When I first started working with survivors of sexual abuse, I struggled with the vivid images my mind created when listening to their stories.
I remember having difficulty staying present, not to mention being triggered, with client after client and story after story. Many of my friends would wonder how I did it—meaning how I could sit and hold space for clients with this kind of trauma each day without getting totally sucked in or feeling utterly terrified. And I often wondered this myself.
Was this work sustainable? Could I show up for them without bringing in my own trauma? But, as I continued doing the work, I learned ways to compartmentalize their stories from my own. I practiced rituals each day so I could set their stories aside and move into my personal life each evening.
This work was and continues to be hard. There is no real way to sugarcoat the betrayal and violence of sexual trauma. Nor would I ever want to. There is no way to not want to cry with my clients when they speak of their powerlessness just as I can’t stop myself from laughing and celebrating with them when they are thriving.
Bessel van der Kolk, the author of the book The Body Keeps the Score and a leading researcher and teacher in the field of trauma, defines trauma as an event that overwhelms the system. He says, “Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.” And, so much of that imprint is related to the pain and shame that is experienced after the assault, more specifically, when survivors are not believed, and instead are shamed by those closest to them.
So many of the folks I work with share stories of how they were received when disclosing their abuse to parents, friends, family, and partners. Many of them have chosen to stay quiet for fear of the response from those closest to them. The self-blame, shame, and silence that ensues creates greater distress in survivors and has serious negative impacts on their healing.
As a trauma therapist who works with adult survivors of child sexual abuse and rape survivors, the story about what happened afterward is still the hardest for me to accept. I have found that often the response to the disclosure is well-intentioned but misses the mark.
Here are a few tips to help you stay present with a loved one who is sharing about their sexual abuse:
1. If they want to share, listen to their story, and believe them.
This is the most important piece. Disclosing sexual abuse is one of the most difficult things an individual can ever do. A disclosure is such a vulnerable act. If someone discloses to you, please meet their vulnerability with empathy and kindness. And most importantly, check any doubt at the door.
You see, survivors don’t always respond to abuse in the same way. Some may appear obviously distressed. You may witness tears, maybe even bouts of depression, and shut down. Others, however, may behave as if nothing ever happened. They may continue to go out with friends and appear functional and even seem as if they are having fun. Others still may engage in risky behaviors and even continue to see their perpetrator.
No matter their response, we need to know that it is natural to have varied and sometimes extreme reactions. You see, our nervous system takes over during a traumatic event, and it continues working for us afterward.
Some of us may go into a fight response and become outwardly angry while others may tap into the same fight energy and respond by being their most “functional” selves. Some may avoid or “act as if.” Tapping into our flight response by pretending nothing happened, distracting ourselves by going out with friends and maybe even losing ourselves in drugs or other escapist behaviors. Yet others may respond by completely shutting down. Tapping into the freeze response, they might isolate themselves from others and feel stuck as to what to do next.
We need to choose to believe them regardless of the survivor’s response. And, we need to listen with an open heart.
2. Hold space for the survivor.
Take your cues from them. This sounds pretty simple, but we often let our own feelings get in the way. Of course, it is hard to hear that someone we love has been hurt. We may become angry or even feel our own level of vicarious trauma. That said, if we show our anger or grief, this could create distress in our loved one. Remember, they don’t want to cause you distress; they merely can’t carry the burden alone. This does not mean that you can’t show that you feel some of the pain with them, but this is their story, not yours.
Also, survivors don’t need us to problem-solve. We may go into our own fight response and want to mobilize our energy into figuring out what to do next. But, stop. What is needed in a time like this is for you just to be with your loved one, offer reassurance and validation, and maybe even offer a loving touch, like a hug (only if you ask first and they consent to the touch). You are going to want to do something, but being with their silence or their story is all that is needed.
Here are some phrases you might use:
“Thank you for sharing this with me.”
“I believe you.”
“It is not your fault.”
“I’m sorry this happened to you.”
“You did nothing to deserve this.”
“I’m here for you, no matter what.”
“I support your decisions.”
“I love you.”
3. Try not to ask questions.
Memory is compromised during a traumatic event. It is natural and expected that a survivor of sexual abuse may not have clear memories. They may remember the things that happened, out of order, and may even change their recollections. This is actually quite natural, and, yet, so many survivors have their memory used against them when they disclose.
Also, if you ask questions, some may be received as blame. So, please avoid asking “why” questions in particular. You see, if you ask things like, “Why were you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?”—these can easily be interpreted as mistakes on their part and they can feel judged.
The reality of it is that the “why” does not matter at all. We want to believe that if we did something or didn’t do something, we could steer clear of this kind of violence. The truth is we can’t always keep ourselves safe. Sometimes terrible things happen and we are not to blame.
4. Keep their confidence.
It is their story, not yours, so don’t share with others unless your loved one has asked that you do so. This means that if you are having trouble keeping it together after the disclosure, see a therapist or other mental health professionals. Only share in an unbiased and objective setting that is confidential. Now, if your loved one is a minor, you will need to disclose to the appropriate authorities, but please be open with the survivor and let them know that you will be reporting and ask them if they would like to share their own story.
Brené Brown, a leading researcher on shame, states, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” If your loved one chooses to share their story with you, they are being their most vulnerable and brave. They are choosing you, so we need to choose them—our response matters. Our response can make the difference between helping our loved ones heal, or perpetuating their sense of shame.
I mentioned at the start that one of the most difficult things to hold as a therapist is the pain my clients have felt when rejected, blamed, and shamed by those closest to them. It honestly makes me angry. And, then I remember that it is not about me—it’s about them.
So, all I can do is what I’ve suggested to you: I believe them; I hold space for them; I validate their experience; I normalize and affirm their responses; I honor their feelings.
I remember to be grateful for their trust, and I remind you that if someone has chosen you and shared their story, you have lots to be grateful for as well.