Guest Post by Dr. Jamie J. Romo Author of “Healing The Sexually Abused Heart”
While there may not be the perfect, right thing to say to someone who shares that they have been sexually abused as a child, there are some wrong things to say. Things like, ‘just get over it’ or ‘forgive and forget’ or ‘I know how you feel.’
For people who wish to be supportive and part of the solution, recognize that survivors who come forward after many years of burying or denying or being disconnected from their abuse experience mostly want to: be heard, be believed; be joined in some way that their experience will be useful to prevent abuse for anyone else, particularly children.
Not all survivors are in the same place, emotionally, psychologically, when it comes to sharing their experiences.
For a person to come forward in a state of victimhood, the person may be feeling despair (e.g., fear, grief, unworthiness, guilt, insecurity), or rage (e.g., jealousy, hatred, revenge, anger). The person may be re-living the memories, and at this point what might be most helpful might be to mirror: listen and repeat key aspects of what the person has shared to make sure that you understand what the person is saying, rather than getting more details or commenting on what the person says. You have the honor of being trusted with this powerful information. Offer an empathetic statement like, ‘I appreciate you sharing this with me; I imagine it must be very difficult for you to talk about this—using their reactions/ what they have shared/ what you have seen/ heard.
Another person sharing their experiences may be speaking from a different place in their recovery—as a survivor.
They may communicate blame, worry, doubt, disappointment, overwhelm, impatience, irritation, frustration or rage. For these people, it may be helpful to recognize their emotional distress and acknowledge that things sound difficult, that their lives have been seriously impacted—validate what they have shared, showing in some way that their sharing matters to you, that you are not distant or unaffected or complicit.
Others may be in a different place, having done a good amount of recovery, so that they are not re-living or reporting the experiences, but re-telling in a way that shows a comparison between there and then living and living in the here and now. With these persons, you might show yourself as an ally, someone struggling with them in this work, not as an expert, but as someone in solidarity.
But just as there are stages or differentiated ways of survivors sharing their abuse experiences, there are also stages or differentiated ways that listeners or would be supporters demonstrate. Some can be described as ‘cheerleaders’. They are probably the least helpful and most offensive to survivors who wish to be believed and joined in their healing work to end abuse. They might deny the experiences or defend the abuser or related group.
Others might be more like ‘oblivious bystanders,’ hearing this information that a person shares, without taking it in as significant for their own lives or make connections to their own life experiences. These people are not directly abusive, but incompetent and may add frustration to the person who shares. Others may be more like guilty bystanders. This is what I meant earlier by struggling with the information, sharing what this person’s sharing means to them, with the conviction that it will lead to action in some way, at a personal or organizational or institutional level.
Finally, others may be more competent and have more experience in processing their own life experiences and are in a place where they can support the person sharing in whatever stage they are in. These people are allies. They manage their own feelings and are empathic listeners. They meet the person where s/he with a non-anxious presence, holding the feelings and story of the other without projecting feelings or reactions back onto the speaker. Wherever you are in this journey, I invite you to continue to learn so that you can be part of the solution to promote healing and end abuse.
To learn more about the healing and helping process, read,
“Healing the Sexually Abused Heart: A Workbook for Survivors, Thrivers, and Supporters.”
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, this workbook is your key to a new life. Written by survivors themselves, it offers you insight and resources that can lead to your recovery and healing.
If you seek to support the life-long journey of survivors, you will find the workbook will help you to build the foundation to truly make a difference.
Learn more about and to purchase the workbook for helping to support survivors of abuse please visit: A Workbook for Survivors, Thrivers and Supporters
Learn More About Author
Dr. Jamie Romo
Educator, consultant, and author. Dr. Romo promotes healing from abuse and the prevention of child sexual abuse, particularly abuse by religious authorities or in the context of religious settings.