By Esther Smith
In the aftermath of rape or assault or in the unfolding progression of repeated abuse and ongoing violence, the most courageous step a survivor can take is to disclose what has happened. There are many reasons women choose not to disclose trauma, one reason being the many unhelpful and harmful responses so common when violence and evil are brought out of hiding and into the light.
What if someone were to disclose the experience of unspeakable trauma to you? Would you know what to say or how to respond? In such situations, the words you choose can either embolden and empower or undermine and re-victimize. Your words have power to give life and hope or reap shame and self-doubt.
BELIEVE – “I believe you.”
The first words that come from your mouth should convey that you believe the story being told. Maybe you don’t believe her. Maybe the thought of her gentle, kind husband assaulting her seems 100% impossible. Believe her anyway. You don’t realize the power of this affirmation until you have experienced something that sounds unbelievable. From a purely statistical standpoint, research indicates that false reports are uncommon, comprising approximately 2-8% of sexual assault disclosures (*Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisaki, 2009). But more importantly, from a relational standpoint, in most cases, the consequences of disbelieving a true story of trauma far outweigh the consequences of believing a false report. Believe until proven otherwise.
There is a time and a place to verify what happened, but in the midst of initial disclosure is not that time. Trust will remain intact, safety will be further ensured, and more women will feel empowered to come forward when they see the stories of others believed and affirmed.
THANK – “Thank you for telling me.”
Thank her to affirm that you want to hear her story. Thank her to change the dynamic – this is not about you giving great wisdom and advice, but about you receiving the precious gift of her courage. A personal disclosure is a gift of trust and hope for change. Feel honored that she chose you to share this story with, and truly mean it when you thank her.
STAY – “I plan to support you through this. The pain you have suffered is unbearable, and I can’t even begin to know what this has been like for you. But, I plan to be here for the long run.”
Acknowledge the pain and affirm your desire to be a support in the weeks and months ahead. Instead of saying, “let me know if you need anything,” provide specific options of ways you are willing and able to provide support. She may not know how far you are willing to go and refrain from specific requests in the weeks ahead for fear of overstepping boundaries. Let her know what you are willing to do, and give gentle reminders down the road of optional ways you are available to help.
ASK – “What do you plan to do next?”
Don’t assume you know what is best. Likely the situation is more complicated than you can possibly imagine. She has likely thought through every possible solution and next step, including the suggestions on the tip of your tongue. The most obvious steps are not always the best steps. Assume she has thought through many options and help her process them by asking good questions. Encourage decisions that lead to her safety and well-being, but if she is an adult, allow her to choose these next steps of her own volition and in her own timing. If you have an idea you think she hasn’t thought of, ask “what do you think of__________?” While there are exceptions to the rule, in most situations, ask good questions instead of giving unsolicited advice.
POINT TO PROFESSIONAL HELP– “Would you like me to be there while you call the police? Here is the phone number of a great counselor – would you like me to help you get in touch with her?”
Telling her what to do and giving unsolicited advice will likely backfire, but providing possible resources in the midst of crisis when she may not be thinking clearly can be a priceless gift. Present her with the necessary paperwork for filing a restraining order. Research several good trauma counselors and have the information available. Find various support programs in the community and let her know her options.
Your words are not neutral. Know the right things to say, and you may become a precious lifeline for someone in the most desperate of times.
If you or someone you know is struggling with how to process through a traumatic event please call our offices for further help.
*Lonsway, K.A., Archambault, J. & Lisaki, D. (2009). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. The Voice. 3(1), 1-11. Retrieved from http://ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf
Esther Smith is is a counselor at Life Counseling Center and works at both our Chapelgate and Roland Park counseling offices. Her areas of interest and experience include teens and young adults, women’s issues, and working with individuals touched by anxiety, trauma, chronic illness, and suffering.