The isolating effects of interpersonal trauma cannot be overstated, especially in a social media-driven society. The technological age presumes that we are always on, available, and connected. Trauma, however, often demands periods of withdrawal, whether because someone is controlling who a survivor is allowed to see and connect with in the current moment or because healing from violence can be a full-time job that doesn’t leave survivors with much capacity to maintain social relationships during intense processing times. Realistically, both of these situations are often when survivors need to be engaged with supportive relationships and community the most. But, as many folks who experience the similar social withdrawal that comes from deep depressive episodes can attest, the longer survivors go without engaging with their relational lifelines, the more impossible it can feel to reconnect. Shame can convince survivors that their family and friends would never understand what they’ve experienced, would blame them for that experience, or wouldn’t be able to help anyway so there is no point in “burdening” them with their pain unnecessarily. Trans and nonbinary survivors may face additional shame and hesitancy around reaching out if they are impacted by dysphoria in social situations; their gender identity or presentation has changed since the last time they connected and they’re worried about the other person’s reaction; they’re afraid that their identity or presentation will be blamed for their pain in ways that invalidate the survivor’s actual experience; or, conversely, people won’t be able to understand the ways that gender is implicated in their struggles for healing.
“The longer survivors go without engaging with their relational lifelines, the more impossible it can feel to reconnect.”
As pernicious and convincing as these shame-based messages can be, they may not be based in truth. Good supports know that trauma isn’t the survivor’s fault and that healing through community and storytelling is possible no matter how tremendous the hurt. It’s commonly estimated that 1:3 of all girls/women and 1:6 of all boys/men will experience sexual assault at some point in their lives. Additionally, at least half of trans and nonbinary people of all genders and none are likely to experience sexual or intimate partner violence at least once over the course of their lives (Williams Institute, 2015). Given these statistics, it’s very likely that survivors’ support systems are made up of people who are survivors themselves and are honored to bear witness to the healing process, no matter how messy, with genuine empathy and resonance. There is incredible power in survivors supporting each other like this, holding what feels unspeakable with courage and understanding until hope returns, because they have already been there and know that it does get better. Even if the survivor has experienced this supportive reaction before, it can be hard to trust that it will be there again through another difficult period. Because of this, I encourage family and friends to do the proactive work of reaching out to the survivor periodically just to remind them that they are thought of (unless doing so would compromise the survivor’s safety in a dangerous relationship). This doesn’t have to be emotionally intensive. Sending cards, memes, songs that remind you of your loved one, or pictures of your pets or garden are all great ways of reaching out.
“Sending cards, memes, songs that remind you of your loved one, or pictures of your pets or garden are all great ways of reaching out.”
It’s important for friends and family members to remember that not hearing back from the survivor doesn’t mean that your attempts to reach out are unappreciated or wasted. As tempting as it may be to give up as calls go unanswered and birthdays pass unacknowledged, it’s vital for supports to remain just that and keep reaching out with things that reconnect the survivor to the world outside of trauma, trauma work, and traumatic social media timelines. If you are a survivor yourself or have experience with depression or other mental illnesses that lead to social withdrawal, it may be helpful to reflect on difficult times when you had trouble reaching out; use those times to ground your commitment to stay compassionately present and available, and ask yourself what would have been most helpful to you during those times to guide you if you feel at a loss and aren’t getting feedback from the survivor. My best friend, Frankie, has developed incredible intuition, based on his own survivor experience, for balancing reaching out to listen or have fun with letting the phone go silent so I can have my own processing space to work through difficult material, especially if I’ve fallen back into old patterns. Being held in that unconditional, deeply empathetic and empathic love has been invaluable for my healing journey. No matter our genders or histories, this kind of loving survivor support space is something that we can all work to cultivate for each other with patience, attunement, and compassion.
To this end, without exhausting yourself (or your loved one!), remind the survivor that they have access to supportive relationships and community, no strings attached. Disclosing your own survivor status is a complicated decision, so know that there are ways of “relating in” to the survivor’s experience that mirror the safe space my best friend Frankie held for me but don’t require you to share your own trauma history if you don’t want to. “Relating in” often works by relating to the feelings the survivor is expressing, even if you can’t (or don’t want to disclose that you can) relate to the experiences that surround the feelings. So, while flashbacks or dissociation may be largely unique to people who have experienced trauma (with notable and valid exceptions!), the feelings of grief, rage, or shame that often accompany them are universal to being a human. Those universal feelings are the foundations that “relating in” builds bridges on. When you relate in, you remain conscientious of steering clear of Oppression Olympics, putting the survivor in a caretaking role for your feelings or dominating their feelings with your own story, and taking any liberties to analogize the survivor’s experience with your own. Instead, it might be helpful to take a more empathy and agency-centered approach. Compassionate phrases like these can be a good place to start, but always feel free to play around and make your own: “No wonder this is so hard for you. I had a hard time too when…”
- “I’ve never been in your shoes, but I know what grief feels like in my body and…”
- “What you’re sharing is making me think of something in my own life. Do you mind if I share it with you, or would you rather keep talking about your experience?”
