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Questions to ask an abuse survivor

I’m encouraged by the number of people who want to be helpful. Even more, I’m grateful for those who are willing to take the risk of leaning into hard conversations, hoping to support someone who’s suffering. I’ve often received questions from people about what types of questions they should ask someone who has survived abuse. I’m learning that many people want to help but hesitate to step into the conversation out of fear that they’ll do or say something wrong.

If you’re someone who wants to support a survivor of abuse, thank you. Being fearful of saying the wrong thing is only natural. Feeling unprepared is common. The worst thing you could do would be to back away and hope someone else steps in. I’m happy to give you some jumping-off points in order to help you ask good questions. But first, allow me to give some words of caution.

When I first started sharing my story with others, I got a variety of responses. I was seventeen when I was sexually assaulted. I told two adults about it. The first one asked me what I was wearing when it happened. The second asked me if I was going to press charges. I have no doubt that both those adults thought they were being helpful. One thought she would shield me from further abuse by instructing me on my clothing choices, and the other thought she would help me get justice. My response? I walked away and never spoke to either of them again about my suffering.

Many people think they’re being helpful by offering advice or trying to “make right” what went wrong. Allow me to let you off the hook. You won’t fix anything. Ever. You can’t make the hurt end by any word you will say. You can’t create peace by bringing the perpetrator to justice. No human word or action fixes the brokenness caused by abuse.

I’ve counseled dozens of abuse survivors. Not one of them “got better” because someone asked the right questions or offered the best advice. We all journey toward healing for our whole lives. You may have the honor of walking alongside one of these beautiful people, and you’ll be better for it. But you won’t ever fix anything.

So my word of caution is this: first, check your “fixer” at the door. Ask yourself why you want to step into the conversation before you step in. The ultimate motive should be love, fueled by compassion and hope. Second, you shouldn’t ask these questions of someone with whom you haven’t already established a strong relationship. Healing happens in the context of safety. If you aren’t sure whether you’re a safe person for her, ask someone else to step in and support her. Third, you’re not an investigator. The point is not that you get all the information. The point is that you empathize with her. This means you may not have all the facts, but hopefully you’ll gain insight into her experience. And finally, you’re (most likely) not a professional counselor. Please don’t try to counsel her – it takes years of study and experience to know how to guide someone toward healing. You are there to listen and support. Leave the counseling to someone who’s trained and ethically bound to do no harm.

(Keep in mind that these questions are intended to be asked of someone who has shared that she was abused in the past. In a future post, I’ll share questions to ask someone who might be experiencing current abuse.)

  1. I can’t imagine what you’ve experienced, but I want to. Will you tell me more about what happened to you? (This is a purposefully open-ended question. She will share with you what she feels comfortable sharing. Don’t push for more.)
  2. What was it like in the days and months following the abuse?
  3. Did you tell anyone directly after it happened? How did they respond?
  4. What are some ways the abuse has affected your life?
  5. When you think about the future, is anything scary to you?
  6. Who has helped you in your healing journey. What has been helpful about their involvement?
  7. What are some unhelpful or hurtful things people have said or done as you’ve sought to heal?
  8. Who is walking alongside you now? Do you need additional support?
  9. Have you been involved in groups or counseling to help you heal? Is that something you want?
  10. How can I continue to support you as you heal?

 

Please share your comments and questions with me! 

How should men care for female survivors of sexual abuse?

“I was bit by a big dog when I was a kid, and now I’m afraid of all big dogs.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my friend. It’s a natural instinct for her to recoil from something that reminds her of a dangerous situation. In fact, it’s a God-given instinct for survival. I don’t fault my friend for the way she feels – it’s just the way she feels. And I’m not defensive that she doesn’t want to be around my black lab, no matter how friendly or lovable. Her experience has changed her perceptions and interactions.

Since the recent news about perpetrators of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, I’ve had several conversations with men about the experience of a female abuse survivor. These men are asking me questions because they know my story. They know I can relate.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was seventeen, and I was forced into a sexual encounter by a peer. The pain of that moment still grieves me, but equal to that grief were the horrifying days and months following the abuse, in which well-meaning Christians affirmed the dreaded voice that was haunting my every thought: “It was your fault.”

