Where do you go when you need emotional support around experiences of sexual violence? Do you have a support system wide enough and strong enough to support you?
Transgender survivors of sexual violence (and other types of violence) turn to all sorts of resources and people for emotional support, according to a study that FORGE conducted in 2004. As you can see from the chart, many trans survivors lean on friends, partners, the internet, and self-help guides for emotional support, in addition to one-on-one therapy.
Being a survivor can be an incredibly isolating experience, and reaching out for support can feel pretty overwhelming. But no matter where you are on your journey, there are more supports out there than you might think. And building or growing a support system is something that all of us can benefit from.
Circles of support
Here’s a simple exercise that can help. There are more versions of this activity in the resource list below.
- On a piece of paper, draw three concentric circles like in the example to the left. Make them as large as you can on your piece of paper.
- In the inner circle, write all of the names of people closest to you, such as your best friends, any family members you’re super close to, friends at work that you trust, your therapist or healer if you have one, a trusted pastor or faith-based healer if you have one, any support groups that you attend, medical practitioners you like, hotline numbers that you’ve called or may want to call, etc. Basically this circle is for everyone you’d tell intimate details to or whom you trust with your private information and/or thoughts and feelings.
- In the middle circle, write all of the names of people who you know and appreciate and could reach out to for certain kinds of support but not immediate or intimate levels of support. Examples might include a neighbor who waters your plants while you’re away, babysitters and/or petsitters, colleagues or coworkers you enjoy working with, or close acquaintances from church, your sports team, or other groups or clubs.
- In the outermost circle, write all of the names of people who are farther removed from you but whose company you enjoy enough to occasionally call or text or spend time with. These could be long-time friends who you talk to a couple times a year, former coworkers you see from time to time, Facebook or social media friends who sometimes comment positively on things you post, extended relatives, etc.
The purpose of this exercise is many-fold:
- To help you feel less alone, particularly when you’re feeling isolated.
- To remind you of people you’d like to reach out to more often.
- To show you that all of the people in your life make an impact on you, and how many people you have affected in positive ways.
- To illuminate where the gaps are (if any) in your circles of support and where you can focus on building or growing relationships.
- To illustrate the fact that you don’t have to rely on only one or two people for support.
This last point is perhaps the most important one. It’s easy to think that our closest friends, partners, or relatives are the only ones who can support us around experiences of sexual violence. When these people aren’t able to give us the level of support we need, we can sometimes get disappointed in them or in ourselves for not having stronger supports around us.
Concretely illustrating your circles of support can help you begin utilizing people for what their strengths are to you. For example, if you know that your parent or guardian isn’t that great at discussing your emotional needs around your assault, you can begin to accept that instead of wanting them to be different or trying to make them change. You might call them to talk about the things they can or will help you with, such as giving you a ride to group meetings or taking you to a movie or to lunch if you need a mental break. They certainly might change someday, but in the meantime focus your energy on what they are able to do for you right now.
Another thing you can do with your illustrated circle of support is to take each person in one of your circles and write down all of the things you can count on them for. Some people will have long lists and some will have short lists. In the end, you’ll have a roster of people you can call for lots of different needs you may have!
If you’re the kind of person who struggles with asking for support, it’s a good idea to start small. Think about the sorts of things you’d feel okay asking for help around, and the sorts of things that are harder to ask for. Then, for the different people in your circles of support, consider whether, if they reached out to you, you would say yes and be glad to help them. Odds are, they feel the same way about you! Practice asking for support around small things, and be honest about the fact that it’s hard for you to ask. Also, if you find yourself wanting to apologize for imposing on someone else, say thank you instead.
Want more ideas and resources? Check these out!
- The terrarium of support page from FORGE’s “Artist’s Life Adventure Zine.”
- “A Guide for Facilitators of Transgender Community Groups: Supporting Sexual Violence Survivors” from FORGE: this guide can help you start your own support group for trans survivors of sexual assault. Download as many free copies as you’d like!
- FORGE’s Espavo Project: this photography project is a beautiful illustration of how empowering and resilient trans and non-binary survivors can be. Take a look and get inspired!