Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From Emily: How to Help Survivors and Victims

About a year ago, a good friend of mine sent me a message on facebook. She said she was having a hard time knowing how to help a lot of her friends. She said that many of her friends were survivors of abuse, and that it bothered her to see how depressed those friends were, that they didn't seem to see the beauty in life. She also said (and this is the point where a red flag went up for me) that she couldn't convince some of these friends to forgive their former abusers, that she couldn't convince them they were only giving the abuser more power over them by staying angry.

My response then, and my response now, is that you have to be extremely careful how you talk to victims and survivors. Seriously - be very careful. Here are some informal rules I'd recommend you follow:

1. DO NOT criticize the victims/survivors. In general, these are people whose sense of self worth is struggling, and who are having a difficult time trusting others. If you start telling them "you're wrong, and you need to change," you run the risk of destroying the trust they've established with you (and they must trust you at least a bit if they're confiding in you). Also be aware that many victims/survivors do, indeed, learn to blame themselves for the perpetrators abuse. If you start telling them how bad it is for them to be unforgiving, you run the risk of reinforcing a mistaken belief that the situation is or was their fault.

2. Accept Victims and Survivors as they are, no strings attached. You're not their counselor, you're their friend. So be a supportive and accepting friend. Don't threaten to cut off your friendship (or in other words, to punish them) if they stay with the abuser. That may seem like an excellent way to help them, but what you're doing is adding to the controlling nature of the abuse. Express your concern about the abusive behavior of the perpetrator, but don't make the situation worse by manipulating the victim. Tough love works wonders in some situations, but helping out abuse victims is not one of them. I promise you, a listening ear and accepting nature will do a lot more good for the victim or survivor in the long run.

3. Recognize that forgiveness is a process. And part of that process requires a victim/survivor to recognize the abuse for the abuse that it truly is. If a person has spent years blaming him- or herself for behavior that he or she was in no way responsible for, he or she may need awhile to get used to the idea that a) the abuse was not his or her fault and that b) it was indeed wrong. So if you're around a survivor who suddenly wants to talk about how wrong the abuser was to do all the things he or she did, don't freak out. Don't judge him or her. Accept this as part of the cycle of forgiveness. After all, if a person doesn't first recognize that a wrong has indeed been done, how can he or she forgive the perpetrator of that wrong?

4. Focus on behavior patterns. As Erica said the other day, you should focus on your concern about the behavior of the perpetrator when you're talking with a victim/survivor, rather than simply criticizing the perpetrator. Let me share an anecdote that I hope will help illustrate this: last year I was living with a couple of very good friends. We had a bit of a falling out, and my then friends/roommates essentially ganged up on me. They constantly criticized my character, blamed me for everything that went wrong in the apartment, and even justified not giving me a say about anything that happened in the apartment by insisting that bad things about me negated that right. When I confronted them about how they were treating me, they insisted that their behavior was my responsibility, and explained why in great detail. If you've been following along this week, you'll probably recognize this as a classic description of abuse. (If you didn't think roommates could become abusive, think again).

A lot of people that I told about the situation just said, "they're jerks," or, "something is wrong with them," or my personal favorite, "they sound like poison." But that kind of feedback left me feeling guilty about complaining. After all, these girls had been my friends for years, and I didn't want to think poorly of them. However, when I told Erica about the situation and she recognized that what they were doing was emotional abuse, she was able to emphasize how dangerous their behavior was and stress her concern for my emotional well-being, without criticizing them. Her emphasis on how dangerous and wrong their behavior was allowed me to recognize that I could forgive them, but that for my own emotional and psychological well-being, I couldn't remain in contact with them.

Look at it this way: if you've been close to a person for years, you know both their weaknesses and their strengths. You know they can be a jerk, but you also know how wonderful they can be. Even in the midst of abuse, a perpetrator will occasionally be nice or sweet to a victim. So, if you depict the abuser as all evil, the victim is going to know it's not true, and you will now sound misguided, judgmental, and wrong. The victim may not know how to accept your advice if you seem so confused about the "true" nature of the perpetrator. When you focus on specific behavior patterns, though, you can emphasize that those behavior patterns are dangerous, despite whatever good behavior patterns are still going on. Your emphasis on behavior patterns will also show the victim how well you understand human nature and make him or her more likely to trust you.

5. Validate the victim/survivor's perspective. While you should emphasize behavior over general criticisms of the perpetrator, be understanding if the victim or survivor doesn't. Do not, do not, do not tell the victim/survivor he or she is wrong about how bad of a person the perpetrator is or was. In addition to everything else a victim/survivor is struggling through, he or she may have a very difficult time trusting his or her own judgment. In many cases, a victim has spent years with an abuser who insists "you're stupid, you're wrong, you're not worth anything," and any number of other lies. If a victim/survivor says, "I think my abuser was evil," let him or her know how much you empathize and can understand that perspective. If you respond with, "Well, I don't know. I mean, evil's a strong word," you're just reinforcing the idea that the victim/survivor cannot trust his or her own judgment. So, always validate the emotion, even if you disagree with the statement.

6. Above all else, be a reliable friend.

Hopefully those guidelines are helpful. For more tips, check out Erica's post on this subject.

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