The damage is great. Vast and far-reaching. Since that season of my life, I have read and studied and met individually and in groups with countless women like me. Our stories are all different, but all with common threads. We all felt overwhelming shame, betrayal and fear. And we all heard the dreaded voice. We couldn’t make it stop. It told us we were to blame.

We were trying to make sense of something senseless, so we believed we caused the trauma. That allowed us to feel a sense of control, to build a system in which we could prevent further trauma if only we could do everything perfectly next time. But let’s be honest – we didn’t know any of that. We were just drowned in shame and fear, and we fought our way to the surface the best way we knew how.

In building this system, the creation of categories became a survival tactic. The location of the abuse was now off-limits. The clothing I wore, the size and shape of my body, the way I interact with the opposite sex…on and on. My list became very long, and it grew each time I had a flashback to the abuse. But at the top of my list was one word. MEN.

In the same way my friend recoils from big dogs because of her interaction with one bad one, I became afraid of men. I began to assume that they all thought of me as a piece of meat, not even good enough to be swallowed but only to be chewed up and spit out. This was not a true statement, of course, but my brain had created a category to keep me safe. Until healing occurred, this category was the only way for me to function.

So what should you do if you’re a man who wants to care for a female sexual abuse survivor? How do you interact with her? What does she need?

Use your ears.

If you are someone she trusts enough to receive her story, that’s a gift. The moment you know what she faced, you have become someone unlike her abuser. You have been trusted with something very vulnerable and tender. So there’s no need to defend your gender. There’s no reason to try to educate her or admonish her. These are moments of ministry – the ministry of listening. Whatever she shares is precious. Take it to heart, and let her know that you are honored to receive her story.

Believe the best of her.

The voice in her head takes a long time to go away. For some, it never goes away. She expects others to perpetuate that voice and tell her she was to blame for the abuse. She’s wondering what you think the moment you hear her story. She doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you because you’re a man. She has very good reason to believe that a man will betray and belittle and dehumanize her, because she’s experienced it firsthand. While you’re not to blame for the abuse, someone in your gender was. That means you can help by being someone who looks her in the face, who smiles kindly, who affirms that what she experienced was a vile and abominable evil.

Push below the anger.

Many men I’ve encountered are able to express their anger and disgust that someone could perpetrate sexual abuse. But I have found few men who are willing to dig below the anger into how they feel. Anger is a secondary emotion – it stems from something else. What do you feel beneath the anger? Is anger a shield that allows you to stand in righteous indignation without actually experiencing empathy?

Empathy comes when you admit that you don’t understand and humbly ask for help. Some think they are empathizing, but they’re actually just sympathizing (i.e., “I understand because I experienced something similar”). You cannot understand what someone has faced, no matter how similar your experiences have been. Empathy means you ask for understanding, desiring to sit in the ashes with someone. It means you want to experience it yourself alongside them. This is so painful to do, and many men refuse.

If you’re interested in experiencing empathy regarding a woman’s experience with sexual abuse, start with this question: What if she were my wife? my daughter? my sister? my best friend? my mother? my girlfriend?

Let that question sink in. All the way down to the core. What if? How angry would you feel? How sad? How terrified? How hopeless?

Now look into that woman’s face. She IS your wife, your daughter, your sister, your best friend, your mother, your girlfriend. She is.

Link arms with her

She may have been walking on the road to healing for a long time, or she may have just begun. Ask her how you can serve her. You are most likely not the person she’ll continue to talk with about her abuse, but she needs someone (or several someones). Find resources in your church and community that specialize in caring for abuse survivors. Help her access those resources, and then commit to walk alongside her as she heals. She needs faithful men in her life, men who combat the lie that all males dehumanize females. And remember that she may share her story with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically and completely safe. She needs other women, primarily, to be her support system. Operate as her advocate and resource-provider, and keep asking her how you can serve her.

I hope this post generates many other posts! Please send me your comments, stories, and questions. 

