In the era of the #MeToo movement, it’s not enough to talk about abuse and bring it to light. While I believe it’s absolutely necessary to shine a light on what has happened to victims/survivors because the secrets are what keep us sick as individuals and as a society, we also need to learn to display active empathy for what these people have been through and where they’re at in life afterwards.
You see, it’s essential to actively help survivors because abuse penetrates the mind, body, and soul. Abuse alters the course of one’s life forever and often puts survivors at a disadvantage for quite some time afterwards: financial inequality, job loss, loss of home or car, social stigma and shunning, health problems, loss of friends or family, etc etc. If you have not been abused, you possess privileges that victims do not. And chances are, victims need your support in order to overcome the societal and economic disadvantages.
(Side note: as someone who’s endured various forms of abuse myself I use and identify with both the term “victim” and “survivor” though I realize “survivor” is the P.C. term of the moment).
Additionally, those who choose to acknowledge and speak out about abuse are often further abused by the “mob” who have lived their lives feigning empathy but when push comes to shove, in fact lack it greatly and side with perpetrators or turn a blind eye. Or, well-intentioned friends and family say, “If you ever need anything let me know!” but suddenly rescind when there is an actual need. Imagine trying to answer the common question, “Hey how’s it going?” honestly after abuse. You see the anger, fear or boredom take over people’s affects. So, victims may internalize this to confirm that they are bad, wrong, lacking, unwelcome in society, or lying. (Abuse is a mind fuck, remember.)
Abuse is an opportunity for outsiders to truly put their empathy and compassion to use. Here’s how you can help victims and survivors and what they need from you but may not be able to communicate or quantify.
Unless someone has experienced abuse themselves, been otherwise intimately acquainted with it, or trained to recognize the symptoms, most people lack any understanding of how to help victims. If you are a victim yourself please send this to friends and family so they understand how to support you. While you may subconsciously know what you need, it’s hard to find the words to put to those needs while you are traumatized or stressed.
1. Intentional listening. This means dropping your obligations in the moment or your personal agenda to give these people time to open up and share. Many victims do not trust easily because of the trauma they have been through so it may take a while for them to let down the “I’m okay” facade in order for others to hear them. This isn’t where you give advice; it’s where you offer them time, space, and attentiveness without pressure or expecting anything in return. Let go of your preconceived notions and needs. Ask open-ended questions such as, “Tell me what happened”, “How do you feel?”, “How are you doing since then?”,”What’s been hard?”, “What do you need from me?”. You may only get bits and pieces at first because victims themselves may not have connected all of the dots. More may come up later. Be open.
2. Financial support. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to give them money. Maybe it means letting them know about a job opportunity, giving them time to pay you back, giving gift cards, paying for meal delivery or monthly meal prep boxes, filling up their gas tank, paying for babysitting, or other means of help. Many victims lose their jobs, homes, cars, and are drained financially by their perpetrators so additional support can be very valuable for these people.
3. Words of encouragement. Victims need positive people in their lives. Remind them of who they are, how great they were/are/can be, how capable they are, and that life will get better. This doesn’t mean you gloss over the reality of what happened. It just means you encourage them with kindness, prayer or positive affirmations, good energy, uplifting memes or quotations, and love in their time of need.
4. Be a no-judgement zone. Victims likely have endured lots of judgment from others after stating their experiences. The last thing they need is more criticism. When victims are under the microscope so to speak, they can’t relax and begin to heal. Make yourself a safe place for them.
5. Affirm their experiences. Even one person stepping up in bravery to say, “Yes this happened; yes I witnessed it; yes they’re telling the truth” means the world to a victim. They often go at it alone so affirming what they have been through to the victim or to bystanders is absolutely invaluable and helps them overcome shame or cognitive dissonance.
6. Remember them. Invite them places, include them in gatherings, and at the very least don’t overlook them socially. Even if victims say they can’t or don’t want to go, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be invited. They may be busy trying to keep their head above water or may be processing difficult emotions that make it hard for them to be social. Remembering them goes a long way and can mean the world. It’s about the intention.
7. Question your relationship with their perpetrators. Not only is it extremely hurtful for you to remain friends with their perp, it is hugely insulting. To a victim, it means you don’t think the abuse was legitimate or “bad” enough to be taken seriously. It means you don’t believe them. It is a blow to the gut. Distance yourself from abusers; it’s your responsibly once you know. Otherwise it’s a form of complicity.
8. Stand up for them. Chances are victims were alone in the abuse to begin with. After stating their allegations, they can feel even more alone because of the cognitive dissonance of others. It is common for the “crowd” to bully, threaten, or defame victims. Be the brave person who has their back rather than ignoring the problems or making it worse.
9. Don’t ghost them. Isolation and loneliness are common among survivors. Be sure to be attentive and respond to them. Ghosting only adds insult to injury.