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How can we extend care to survivors of sexual abuse?

In our previous blog, I offered two observations on why the prevalence and injury of childhood sexual abuse continue to be ignored by society. In this blog, I shift the focus from the response of society to our personal responses and care to survivors of abuse.

How can we extend care to survivors of sexual abuse? Here are three loving and practical things we can do.

1. Develop empathy

Survivors of sexual abuse too often receive comments that are deeply hurtful. Among these damaging responses are:

  • Couldn’t you do anything to stop it?
  • Why can’t you just get over it?
  • You must have done something to cause it.

These and similar responses reveal ignorance of what happens in sexual abuse and of what it is to be in the survivor’s shoes.

I learned from Dr. Daniel Green that empathy is knowing what it is to be in the survivor’s shoes while simultaneously knowing what it is to be in my shoes. Consider the metaphor of shoes. We usually don’t wear other people’s shoes because they don’t fit well and may cause discomfort. My shoes are unique to me and yours are unique to you. Similarily, knowing what it is to be in the shoes of a survivor is not the same as thinking about how I would be as a survivor because my “shoes” are different. Every survivor’s story or “shoe” is unique.

Empathy is knowing what it is to be in the survivor’s shoes while simultaneously knowing what it is to be in my shoes.

Why is empathy important?

As much as I’ve studied the incidents and impact of abuse, I cannot say to any survivor, “I understand.” I might know about the effects they are enduring, but I am far from being able to understand what those effects are like for them. I can imagine what it might be like for me in my shoes, but this is not my story and it is not about my “shoes.” It’s the survivor’s story.

I’ve never known what it is to have a housefire, but I have friends whose house has burned down. Because I personally haven’t had a house fire, there is no way I can sincerely say to them, “I understand.” I’ve never known what it is to be in a warzone with bombs exploding around me. There is no way I can say to a war veteran, “I understand.”

In the same way, if I’ve never been sexually abused, I cannot say to a survivor, “I understand.” My wife who is a survivor even refrains from making that claim with other survivors. We cannot fully understand what it is to be in the shoes of a sexual abuse survivor.

There’s no way I can say, “I understand.”

The best I can do is be available to listen and learn what it is like for the other person to walk in their shoes. This brings us to the next practical step we can take with someone who is a survivor of sexual abuse.

2. Be available to listen

Survivors of sexual abuse have been silenced. This is because sexual abuse is about power and control. Perpetrators often exert themselves through their heinous act with no regard for the thoughts, feelings, or words of their child victim. If the child was able to speak or cry, they were hushed.

Survivors of sexual abuse have been silenced.

Perpetrators also make threats and accusations that silence their victims. Commonly used statements are, “No one will believe you if you tell” or “It is really your fault that this happened.” As a result, the silence can extend for years and sometimes decades. Sadly, when many survivors many survivors are not heard or believed when enough courage is gained to speak.

We extend care when we listen to a survivor. Brene Brown states that shame needs silence, secrecy, and judgment to survive. Therefore, we can be instrumental in diminishing shame when we listen nonjudgmentally to what has been held in silence as a secret for too long.

Here’s how a survivor would ask you and me to listen:
  • Listening without speaking to questions that cannot be answered because we don’t have the answer, even if we think we might.
  • Listening to stories when they are repeated over and over because the telling of the story enables the survivor to accept the reality of the story.
  • Listening to what seems unbelievable to me, because it Is unbelievable that perpetrators do what they do.
  • Listening when the survivor slowly tells the story because a traumatized mind works slowly.
  • Listening to the survivor’s anger because survivors must be granted permission to talk out their feelings rather than being talked out of their feelings.
  • Listening for longer than we planned on listening.
  • Listening when it infringes on our schedule.
  • Listening when all the survivor can do is moan.

We can be instrumental in diminishing shame as we listen non-judgmentally to what has beenheld in silence as a secret for too long.

3. Don’t try to fix the survivor

If you have any inkling that you have or that you are the answer for the survivor [I’m trying to say this kindly], then you should be seeing a counselor. It is possible for you to advocate for your friend; you can listen, you can offer to go with them to see a counselor, but you cannot fix them.

Survivors don’t need fixing.

Survivors need hope and healing that comes, in part, from the loving, empathetic care of others. Offering this love and empathy is to step into the shoes of Jesus, who entered the atrocities of this world, stepping into our shoes so that we might know what it is to walk in His.

To offer love and empathy is to step into the shoes of Jesus . . .

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