Friday, May 30, 2014

What We Wish You Knew; Five Ways to Support a Victim of Abuse Part One


   So recently there has been an ever growing number of individuals being brave enough to speak about their unpleasant pasts in Christian, (specifically conservative and home school Christian circles.). With the massive ministries of ATI and Vision Forum both suffering leadership scandals in the last year, the gates have been thrown open, and words like abuse, and cult have been popping up more and more frequently.

    Clarifying these terms, and understanding the presence, personalities and power involved, is something that I am writing on and hope to post soon. However this post is not intended to cover the broad scope of defining and categorizing abuse and cults, but to address you; someone who perhaps who has not experienced abuse or mistreatment in your family, or from your church.

    I am writing for those of you who feel a bit horrified and confused by what may seem to be a sudden attack of ideas or people with which you may have had positive experiences. What do you do when a friend or acquaintance of yours makes comments about their experience with abuse, mistreatment or control in their past? 

   Or perhaps you have recently had a friend, co-worker or acquaintance share with you that they have in the past or are currently in an abusive situation.

     I want to give you some ideas of ways to be a support to your friend. These suggestions are in no way all encompassing (there are some books I recommend linked at the end if for further education).  I also want to begin by making clear that I am NOT writing this so that you as a friend can replace professional counselor or therapist.
    I urge anyone who has experienced abuse of any kind to seek a qualified professional. I also am not writing this as a suggestion of how to help cover up an abusive situation that warrants intervention. These are simply to help give you perspective of how to emotionally support those who are facing, or who have faced the very real presence of abuse in their lives.

   As I have written before, I have abuse in my past.  I have had people respond to that knowledge in ways that built me up, and helped me in my journey to health and healing, and I have had people (often inadvertently) add to the hurt.  I have also through the years have had friends confide in me of abuse they have suffered and the way I ignorantly handled some of those situations in the past are some of my biggest regrets to this day.

    Taken from both my personal experiences and my study, I hope that these ideas help you be a refuge and place of strength for those who have been hurt in your world.

    I do believe that as we as a public become more educated on the topics of abuse and how to support those who have, or are facing mistreatment, we weaken the power of abuse everywhere.  

  Even though the purpose of this post is not to define terms, I feel the need to point out that for the purpose of this post I loosely group people who have been or are in abusive (mental, emotional or physical) and or controlling relationships or environments.

    I think it is important to clarify that being in a controlling relationship, family, or group (church, or organization) does not mean there is always physical abuse, but physical abuse by nature can only be present where there is a an unhealthy level of control and imbalance of power and emotional abusive dynamics.

      I am going to also go out on a limb and state that I believe due to the incredibly strong procreative (large family) beliefs of some of the most control based religions and sects in our country that in the next few decades our culture will continue to experience an explosion of children who leave their background in varying stages of adulthood and need not only professional support, but friends and family who can be their allies as they fight to develop their own identity.

1)    Please Believe Us. Don’t assume; ask and acknowledge what we have experienced.


    Do you want to know what adds to the devastation of being raised in a cult? Or adds to the pain of enduring mental or physical abuse by someone you loved and trusted?  The thing that adds to the shame, guilt, and fear from being sexually molested or raped? Being told it didn’t happen. That you must be exaggerating, you must have misunderstood, or that it was your fault.

   Two of the biggest reasons victims of horrendous pain and suffering do not say anything at the first offense are: 1)fear of more abuse and retaliation by the one who has hurt them, and 2)fear that no one else will believe them. Unfortunately this effectively silences many victims for years. Even when they leave the reach of their abusers, they know the ugly reality is that most people do not want to believe them.  

                 For someone who has suffered physical or sexual abuse, speaking up takes incredible 
            courage. It isn’t easy to admit that you were so powerless. It isn’t easy to admit that you were
            so deeply  wronged.  It isn’t easy to share the hardest thing that has ever happened to you and 
            face skeptics and judgment from those who have no clue.

      For a person who has been raised in an extremely  controlling environment, disagreeing with those ‘in charge’, ‘in authority’ or ‘in leadership’ is usually seen as morally wrong and a betrayal. (Certainly of others in the group, sometimes even as a sin against God.)

   It may actually take a long time for the person to realize just how real and how damaging their emotional and mental abuse was. It takes tremendous courage to admit to the internal scars that are just as present but less likely to be acknowledged by others.


    Physical, mental abuses and control all affect how we see ourselves and those around us. Both affect how a child or teen makes choices and the course of our lives. Both are deeply devastating and require hard work and help for healing and growth.


      If you know someone who is brave enough to share the pain of past mistreatment, you have the power to further hurt them, or be their first step toward healing.


  Here are some incredibly hurtful ways to respond to a person who mentions their abuse.


   *Don’t minimize.

 (Even though it is uncomfortable for you; let our hard words stand.)


   *Don’t gloss over or make a joke.

     If someone begins to share, or makes a comment, it can be uncomfortable, and you may feel unprepared, but please do not try to make us feel better by saying ‘well, none of us are perfect parents’ or ‘I’m sure they did the best they could’ or  ‘I feel like losing it with my kids too sometimes!’ or “hmmm, everyone I know who was in that ministry had a fantastic experience”    


  * Don’t be a Polly Anna.

     It is rubbing salt into the wound to say ‘Well at least – *supposed positive statement* (such as telling someone who was controlled environment, ‘well at least they didn’t hit you!” or telling a physically abused person ‘at least you had parents that loved you’ ….. or, ‘Well, it seems like you turned out ok!”

     Faith based Polly Anna’s who flippantly say ‘well God works all things for good!’ can be incredibly hurtful to someone who has or is no doubt wrestling with the very real question of where God has been for them.

