Some people just don’t have a clue. Doesn’t mean they’re stupid; doesn’t mean they’re trying to upset you; doesn’t even mean they’re thoughtless (well, maybe a little thoughtless.) Mostly, however, they’re simply ignorant—in the true sense of the word, meaning “not knowing about” or “not informed on a subject.”
We’re all ignorant of some things. Shoot, I’m ignorant regarding what it’s like to spend a year in space, or how to write software, or a million other things that aren’t in my field. As a result, I’ve learned that unless you’ve been in someone else’s shoes, it’s best to keep comparisons to yourself to a minimum, at best. This is especially true regarding traumatized survivors of sexual or domestic violence. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know how it feels, and you can’t possibly tell a survivor what they’re feeling unless you’ve experienced it.
So how can a good friend or even a counselor be of help? Well for starters, many (though not all) counselors, coaches, and other professionals do indeed know what you’re feeling. They’ve often been through it themselves, which is frequently why they have chosen the line of work they have—to help others the way they were helped in what were likely their darkest hours. So cut them a break and listen to their hearts as well as their words, and you will find not sympathy, but empathy, and a genuine desire to help.
Okay, but what about your friends and coworkers or fellow students who haven’t ever been subjected to that kind of trauma? That’s another story. They should approach you a bit differently. They can show genuine sympathy, if not true empathy. Here are some suggestions:
- As stated above, don’t tell a victim you know how she feels. Unless you have been through it, you don’t. Instead, say something like “I can’t possibly know how you feel, or exactly how to help, but I’m here.” And then just sit with her in the same room. That way you’re not pretending to “get” it, just showing that you care for her.
- Don’t try to hold her tightly—even if it’s just to wrap her in a hug. She’s most likely just been held against her wishes, and needs some space. Do, however, hug her if she asks you to, but only if she asks. It might even be a good idea to ask permission before you sit down next to her.
- Ask her “What would you like me to do to help?” That way, you are putting her back in control of her situation. She might just shrug her shoulders, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want your presence. By the same token, don’t be surprised if she says something like “Can you bake the cupcakes for Johnny’s class tomorrow?” Just do it. It will mean more to her than you can possibly know.
- Tell her you would be glad to go with her anywhere she needs to go (especially if this is a just-happened event and she has to go to the hospital). Offer to drive; she will be distracted.
- Watch her children for a while so she has some quiet time or so she can meet with a counselor.
- Don’t overwhelm her with a lot of suggestions/invitations to go here and go there and to do this and do that. Let her move at her own pace.
- If she remains in a life-threatening situation, encourage her to prepare a plan to leave. Help her research her options. But if you do this, remember her safety is paramount. Be very discreet. Often in domestic violence situations, the threat of leaving will set off the aggressor.
- Tell her you think she’s brave. And mean it
It’s so easy these days to mean well, want to help, and yet say things that inadvertently ring hollow. Unfortunately, saying you know how somebody feels when you are standing there safe and secure can sometimes be construed as if you’re saying it’s no big deal, or that you simply don’t understand the enormous trauma that now becomes her baggage. In actuality you are there because you care very much—and sometimes saying “I care” is all she needs to hear.
I hope these suggestions help. Email me at email@example.com and let me know how you were helped, and what words mattered most. And send in any suggestions you think we should add to our list!
Till next time,
Coretta Dixon is a highly regarded businesswoman and sexual assault survivor. Her own traumatic experiences and exemplary work done through the healing process, along with her Master’s Degree and business experience in Change Management, equip her well to act as a coach to those who have done the work of healing and now wish to “thrive.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.