 

Reflections on Psalm 23: “I Shall Not Want”

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“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1

Many works have been written about the life of a shepherd and the ways it parallels to God’s care for His children. I won’t go that route today. What I want to explore is the fact that Psalm 23:1 is one sentence. I’m a language junkie – I love words and punctuation. So I pay attention to commas, periods and semicolons. They matter to me. In this verse we see a semicolon. While the Hebrew language didn’t utilize this particular form of punctuation, we find it here because English translators are conveying the writer’s intent: these two phrases are linked inseparably. He means to say, “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Wanting conveys lack. What do you believe you are lacking today? And what do you do when you sense that you lack something you need? Do you strive to gain that thing through human means? Do you ask friends or family to provide it? Do you jump on the hamster wheel of worry, wearing yourself out with endless thoughts of ‘what if’? The answer is ‘yes’. We all do it.

We all want to be our own shepherds. We want to direct our lives and see success come based on our merit, intelligence and wit. We want to be able to look in the mirror and believe we are enough, all by ourselves. But we were never meant to function in this way. We are designed to be lacking.

We are designed to be lacking.

God created us with holes. We can’t see the future. We don’t know how to do everything. We aren’t able to be everywhere at once. And even before there was sin in the world, humans lacked these things. On purpose. God didn’t want us to be self-sufficient. We were created to be dependent on Him.

When I’m faced with my lack, will I look to the Shepherd? Will I remember that He provides all that I need? that I don’t have to see into the future to believe He’s there and already has a plan? that I can trust His providence and goodness to lead me and keep me and grant me joy in the process?

Sometimes I will. And sometimes I’ll worry and strive and look to the wrong shepherds. Praise His name that, by His Spirit, He’s always leading back to Himself. Always reminding me that He’s enough. Am I listening?

Questions for Reflection:

  • What kinds of things do I most often worry about lacking? 
  • Is there a chance that these things are idols in my life? Is that why I’m worrying about them so much?
  • Was there a time in my life when I believed God wasn’t my shepherd? If so, I need to process that pain and confess it to Him, saying out loud that I do trust Him and believe He is my shepherd at all times.
  • Where else in Scripture does God promise to provide the things I’m lacking? 

I’m Judging You

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Here’s a common scenario: you’re driving along the highway, minding your own business. A car pulls right up on your bumper, honks, and swerves around you. The driver gives you the finger as he flies past you. Your first thought: “What’s his problem?” Your next thought: “What a jerk!”

Let’s all just admit that we make quick judgments based on very little information. The above situation is common to anyone who’s driven in the city, and it’s relatively harmless. But what we’re doing when we call that driver a jerk is a much larger problem, because we’re not just handing out snap judgments on the highway. We’re doing it every day across all spectrums of life.

It’s the human condition to take the quickest and least intrusive route toward understanding. Case in point: Google. If I needed to learn about something for a research project when I was a kid, my teacher sent me to the library to thumb through a card catalogue till I found the book I wanted. Then I read the book to learn the information I needed. Yes, I know. I’m old.

But now, all I have to do is type (or even just speak) a few words into my phone, and a litany of information pops onto my screen. Why in the world would I ever use a library again? The quickest way to get information is the best way.

Or is it?

If I asked you to tell me something that really frustrates you, you’d be able to give me not only the answer, but you could tell me why that thing frustrates you. You have good reasons for the things that bother you most, and those reasons are most likely personal.

Let me give you an example. A young woman gets up quickly and causes a disturbance during a movie. She blocks everyone’s view and makes a lot of noise trying to get out of the theater. You’re annoyed – she shouldn’t have bought a large coke if she couldn’t wait to go to the bathroom till this intense scene is over. What you don’t know is that she was sexually assaulted as a young child, and this movie scene has triggered intense fear. She can’t breathe. Her heart is pounding. She’s not thinking too much about whether she is disturbing others. She has to get out of there.

Or what about that online friend who posts articles several times a week about social injustice? Maybe you’ve labeled him as somebody who just likes to yell loudly. You start to dismiss his thoughts and roll your eyes at his opinions. You don’t understand that he has family members and friends who have suffered horrible injustice, and his way of helping is to speak for them.

You don’t know, because you don’t ask. We all do this. We make snap judgments about people without learning anything. We’d rather avoid the hard work and painful experience of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, of trying to understand what they think and feel.