- “I’ve experienced a lot of rage before, too. Let me know if you ever want to talk about some skills that worked for me over the years while I learned to cope with it- reinventing the wheel is no fun!”
- “Remember the cousin I told you about? Ze went through something similar. Supporting hir helped me understand that… is that true to your experience?”
“’Relating in’ often works by relating to the feelings the survivor is expressing, even if you can’t (or don’t want to disclose that you can) relate to the experiences that surround the feelings.”
In general, the same guiding principles apply for supportive family and friends who are also survivors and decide to disclose their trauma histories as part of relating to their loved one. In this case, however, making three additional points becomes necessary: First, the most important step to any disclosure is getting consent from the other survivor before sharing your experience, just like it’s important to be asked for consent before a loved one shares their story with you. Without consent, even well-meaning disclosures and storytelling can be another form of violence for people who are already in distress and are looking for support but are asked to hold another burden as a perceived condition of receiving it. If it is not a good time for either of you to receive or offer disclosures, you can continue “relating in” with each other without talking about your own trauma histories until/unless that changes.
“The most important step to any disclosure is getting consent from the other survivor before sharing your experience, just like it’s important to be asked for consent before a loved one shares their story with you.”
Second, tact and thoughtful boundaries become even more important in disclosure situations to mitigate the likelihood that the survivor receiving support feels triggered rather than helped by the disclosure or the conversation devolves into an unhelpful exchange of “war stories” that do little except reopen and display painful wounds. Using the compassionate responses outlined above as a guide can be helpful in keeping disclosures healthy and helpful for all involved, as can taking temperature checks about how the survivor feels surrounding the disclosure and if they need any extra support while processing that information. Prior to making a disclosure, friends and family might benefit from checking in with themselves about what they feel is safe and useful to disclose, versus what material may be relevant but is still too raw to be emotionally safe to share in a support role at this time. Generally, if the disclosure doesn’t check both boxes of being safe and useful to everyone involved, it should probably wait to be shared elsewhere or at a later time.
“Generally, if the disclosure doesn’t check both boxes of being safe and useful to everyone involved, it should probably wait to be shared elsewhere or at a later time.”
Beyond relating in and potentially offering empathy through your own disclosure, it could help the survivor feel safer to reach out if you articulate clearly what kind of support you are/are not able to provide so that they don’t have to worry about “burdening” you- they already know what would make you feel good to be able to help them with in their healing. For example, some friends might be thrilled to receive 3 A.M. phone calls or urgent needs for rides while others have a strict 10 P.M. bedtime but would be delighted to help pick up meds or give transportation to therapy on Fridays. Some supports would be honored to help carry the story of the survivor’s traumatic experience while others are better suited for distraction, humor, and restorative fun. So often support can feel ephemeral and nebulous when it comes time to actually ask for it. You may want to consider a homemade version of FORGE’s “I’m Here for You” cards which can list out things a supportive friend/family member is able to provide and empower the survivor to more easily ask for what they need, in addition to ordering the ready-made ones FORGE designed. The cards are fully adaptable to life under COVID restrictions and affirm that no matter their skills and resources, every person in a survivor’s support system is a vital, healing link with something meaningful to offer. Want a stack for the survivors in your life? Fill out this order form and get as many as you need for free! Articulating what support you can provide can help the survivor feel confident in their decision to contact you when they are ready to reach out. Once the cards are filled out, it can be helpful to organize the support system in what Mia Mingus calls a “Pod Map.” This is another hands-on tool for mapping out communities of support, accountability, and resilience so that everyone’s gifts and unique relationship dynamics can be tapped into in the most affirming ways possible.
“Articulate clearly what kind of support you are/are not able to provide.”
