8 Ways You Can Support A Victim of Violence
After surviving a violent assault, I wish my support network had helped me in these ways instead of following traditional support advice.
Over the course of my 10 years of teaching self defense to violence and trauma survivors, and drawing on my personal experience as a survivor of violence, I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned as well, and offer guidance on how to provide a safe space for listening, strength, and support for someone who is the victim of sexual assault.
Although I could logically accept that the attack was not my fault, I still struggled with toxic feelings on an emotional level.
First, let me tell you what it felt like inside my skin after surviving a violent assault, as a way to illustrate what it may be like for the person who is confiding in you. Although I could logically accept what my therapist and my support network reassured me of, that the attack was not my fault and there was nothing to be ashamed of, I still struggled with the feelings below on an emotional level:
Unclean: I felt very unclean, which is beyond just being dirty. It felt more like something on the inside of me had been soiled and it was impossible to wash it off.
Toxic: I felt like I was toxic to be around. Basically, as much as I needed comfort and a hug, if anyone got too close I was afraid I would burn them, like the moisture of my skin was suddenly made of acid, or like the hurt that was festering inside me would somehow hurt the people I loved, too.
Broken: I felt like something very crucial to who I am was broken inside of me. I didn’t know exactly what it was — there was no name for it, so it made it impossible to find and fix.
It seemed like something I should be able to fix, and it confused me that I couldn’t.
Bewildered: Continuing from the above feeling, I also felt bewildered that I couldn’t find this broken thing and fix it. It seemed like something I should be able to, and it confused me that I couldn’t.
Freak: I felt like everyone in the world could see what happened to me, like it was somehow written all over my face and body. In the early days after the attack I survived, I interpreted every interaction through this lens.
Isolated: No one in my support network had experienced violence (that I knew of), and I felt that this event was unique to me — not in a good way. I didn’t know how to build a bridge back to the people I love, and felt like I was forever marked as different from them.
I had let myself down when I had always believed I would protect myself.
Disappointment: It took me a long time to identify this feeling, even though it arrived from the outset and stayed with me for a long time. I felt that I had disappointed myself; I had let myself down when I had always believed I would protect myself.
Frustration: I felt constantly frustrated about the fact the event even happened, that somehow I should have been able to see it coming and should have prevented it; or, at the very least, should have been able to defend myself (see above).
Useless: I felt that, since I didn’t defend myself, I was useless to myself, and therefore others, because I let this happen.
Anger: I was very angry at my life being disrupted, interrupted, forever changed, as well as angry at the fact that I was now living in fear; my trust in others had been broken, and so much of what I knew about myself had been destroyed.
Defiant: I was determined to not let the attacker “win” by altering my lifestyle, giving up my dreams, or moving away. I wanted to show him that I was too strong to break.
I felt very vulnerable and unprotected, and also like I had to rebuild parts of myself.
Raw: I felt that everything about myself and my reality had been stripped away, and I was nothing more than muscle and nerves, almost like I had to grow a new skin. I felt very vulnerable and unprotected, and also like I had to rebuild parts of myself that I could no longer access: my favorite color, my favorite flavor of ice cream; my desire for children; my dislike of TV (I watched a lot of TV in the first year after I survived, although I normally don’t watch any). For the first few months, I honestly wasn’t sure who I was, what I liked, or what were normal habits for me.
I’ve learned over the course of my work that survivors of violence and trauma share quite a few of the above sensations. So now that you know what someone may be experiencing emotionally, here are ways you can be supportive and safe. Some of the positions in the guide below are contrary to accepted wisdom on this topic.
Try saying “I’m so sorry that happened” instead, and drop the “to you”.
1/ Acknowledge: It is common today for the receivers of news about violence or trauma to say, “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” I know that it is meant with good intention, but it has the effect on the victim of distancing from them. “I’m so sorry that happened to you” because it’s never happened to me, e.g., you are different from me (sometimes this statement is literally followed up with, “I can’t imagine what that would feel like!”). Using the pronouns “I” and “you” in this way separates the listener from the teller and creates distance exactly when the victim need to connect.
It’s natural to want to show sympathy, so try saying “I’m so sorry that happened” instead, and drop the “to you”.
Even if you can’t imagine what something someone experienced feels like, you are probably able to recognize the violence and horror of the situation they are sharing (even if they don’t share details).
Acknowledge that: you can say, “that’s terrifying!” to show that they are not alone in feeling terror or fear or anger or anything they’re feeling; in fact, how they reacted and what they’re feeling is normal. They will often desperately need to know that.
Acknowledge the nature of the event to create emotional connection.
They were the words I didn’t know I needed to hear.
2/ Appreciate: The first thing my best friend did when I saw her after I survived was to pull me into a bear hug and whisper in my ear, “I’m so proud of you.” They were the words I didn’t know I needed to hear, but they made all the difference in the world, and were far more powerful than any of the supportive words I received from anyone else. Because she acknowledged that, no matter how sloppy or clumsily I managed to do it, I survived.
Appreciate that the person survived the assault with the words, “I’m so proud of you”. They are incredibly empowering words and helps to restore agency to the victim.
3/ Allow: The story of an assault is the victim’s story alone, and sometimes it is the only thing of their own they feel they have left. And so it is the victim’s decision when to tell the story, to whom, and how much to tell. They don’t owe anyone details or explanations, and they also don’t owe definitions of violence. While this article mostly addresses physical and sexual assault, violence can also come in the form of words, gestures and even looks. Every single person on Earth has a different definition of what is traumatic to them, and each individual is the only person who can ever define that for themselves.