     These kinds of statements make it sound like our pain doesn’t matter. If we are still alive, things obviously could have been worse, but that fact doesn’t reduce the pain we have experienced!


  * Don’t praise or defend our abuser.  

    This may seem obvious, but especially when it is someone you know (perhaps parents) or a well known leader, I have seen this reaction time and time again.  I think part of it may stem from the shock and sadness that we all feel when someone lets us down.

   It doesn’t really matter how well respected of a Pastor, how well liked in the community, how good looking, or successful, or how hard our abuser appeared to try to be a good parent to the rest of the world.

    First, no amount of ‘good’ someone has done excuses or minimizes the damage they have caused another person, and second; the most dangerous people intentionally hide under a carefully crafted image of goodness. Abusers and those who control, manipulate and damage others rarely walk around with a scowl and  brass knuckles. They know better. They know how to look good! They know how to sound good!

    Defending or taking our abuser’s side extends the pain of that abuse.


*Don’t be hateful towards our abuser. Don’t threaten to harm them or ask why we didn't tell you sooner. While for some of you it may be hard to believe that John Doe did the things we tell you, - some of you may have suspected as much, or have had your own unpleasant experiences which makes knowledge of wrong doing to make you feel angry and protective of us.   

      Your negative reaction may put us in a position to feel the need to defend our abuser especially if it is a family member or someone with whom we or you have had/ currently have a relationship.

    Telling you anything is a crack in the door to our trust that will slam shut if we feel that you are an emotionally charged; we do not know how to handle our emotions, let alone yours and  will not feel safe. If the situation is current, we are looking for someone to be strong, and stable, and supportive, something we desperately need. If the situation is past, we are probably telling you so that you can have a better understanding of who we really are, and where they came from so that our friendship can be strengthened.


*Do try to remain emotionally calm, and don’t underestimate a quiet, loving, listening ear. If you are caught off guard and don’t know what to say, it is ok to say that. A reassuring comment that leaves an open door can be short and simple, like; ‘I am so glad you shared this with me, - I am here for you.”

*Do listen carefully and ask questions if you feel the need to clarify something, such as if the abuse is past or present.  If we are saying anything to you it is a sign that we sense you care and are trust worthy and it may be our way of looking for help. 

    Be sure to ask us in ways that allows us  to draw a boundaries easily; i.e. ‘Wow, I had no idea. Are you comfortable if I ask you a question?’

    If we say no, respect it and tell us how grateful you are that they were brave enough to share with you. Assure us you want to be there for us, and try to leave the door open for us to broach the topic again. ‘Any time you want to talk, I am here for you.’


 *Do express your sorrow at our pain. As someone who has lived with abuse by nature we are used to our physical or emotional pain being not only being ignored and irrelevant; but intentionally exploited.  We will be amazed that anyone would really care.  There is healing power that knowing someone else  actually cares about our pain.


 *Do acknowledge that it wasn’t fair, or right, or our fault, and that no one deserves to be treated that way. We need to hear this a lot, especially from those whose opinions we value. Even if we believe this to be true in our heads, we often do not believe in our heart that this applies to us.


*Do acknowledge our strength in sharing with you.


  *Do allow yourself time to process the shock or grief you feel at learning the news. Someone who has been abused is often relieved to have the truth exposed. It is a step in our healing. We may not realize that for you (especially if you are a close family member or friend) this is just the beginning of the heartbreak and sadness, and potentially a lot of questions and ramifications that you may need to address.



2)      Be a safe place for us to process our thoughts and feelings. Validate them.


     Depending on what emotional state we are in, we may be angry and sound hateful, or we may be sad and sound sorry, either way; allow our statements about our abuser and our situation to stand. 

    Part of being in an abusive or controlled relationship or environment is the forced suppression of personal thought and feelings; even the right to have thoughts and feelings.

     Someone who has been physically abused has literally been denied the right to make decisions for their own body and safety.

   Someone who has been emotionally or mentally abused has been manipulated, traumatized and often doesn’t trust their perceptions or judgments and definitely doubts the motives and honesty of others.

    Sometimes just forming basic opinions, or stating defiance is an act of courage.  Individuality is a serious threat to control or abuse. 

    Part of what defines a controlled environment (also called thought reform, or what I call cult mentality) is black and white thinking which categorizes certain thoughts or feelings as ‘wrong’ or  ‘right’  (acceptable or unacceptable)

   A healthy view recognizes all thoughts and feelings as valid visitors who come and go and can and should be welcomed, and experienced, which is not the same as giving them the power to control us or dictate our actions.


 *Don’t shame or judge us for our feelings.


*Don’t try to push us toward your idea of forgiveness… Forgiveness is part of the process of healing, as is anger.  It is something we WILL face and achieve.  Forgiveness could be an entire post on its own, but suffice to say that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, ignoring, or silence.

     Especially when there are other potential victims, silence means that we are potentially allowing abuse happen to others.


*Do encourage our expression of thoughts and feelings.


*Do re-phrase what we say as a chance for them to hear validation; ‘It sounds like what you are saying is that you feel/think -------’; (echo their sentiments as directly as possible, not twisting or contriving, but simply acknowledging they exist).

     Allow us to clarify if you didn’t get it right, but ultimately allow our voice to stand. This is incredibly empowering and allows us to ‘hear’ ourselves and our voice in a new way. Often this process allows us to better understand what we actually want or believe.

   Next week I will post the last three of five ways to an abuse victim.
So far are there any thoughts you'd like to add? Who has positively impacted your life recovering from abuse? What things have been the most hurtful?
   Have you struggled to know how to help a hurting friend?
Stay tuned for more next week!

This Present Mom,