The value of patience cannot be overstated when supporting a loved one through difficult seasons of healing. Certainly, it is crucial to be patient with the survivor themselves while they navigate common feelings of shame, doubt, anger, and profound grief as part of the process of healing from sexual or intimate partner violence. These feelings often come in waves and their pattern, just like all of healing, is not linear. As discussed in this post for survivors, experiencing increased traumatic intrusions is often actually a sign of how much progress the survivor is making after trauma; they mean the nervous system is recognizing that it’s safe to process material that was previously off limits due to lack of safety and stability. From the outside, though, an uptick in these symptoms can easily concern family and friends that the survivor is backtracking or needs to be taking a different approach to healing. Patience and self-education about how trauma is released on a neurobiological level (Dr. Peter Levine’s excellent book for laypeople, Waking The Tiger (1997) offers an overview on this complicated and evolving field of study) can help prevent well-meaning conflicts with the survivor. These rifts are common when family and friends misdirect empathy for the hurt the survivor is (re)experiencing into nonconsensual suggestions, criticisms, or pressures to heal in any way other than what the body and mind naturally need, a need which may be beyond the survivor’s ability to articulate. Family and friends who are survivors themselves may fall into comparison traps and pressure their loved one’s journey to look more like their own, while folks who aren’t survivors are more vulnerable to underestimating how difficult healing actually is. When family and friends educate themselves about how traumatic material is stored and processed in the body and mind, they become better equipped to support the survivor with compassion and reliability through the vicissitudes of the healing journey. Because this is an evolving field of study, there is always new learning available even for people who are the experts of their own survivor experience. Educated supports can also become allies in challenging messages of shame, self-blame, and pressure to heal better/faster because they’ll be equipped with the research to show the survivor that where they are is exactly where they’re supposed to be and it does get better, it just can’t be rushed. As Oprah writes in her new book collaboration with renowned psychiatrist Bruce D Perry (What Happened To You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing) “What you’re really looking for is somebody to reinforce the idea that Hey, I’m not crazy. I’m thinking or feeling this way because of something that happened to me, and I’m having a reasonable reaction. And that person validates that for you.” (2021, p. 115). When supports come from a place of understanding how trauma works, the validation we offer each other can be all the more grounding and compassionate because it can clarify what otherwise may be unsettling healing patterns that shake up the bodymind.
“No matter their skills and resources, every person in a survivor’s support system is a vital, healing link with something meaningful to offer.”
Patience and self-education doesn’t just apply to supporting the survivor, however! It’s often necessary for friends and family to cultivate compassion and insight for their own process in coping with their loved one’s healing journey. While many resources focus on how to support the survivor, as a loved one, it’s key to engage in your own self care, too. These are valuable practices for all human beings to commit to, but are especially important for folks who are confronting trauma even if the trauma did not affect them directly. This is especially true for support people who are also survivors. FORGE’s comprehensive “Guide for Partners and Loved Ones of Transgender Sexual Violence Survivors” is essential reading for all support systems; in addition to unpacking what trauma is and how trans and nonbinary folks may be uniquely affected, the Guide also provides extensive resources aimed at preventing secondary traumatization, with special considerations for family and friends who are survivors themselves. We know that secondary trauma can cause the same activated nervous system and fight/flight/freeze/appease response as if one had undergone the trauma itself. As the guide explores in depth, family and friends can reduce their likelihood of developing secondary trauma while supporting a loved one through their healing journey by practicing regular, holistic self-care; staying engaged in activities that foster resilience, which could look as diverse as Improv Theater, connecting with a harm reduction or 12 Step community, playing kickball with your neighbors, or community service; having dedicated space to engage in storytelling in healing relationship, whether it be with a therapist, spiritual mentor, or family and friends support group; and, setting and keeping boundaries around how much exposure to trauma and trauma work is healthy for you so that you don’t become flooded or made responsible for someone else’s healing. These boundaries are often helpful to extend to social media, which can seem to overflow with people posting about their traumas and their effects for constant consumption. As someone involved in directly supporting a loved one through their healing journey, one of the kindest and most responsible things you can do is ask yourself how many of these other stories you realistically can/want to hold, and then keep that limit.
“It’s often necessary for friends and family to cultivate compassion and insight for their own process in coping with their loved one’s healing journey.”
Relationships are key to the healing process. By practicing skills like relating in, offering compassionate and consensual disclosures, sending cards or silly memes, being committed to self and community education, and practicing self care, family members, friends, partners, and other loved ones can play invaluable supportive roles in survivors’ healing processes, while maintaining their own healing if they are a survivor themselves. The pandemic may have made it clearer than ever how much people need each other, and tools like FORGE’s “I’m Here for You” cards and “Guide for Partners and Loved Ones” exist to model what supportive, resilient, empowered community can look like for survivors and loved ones so that it’s not so much of a guessing game. Do you have other tools and tips that have worked for you and your loved ones? Feel free to join the conversation online by connecting with us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter!