I am extremely blessed to say I have had incredible support from someone close to me who held me tight when I was falling, raised me up when I felt dead inside, and was there for me in extraordinary ways. For this I will forever be grateful. It is this person who showed me what it means to be there for a survivor, and what to say to make one feel supported. There have also been the few times from other people where they have said things that were meant to be supportive but had the exact opposite effect and hurt me in ways beyond their imagination.
Below is a list of 5 things commonly said to survivors of sexual abuse, how they are commonly interpreted, and what you can say instead.
What is said: “It wasn’t that bad”
What is heard: Your feelings are illegitimate.
You are lying or exaggerating.
You don’t have a right to feel the way you do.
What to say instead: I am here to listen if you want to share the details.
What is said: “There is no way he/she would have done that”
What is heard: You are a filthy liar.
You are not worthy in my eyes.
Shut up and disappear.
What to say instead: Nothing. Anything said on these lines is pure salt to an open wound.
What is said: “You have to get over it”
What is heard: I know you were abused but you have a problem.
I need you to feel better so I am more comfortable.
I do not support you nor do I understand you.
You are completely alone.
What to say instead: I see how much the abuse is affecting you. Do you want to discuss an action plan of what resources are out there that may be beneficial for you?
What is said: “I know others who were abused and they aren’t like you!”
What is heard: You are completely alone.
I don’t support or understand you and other survivors won’t understand you too.
Your abuse isn’t real enough to spend time and energy working through.
You are not an individual with her own life, you have to be like everyone else and fit the mold.
What to say instead: I have something on my mind. I’m concerned about your wellbeing. I love you and care about you. Is this something you are open to discussing?
What is said: “But don’t say you didn’t like it even a little”
What is heard: He/She did not abuse you because you consented.
You were hooking up.
All of your feelings are completely invalid.
You are to blame for the abuse.
You ought to be ashamed.
What to say instead: Don’t say anything. Instead broaden your knowledge on biology and how the body can become stimulated and aroused while having no consent at all.
Words hurt and words heal. Please do not be the one to bring a survivor further in the depths of pain. Please remember your words can hurt and they can heal. Choose them wisely.
By Devorah Goldstein