People who’ve survived any form of physical abuse or threat are often left with hard-to-heal emotional scars. The damage can take many forms, such as: sexual molestation, rape, being physically struck or beaten, experiencing danger, and military service. But no matter how personal safety violations are inflicted, any may lead to psychological dysfunction.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, dissociation, denial, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are some issues experienced by humans whose nervous systems have been pushed beyond their limits. People who experience assault-based trauma are more likely to develop PTSD, but everyone has a different level of stress they can handle before becoming permanently overwhelmed. Because all humans are different, there’s no way to predict psychological disorders, and no guaranteed cures.
Some common symptoms felt by those who’ve been in threatening situations may include hypervigilance, being easily startled, insomnia, never feeling safe, brain fog, irritability, an exaggerated fight-or-flight response, mood swings, and panic attacks involving dizziness, nausea, sweating, rapid heartbeat, tunneling vision, or a sense of impending doom.
Below are 5 things to kindly keep in mind while talking to people processing violence:
1. The Compassion Competition
One of the worst assumptions to make about a person affected by violence is that they lack perspective or don’t understand that somebody always has it worse. Abused people know they’re not the only person to which injustice has happened, and unless they’ve never been on the Internet, they’re aware of life’s many atrocities.
Examples of this might be saying, “Well, at least THIS WORSE THING didn’t happen to you…” and giving an example of something you consider a greater wrongdoing.
This reaction completely invalidates the feelings of the person who trusted you enough to confide, and insults their intelligence. The fact that bad things also happen to others doesn’t magically erase the bad things that have happened to them, no matter where you’d place the abuse on your spectrum.
In short: Pain is not a contest. You can show empathy to more than one person at a time without dismissing the feelings of anyone. Because regardless of how someone was hurt, it always matters.
2. The Dance of Denial
Many victims of physical or sexual abuse find themselves alone with their pain because the topic makes others feel uncomfortable. This can be especially true if the person was violated by a family member.
Families sometimes brush unflattering stories about sexual or physical abusers under the rug because it’s hard to believe a relative is capable of such brutality. But this reaction can re-victimize people by invalidating their pain.
Often, rather than helping those harmed by someone, friends and relatives defensively ignore the issue, allowing the perpetrator to get away with something evil. This lack of justice or support can severely hamper the healing process, because a person can’t heal from a wound nobody will acknowledge.
In short: Abuse at the hands of a stranger -or- a family member hurts, and all forms of abuse are abuse. Ignoring the “icky” can make those harmed feel like they’ve done something wrong, rather than the person who caused the damage. Listen, believe, and strengthen instead of shaming.
3. The Blame Game
If you ever feel like saying, “Well that person is a ____, so what did you expect?” or, “I just accept that they’re messed up, and ignore it. That’s just who they are!” about the person who harmed someone, go ahead and keep that thought to yourself, because it reeks of victim blaming.
You may have the best intentions, such as trying to commiserate with the person who’s sharing their painful experience with you. However, what they often hear instead is: “Shame on you for being stupid. You should have known what you were dealing with, and anticipated your own violation.”
In short: Nobody in a civilized society should ever have to expect violence. Don’t imply that people could have predicted their own abuse and avoided it, because this only makes you look uncompassionate.
4. Downplaying the Damage
There is nothing more unhelpful than someone telling you to “get over it” in reference to anything, including the violation of your personal safety. Unless you have the ability to crawl into another person’s psyche and assess how something has affected them, dismissing their damage can be downright dangerous. Everyone has the right to feel safe, and whether you’ve experienced similar things or not, your decision that everyone else has to deal with emotions exactly the way you do is condescending, at best
Being told you’re “histrionic” or to “put on your big boy/big girl pants” are examples of thoughtless advice, and often given by those who choose to live in denial, rather than being brave enough to deal with their problems. This form of blatant invalidation is heartless and harmful. If someone has the courage to face their personal demons, rather than attempting to humiliate them into silence because of your own cowardice, you might instead watch and learn.
In short: Gaslighting is gross. Stop trying to make people feel like they’re overreacting or incorrectly imagining their own abuse. Everybody’s emotions are valid, and your motives are questionable if you’d prefer people in pain “suck it up and move on.” If you feel this way, why don’t YOU move on… somewhere out of hearing range.
5. No Pity Parties, Please
Most people who’ve been hurt by someone else are furious that they were forced into the role of victim, and don’t enjoy it. Treating them with compassion is lovely, but viewing them with pity can be upsetting. Being helpless is the worst feeling in the world, and nobody who’s experienced it ever wants to feel it again.
The word “survivor” is preferred over the word “victim” by some (but not all – everybody is different) because it implies strength, rather than weakness. Surviving doesn’t have to mean someone has survived a life-or-death situation, either—it simply means someone is trying to accept and cope with what’s happened to them.
In short: Nobody chooses to be abused, and treating people like they’re fragile or broken because of the violating actions of another can frustrate them. Let them know you think they’re strong for moving forward, despite those who’ve tried to hold them back. Survivors of abuse would much rather you celebrate their courage than pity them.
People on the path to wellness don’t appreciate roadblocks created by other humans, well-intentioned or not. If you truly want to help someone move past bad things that have happened to them, listen to and believe them, don’t invalidate their feelings, and try to empathize.
Kindness and understanding go a long way in this world, and by avoiding the potentially harmful reactions listed above, you might give someone the compassion and support they need to heal themselves.