These days, the average person is being bombarded with harrowing stories of sexual assault wherever they go. Television and radio stations, as well as social media, all tell the tales of large-scale abusers getting caught up in the legal system – this is especially true of Mid-Michigan at the moment. Along with these stories, there's a lot of talk about what it means to be "survivor-focused." Whether it's within the courts, the schools, or even within families, there is much to learn about how to best help survivors heal and move forward.
Being survivor-focused basically means you have made the effort to educate yourself on what survivors go through post-assault, and how they can best be supported by everyone they come in contact with. Here are some examples of concepts to remember when working with survivors:
1. It's about empathy, not sympathy. There's a difference between giving someone sympathy and empathizing with their situation. Sympathy stems from a vague, distant place – the place in our brains that says, "I want to help, but I'd rather not deal with the discomfort of another person's feelings." On the survivor's end of sympathy, they feel misunderstood and dejected. They can sense when someone can't, or won't, handle what they're going through.
Empathy, however, challenges you to be vulnerable enough to get to another person's level and intimately understand what they're experiencing. Empathy is free from judgment, and those who use it are seeking to understand life directly from the survivor's point of view. It's about standing alongside someone, rather than looking down on the person in judgment. Social researcher Brene Brown has a perfect summary of what empathy does best – bring connection.
Bad: Wow, that's terrible. I feel so sorry for you! If that happened to me I'd be so ashamed!
Good: That must have been a scary situation. I know this is hard to talk about. Thank you for sharing this with me.
2. Every action has a purpose behind it. We live in a world that only lets survivors be "victims" if they behave the way society thinks they should behave. In this world, there is no room for survivors to make mistakes, even if it was an attempt to soothe their pain. But once those in a survivor's life free themselves of that judgment, they will realize that every move has a purpose. It is worth noting that the survivor themselves may not directly understand this while in the middle of a crisis. It may take them some time to process, but opening the door to let them do so can be quite helpful to their healing process.
Bad: Why is she acting so crazy? I get she's going through something, but that's no excuse!
Good: I'm not sure why she's acting this way, but I should support her however I can as she finds her way through this situation.
3. The survivor's needs come first. This should go without saying. However, oftentimes, the expectations placed on the systems personnel who work with survivors (hospital staff, police, etc.) directly conflict with the needs of the survivor. For example, police officers are trained to take a report of an incident as soon after the incident as possible – and in their line of work, there are good reasons for this. However, many studies have shown that traumatized survivors benefit immensely from getting some sleep before they're interviewed by police. The survivor did not ask for this traumatic experience to happen to them; they're already facing an undue burden. People in the survivor's life can help by being attentive to the needs of the survivor, and being open to opportunities to meet those needs whenever possible. For police and medical staff who are bound by their own policies, there may not be as much wiggle room for change. But if other support people around the survivor made more room for the survivor's needs, the result could be liberating for the survivor.
Bad: C'mon, just get the interview over with! Put it behind you!
Good: What can I do to help you feel more safe right now?
4. The survivor has the right to make informed decisions. Survivors often feel the safest when they are free to make their own choices. Helping survivors is not about coddling them like they're delicate flowers at risk of being crushed, but it's not about "tough love," either. The key is to strike a balance somewhere in between, in a neutral, but supportive place.
Let the survivor set the boundary of what details, if any, they are open to discussing. Educate them about the common responses to trauma, and let them decide what signs of trauma, if any, fit their experience. That knowledge in and of itself can be healing. Oftentimes, survivors feel like they’re abnormal or going crazy; little do they know that the way they experience trauma is a common thread of humanity.
Through it all, letting the survivor know that they can decide what to do with this information puts the power that was stolen from them right back into their hands. They can decide whether to press charges. They can decide who they disclose to. They can decide if and when to go to counseling. They can decide the best way to take care of themselves. Survivors may find the healing process daunting, like facing a locked door that won't open; empowerment is the key that opens that door.
Bad: I don't think he could handle testifying in court. So maybe I won't tell him about pressing charges.
Good: I'm just going to give him the information. He can always think about it and make a decision later.
In conclusion, there is no "one-size-fits-all" way to be survivor-focused. However, there are some clear questions that can lead you in the right direction.
What would freedom and safety look like for this survivor? How can I help them get there?
Am I imposing my judgment on the survivor in any way?
How can I stand alongside this person and support them in this moment?
Let their answers lead the way.