3 ways to help a hurting friend
A few weeks ago on the blog, I shared my story about growing up in the church and the ideas that I internalized about my body (you can read more here). I am not alone in making these observations, and the response to that post was overwhelming. I received lots of good and some negative—but that’s always to be expected when you share anything in a public way.
Today, I want to take a moment to talk about how to have conversations with someone who is a survivor. Statistics show that roughly one in three women will experience some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime. That’s a really high number of women walking around among us that are nursing a very deep wound. Not all of us are survivors of such experiences; however many of us are survivors of other hurtful situations. For some, there were difficult childhoods. For others, body image and struggles with anorexia. For others still, there was sickness or poverty or other adversities.
Part of the human condition is to experience suffering. So in whatever ways you have experienced suffering whether in small or immense ways, I acknowledge you and hold space for all of your emotions about it. I hope you know what you are worth whatever you need to heal. The kindest thing you can do for yourself and those around you is heal whatever deep wounds you carry. It is not easy work, and for those of you out there committed to doing this, I want to say: I see you, stay the course.
Having a trauma informed view of the world and recognizing that our loved ones have experienced suffering raises important questions for many of us: how do I talk to and how do I help a friend who is a survivor? How can I dialogue with people who have these varied life experiences? When someone opens up in a vulnerable way to me about a hurt in their past or present, how should I respond?
Here are three of my own suggestions from personal experience that might help to guide those difficult moments and conversations.
- Be committed to listening
Listening is one of the most important things you can do when having these conversations. If someone opens up to you about their hurt, they are at one of their most vulnerable moments. That is a gift and opportunity for you to be there for your friend in a meaningful way. They need a strong shoulder, willing ears, and a warm heart.
Don’t expect a person to tell their story with perfection or articulation. Expect raw, honest, and unbridled emotion. Make space for that and even encourage it. Acknowledging someone else’s experience doesn’t require fact checking. Sit in solidarity with them, without judgment. Also keep in mind that this is not usually the best time to insert your own traumatic stories unless they have invited you to do so. They don’t need the load of your grief piled on top of their own right now.
One of the worst things you can do is to assume a posture of interrogation. You don’t have the right to make any demands of the person confiding in you, and they don’t have obligations to tell you anything more than they wish to share. A suggestion: you may want to check your motives if you feel you need access the whole story. Can you not believe that person’s story without having all the details? If so, kindly do the person who is confiding in you a massive favor and connect them with someone who can support them regardless. If you can believe the person’s story, then why are you collecting information like a detective? Listen and affirm the person who confided in you, and respect their right to share whatever they choose to share with you. They have shown immense strength and courage to do so.
- Respond with kindness
Trauma is complex. And so are people. And situations.
Knowing how to respond when someone discloses new information to you can be difficult. Telling a survivor that you believe them is probably one of the most important things you could ever say to them. Believing a survivor doesn’t require you hating anyone or thinking less of anyone else. It does mean that you need to approach the situation with wisdom, but honestly what in life doesn’t require this approach? It is also important to remember that just because you have positive experiences with a person/organization does not mean that everyone has had the same experience. Both your experience and theirs can be true, do not negate or dismiss their story on this basis.
Also, avoid using blaming language. Some examples of this might be asking questions about where a person was or what they were wearing. Another way that blame is implied is by suggesting that the person misunderstood the perpetrators actions. Most victims tend to downplay the nature of their own hurt. Know that if they opened up to you about it; that took an immense amount of courage. Applaud that and honor their humanity. If it violated their conscience, it probably wasn’t right regardless of the intent of the other party or parties involved. Another blaming stance that you might not have thought of is dismissing hurt because of time passed. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, and there are many reasons why many people do not disclose their own stories until long after the events have passed. In whatever shape it takes, blame shifting is a subtle way of protecting the abuser and questioning the integrity of the abused. This kind of behavior can increase guilt, anxiety, and depressive feelings in the mind of a survivor and only serves to deepen their wound.
One final thought here for those who are people of faith. This is usually not the best time to theologize someone’s experience, especially with pithy sayings such as “This is part of God’s plan”. How God is at work in the world and in the lives of individuals is a complicated and nuanced discussion and for the sake of not hurting the person you are responding to, it’s best to save this kind of philosophical talk for later. No person who is deeply hurting wants to be told that God did this to them. If you are looking for ways to comfort someone who is of Christian faith, it might be a better idea to talk about the presence of God in the midst of their suffering, rather than the plan of God. God lives in solidarity with us in our pain and suffering, God suffers alongside us. God may bring good out of the process, but this is a testament to God’s love, goodness, and faithfulness in spite of the circumstances not because of them. Good flowing from pain can be acknowledged but should never take away a person’s opportunity to lament the wrong done.
- Learn how to be supportive
There are lots of ways to be supportive, and in ways that you are able, I really hope you will consider walking alongside a friend who confides in you. Do not assume you know what a person needs; always ask in what ways you can help them. It might be taking them to a doctor’s office, a therapist, or a safe house. It might be getting groceries, watching children, or a gigantic hug. It might be checking in by text, filtering a person’s email, or just simply showing up for that person. No two people are the same and the help we need in difficult circumstances will be different.
At the same time, do not try to be more than you are not. It takes a team of people to work through traumatic experiences. Focus on being a friend and a safe place for the person, not wearing every hat that you are not able or equipped to wear. Remember to also make time to care for yourself. It can be incredibly hard and painful to walk through the painful world of wound healing alongside someone else. You can only show up for your friend as much as you show up for yourself first.
It is also important to say here that you should not be going and sharing someone else’s confidential information without their consent (in some cases, mandatory reporting may be involved; this is a whole different discussion). Be honorable in all your interactions and don’t violate their trust. Further, remove demands from your vocabulary. Each person must walk the path to wholeness and healing themselves. You can support them, but you must not dictate what that process looks like for them.
If you are not able to do the things I have mentioned above with a friend who has approached you (for whatever reason), please consider pointing them in the direction of someone who can. Connect them to another friend that can help. Or maybe you have the means to pay for them to have a therapy session. Or make them aware of some of the online resources that can be a starting place. Be a good human. Please resist the urge to ignore someone’s approach to you because you lack the capacity to help them appropriately.
When a friend approaches you with some of their deepest and darkest secrets, you have the opportunity to step into relationship with that person in a beautiful way that can remind them that they do have community and they are not alone. You can become part of the healing realm in that person’s journey.
I made a small downloadable graphic with some suggestions of helpful phrases to use and ones to avoid when having conversations with survivors of trauma. I hope it is helpful, and I welcome you to comment below with your own suggestions!