and survivors go through many ups and downs. You are not responsible to be the survivor’s counselor, but don’t abandon them. Be patient with them. Let them know you believe in them. There are times when they will be tempted to give up hope, but encourage them and let them know that it WILL get better.
Remember that each survivor is different. They have different needs, and their individual experiences can create different struggles. They may react to things and then be unable to explain why it bothered them. But respect the timetable of healing. It can be long and slow, and will be filled with both leaps forward and steps backward.
Because abuse at its core is a violation of the most basic boundaries,survivors often have difficulty setting boundaries for themselves and also understanding the boundaries of others. This might be frustrating for you, but it might be a good opportunity for you to show the survivor that setting boundaries doesn’t mean abandonment. It’s ok to set limits on your own personal time and space, but always be careful to remind the survivor that you are not rejecting them and that you are still there for them. As they learn that boundaries don’t mean that they are unloved or abandoned, they can learn to set healthy boundaries for themselves too.
Understand how to use Scripture
Be very careful when using Scripture in helping an abuse survivor. God’s Word is of course helpful and necessary, but often the verses we use to bring comfort for others is not very comforting to them. Survivors need to be assured of God’s indescribable love for them. We often quote verses such as Romans 8:38,that “all things work together for good.” But verses that focus solely on God’s plan or sovereignty and exclude mention of His great love and comfort are going to be difficult for a survivor to hear. Survivors often have doubts about God’s goodness, so instead of focusing on God’s plan or His sovereignty, it is best to focus on scriptures that remind survivors of his constant love and His presence with them, and that portray him as welcoming and safe.
Allow space for grieving
Abuse survivors need to see that men and women in the Bible were not just flat characters; they were real people with struggles and feelings, and they often conveyed raw honesty. David eloquently expressed his lament and doubts in the Psalms. Even Jesus showed incredible emotion and strong feelings towards suffering and injustice. Abuse survivors need to know that it’s acceptable to grieve and lament.
Don’t make excuses for the offender
The issue of the offender can be a difficult one. Refrain from trying to understand the reasons behind the motivations of the offender. Expressing sympathy for the offender (worrying about how this will harm his future, or wondering if the abuser was abused) is not helpful when talking to the survivor. It comes across as if you are rationalizing the behavior of the offender, or sympathizing with the offender. This can be confusing to the survivor, who may not be able to think about the offender with sympathy or compassion.
Allow time for forgiveness
The need for forgiveness can be another difficult issue. Forgiveness IS a biblical principle, but true forgiveness often comes only after a great deal of healing and growth. It is a step in the journey, but it may be very far down the journey. Focusing on the need to forgive is a burden to many survivors who are already burdened with more than they can carry alone. Trust that God will bring the need for forgiveness before the survivor at the right time, and that there are many steps the survivor will need to take before they are able to consider forgiveness.
Be prepared for the possibility of a disclosure of unhealthy coping mechanisms
Survivors often develop unhealthy ways of dealing with the trauma they’ve experienced, such as alcohol, drugs, or self-harming behaviors to try to cope with their triggers, nightmares, and memories as a way of “surviving.” They will likely be ashamed of these behaviors and try to hide them from others, and may be reluctant to discuss them, not really even understanding their own reasons for engaging in them.
Be prepared for the possibility that the survivor may disclose that they struggle with any of these issues, or other harmful coping mechanisms. These behaviors are very common among victims of sexual abuse, and the survivor needs hope that there are healthy ways to achieve the same relief that these unhealthy behaviors offer. Counseling will help the survivor to find healthy ways to cope with their trauma, but as a friend one of the best things you can do is to not be shocked at this disclosure and not condemn them for it, but to continue to walk with your friend in love, as you pray for them and try to get them the help they need.
Continue to remind the survivor that they have choices
Abuse survivors may feel powerless and helpless, but they are not. There are steps that they might need to take towards their healing (finding a professional counselor, seeing a doctor, escaping an abusive situation, etc) that are difficult. Simply telling them “you should go see a counselor,” for example, can be deflecting and can be perceived as if you are pushing them away. While the truth is, the survivor may really need counseling, it is best to be gentle in how you suggest it, and to always remind the survivor that it is their choice when and how and even if this happens. They need to feel safe and accepted most of all. As they learn to believe that they have choices, and are given the freedom to make them, they will likely make positive steps. But it has to be when they are ready and it has to be their own decision.
