Though the work of Global Rights for Women focuses on systems change and legal form, we believe that in order to do our work effectively, we have to be continuously connected to the voices and experiences of survivors. In a four-part series on trauma-informed skills, Twin Cities, Minnesota advocate and survivor Sarah Super will share her insights on how we can be trauma-sensitive in our support of survivors of gender-based violence. Read on for Part One.
Whenever I attend a training on psychological trauma that ends with a conversation about the importance of self-care, I find it hard to not roll my eyes and tune out.
Don’t get me wrong; self-care is a healthy practice for everyone. Most people say they perform at their best when they eat nutritious foods, exercise, get enough rest, and take time for themselves. But there are not enough kale salads and bubble baths to heal anyone from trauma.
When we see self-care as the answer to healing from trauma, we fail to understand that the nature of trauma happens in relationship to another person or group of people. Sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, war, and racism are all traumatic experiences that happen in a social context. In some cases, the victim knows the perpetrator(s) firsthand, and in other cases, they are strangers. Either way, there is a human interaction in which the perpetrator leaves the victim powerless and betrayed.
At the heart of every traumatic experience is disempowerment and disconnection (Herman, Trauma & Recovery, 1992). Disempowerment often takes its form in the experience of being forced, overpowered, immobilized, or held captive. Disconnection shows up in the form of betrayal; someone who was supposed to love you, protect you, or, at the very least, respect you, becomes the source of danger and suffering by abusing the victim’s human rights.
Because trauma is rooted in the experience of disempowerment and disconnection, healing occurs with empowerment and re-connection. And because trauma happens in relationship to another human person, healing must also take place in a social context.
Once we understand that a survivor cannot heal with self-care, we acknowledge that we play a critical role in helping survivors heal. This role of healer-ally is both essential and quite challenging, for there is no neutral interaction with a survivor. Each person the survivor interacts with will be scrutinized with the same skepticism and the same questions, “Can I trust you?” and “Whose side are you on?”
Responding in a trauma-sensitive way is more than just being nice, being patient, or believing the survivor’s story. Being trauma-sensitive is a learned skillset that challenges the way we respond to other common forms of suffering. It has more to do with balancing power and being a person of integrity than saying something nice or uplifting.
Living in a community where 1 in 5 women are rape survivors, we must know that trauma surrounds us. Perhaps we don’t know which of our loved ones is living in the aftermath of violence but we can assume they exist even in our closest social circles.
Throughout 2016, I will be sharing ways in which allies can be trauma-sensitive in their response to survivors- to be a healing, not hurtful, presence in their recovery. In the meantime, do not say to a person, “Take care of yourself,” for we do not live in a world where healing happens in isolation. When we say, “Take care of yourself” to a trauma survivor, we communicate that they are alone in their suffering, just as they were alone in the traumatic experience itself – when no one was there to rescue them from the horror they endured.
Together, we can create a community in which we take care of each other, a world where we recognize our own strength to honor atrocities and human rights abuses as truths and realities that cannot remain silenced any longer. Only when we stand with survivors will we know the immeasurable strength that exists within each of us to envision a brighter future and create a better world. Together, we can share the burden of the survivors’ suffering through action, engagement, and remembering. It’s on us to help survivors heal.
Drawing from her work studying trauma and her personal experience surviving rape, Sarah Super invites our community to build a trauma-informed skillset for supporting survivors of gender-based violence in their healing. Read more about Sarah and her work at: www.wholebeingsolutions.com.