Healing and the Power to Choose

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 shares her insights on how we can be trauma-sensitive in our support of survivors of gender-based violence. Read on for Part Two in Sarah’s series. Part one can be found here

At the heart of trauma is disempowerment: being powerless, forced against your will, immobilized. In a traumatic event, there are seemingly no choices; a perpetrator is overpowering you, in control of you, and something horrific is happening to you without your consent. This extreme sense of powerlessness felt within the context of horror follows the survivor in the aftermath of violence. Thus, any following interaction where the survivor senses power being taken from them can be triggering.

Because at the heart of trauma is disempowerment, healing happens with empowerment – restoring a survivor’s sense of agency or ability to act and choose for themselves. In a culture that celebrates assertiveness, ego, and expertise, sharing power equally for the sake of helping survivors heal is a radical act. Learning to balance power equally requires effort and intention. In my work organizing sexual violence survivors and in my own healing, I have found two things to be the foundation for empowerment: 1. the ability to offer choices in a trauma-informed way, and 2. the belief that I only know what’s right for me, not for anyone else.

The morning after I was raped, I remember looking in the mirror and being startled by the realization that I looked exactly the same. While my life had just changed forever, I could still get out of bed, make my own meals, do my laundry, and go to work.  In other words, the wounds of rape were invisible and complex. When I told my friends and family about what had happened, they offered some supportive options – to be a listening ear, to go out for coffee or dinner, to go with me to court hearings, or to check in every now and then.  Looking back, I know that it wasn’t the cups of coffee, phone calls, and time spent together talking that helped me heal, though I certainly appreciated their immense kindness. What healed me the most was that they gave me choices, allowed me to choose for myself, and then honored my choices without judgment or shame– even when I said, “No thanks” to their offers.

In order to get the care I needed to restore my own sense of power, I created this Choice Model for offering trauma-sensitive choices:

Choice Model

A key to offering real choices is invitational language, such as: “If you’d like…,” “When you’re ready…,” “Maybe…,” and “You’re welcome to…”

So when friends and family started using the choice model, they offered things in the following way:

“If you’d like, we could go to coffee and talk, or I could come over to your house with dinner. If you’d rather not meet up tonight, that’s okay too. Whatever sounds good to you.”  Or they might say: “You’re welcome to drive with us to the party or you could join us later when you’re ready. If you prefer to stay in tonight, that’s okay too. We support you in doing whatever feels right to you.”

Initially, some allies said this language felt unnatural or too calculated. To me, the survivor, it was utterly empowering. I have used this model in almost every interaction I have had with survivors, and almost every survivor I’ve talked to has said the same thing: “You cannot remind me enough that I have choices.”

Sometimes, the choices are hard, such as the choice to break the silence.  It is difficult to break the silence and name yourself publicly as a survivor, but it is also difficult to stay quiet about something so unjust and so horrific. There is no right way to heal, no “correct” or better choice, and neither choice will eliminate the suffering of surviving sexual assault. But it is healing to simply have a choice and to make a choice and to have that choice be supported and respected by others.

At times throughout this process, people have said things to me like, “Be kind to yourself,” or “Keep your chin up,” or “Breathe.” While these comments are well-intended, they are all in the command form of the English language, the same command-based language that my perpetrator used when he said, “Take off your clothes,” “Get on the couch,” and “Stop crying.” Ultimately, being a healer-ally is about not telling people what to do, honoring the fact that what works for you will not necessarily work for everyone or anyone else. Therapy and quiet time and yoga class are not universally healing; in fact, these things can be extraordinarily triggering to people with trauma. We can only honor what is right for our own healing journey, and offer choices to anyone else, returning the power that was taken from them during the traumatic experience – the experience when they had no choices or their power to choose was not respected. I’ll close with the powerful words of trauma expert Judith Herman who so perfectly stated, “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”

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

One response to “Healing and the Power to Choose”

  1. Excellent piece and perspective, Sarah! Judith’s words are so poignant. “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.” Your understanding of and work with trauma so beautifully highlights why community and justice system responses MUST be grounded in the experiences of victims/survivors. The interventions we train on, while designed to remove survivors from dangerous situations and help protect them from bearing the brunt of making difficult decisions with regard to their abusers, must still provide them with enough choice and power to plan what response is best for THEM and their children.