Consider the comfort of tangible items
Many survivors at the conference mentioned the importance of tangible comforts. One survivor mentioned that when she had to go to court to face her abuser, she took index cards with words of encouragement from friends written on them. This reminded her that she was not alone. Another survivor mentioned a bracelet that had been given to her by a friend. When she had to take difficult steps, the bracelet reminded her that though her friend wasn’t physically there, she was still with her. Another survivor told of a stuffed Eeyore that she kept nearby and took with her to counseling sessions. Eeyore reminded her that it was ok for her to be sad; she didn’t have to be cheerful.
One survivor mentioned that she had created a box for “emergencies.” When abuse survivors find themselves in a dark place, they are sometimes unable to focus on even their own needs at the time. So in the box, she put things to help her get through the difficult time. Snacks and water, to remind her to eat and drink. Kleenex. A book that had helped her during other dark times. Notes from those who cared for her. In those very dark times, it is common for a survivor to isolate themself and to forget to care for even their basic needs. Having a box like this prepared can help them to get through these difficult times.
Consider the power of truth and love
Simple words or phrases as reminders can be incredibly healing to survivors. “Lord, heal the dark places.” Though some survivors don’t want you to pray out loud with them, which is important to respect, others are very comforted by prayers in their presence. You can also remind them of such truths as “God will ALWAYS treat you with dignity and respect.” “You won’t feel like this forever. “ “Just let it be for now, and rest.”
Treat the abuse survivor as an equal, with respect
Keep in mind that a survivor’s history of sexual abuse is just one part of their story. It isn’t their identity. Continue to see them as a whole person. Get to know them on other levels besides just focusing on their abuse. Get to know their interests. Learn what they enjoy and what is important to them. That’s part of friendship—learning about who someone is. Enjoying being with them and getting to know them just because you care for them. They aren’t defined simply by the label “survivor.” Work to see past that as you build a relationship and friendship with them.
The abuse survivor is a person. Not a project. Survivors don’t want to be fixed, and are sensitive to feeling as if others are trying to fix them. Love them. Ask God to guide you in ways to help them and encourage them as you are able.
You may be the person who stands in the gap while they feel lost. They may not yet be able to see a loving God, but you might be able to share God’s love for them. They may not be able to accept it from Him, but you are able to love them in his stead. You WILL make mistakes, but that’s to be expected. Just don’t quit loving them, don’t abandon them, don’t quit believing in them, and don’t ever underestimate the difference you can make for eternity. The survivor you help will find healing, and may go on to help others find healing.
These tips and clues are realllllllly good. I especially love these things:
– emergency kit (wish someone would’ve done that for me. Be sure to include peanut butter or some other protein.)
– you won’t feel like this forever. Powerful words!!! The emotional pit of abuse recovery can feel eternal. Please, please, please remind people it’s not!
– see us as people. Yes! Especially because abuse can feel all-consuming, I desperately needed someone to hang out, to turn on my favorite music, to read with me, to eat real food together. (I may have lived on peanut butter & chocolate ice cream for several weeks. True confession.)
I’m thrilled that someone thought to write these very practical insights. Well done!
Stuff that helped me:
– Bonnie, a grandmotherly lady, let me rest on her couch, just crying & without words. At one point she sat nearby and just stroked my hair as if I were a little girl. No one else could have done that loving gesture for me, but she was safe. I felt accepted and loved.
– Elena awoke me from a too-long, depression filled nap that was not restful. And she said we were going out to eat. I had to get dressed and remember that the sun still shine.
– ZoeAnn walked barefoot with me on the beach. So I could reacquaint myself with safe physical sensation.
– Jean & I watched a movie together. 3 or 4 times because the music was full of life.
– tanya took me to/from counseling appts in case I was too dissociated to drive safely.
Moments that I “treasure in my heart” during my initial recovery were just “real life” together times when people spent time with me. Patient time. Gentle time. Valuable time. Because, whether I believed it or not, I was (am) worth it.