If someone is expressing feelings of anger or fear, there’s a reason. Emotions are like signs on the road that point us to what’s in front of us. They help us understand ourselves, but they are also meant to help us understand each other. My friend who is incredibly angry about the results of the election last November is angry for a reason. My family member who rejects the kindness of others has reasons for why she’s withdrawing. Instead of deciding quickly what other people are like, what if I took the time to seek understanding? to ask real questions? to come near to them?

We are meant to share experiences. This is why biographies are written, why songs are sung, why the Holocaust Museum was built. I cannot share your experience unless I come close to you. I can’t even begin to understand till I hear the stories and look into your eyes as you tell them.

One of my favorite stories of a shared experience happens in the Bible, in John 20:24-28. Jesus has just been raised from the dead, and his friends are all talking about it. Thomas doesn’t believe it. He says he’ll have to touch Jesus’ wounds in order to believe that he has risen. The first time they’re together, Jesus asks him to come close. He doesn’t reprimand Thomas for not believing. Instead, he invites Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and his side. He provides Thomas with a shared experience.

I wonder if that experience was painful for Jesus. Did it hurt to have Thomas’ finger pushed into his wound?

Shared experience is risky, and it’s painful. But it’s the way we’re meant to live if we want to be unified. I need to look you in the eyes and ask you what you think about difficult topics, and then I need to be ready to actually listen (not just wait for my turn to talk). I need to be able to tell you about my wounds, about the things that I really care about. And the goal is not to fix each other. It’s not to change anybody’s mind. It’s not to make someone feel a little better or forget the pain.

The goal is unity.

Juggling the Good Works

Well, it’s been a few month since I wrote anything. I had high hopes of writing every week and sharing some of the things the Lord has been teaching me about biblical womanhood. While I haven’t written in awhile, the Lord has been teaching me a lot.

One of my favorite books is The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss. The best picture in the book is the one in which the cat is juggling several different items at once.

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I like this image because on the very next page, the cat drops everything. It all comes crashing down. What a good reminder for my soul! I can’t hold everything. I’m fallible. When life gets busy, it’s no use pretending I can keep the cake on my head and the fishbowl on the rake. Either I can lay some things down, or we all see everything crash down on the next page.

This blog was something I laid down for the spring. Thank you for your patience – I have been so blessed by many of you who have encouraged me to keep writing. Now that the spring semester is ending, I plan to pick it back up. Remembering that I can only hold so many things at once.

Maybe this is true for you as well. Maybe you are trying to hold too many things at once. If you’re anything like me, there are some signs you can watch for to help you evaluate whether you’ve got too much on your plate:

  1. Vegging Out – When I’m overloaded but then get a few minutes to rest, all I want to do is watch Netflix. I don’t want my mind to be engaged. This is problematic because moments away from the work of life should give us sweet entrances into God’s throneroom. But we often don’t want to go there because it doesn’t feel restful at the outset. It challenges us to set our hearts on Him and turn our attention to something worthwhile. We must remember that no greater rest exists than in the arms of our Father.
  2. Irritability – I’ll be honest. There are many reasons I could be irritable. But when I’m maxed out, I feel justified in my irritability. I think I should be allowed to be the center of my universe because of all the things I’ve been doing for everyone else. It’s dangerous territory when I believe I deserve anything. In fact, the only thing I truly deserve is judgment.
  3. Isolation – I love my family and friends, but putting too much on my plate draws me into isolation. I know I have a million things to do, so I definitely don’t have time for conversation or laughter or enjoyment. I prefer to be alone, both in my work and in my rest. Nothing could be further than the design the Lord has for us! Working and resting are meant to be group efforts. Community is necessary to every aspect of our existence, and it brings joy to our lives.

So it’s been a busy semester. Some of you who know me personally know that the things I’ve been doing have been good works. But I never want to miss the learning moment – the Lord has designed me for good works, but not all the good works in the world are good works I should be doing. He knows which works are mine to do. Thank you for allowing the good work of writing to be put on hold as other good works were taking place. I look forward to continuing our learning together.