Five Things NOT to Say to Abuse Survivors

This swan is warning you to Stand Back!
Bobbi Jones Jones

Dear friends,  I have had a really difficult week.  I had a nightmare that will likely forever be in the Top Ten of  Worst Nightmares.  Therapy was intense…thus, as you might imagine, I’m not in a great mood.  That makes this a perfect time to tell you: Things NOT to say to an Abuse Survivor

1. Forgive

Forgiveness is not a one-size-fits-all principle.  What is right for one person may not be right for another.  For example, if you have a squabble with your mother, then forgive and reconcile your relationship is good advice.  But for a survivor of abuse, if the offender is not repentant i.e. could still be dangerous, reconciliation is not remotely a good idea.

And please even if you are a survivor and you think you are helping…do NOT tell another survivor to forgive.  There are so many factors involved for example the severity of the abuse (one time, or lasting for years), and who did it (a neighbor or a parent)…so many factors that what helps one survivor may not be a good solution for another.

2.  Let it Go –

All I can say to that is I wish I could.  If someone will make the nightmares stop, and the PTSD go away…then I will be happy to let it go.  The thing is I can’t let it go any more than someone could simply let go of cancer.  When someone loses a loved one, is it ever appropriate to tell them to “let it go”, I don’t think so.  There are times when “let it go” is good advice.  I say those three little words to myself regularly over little things…like when some well-meaning person tells me to forgive.

3.  Don’t assume I am depressed.  Listen to me I am NOT depressed.  I have emotional pain–there is a difference.

When you go to the doctor, and tell him you have a pain, you will be asked what is the pain like?  Is it dull?  Is it sharp?  Throbbing? Sudden Onset?  So then why do we throw all emotional pain into the “depression” category?  I have been depressed, and I am telling you what I feel now, is something different.  It bothers me when people assume I am depressed because there are certain assumptions and stigmas about depression that I also feel do not apply to my situation.

4.  Don’t try to fix it

You can’t fix me in one conversation, even my therapist does not attempt that.  What a survivor needs from you is a listening ear, validating words, perhaps a shoulder to cry on….no advice.

5.  Don’t ignore me

I am not a china doll.  I won’t shatter if you say the wrong thing.  Ignoring me hurts worse than mis-spoken words.

There is a theme underlying most of these cautions–it is invalidating pain.  When you tell a survivor to forgive, let go, try to fix them, or ignore them you are basically saying, “Your pain does not matter.  It is not real or significant.”  And that hurts.  So please don’t do it.

I know people who say these things just want to help…please believe me the best way to help is just to listen and validate.  I will give you an example of some wonderful validation I received today.   I was talking to my wonderful primary care doctor.  I mentioned my horrific nightmare to her.  She asked me if I wanted to talk about it, or not.  Because we have a relationship of trust, I did want to share it with her.  I told her about the dream and some other related things that happened this week.

She said, “I think I am going to have a nightmare now, but thank you for sharing that with me.”

That was wonderful to me because by saying that, she validated my pain.  She said in essence “you have experienced something terrible.”  I felt heard and understood.  It was wonderful.

Listening and validation…that really is the best thing you can do.

Photo attribution: Bobbi Jones Jones

 

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10 thoughts on “Five Things NOT to Say to Abuse Survivors

  1. Ouch!I am fairly lucky that I have not had anyone tell me to "get over it", "forgive" etc. That being said, when my case went to trial (20 years after the fact) I found that I was able to deal with things so much better. I was pleasantly surprised by people's comments to me. During the trial I worked with about 400 men. When they found out what I was a victim of most wanted to come out with me and beat the crap out of my abuser.Leading to the trial the PTSD was so bad and hard to deal with. Thankfully my fiance (we married 4 months after the final trial) was so supportive. When I saw my abuser again and he had a mustache, triggering terrors of my fiance's goatee he willing shaved and still does so 11 years later if I start having panic attacks.Hugs sweetie. If you need to talk you know where to find me.

  2. thank you, I really appreciated reading this and understanding it a little better. I can't imagine surviving abuse just like I can't imagine the pain of forgiving it, getting over it or any of the other things. You are an amazing example to all of us. 🙂

    1. I think you are right. I was just trying to point out that just as there are different kinds of physical pain–dull, sharp, throbbing etc, there are different kinds of emotional pain or sadness too…emotional pain can be dull, sharp or throbbing also.

      I have definitely experienced depression with my PTSD, though I don’t feel the depression is chronic. Sometimes thought the emotional pain throbs, and to me that is different.

      I hope that helps clarify. 🙂

  3. I enjoyed your blog on “things not to say to survivors of abuse. Thank you for writing this. I also learned or should I say, “relearned” that one act of kindness can have a great result for the right person. (about your leaving church years ago and a woman followed saying, can I help?”). Thanks you for both blogs.

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