Allow someone to tell the story in their own way, in their own time, and believe them when they confide in you that their experience was traumatic for them.
*If a child is confiding in you, as an adult you may be required by law to notify authorities. Check your local laws.
The pressure to feel like a “survivor” can push someone into suppressing the vulnerable part of themselves with such force, it becomes an act of violence itself.
4/ Assist: Almost every victim of violence that I have ever met has felt what I wrote about frustration and disappointment above: that they somehow let themselves down, and they somehow could have prevented or even allowed the violence to happen.
It’s important to let victims of violence know they are victims: someone who bears the consequence of actions that are beyond their control. The pressure to feel like a “survivor” can push someone into suppressing the vulnerable part of themselves with such force, it becomes an act of violence itself. There is nothing wrong with someone who believes that people are generally non-violent… because people are generally non-violent (otherwise there wouldn’t be almost 8 billion of us alive today!). There is also nothing wrong with being a victim — it simply indicates someone who doesn’t control all the acts in the universe.
I have seen more often than I would like comments on social media about what someone should have done or would have done if they were in the victims shoes.
Firstly, there are so many variables in any given moment that it is impossible to say what someone should have done unless you were somehow possessing them in that exact moment. The brain picks up a lot of information subconsciously, bypasses the analytical brain and sends that data to neuro-receptors in the gut. In situations of violence, it’s often this information that we are responding to, rather than what we are consciously processing. Remember: if they’re sharing their experience with you, it’s because they survived it. Who knows what small but significant (re)action is the one that saved their life?
Secondly, you have no idea what you would do in a situation you’ve never experienced before. You can train for known unknowns, but you can’t train for unknown unknowns. And our reactions to unknown unknowns usually surprise the hell out of us.
If you are able, you can assist someone to see where they did defend themselves, even if it didn’t feel like it in the moment.
Let them know that the emotional scars from the event they suffered are not visible to the rest of the world.
5/ Assure: This is especially relevant to someone who has very recently survived violence, but is applicable to anyone who has experienced violence: assure them that no one else can “see” what happened. Until a victim of violence has reached a stage in their recovery journey where they feel more whole, it’s important to let them know that what they’ve confided is safe with you, and that the emotional scars from the event they suffered are not visible or evident to the rest of the world. They may still feel very far away from normal, or not even be sure what normal is, but reassuring them that they will not be ostracized or avoided because of what happened to them is a way to help them onto the path towards wholeness.
Assure them that to the rest of the world they appear normal.
6/ Give Space: Some people who have survived violence find a sense of safety and security by returning to a sense of normalcy; and some people have the sense that their definition of “normal” is gone. Both responses are ok. If you create a sense of normalcy through familiar habits, routines and language and the response is to engage with it, then by all means keep it up. But if the response is to behave in a disengaged or bewildered manner, then try to adjust to the new reality of the victim.
Don’t keep up old habits and routines for their benefit, because they won’t make sense anymore. Do gently suggest a variety of options anytime the victim seems lost. Instead of “but you used to like ice cream!” try “would you like to try some ice cream?” If the answer is no, you can offer “ok, we can try another time. Would you like to go for a walk instead?” Sometimes the answer will continue to be no; it’s ok to ask “would you like me to leave you alone for awhile and check back with you in a bit?” (And if the answer is still no, then just be still, in the same room with them.)
Give space to help them find all the different parts of themselves again, or define something new.
7/ Make It Safe. Above and beyond anything else, a victim of violence — whether recent or years ago — needs to feel safe, even if only for five minutes. Reassure the person trusting you that they are safe, that you are alert and present and paying attention, and they are not alone in this vulnerable moment. Ask them when or where they don’t feel safe, or what happens for them when they feel unsafe (confusion? jumpiness? shaking?). Learn to recognize their signs of unsafety and remember to tell them regularly, “you are safe”.
Make it safe to be in the world again.
If someone wishes to share with you, understand that this is an indication of a very deep trust.
8/ Listen: When someone you know and care for has suffered violence, it is important to provide a safe and calm space for that person to simply be. If the person you care about wishes to discuss the event with you, understand that this is an indication of a very deep trust, as well as a bid for help or relief.
This does not mean that they are asking you to play therapist, or cop, or confessor; nor does it mean they are expecting you to provide answers, explanations or direction. It simply means they are seeking relief from the pain and burden of their experience, and may be ready to explore finding further support and start the journey of healing.
When someone confides a violent experience to you, it is never meant as a burden for you, but rather an exploration of resources and support.
Listen without judgment, without interruption (put your phone down), and without critique.
If a victim of violence chooses to confide in you, and you find yourself feeling strong emotions while listening to them, it’s good to acknowledge your own emotions to yourself — the fact that you are having an emotional response is a good indication of empathy. Try not to let the feelings overwhelm you, but if you can identify them for yourself, you can use some of these feelings to build an emotional connection with the victim.
The downloadable PDF available at RAINN is an excellent additional tool for intimate partners, family members, friends, professionals, and other sexual assault survivors if you find that providing a safe space for others is triggering; the guide includes how to support yourself while supporting someone you love. It’s a great guide, and you download it here.