Advocate or Ally pt. 2
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Understanding and Working with Survivors: A Basic Primer
Continuing in the series of Understanding and Working with Survivors read Pt. 1 here if you haven’t already.
Understanding that survivors of trauma have a different perspective on the world we must understand the effects the incongruity has on communication. For those without the deep level of trauma that childhood sexual abuse (CSA) inflicts it can be frustrating trying to communicate with survivors of CSA. You say one thing, but the survivor interprets as something different. It can be overwhelming and initiate feelings of despair that no progress can ever be made. But with patience and a few rules we can progress from frustrating conversations to deep and meaningful trust.
First and foremost, remove all subtext from your words. We are used to interacting with people working from the same frame of reference as ourselves, so we don’t spell everything out. We use non-verbal communication, micro-expressions, and shared experience to fill in the gaps of what we don’t say.
“Hey, I need you to do me this favor as soon as you can.” Is a statement that we would expect everyone to interpret this is important to me and needs to be done with haste. Because we said it to someone with a pleading look and a slight tenseness in our shoulders, we would expect that people would interpret that we are in great need, that we are petitioning for aid.
For the survivor of a CSA they might not get those signals. Because their frame of reference, the experience and teachings their abuser has instilled in them, is they are at fault. For everything. Again, it is hard for non-survivors to relate to such a reaction. Yet when stress alters your brain at a young age you lose the opportunity to grow and learn from your mistakes with ease.
“Hey, I need you to do me this favor as soon as you can.” Becomes “I can’t believe you didn’t predict my needs and now I have to micromanage you, so you don’t screw up even more.”
When you learn that abusers smile while they tell them how disgusting they are, how it would destroy their parents if the abuser ever told them how bad they were, and as they threatened pain or even death you begin to understand how the survivors ability to read subtext in speech has been perverted by the pervert.
So instead of “Hey, I need you to do me this favor as soon as you can.” Say “I am a little behind, it is my mistake, but I would love to enlist your help in completing this task.”
Second, be ready to repeat. I mean really be ready. Like a kid singing their favorite line from a movie type of repeat. This is not an insult to either party but the truth of the matter. For the majority of people information flows from the ear into the brain’s processing system and then to action system. That is a super oversimplification of the process, but it works for this illustration.
The survivor, however, has been taught through experience and fear that they are not good enough to process information. They thought the things being done to them were wrong but their abuser said differently. And the fact that none of the people who were supposed to protect them did anything about it confirmed the abuser’s assertions. So instead of a direct path to processing their information is diverted to a secondary location where it swirls around and around getting mixed up with all the dirt and muck inside the brain. And even after they begin to heal that harmful side channel is still there, causing turmoil in what should be a straightforward process
So to combat this we need to provide the survivor with a clear, steady, stream of information that overwhelms the corrupted information processing in their mind. This will provide a multitude of benefits including building trust between you and the survivor that will deepen and facilitate communication in the future. It will also help the survivor build that straight processing channel allowing them to communicate better with everyone they meet.
By taking the time to remove subtext from your communication and have patience to repeat yourself you will not only achieve common goals and projects faster, but you will be a positive influence on the survivor’s life. One that they sorely need.